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Okay, so a kingdom has this rule: Whoever is the oldest person who was the son of a previous king is the king. This mostly passes the throne between brothers and cousins. My question is, how do you prevent them from killing each other?

Here are the problems:

  • If your dad is close to becoming king, but will likely die before so, you, your brothers, your sons, and your nephews all want to kill the current king. (If your dad dies before becoming a king, you can never become a king.)
  • If you someone is about to become king, and his kids are a little older than you, you want to kill him before he becomes king (along with anyone else in your position, and your descendants).
  • If you do not like a certain branch of the royal family (like, say, if you're the king and they are trying to kill you), you have an incentive to kill the patriarch (common living male ancestor) of it. Sure, they may want revenge, but any designs on becoming the king they had is now lost, and they lose a whole lot of political power.
  • If the king and the next in line die around the same time (say in the same battle), it will be up to debate whether that guy was king before he died or not. This will lead to divisions in the kingdom.
  • If record keeping for births is not good, it might not be clear who two people are older (you do not have to just track the king's sons, but also the sons (and their sons) of any previous king.)
  • The problem is fractal in nature. All of the above applies at all levels.

This is ripe for backstabbing and killing and stuff. Although it will probably be fun, how do you lessen that?

Note: Although you would have a large pool of potential kings, it wouldn't grow out of control. When you get a large enough group of potential kings, they will be closer in age (due to pigeon hole principle), and when a king lives longer than average, a lot of the kings close to him will die before becoming kings. The effect is larger the larger the pool gets, so its self limiting (and also makes the system select for longer lived kings). Also, the backstabbing helps thin the pool (which in turns selects for backstabbier kings).

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you open to modifying the rule at all or is it set in stone? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Dec 17 '15 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like a rule that promotes chaos and mayhem, killing sprees, and a cancellation of the rule by a king who has no sons or prefers that the crown'll go to a younger someone. $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 17 '15 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think I can beat the incoming answers, but this kind of thing lead to armed guards, royal tasters, laws against regicide(enforced by nobility, military or religion), and cultivating loyalties outside the family (to back the claim to the throne with threat of violence). Ideally royal bloodshed is minimized by genuine familial bonds, lack of ambition or the fear of consequences. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Dec 17 '15 at 18:12
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To control bloodshed, you must decrease the desirability of the crown to those who are in line to receive it.

You can do this in two ways.

  • Make the King's life shorter and less enjoyable.
  • Make the lives of those waiting to be King more enjoyable and filled with privledges.

Add a rule that no King may wear the crown for more than ten years and that every King must die painfully on the tenth anniversary of their inauguration.

Add another rule that the King must lead every army into battle from the front line, and must therefore train for long hours every day as a warrior.

Grant unlimited privledge to ALL of the heirs, giving them the best clothes and food, their choice of the best concubines and freeing them from any battle duties or training. Let them live in lavish luxury and in silent terror of the day when they must become king.

Set all these rules in stone so that no future king may change any of them.

You will have the King's heirs all carrying first aid kits rather than swords, when they visit their older siblings.

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    $\begingroup$ If a king is in charge of things, his first order of business is to get all the privileges and probably execute all these potential cousins-assassins. On the tenth anniversary of his inauguration he cancels that silly "die painfully" rule. $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 17 '15 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ How's about democracy (election to decide where real power goes, the king is a glorified entity but has no substantial political power?) $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Dec 17 '15 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ “The only thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Wheedle [...] Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles -- kingons, or possibly queons -- that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.” source $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Dec 17 '15 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Nahshonpaz: Yes, this scenario would require the cultivation of a separate political power center with the moral / civil authority to carry out the anniversary assassination -- some sort of secret cabal, perhaps reminiscent of the 15th century Catholic church. $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Dec 18 '15 at 3:52
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Political alliances, sharing of power, bestowing privileges, wealth, and domains on your family members. That's what the English kings did, though it didn't help them much. In the end you get Magna Carta/Democracy.

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Don't explicitly try to prevent it, but engineer the social constructs of your world such that it's a really bad idea. This is easiest to achieve with a close knit caste of nobles, who all have excellent spy networks and some major Machiavellian mojo.

Some examples: I kill the king and get caught. This is regicide, a crime for which I will be publicly tortured before being hung, drawn and quartered.

I kill someone in line to being the king and get caught: This is a crime for which I will be publicly tortured before being hung, drawn and quartered.

If I kill someone in line to the king in secret, the court of all the nobles will undoubtedly pin me down through their excellent web of informants, spies and double dealers, leading to me being eliminated as competition (as I'll be publicly tortured before being hung, drawn and quartered).

In this kind of scenario, where everyone is double dealing and politically backstabbing each other, actual backstabbing (although tempting) becomes too risky as everyone is watching everyone like a hawk and everyone has their own agenda. If there is even a smidgen of proof that you're conspiring to kill a member of the Royal Line, you end up publicly tortured before being hung, drawn and quartered, so you'd best make sure that there is nothing to prove.

On the other hand: If everyone in the close knit inner circle agrees that the king is an idiot, and the next in line is an idiot, and they should both die, then the people at the top may well be deposed by common agreement (by being publicly tortured before being hung, drawn and quartered).

It also leads to an excellent narrative structure, with story hooks ranging from adventure themed all the way down to medieval murder mystery and intrigue. With a health side order of public torture before hanging, drawing and quartering.

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  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't this just change the nature of the knife? If I am third in line and it is my desire to remove number two, all I need to do is create "a smidgen of proof" that number two is plotting to kill the King, then off he goes to be publicly tortured and fifthed (new word for being drawn and quartered while neck in noose). $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Dec 17 '15 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor The other knife is slightly less sharp. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Dec 17 '15 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor: But then you have to worry about your younger brother's spies, who saw your spies planting the evidence. You've also got to watch out for number two's aunt, who's got proof that you were talking about what the best way to kill the king would be (she overheard part of you talking about what proof to plant). It all becomes too risky for anyone to try anything, lest fifthing happen. And public torture. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 17 '15 at 14:38
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Make it almost as desirable to be a prince in the line of succession as it is to be a king, but much less risk and hard work.

  • Regular revenues which are granted as a birthright of the prince, not as a gift of the king.
  • Same for honors and titles.

The problem with that is the number of unproductive nobles. Could you make them administrators? Officers?

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Being a king is too hard

If in your world being the king mean have too much responsibilities maybe just a few nobles will want to become king . Like if your kingdom is passing through the financial crisis and the current king is facing a lot of pressure and you as a noble just have to worry about your own problems, you wont want to get more problems for yourself .

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