I’ve run a one-shots and campaigns that focused around the Courts of Chaos, and have spent a lot of time puzzling out details from the books and expanding on them in order to provide a more robust setting to play around with. Some of the setting details I’ve also cribbed from Kit Kindred.
It is hard to write about the Courts of Chaos in a way that both evokes the canon and is inclusive. Despite depicting a society of shapeshifters in a place where notions of physics break down, Zelazny’s Courts of Chaos is still patriarchal, heteronormative, and Eurocentric. The titles commonly seen in his Courts of Chaos (lord, lady, prince, princess, duke) do not have well established gender neutral options. Where I can, I will offer options for alternate titles beyond just the standard.
A Brief History of Chaos
According to the Book of the Serpent Hung Upon the Tree of Matter, the progenitor of the Chaos royal blood was a woman named Lilith. Consort to the Serpent, she gave form to Shadow by drawing upon the energies of a node of raw Chaos known as the Pit. The construct she created to accomplish this became known as the Logrus, and she was the first Keeper of the Logrus.
From her unions with the Serpent, many a child was produced. Each was a Noble of Chaos capable of initiating into the Logrus. Each in turn begat their own lineages. These came to be known as the Houses of Chaos. These Houses formed an oligarchy over Chaos, each sharing rule of the land. Thus was born the “Courts” of Chaos.
After countless eons, Houses died or split into new Houses. Their only common tie was their descent from Lilith and the Serpent. It was from a relatively new and insignificant House that treachery was born. A power-mad genius named Dworkin stole potent artifacts from Chaos and fled into deepest untamed Shadow to create his own node of power. This new icon of power was abhorrent to behold, and nearly tore all of existence asunder. Many died in the Shadowstorms wrought by this malignant artifact.
In the ensuing confusion and civil revolt one noble, named Swayvill, rose up and established peace in the Courts of Chaos. The price for this unification was steep. Swayvill made himself King, and exalted the Houses each of his children founded, while marginalizing the others.
Swayvill ruled for thousands of years before the scions of the Betrayer made contact with the Courts. Three of Dworkin’s descendants, claiming to hail from a place called Amber, sought to gain power over the realm that Dworkin had founded. The Houses of Chaos were divided regarding what stance to take with regards to Amber, but Swayvill pushed for an agenda of war. The war turned ugly, and Chaos ultimately lost to the baleful forces of Amber.
“… I heard so much from my father of the succession in Amber, with all its cabals, intrigues, and double crosses, that I almost feel an authority on the subject. I imagine it could be that way here, too, among the Houses of Swayvill’s descendants, there being many more generations involved.”Roger Zelazny, Prince of Chaos
The Houses of Chaos fall into three general groups, though intermarriage can make the definitions fuzzy around the edges.
Major Houses are those descended from King Swayvill. Most of the Houses mentioned in the Merlin series are Major Houses: Hendrake, Sawall, Jesby, Chanicut and Helgram. In my campaigns the Major Houses are the ones most likely to have a human-like form. Their titles are the top level noble titles: Duke, Duchess, Duchexx, Herzog, Voivode, Emir, Kōshaku, Regal, etc.
Old Houses are those that existed prior to Swayvill’s rise to power. Some that did not curry favor with Swayvill early on received demotions to lesser titles. This is where I add in the more alien Houses, such as House Triton, where they are more divorced from human-seeming forms. Their titles are more reflective of mid-level nobility: Marquess, Earl, Countexx, Landgrave, Hakushaku, Shishaku.
Minor Houses are those founded by decree. They were either founded by younger members of existing Houses who earned special attention or else were established by prominent gentry or demons. Many do not have any connection to Lilith, and hence are unable to walk the Logrus. Some Minor Houses try to arrange marriages with scions of Major and Old Houses to gain that power. Their titles tend towards the low end of noble titles with the occasional knights in the mix: Baron, Baronexx, Graf, Danshaku.
At the far end of existence is a roiling node of Chaos called the Pit. It is a constant cycle of creation and destruction. Near to the Pit is the Core, a rock of Reality within which the Logrus is housed. Atop the Core are also many of the central buildings of the Courts of Chaos: the Thelbane, the Cathedral of the Serpent, the Plaza at the End of the World.
Attached to the Core are the Ways, the patchwork web of Shadow fragments that form the homes of the Nobles of Chaos. Only the Major Houses have their Ways connected to the Core. The rest of the Ways of Chaos are connected by “common Ways” which belong to no particular House and also house the unaffiliated common folk of the Courts of Chaos.