An interesting discussion has cropped up over at Really Bad Eggs, sort of tangentially to the main argument of the post there (which is my fault, freely admitted). This is a topic that I've rassled with since the beginning of my D&D days, namely—why should kings and noblemen all be very high level? Why are all NPCs in positions of power assumed to be level 9 or higher? These questions ate at me and I eventually came up with an entire varient mode of thought on the subject that I never really overtly shared with anyone. I only realized that when I began to argue with Vulmea and MCPlanck: my thought process is divergent and I have done a poor job of explaining myself over there, I think. Here, where I feel more at home writing a massive essay, I hope to get some of those thoughts out and "on paper" as it were so that I can make my point of view understood.
My argument is simple to distill: Not all, or even most, NPCs should be of "name level" (level 9+) simply because they are in positions of power. I know this runs counter to EGG's entries on the subject and even the 2e MM, which posits that bandit leaders are all level 9, etc. Therefore, not only do I have to explain why I think this works, I also have to explain why I think the standard assumption is incorrect. There's no reason to replace a working system unless there is something wrong with it.
To make the argument clear, I must first explain the way I see character levels and why I shy away from mid- to high-level NPCs controlling the setting. Levels 1-15 are pretty much well within human norms. While a level 1 fighter might be a farmhand who's trained himself to use a sword passably well (remember, he still likely is specialized in the weapon, which is a fair boon), level 12 is akin to Conan the Cimmerian at the very end of his life, treading the jeweled crowns of Hyperboria beneath his sandaled feet. Levels 15-17 are something more like Odysseus, slayer of giants and bedder of mighty wind-witches. The final few levels into retirement are Herculean; 18-25 are simply the very mightiest of people ever to walk the earth.
Where does this leave level 9? Very close to a Conan-esque murder machine. Rather than see all lords at this level, I would like to see the very finest swordsmen in the land somewhere between 9-12. These are men who are renowned for their skill and may be living legends, or at the very least the most skilled warriors and wizards in the region.
Now, this understanding of levels may be flawed, but it is one I have developed from years of play and judging man against monster. What should an average lord be capable of facing on his own, or even with a squad of men? An important question. I posit that, perhaps, they should be capable of fighting off an ogre with some allies at their sides, or even a few ogres, but seeing your local baron go toe to toe with a troll... well, now, that's something I don't quite like the feel of.
So, understanding that this based on a personal preference, here is how I generally lay out the level requirements for NPCs in a pattern that is more or less discernable. Frank, who's played D&D with me for as long as he's known me (which is a long-ass time now), told me the other day that he's "more or less figured out" how I handle NPC levels and how many levels a man might have when he is leading a troupe of followers.
Essentially, the logic is as follows:
If societal pressures and social structure grant an NPC a position of power, the relative skill required to hold it is fairly low in terms of direct levels. We should make room for the fact that many nobles in most lands are trained in combat from an early age; while bandits and the like probably don't have a specialization, it would be fair to assume that any noble, knight, or other military retainer is specialized in their weapon of choice. Additionally, purely from an upbringing of swordplay we can assume that most nobles fall in the 1-4 level range. Level 1 fighters are probably fairly rare, and may represent those who eschewed it after their childhood. Level 0 nobles are those who likely were given an entirely different training regimen (such as the clergy) or who didn't have the strength required to become fighters.
If these people hold their positions in regions of low conflict, we needn't further concern ourselves with them. Perhaps they may gain a level or two while ruling, ending up with a 3-6 range. IF they've fought off outlaws, bandits, or orcs, they may have a level or so more (and a fair note here is that MOST nobles have probably been presented with these troubles, even in the heart of the most "settled" regions... a topic for another day, perhaps, but medieval levels of settlement leave much wild land in even so-called safe places. That being said, the battle[s] need not have been attended by the nobleman himself). If instead, however, they live in a march region where conflict is much more common or a kingdom which wages war with neighbors frequently (not an uncommon occurrence) then the likelihood of being middle-low level increases. We could consider these marcher or fighting lords to be somewhere between levels 4-8.
The highest rungs of power in a kingdom are rarely gained by combat in the open field or even by stealthy murder. They are social awards and, in some lands, dynastic ones. Kings can be any level. They might be level 0 scholars or level 12 warriors who ride out and do battle with their foes hand to hand. The potency of the office is so great that I don't really see ANY reason why a king would necessarily have to be a certain level, let alone an emperor.
Now, if social pressures did not provide this position we have a different kettle of fish. Those who achieve their place by force alone are much more likely to be middle or high level. An outlaw-king is more likely to be between 4-10th level, particularly if his forces are large and he has been campaigning for a long while. Paladins, who are often knights-errant, may easily be 7-12th level when encountered.
So, social structure (in Arunia at least) doesn't dictate individually powerful people controlling their lands. Indeed, the more power an institutional framework has, the less individually powerful the nobility must be. In semi-lawless lands full of warlords, they are much more likely to have hacked their way to the top of the ladder. I would posit that the "standard" D&D setting is much more about that sort of world than, say, Arunia is... but that even in that world you may find a King Alfred the Great of Wessex.
I was considering writing something about how achieving name level is just ONE way that characters can acquire a stronghold and followers, but I think this is quite long enough. Perhaps next week.