Roleplaying with royalty is hard. In fact, I would consider it to be one of the more difficult things to do in D&D, and as a DM I consider this to be a big problem. Have the following scenarios ever happened in a game that you've been running or playing in?
- The party (or some members within it) rejects an invitation to a meeting with royalty or to a celebration run by royalty.
- The party (or some members within it) is invited to the king's feast and try to steal his silverware.
- The party (or some members within it) outright refuses to bow to the king/queen, or to observe any other respectful gestures.
- The party (or some members within it) openly insults royalty.
- The party (or some members within it) maintains their character's "gruff and angry" personalities in front of kings and queens.
- The party (or some members within it) starts quoting the Monty Python "help, help, I'm being repressed" scene when confronted with nobility or royalty.
Have the party members involved in these situations been under 5th level?
So why does this happen?
Well, for many reasons.
When characters are initially created, players have a tendency to confine their character's personalities to a single paragraph or page. In reality, someone could fill a book with their actual personality - the changes that occur when around different people, or how they view things like authority, relationships, death and so on... So, if your rampant, child-like halfling comes face-to-face with a king, and all that you have written down is "always makes jokes, has lots of fun, hates authority, and steals silverware," then that will be how you will react regardless of whether someone is a king or a peasant.
Similarly, if your character is just a gruff, angry, often drunk half-orc, then you may be so used to playing that personality that you would consider it "out-of-character" to act any differently.
Another reason disrespecting royalty happens is that players fall into the trap of seeing an NPC as just that - an NPC. This usually occurs if you as a player have difficulty really getting into the game, or if the DM of the game does not make extra effort to make NPC's three-dimensional. Why should you respect the King any more then the tavern-keep if the DM gives them the same amount of importance in terms of his or her description of the individual or of the scene?
A third reason that this problem occurs is that playing D&D is about being what you could never be in real life. The entire nature of the game is to go above and beyond reality. You can become the archmage, or the mighty warrior. Since it's just a game after all, you can play your character however you want them to be. So, if a player has real-life issues with authority, or just simply thinks it would be "more fun" to give the King the birdie, then they'll do it.
Along this line of thinking, some people believe that since their characters in D&D are the "heroes" of the world, then they shouldn't have to pay respect to royalty. After all, they've seen their party members die, they've fought dragons, they've rescued towns... but they haven't seen this King or Queen do squat. All they have is a shiny title, so there's no real reason to respect them. Since the whole story of the game revolves around their characters, players have a tendency to think that the whole world revolves around their characters as well.
Probably one of the biggest reasons that people disrespect authority in D&D games is that shiny little spot on your sheet that says Alignment. The most often cited excuse to me as a DM for why the character isn't bowing is that "it's not in my alignment." It's odd, but for some reason people will often assume that unless their character is Lawful Good, they don't have any reason to respect those in higher power. And don't even get me started on how anti-politician anyone with Chaotic in their alignment is...
In my three-part alignment series, I make an effort to try and re-define some of the 3.5 alignments. You can check those articles out if you're looking to expand upon your alignment choices. The fact of the matter is though, every alignment has the capabilities of showing respect. Characters of every alignment use intelligence, and a coherent thought process. Every alignment has the flexibility to approach each and every situation in varying ways, depending on what the scene calls for.
What's the big deal?
Interactions with royalty should be memorable and unique encounters. They should be given respect, both by players and DMs alike. Dungeons and Dragons, by it's very essence, is a game that lets us live outside ourselves. We don't just become our characters, but we become part of the world that they live in. Even though you as a player may spend most of your time thinking about the upcoming dungeon, or your next level up, I invite you to think about the world your character adventures in - be it Greyhawk, Ravenloft, Golarion, Toril, or New York City.
Your world is not simply run by a DM, rather, it is run by Kings and Queens. Some campaign settings are not based in a monarchy system, but in every world there are people in a higher political position then you - be them the Vampire Prince of NYC or the President of the Æon society.
If you as players are invited for one reason or another to meet with the leaders of your respective worlds, it's kind of a big deal.
So, what should I do? - Players
The first thing you should do, if being presented with an upcoming or potential royalty encounter, is to read your DM. Is your DM getting excited for the king's grand ball? Are they adding in lots of detail? Are they offering you chances to buy costumes or fine clothing? When the encounter comes, are they going on about the layout of the castle, and the fineries of the throne room? If you are simply meeting privately with the King, does your DM take a good minute or two to describe the King's appearance?
These are signs that your DM is taking this seriously. This may be a key part of the published campaign, or a special homebrewed scene that the DM has prepared in order to have a unique roleplaying encounter between dungeon crawls.
Bottom line? If the DM is taking it seriously so should you!
If you want to be cheeky to royalty, now really isn't the time. Keep in mind that your character will have dozens of opportunities to steal the pants off of, generally embarrass, or hurl insults at snotty nobles, or town guardsmen, and your DM probably won't care as much. When you're interacting with the King however, you should probably take it a little more seriously.
Again, just because your character acts a certain way when they're adventuring, or sitting around a campfire, doesn't mean that he or she has to act the same way when talking to the King.
Also, you should remember that it never hurts to help your DM. As D&D players you are intelligent beings (you'd have to be to understand all the rules) so it's not beyond your reach to realize when you are screwing something up that your DM put time and effort into. If your DM starts looking worried or upset when you proclaim loudly that you refuse to bow and spit at the King's feet, then you as a player are working against the game, not for it.
Plus, as a bit of advice, if your DM is playing it seriously and you choose to piss on the King's foot, then you're putting your DM in a tight spot. To avoid inconsistencies, it's likely that your character will find himself one a one-way train to the dungeon or the gallows.
If you choose to piss of royalty, be prepared for that possibility, and the possibility that you may have to roll up a new character. Please do me a favor and, if your DM takes that route, try to apologize to the King, or to make amends in some other way, rather then trying to escape from prison or making your party declare war on the kingdom. This can make entire campaigns crumble to pieces.
If your DM doesn't seem to be taking things too seriously, or has made it clear that the King is very informal, or you are epic level, or something like that - then maybe you can take more liberties with royalty interactions without making your DM blow steam out of his ears. Remember, us DMs are fragile creatures. Please be gentle!
So, what should I do? - Dungeon Masters
You have an important royalty encounter coming up, and you actually want your ridiculous party of dungeon crawlers to respect it. Here's some advice for how to do that.
First of all, do not have someone just come up to party, say that they're royalty/epic level/someone worth listening to, and expect the players to offer any respect to them. You have to give your players a reason to respect someone besides a title. Some ways to do this include having the player hear about the individual ahead of time - perhaps rumors of great deeds they have done. Another way to earn the player's respect is by actually setting up a meeting with them, rather then just demanding one.
The third and probably most simple way to gain respect from the players is by paying them respect as well. If royalty rides up to the party's campfire and says they're all pitiful dogs for not slaying the nearby dragon, it's likely that the players won't respond kindly. If the characters have accomplished significant tasks in their adventuring careers, you shouldn't have someone simply disregard the good that they have done, just because they're royalty.
Give your players a reason to respect and admire the individual, and your players should do so.
Another great tip for DMs is to take your time. You know your party better then I do, and trust me, I've had my fair share of groups who hate anything and everything roleplaying in favor of smashing things with sticks. However, if your players see that you're taking time to make a royalty encounter fun and interesting, they will respect that.
If you want the players to respect and get along with a King, make them likable! If you have a King that calls the characters peasants, or who scolds them for getting mud on his floor, then you should be prepared for them to not exactly worship the ground at his feet. If you have a King who tells jokes, has heard of their tales and is genuinely interested in their endeavors, then you're giving the players more reason to like him.
If you really want your characters to interact with royalty in a certain way, one of the best (and most simple) ways to do this is to let them know what you want! How will they know to bow before a King unless they've been told that this is what's done. This knowledge can be found out with simple knowledge rolls or gather information rolls. Encourage your players ahead of time to prepare for the royalty meeting through learning what the etiquette is, buying nice clothes, and of course, bathing.
In the end...
It falls on both the players and the DM to make royalty encounters work. Players, you need to work with your DM. If they want to give your party a unique roleplaying encounter, don't fight them by trying to turn it into just another chance to be the class clown. Respect the nonplayer characters that your DM has taken the time to create for you! Be flexible enough to explore your character in a different light. Be willing to compromise and give a little to make the game more fun for everyone.
DMs, it's up to you to make roleplaying encounters like this fun for your players! Don't create a dry encounter with two-dimensional kings and expect your players to react in a positive fashion. If you don't give the characters a reason to respect the King, then they won't. If you don't give the players a reason to pay attention and respect the encounter, then they won't either.
And of course, leaving some unattended silverware lying around never hurts.