Who’s in charge around here?

August 26, 2016 at 5:44 pm

“To rule is easy, to govern difficult.”

— Goethe

Nebukadnessar-II-coinRegardless of how involved the gods are in your game world, your players’ characters will undoubtedly interact with powerful forces of a more earthly sort. I’m talking about ‘the man’.

Governments and other power blocs are an important part of most campaign worlds. Unless your heroes are exploring an unknown land of glaciers, or are deep in uninhabited space, they are bound to come across someone (or something) that claims to have authority. But who are they?

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These authorities usually land on a band that goes from abject tyranny to reckless anarchy. From centralized power in one person’s hands to diffused power held equally by all. This does not necessarily mean that widely held power allows more freedom or liberty— a benevolent king could support these freedoms as easily as a democracy could demonize outliers from the norm. But generally, as power flows into more hands the opportunity for wider viewpoints increases.

Plurality of Power

There are many lists of different forms of government online, and Wikipedia  has a pretty thorough breakdown here. Its interesting reading, and a good resource for anyone who wants to compare various aspects of rulership.

Its also important to note that any civilization is likely to have more than more form of authority in parallel (and perhaps competition) with each other. While a king may hold temporal power in a land, a powerful priesthood may have equal authority over the spiritual life of the populace. For that matter, a council of guild masters may also be vying for power by controlling the reins of the economy.

The Fantasy Factor

And if your RPG world has fantastic elements, there may be entirely new kinds of government. Wizards may form a meritocracy of mages where only those with power arcane can be full citizens. A dragon can be a power bloc all on its own— whether exacting tribute from a populace or actively demanding that subjects do it bidding.

Or, what if citizenship did not end at death? How would ghouls or vampires participate in a government of the living? Let alone secret forces who lead by mind-control or possession of those who hold power. Fantasy and magic add new wrinkles to the process.

What government can do for you

Besides serving the desires of those in power, most governments are expected to do things for their citizens. This might range from magically keeping the land fertile to only sacrificing one-third of the children to feed the beast-god. But governments that neglect their duties can find themselves on the smoking end of a torch-wielding mob. These activities can be broken down into a few key categories.

Law. The prime activity of most authorities is enacting and enforcing laws. These may be for the common good, or completely capricious, but they are the law. The first and most basic laws usually involved property, and who controls it.  And for that, there quickly followed a force tasked to making sure these laws are followed.

In our world at least, was protecting individuals were secondary and enforced in a less forceful manner. These were often enforced by the community, with the ruling authority presiding over the dispensation of justice if courts existed.

Trade. Coming out of laws protecting property, government usually exercised control over trade with other authorities. Whether by creating and maintaining a consistent currency, granting trade rights, or enforcing tariffs on foreign goods, a government can exert control over trade. This is often a point of contention between the authorities and those actually doing the trading, and entire sub-economies have been built to subvert these controls.

Defense. Benevolent authorities should work to defend their subjects from attack by outsiders, and even the most corrupt rulers need protection — if only from their own citizens. In even the most basic specialized societies, a class of soldiers whose main task is armed response existed.

This may be as simple as a citizen levy in time of danger, or as complex as Roman legions, but raising and leading forces in defense is widely seen as a government’s duty. This often extends into aggressive forces that threaten their neighbors, in order to gain important resources or merely to raise the status of the authority and its leaders.

Community. This last is more psychological than physical. Government is often what holds disparate groups of people together. Even the normally insular dwarves will rise when the High King of Gandermarch calls for his banners! Leaders are seen as the heads of a national family, and their glory is shared by all of its people.

This can be shown in pageantry and shows of power, and by providing means for the people to come together as a whole. It could be a feast for the engagement of the crown prince, or bloody gladiator matches where war prisoners are savaged by terrible beasts — it all serves to unite the people.

What you can do for your government

Taxation is as old as authority, and the former would probably not exist without it. Especially in game terms, where players periodically find themselves in the possession of large amounts of treasure. This can be as simple as an annual tithing, or as complex your IRS returns. The powers that be will not overlook as source of income like this for long.

Citizens may also be required to offer more than money to their rulers. Requirements for service, in wartime or otherwise, are very common in our history. Wealthy or powerful people could often pay to be relieved of these duties, but a truly egalitarian government might not approve of such actions.

Those with special skills or powers (such as players) may also be solicited to act on behalf of the government. Healers may be needed to fight a plague,  or a doughy hero might be needed to rescue a princess from a giant barrel-tossing primate. The more an individual receives from authorities, the more responsibilities will demanded of them.

Remember that when someone wants to make you a knight.

Spoiler alert: Next time, we’ll take a closer look at who is running Mesus, out bronze age city-state.

Do your governments fall into this format in your campaigns? Are we missing the secret ingredient to making game work governments great? Let us know in the comments below: