Being popular earns a government a lot of power, though it is always a fragile thing. Think of popularity as a form of temporary affiliation. Popularity is often restricted to a subset of urban society – you can’t please everyone.
With a large amount of consent, a government can rule with fewer objections and roadblocks. The will of the people can drown out the voice of opposition. In addition, popularity can be manufactured, so it’s a renewable, though finite, resource and power base.
Popularity is primarily a matter of opinion and perception, and does not need to be based on fact or truth. An official can maintain a public face that enhances his popularity while making decisions, choices and deals that would prove to be unpopular, if they were to become publicly known.
Public opinion is fickle and usually doesn’t require full disclosure, truth or accountability, at least in the short term. This means good and lawfully aligned politicians aren’t necessarily popular, despite having pure intentions and taking actions beneficial to the society they govern. Evil governments might be more popular if they are skilled at manipulating public opinion.
Popularity can also unexpectedly change. Opponents might be fuelling dissent, sudden events such as drought or victory at war could occur, or an unpopular but highly publicized ruling or government order could swiftly turn a populace’s opinion.
As popularity is a somewhat manageable resource, it must be constantly supervised and groomed. This makes it a complex, expensive or resource-intensive power base to rely upon. Different governments will permit varying levels of voiced opposition, as well, thus potentially reducing the power level and value of popularity as a power base. In some regimes, for example, it doesn’t matter how unpopular an official or decree might be, royal guards and fear might keep the public in check and popular rivals in the dungeons.
You can wield popularity like a graceful rapier or as a clumsy club. Politicians and governments who utilize popularity will have established networks of varying sophistication to help measure and influence popularity.
The networks might consist of:
- Public offices for constituents to voice their opinions
- Publicity agents
- Special events coordinators
- Bards for gathering and sowing information
- Rogues for the same
- Agents to sabotage foes
These networks, operations and activities are perfect fodder for PC adventures and encounters.
In addition, in a city where popularity has power, be sure to color notable events and news with the slanted politicking and spin doctoring of the various political groups and individuals. The primary weapons you can have your NPCs employ, regardless of the truth, are:
- Taking credit
- Casting blame
For example, if the PCs enter the city gates with the slain giant in tow, political networks will immediately set to work. The Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Mayor’s Aide, the Mercenaries’ Guild, and several private citizens might all claim to have hired the PCs to kill the giant for the city’s protection. Each faction might try to blame the others for a lack of action and for letting the problem get out of hand to the point where it required a group of strangers to do the job. Two separate celebration parties might be quickly assembled and a scuffle over which one the PCs and dead giant will attend erupts.
- The PCs are hired to spread the good word about a politician and they discover an evil act the government official is about to perform.
- The PCs witness a moment of weakness. The official wants all “loose ends” tied up.
- The PCs return to the city victorious heroes and politicians vie to align themselves with the popular adventurers. Now the PCs must be concerned about maintaining popularity else their new found friends and resources will turn on them.
- A character has a good friend trying to break into politics. The friend asks the group to help him increase his popularity. However, the friend’s rigid code of honour makes this task difficult as events arise and the friend makes honourable – but unpopular – decisions.
- A young politician offers to pay the PCs a lot of money if the group says publicly he is part of the party, joins the PCs on all their adventures, and he takes the same risks and performs the same heroic deeds as the other party members. When the PCs are adventuring, the politician simply lays low in his hideout and governs his growing base through agents. When the PCs return from adventures, they do so through a secret tunnel into the city so the politician may publicly emerge with the group and take credit for the group’s latest heroics.
However, the politician pays the PCs with stolen money, and his enemies come after the PCs before long in lethal force to recover it. This will not only cause the PCs to lose the patron, plus get robbed of wealth and equipment, but it will also reveal them to be frauds along with the politician. A cunning GM might also rule at the meta-level the politician is truly part of the party and adjust challenge ratings accordingly, even though the politician is in absentia during adventure encounters.
Charisma, Social Skills, and Social Feats
It’s powerful to be able to bluff, intimidate, or talk one’s way out of a social conflict or to wield those skills to get what one wants. Governments face social conflict on a daily, even hourly basis, as they settle disputes between citizens, justify the new room tax to angry innkeepers, negotiate a treaty with another city and wrangle over budgets with various divisions. Having officials skilled at influencing others is key.
Social skills can be taught and learned, making this an accessible power base to many. It’s also a personal power base, meaning it cannot be easily taken away, making this a good backbone for any political career or endeavor.
In addition, the ability to influence others and get them to work on your behalf makes this a scalable power base. A charismatic leader can motivate thousands of citizens with a single speech, for example, while the surly blacksmith can barely motivate his son to put in a full day’s work.
Wielding social skill does require some level of natural ability however, so this power base is forever barred to many. Often, this is out of choice, whether the individual makes it consciously or not, and not due to physical limitation, as they declare they don’t like “head games”, mistrust the learned, refuse to smile and be friendly, and so on.
The use of social ability often has only temporary effects. This might be all a government official needs most of the time, but some goals such as creating loyalty or building a political career require ongoing presence and influence, thus somewhat limiting the scalability of this power base.
In addition, using skills, charisma and social abilities to get what one wants without creating a win/win or mutually beneficial arrangements can backfire if the other party realizes to what extent they’ve been manipulated. If a government official does this often enough, he can burn many bridges, so it’s often not enough to just have a trusting smile and good people skills – the solutions to social conflicts and arrangements need some substance as well.
Campaign flavor from this power base will mostly come from NPC interaction. Suave and fast-talking officials make great foes, and charismatic leaders can be wonderful villains. NPCs who can easily influence others will most likely have servants, followers, and henchman as well. Important politicians with charisma will often have large entourages and groupies to flesh out or spawn encounters with the PCs.
Loyal Followers and Supporters
Loyalty is one of the most valuable, yet hard to come by political power bases. Loyalty transcends alignment and is available to any citizen in the city who can cultivate it.
One of the most difficult parts of being a government official with various duties and responsibilities is trust. Except for the most basic jobs, an official won’t be able to do everything themselves. They’ll need to delegate, and they’ll have to trust in the individual(s) who have been given important tasks to perform.
There is more involved with trust than competence, however. Government is often about compromise. In the many conflicts in which a government must act as mediator, it’s unlikely there’s a solution that would make both sides happy that would also serve the best interests of the city.
Many officials also have ambition, and this creates more bias and pressure on their decision-making. During these stressful situations then, an official is going to have to delegate someone they can trust to make an unpopular decision, a tough decision, or a difficult action.
For officials and governments of dubious ethics and morals, trust, ironically, becomes an even more valued commodity. An agency needs to trust its agents to perform evil or damaging actions, because, as already stated, an evil despot cannot do everything himself. Therefore, the loyalty of others so one can rely upon them in times of need and during difficult situations is a valuable asset indeed.
Loyalty can be fostered in several ways, making this a flexible power base for officials of all alignments. The evil politician can use greed, ambition, blackmail and fear to garner a surprising quantity of loyalty. A good aligned official can earn loyalty through trust, hope, lawfulness, faith and acting for the good of the city.
Loyalty lost is hard to gain back. In the realm of politics, with its inherent nature of shifting alliances, raw ambitions, and temporary causes, loyalty can be the first victim and is easy to lose. Ironically, loyalty driven by evil devices, such as blackmail, can be the strongest kind, as idealism, faith and trust can be easily broken by the mortal failings of doubt, suspicion, worry and fear. Evil loyalty also tends to be the shortest however, as it’s gone the instant the leverage to garner the loyalty is weakened or removed.
Loyalty is difficult to measure, making this a risky power base for some. One never knows when an underling, fueled by ambition or a hidden ulterior motive, decides to make their move. Officials must be ever aware of potential backstabbing and traitorous staff. Detect Alignment spells and similar magical investigation can mitigate much of this risk, but even lawful and good citizens can succumb to temporary conditions, weak moments or difficult circumstances.
Due to the valuable, yet fluctuating nature of loyalty, officials and governments might be inclined to occasionally test the loyalty of their most important staff and followers. These tests might be short and quick, or they might be extravagant affairs involving a number of staged elements.
For example, a treasurer might be tested with a mock kidnapping, a fake ultimatum and a concocted situation to determine how willingly he’d surrender the vault keys. These situations are great opportunities to get the PCs involved as (unwitting) accomplices.
You can also build a government that is rife with the covert activities of officials trying to gain leverage on each other and their staff to capture and ensure loyalty.
- City Government Power Bases – Overview
- City Government Power Bases – Law and Affiliation
- City Government Power Bases – Class and Level
- City Government Power Bases – Leadership
- City Government Power Bases – Social Leverage, Marriage and Wealth
- City Government Power Bases – War and Military plus Software Giveaway
- City Government Power Bases – Magic and Psionics
- City Government Power Bases – Religion
- City Government Power Bases – Land