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Centuries ago, a powerful empire fell into civil war when the five most influential families battled each other for dominance. After decades with no side gaining the upper hand, the families agreed to a peace treaty which would end the war and restore the empire to its former glory. One heir from a family will become emperor and rule the land. The other heirs of the five families will continue ruling their individual domains and operate semi-independently while still paying homage to the king. When the emperor dies, a new emperor will be made from one of the 5 heirs through a series of predetermined contests, or trials.

These dangerous trials are predetimined and are designed to test the worthiness of an heir to become emperor. They are controlled by priests, and meant to showcase the strength, intelligence, and zeal of the individual. An heir may select an elected champion to compete in his place. This can also be an option for children still too young to compete. The winner of these trials will become emperor. However, there is no shame in failing, as the losing heirs will be honorably sacrificed to the nation's god. Like all priests throughout history, this group is made up of incorruptible men whose moral authority is beyond reproach.

This system has kept the empire from falling into civil war. However, it has a few problems. The turnover rate of leading heads of family may be pretty high in a generation. Laws they have passed to govern their domain or house can be reversed quickly by the next heir if they are sacrificed. This can lead to political instability in their house and domain.

How can a ruling family avoid this fate?

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    $\begingroup$ best bet would be not to sacrifice most of the rulers of your nation buuut thats just me $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Jan 29 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ what happens if there is only one heir left, do you just wipe out the last of that family's dynasty $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Jan 29 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ How large is the army controlled by the priests? Is it larger than the armies controlled by three of the warring dynasties combined? If not, what makes you think that this Rube Goldberg system will survive the death of the first emperor? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 29 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ If an heir declared a champion to compete in their stead, will the champion be sacrificed or still the heir? $\endgroup$ – Suthek Jan 29 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ "The turnover rate ... may be pretty high" - is this a feature of this world that you mention just briefly? Because I would expect, on average, to have some 20-30 years between the contests. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 29 at 18:03
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What will happen in reality

The first emperor is ailing. The five families, the Alphaei, Betii, Gammae, Deltae and Epsilones, make ready to cope with his impending death. Outwardly, each family is preparing a designated heir to compete in the imperial trials; the Betii are the only family foolish enough to put forward a heir of their own blood risking his demise or bloody sacrifice. The other four families have seen to it that an adopted commoner, remarkably good with a sword, is designed for this position, with the understanding that should he win he will promptly abdicate in favor of one of his adoptive brothers.

Or else.

In parallel, the families put out feelers to the other familes, looking for alliances. After all, the priesthood is a purely ideological force, made up of corruptible men; the priesthood doesn't count. Each family seeks to establish an alliance with two other families, thus establishing an overwhelming force and putting the minority in the position to accept a settlement.

Eventually, the scheming rich Epsilones arrive at an understanding with the charismatic Alphaei and the rural and frankly semi-barbaric Betii; they will rule the empire jointly, with the Alphaei having paramountcy over the Gammae and the Betii over the Deltae. The Epsilones, themselves, require nothing else but the right to free trade over the entire empire, with a monopoly on maritime transport.

When the emperor dies, the priests try to initiate the deadly imperial contest; but the Alphaei, Betii and Epsilones make it known that such bloody games belong to an obsolete, dark and violent era, and the one living God looks unfavorably upon those ready to shed innocent blood. The Gammae resign themselves to their fate, but the foolish Deltae try to resist invoking an idealized tradition. However, the people and the soldiers, from the ranks of whom true power raises, are sick and tired of blood and destruction, and hail the new peaceful order.

And now the five dominant families are three.

The rich Epsilones become richer from trade and from their monopoly on maritime transport. Soon the time will come when they will persuade the newly elevated Betii to restore the unity of the empire by taking on the haughty and ancient Alphaei...

We are supposed to learn from history

This system won't work. It will break down when the first emperor dies or retires.

I will tell you a true story; oversimplified, of course, but basically true. More or less.

Once upon a time, there was this large and diverse empire, called the Roman empire. It was a wonderful empire, except for one flaw. It did not have any fixed rule for succession; once an emperor died, or retired, it was unclear who will become emperor next. This flaw led to a long period of instability and civil war, generally called the Crisis of the Third Century. This dark and bloody period lasted for half a century, and it ended only when a wise man, who had been born in a poor family in a remote province, rose through the ranks of the army and eventually succeeded in putting an end to the civil wars by defeating all warring factions.

His name was Diocles, meaning Glory of God; one single name, for he came from a Greek-speaking family. When acceded to the throne he adoped the regnal name Imperator Caesar Caius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus. In history books he is usually called Diocletian.

To ensure the stability of the empire, and to avoid future civil wars, he invented a great system for regulating the succession to the imperial throne. His system is called the Tetrarchy, or Rule of Four.

Propaganda statue representing the Tetrarchy

An alegorical propaganda statue representing the Roman tetrarchy. The tetrarchs are representing embracing, in sign of harmony, in a porphyry sculpture dating from the 4th century, produced in Asia Minor; today on a corner of Saint Mark's in Venice, next to the Porta della Carta. Photograph by Nino Barbieri, available on Wikimedia under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later.

The system was supposed to work as follows:

  • There were two principal emperors, called Augusti; each of them ruled one half of the empire, co-ordinating between them any major political or military matters. Diocletian himself took the eastern half, and raised Maximian to the rank of Augustus of the West.

  • Each of the two principal emperors appointed a subordinate emperor, called a Caesar, who ruled over a part of the principal emperor's portion of the empire, and served as successor designate. Diocletian appointed Galerius as his Caesar, and Maximian appointed Constantius Chlorus.

  • When a principal emperor died or retired, his place was to be taken by his Caesar, who thus became an Augustus and appointed a new Caesar.

Splendid system.

The system sort of worked for 29 years, from 284 (when Diocletian and Maximian inaugurated it) to 313. Then the empire fell into civil wars again; the complicated and messy wars ended only in 324, when Constatine emerged as sole emperor. Upon the death of Constantine, the imperial rule devolved to his three sons who were supposed to rule jointly, each controlling directly a portion of the empire.

More general strife and civil wars followed, until 395, when Arcadius and Honorius, the two sons of Theodosius I, divided the empire between them. From that point forward the notional unity of the empire was never again materialized. The western half fell into anarchy and descended into the long night of the Middle Ages; the eastern half met with varying fortunes, and remained a great power for many centuries.

Why did the tetrarchy fail?

It failed because it was a complicated system, vulnerable to human failings; ambition, tribalism, misplaced loyalties, all contributed to its failure. The great diversity of the empire was not helpful. In retrospect, we realize that the empire was too large, way beyond what the technical, economic and political levels of the time could sustain. But the essential failure was the mismatch between the lofty ideology and the dismal reality.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 very well said a system like what the op wants would not last (unless magic or actual gods were involved) if the op wants to hunger games it up then they need to make the death games volunteer based or it would not work $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Jan 29 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sure in a system in question abdication in favor of a self-designated successor won't be allowed. What if an ailing emperor would be always abdicating rather than dying on the throne? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 29 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander This could be solved by only allowing abdication immediately upon taking the throne - once you've ruled for a few days, you can't abdicate any more. Alternately, abdication lasts only as long as the original ruler's life - when the ailing emperor dies, his designated successor loses the throne. $\endgroup$ – Martin Carney Jan 29 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander: "Not allowed" by whom? Abdication is an unilateral act. For ordinary jobs it's called resignation. One cannot "forbid" a person to resign from their job. Whether the words of the abdicating emperor designating a successor carry any value or not, it's of course dependent on the person who considers those words. This is an excellent way of starting a civil war. "I am the designated successor of the emperor!" "No you are not, we must respect the will of the gods and elect a new emperor in the traditional way!" Cry Havok! and let slip the dogs of war... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 29 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinCarney The critical thing is abdication in favor of a selected successor. If that's allowed, the old emperor can name a successor. If not, then having a good swordsman become emperor means that he's emperor, and if he abdicates then the whole succession contest starts anew. $\endgroup$ – David Thornley Jan 29 at 19:49
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What about separating "domain heirs" and "imperial heirs". Maybe imperial heirs are required (by religious reasons) to be firstborn, so wise houses train their second children to manage the family holdings. Thus the success or failure of the imperial claimant on the contests would not directly affect the government of the heartlands of the House.

Basically, firstborn by default ousted from the office of heads of family, concentrating solely in trying to obtain the imperial throne. (and hopefully cooperating with their sisters/brothers if they succeed)

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    $\begingroup$ Might be better to go the other way. Firstborn is head of the house. Secondborn puts his/her life at risk to be the puppet emperor. Survival/Continuity of the House is more important than the stability of the Empire. $\endgroup$ – Paresh Jan 30 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, why not. But if they manage to produce a single child, they might simply stay out of the game, concentrating on maintaining the bloodline. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Jan 30 at 9:02
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Short summary: the emperor and the heir would lose any actual power and turn into figureheads/sacrificial slaves. The ruling families and the priests both support this, and thus avoid the political instability.

Note: from what OP said, I presume that this system works for a long time. As AlexP answer correctly points out, it's not the most likely outcome. But hardly impossible.

We don't know what power exactly the emperor holds, but from high turnover rate we can tell that the job is actually not very rewarding. You'll be out of office quickly, that happens either by dying or resigning (but why resign? so it's forced on you somehow). Not much time to do anything with the power. If you're not dead when it's over, the next emperor is inclined to take everything from you, so you would not stand above him in any way. Otherwise, you very existence undermines his authority.

So it's not a good thing to be a heir in this empire. The promise of emperor's job is not all that alluring. But the process of getting it is much worse, and it looms ahead of you as an inevitable disaster.

If you are very capable, skilled man who can overcome the trials, good. If you a believer, even losing feels good for you. But most people are ordinary, not very capable, not very honorable, not very devout. When the emperor dies, death awaits the most of the heirs, and they know it. Surely, during ages there were enough attempts to avoid it: running away, faking the sacrifice to gods, attempting to illegally push the burden onto others, killing or sabotaging the competing heirs (and their relatives, so no clear replacement heir would be available), etc. Sure, the heirs are not some ordinary men, they hold power over their own domain before the trials, but that only gives them more ability to evade the responsibility.

We know that the system worked. The priests managed to make it work somehow. That can only mean one thing: the priests interfere with the power of the heir, check it and limit it. And since the heirs can't be that much trusted, the interference is no small. So many ways to break the system; so many decisions to not trust the heirs with.

Now look at all of this from the point of view of other people of power. Influential nobles, rich merchants, community leaders and like, what would they think?

The heirs come and go. The emperors come and go. Their ruling time isn't long. Their power is checked and limited by priests. Unlike heirs, the priests are here to stay. Through all the rulers, the priests are the same people who actually decide things. If you need a favor, if you need a problem solved, why would you go to the unstable secular power whose decision can be soon overturned anyway?

Now the priests become more and more in control of the country and individual domains. Only one force can counter this – the ruling families in those domains. But they know what's good for them. This is exactly how they can avoid political instability. If the heirs pass bad laws during their rule, just take away their power to pass laws.

In the age of civil wars, it wasn't possible: war requires a leader to command troops, and if you sabotage yours, another army will wreck you. But now there's no fighting, and there's a great mediator that can help arrange things without fighting – the priests.

Some emperors and heirs would be opposed to losing the actual power, of course. But a single man has little chances against a system, especially when it's profitable to everyone involved. Surely, it won't just all go smooth. But the more the designated rulers resist and fight, the more everyone else who matters want to get rid of them.

So with time, the heirs become officially unable to do anything in politics. They have no money of their own, they don't command any troops, nobody follows their orders, their families and priests decide everything for them. They live sheltered luxurious lives, they are told they are important for the empire, they are maybe educated and trained in some stuff that won't make them politically dangerous, but in the end, they are lead to the trials, now quite senseless, and all of them but one, no matter which, are sacrificed.

And when the trials are done, and one of these spoiled brats that can't really manage anything becomes the emperor, who in their right mind would give any actual power to him? So the emperor remains just like he was before - a powerless figurehead. Other people actually run the country.

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If this system has been in place for a few centuries, the various institutions will likely have gotten used to it and taken steps to keep the disruption to a minimum. This means spreading any relevant knowledge of ongoing affairs to at least several people, such as a group of advisors and confidants.

Since the heir is at risk of suddenly being whisked away to risk their life, they will keep their advisors up to speed with their plans and affairs. There could even be a specific position (like a second in command) that is designated to (temporarily) take over their job if the worst should happen.

Essentially, make sure the person who might have to give their lives is never the only one to hold specific knowledge, and that there are well-known and well-tested procedures in place in the case of their death.

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  • $\begingroup$ TL;DR: Keep your bus number above 1. $\endgroup$ – Martin Carney Jan 29 at 18:51
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Add a contest of "wisdom". If the turnover rate is high then the system will become increasingly robust and stable through attrition. If the new ruler is wiser than the previous one, as is the requirement, then even if the laws change it will only be for the better and the legal system will become increasingly robust and stable.

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The next emperor should be designated by the current emperor. Doing so keeps the families in line. One person from the 5 families will head the empire, and the family/person that is most helpful, most ingratiating will be the chosen one. You don't need to kill off the heads of household because that sparks conflict and/or competition. Selection also invokes competition, but the intrigue that can be created as each of the families vie to be the "chosen" one gives you endless plot possibilities.

You probably need one rule; you can't pass the baton to someone in your own house without the consent of the other 4 families. Then you could even have the rise of the first golden child, loved by all the four families who becomes the absolute king, then fails to select a successor and dies at a young age, which brings you back to conflict.

Another method of choice would be to have the religious leaders "elect" the Emperor, but that would probably be much more boring.

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Compare your empire with the make-up of the Holy Roman Empire. The empire was a collection of more or less loosely bound territories. The imperial crown passed from one family to another one several time, with more or less struggle.

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True power comes not from personal might, but how many sell swords you can control. So, they'd simply get their third or fourth son to take up the challenge, with the understanding that they would yield to the firstborn if they died. If they didn't there would be a succession crisis. This son would be trained to be exceptional at the competition. If they died, a substitute would be found.

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