This entry is part 7 in the series City Government Power Bases
What forces govern your city?

What forces govern your city?

We resume the city design series this week with thoughts about how to use magic and psionics to build interesting city government power bases.

For the purposes of this article, magic and psionics are treated the same. Your game system might make this thinking incompatible, but hopefully you can take the thinking that follows and apply it to match your circumstances.

Magic and Psionics

Spells, spell-like abilities, and magic items open up unlimited potential for governments and officials to do business. The variety of effects, range of powers, and resources of a government make magic an appealing power base.

Consider the politician with charm capability, or the city government who can afford to keep a dozen 18th level wizards on its payroll.

Strengths

Governments can wield magic to do a crazy amount of things. With deep pockets, a city could hoard relics for emergency use, employ clerics to feed and heal its populace, keep a unit of wizardly architects on call for infrastructure work, tame monsters for heavy labor, and more.

In many cases, the benefits of magic use exceed the cost of components or acquisition, making magic a cheaper and faster alternative to labor or personal action on behalf of staff and officials.

In other cases, magic makes possible what mundane governments could not hope to achieve.

Some magic can be made permanent, which offers powerful and beneficial effects to cities, governments, and politicians.

For spell casters, magic is a personal power base. Reliance upon components can make some magic costly or inconvenient, but overall it’s a great way to influence others and win political conflicts.

Magic items create a scalable power base, providing those with Use Magic Device access to powers they don’t personally have.

Weaknesses

Most spells eventually end and various magic items run out of charges, doses, and slots. Thus, most magic is a temporary boon and wise governments and officials must think a few steps ahead at all times.

They must ask and answer the question: what happens when the magic runs out or fails?

Magic rarely takes ownership as well, so enemies can turn or use magic against governments with the same ease governments can wield magic against its foes.

For those who do not study magic, its effects are a mystery and its control ephemeral, which makes magic riskier than better-understood power bases, such as loyalty and wealth.

What is the citizenship’s view of magic? Religion, cultural, and personal views can make magic-wielding politicians unpopular, heretics, or targets.

Magic is often an unsure thing. Saving throws, variable durations, variable damage, and other uncertainties make it a risky power base.

Flavor

For government-specific flavor, consider going through all the spells, psionic powers, monster spell-like abilities, and magic items in the books you’re using for your campaign and keep an eye out for useful effects an administration or official might use.

Use these categories to help frame your ideas:

  • Influence (individuals and groups)
  • Propaganda (illusion, communication, public image, thought influence and control)
  • Administration (communication, travel, interfacing with the public, paperwork, delegation, supplies, buildings)
  • Leadership
  • Conflict and disputes (adjudicating, truth and fact investigation, resolution determination, resolution enforcement)
  • Wealth management (collecting taxes and other revenues, protecting wealth, managing wealth, issuing payments, managing expenses)
  • Power base enhancement (establishing, supporting, defending, expanding power bases)

Also consider how government magic might be portrayed and identified as such.

  • Do government wizards and clerics dress or behave differently?
  • Where do they live and congregate?
  • How does the government protect and defend its magic sources?
  • How does it counter foes’ magic?

How does the government’s stance on magic compare to the attitude and beliefs of the peoples it governs? It would be interesting to create a conflict where one side advocates it strongly and the other side vehemently opposes it.

This conflict can occur between the government between any of the city’s potential stake holders:

  • Citizens
  • Guilds
  • Foreign powers
  • Gods
  • Neighbors
  • Government divisions
  • Religions
  • Mages, sorcerers, clerics
  • Social classes (nobility, merchants, peasants)

In addition, you can create compelling conflicts by picking points along the spectrum that exists between the two extremes of all-magic and no-magic.

For example, the guilds might forbid any mind- or people-influencing magic to protect itself and its members from backlash, but support the use of magic by craftsmen to churn out better products and services. However, the populace might prefer goods and services without any kind of magical taint.

In another example, the mage’s council might require certification for spell-use above second level while the Mayor lobbies for no public magic use, regardless of spell level.

Final thoughts

This topic, more than any other, offers you a chance to make your settings unique.

It is always a shame when a magic setting would be rendered indifferent if you stripped the magic out of it.

If your game offers magic or psionics, take advantage of them as tools to craft a unique environment.

For city design, you can use magic to build wonderfully divergent cultures from just a few GM decisions, as described above.

How have you used magic or psionics to build interesting urban environments or plots? Drop me a comment below.

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