One of the often-considered questions in every fantasy RPG is whether the kings, bishops, counts, and knights of the land are Normal Humans (0th level) or Classed Characters of some level. The Classic D&D game gives contradictory suggestions. For instance, Nobles are noted as being 2nd level Fighters in the Basic rulebook, but by the time of the Expert rulebook, Lords are 9th level. Frank Mentzer’s Expert Set introduces Barons, Counts, and Princes that start at 9th level and progress upward from there. AD&D 1e waffles between 0th level and high-level leaders, while AD&D 3rd Edition introduced special NPC character classes to address the question.
Adventure Conqueror King unequivocally concludes that the powerful people of the realm are not just politically powerful - they are also high level. This notion is mechanically embedded in the campaign experience rules, and in the demographics of heroism. We believe that this approach makes more sense within the context of the game world, and also within the context of myth, fiction, and even history.
Within the context of the game world, it should be clear why the politically powerful would also be the personally powerful. Classic fantasy game worlds are incredibly violent, and the political ruler who lacks personal power will soon have his political power removed violently. At best, a 0th level political ruler can hope to be a Japanese Emperor - a ceremonial figurehead, real power wielded by the Shogun’s sword.
The ancient and medieval storytellers and myth-makers took this world view for granted - one is hard pressed to find a hero who is not a king, or a king who is not a hero (unless he is a mighty villain!). The great heroes Achilles, Perseus, and Theseus either started as, or became, kings. Beowulf becomes a king, and Hroogar, the king of Denmark whom Beowulf helps, was noted as a famed warrior ever-victorious in war. Arthur was obviously a King, and his knights Lancelot and Gawain were prince of Benwick and prince of Orkney respectively. Charlemagne and his paladins were all kings and lords.
The same sentiment is embodied in most fantasy literature. Again, hero = king = hero. Conan, famously, rises from barbarian to king. Elric of Melnibone starts as a king. In Middle Earth, the leaders of the elves, such as Feanor, Fingolfin, and Galadriel, are all personally powerful, as are leaders of men such as Aragorn, or the various princes and kings of Gondor and Rohan such as Boromir and Theoden. Even in the realistic works of George R.R. Martin, nobles and kings are a collection of powerful warriors: Ed Stark wins a fight with the Kingsguard, Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar fight man-to-man for the crown, and Jaime Lannister, heir of the Lannisters, is one of the best swordsmen in the kingdom.
Nevertheless, many realistically-minded gamers shy away from the sense that NPC leaders should be high level. After all, weren’t the kings and lords of history just normal men? Not really. Our own real-world history’s leaders were often men of frightening physical prowess and incredible bravery. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, and Richard the Lion-Hearted are as mighty as any fantasy RPG character.
The most interesting things about these leaders was their incredible survivability. Alexander, for instance, consistently charged at the head of his cavalry, and was more than once the first warrior over the wall during sieges. He survived being wounded in the neck and head at the Granicus River, in the thigh at Issus, in the shoulder at Gaza. He suffered a broken leg in Turkestan, three more wounds in Afghanistan, and had a lung pierced in India. Alexander clearly had a lot more than 1d4+1 hit points.
Or consider the inhuman toughness of Rasputin, the mystic who ruled behind the last Tsar. Rasputin’s three assassins fed him enough cyanide to fell 5 men, but Rasputin was unaffected. They then shot him in the back. Rasputin’s response was to lunge at his killer and attempt to strangle him. His assassins then shot him three more times. This knocked him down. When he tried to get up, the group then beat him into submission and then severed his penis. They then bound him, wrapped him in a carpet, and threw him into an icy river. Rasputin broke his bonds, got out of the carpet, but drowned in the icy water. Again assuming his attackers were 1st level fighters, and that a revolver does 1d8 damage, Rasputin must have taken 5.5 x 4 = 22 damage. Being beaten into submission suggests multiple blows per assassin - we will assume 2 blows per assassin with clubs, so that is six blows dealing 4.5 damage each, or 27 damage. Losing his manhood must have been at least another 5 damage. Icy water probably did equivalent damage to a campfire, or 1d6 damage per round, and we’ll assume Rasputin lived for three rounds - one to get out of his bonds, one the carpet, then dying on the third. All told, then, Rasputin suffered 22+27+5+11 damage, or 65 damage, in addition to surviving 5 save v. poison.
Even more impressive is Julius Caesar. Much is made of the fact that Caesar was struck down in the forum by assassins, suggesting he must have just been a normal man. But let’s assume Caesar was actually a 14th level fighter with 70 hit points, merely unarmored and unarmed out of over-confidence. Despite having surprise and a weapon, the first assassin actually missed, as Caesar parried and grabbed his arm. It ended up taking 23 separate wounds from 60 different men to slay Caesar. 60 men rolling to hit with an attack throw of 11+ would hit about 30 times, so that’s not too far off the mark. If we assume each wound was made by a 1st level fighter using a dagger, that’s 3.5 x 23 or 80 hit points of damage! That’s more than enough to kill Caesar. Heck, that’s probably WHY they had 60 men and waited until he was unarmed and unarmored…
In short: Whether you want your campaign world to feel like Lord of the Rings, Westeros, or Ancient Rome, your NPC leaders should be high level. The amount of spells and magic items will obviously vary widely, but in no case should your NPC lords and princes be 0th level push-overs.