This entry is part 1 in the series City Government Power Bases
What forces govern your city?

What forces govern your city?

The topic of city government causes GMs big yawns. Other than picking a government type, you find it a difficult city element to make interesting for game sessions, adventures and city design.

However, it is an important part of urban environments that should not be ignored. And it does not have to be a difficult or boring thing. The key is to think in terms of power.

  • Who’s got it?
  • Who uses it?
  • Who does what with it?

Change government from paperwork to power struggles, add in some good, evil and magic, and suddenly this part of city design gets exciting!

In this series, I will talk all about city government power bases as a cool tool to help you do more than pick an “-ocracy” for your city.

I will introduce the idea of power bases as a way to design government so you can bring the effects and consequences of your government design down to the daily life and game session level in interesting ways.

Cities are people

A city represents a society. While there might be hundreds of sub-groups and smaller societies within your city’s walls, the place also represents a single community.

Left to their own devices, urban citizens would have to compete on an individual or family basis for life’s core needs: water, food and shelter. Once these items become a wee bit scarce, violence and aggression usually erupts, and it becomes a matter of the strongest and meanest surviving. Quality (and length) of life drops to a low level, the finer and more enjoyable aspects of civilization evaporate, and no one is able to rise above the daily quest for basic survival needs.

A government can change all that. Simply put, it’s organization. It’s a team of society members who have authority to make decisions for the whole community. Their job is to govern things so society members don’t have to compete with each other each day to survive.

They have the big picture – the best interests of the whole society – in mind as well as the best interests of each individual when they make each decision on behalf of the community they represent. If left to their own devices, most individuals would devolve into thinking just of themselves and no further than tomorrow. A government helps raise the vision of the society as a whole to a collective, long-term level.

That’s the ideal. In practice, of course, things are different. Governments often exist to serve themselves. Leaders make decisions to ensure their continued power at the expense of their society. The individual can lose their ability to participate, have their voice and concerns heard, or to receive fair consideration.

Many risks and pitfalls such as these can occur within a government. However, for now, for city design, just keep in mind the fundamental reason and purpose for a city government is organization of resources.

In many game worlds, the line between limited local government and absolute government blurs. While some cities are members of a large governmental organization, such as a kingdom or empire, many GMs’ cities are independent, free, or large, and they have absolute reign over themselves.

Therefore, when considering your civic government, you might have to think beyond the concept of mayors and councilors and craft a new governing body as you would at the nation level.

Three levels of design

The principles discussed in this series are intended to apply to three levels of government:

  1. Government – body, administration, rules
  2. Office – government roles and positions
  3. Politicians – NPCs

The first level is the government body itself, whether the administration is a tribal chief and his right-hand shaman or a thousand souls occupying a senate, royal family and huge bureaucracy.

The second level applies to a government office independent of who actually occupies the office at the moment. An office is a role, a variable whose parameters and functions can be designed using the same principles of whole government design. Duke, Mayor, and Ministry of Defense are three examples of second level offices.

Level three consists of the individual NPCs who populate offices and governments. Their political aspects can also be designed using these tools and techniques.

When reading the tips and advice in this series, feel free to apply the terms government, office, and politician interchangeably. For example, if your current task involves designing a deputy minister role, then just mentally switch “government” and “politician” with “office” as you read along.

The troika of power

At its core, government is about power. It needs to be listened to and obeyed by those within its own bureaucracy and by those it governs within its political borders. It is also of great value to have those outside its boundaries, such as foreign governments and epic level NPCs, give the city’s government credence and respect.

A challenge at the government level of design is how to describe power and compare power between different governments, offices and bureaucrats.

For the purposes of defining and describing the power of your city governments and the individuals and offices within it, use the following three attributes, the troika of power:

  1. Power Base – the source and flavor of power
  2. Power Level – the amount of power and the ability to wield it
  3. Domain – the jurisdiction or borders to which the power extends

Power bases

Power base represents the source of power.

  • What resources can the government or politician draw upon to exert his will upon others?
  • What ammunition do they have with which to fight their battles?
  • What right or ability do they have to be able to take action?

A government is useless if its edicts are ignored, its laws freely broken and its will repulsed. A leader will soon fall if others do not obey. A politician’s worst nightmare is to become powerless. A government must have a source of power, be it lawful leverage or just a big stick, or it will be ineffective and soon disbanded.

Use power bases for flavor

Power bases are a great tool for injecting flavor into your governments. This is one of their main benefits as you can use them to make each political entity in your campaign distinct and interesting.

For example, characters barging into town figuring they’ve got the whole “Mayor thing” figured out will be in for a surprise when they learn this Mayor is different. Instead of a bribe to look the other way, this Mayor might need the PCs to increase his popularity, find political leverage on an opponent or fix a sudden nuptial emergency.

Once you’ve established a power base, use it to slant and color other government design and in-game encounter decisions.

The type of power base determines the pool of options available and the nature of actions a government will usually take.

For example, a regime without gold could be quite limited in how it deals with the barbarians camped outside its walls, and the barbarian chief must take into account his father-in-law’s wishes when forming tribe policy.

Consider the following questions next time your game involves tangling with a government:

  • How can the power base be leveraged or wielded by the government to get what it wants?
  • How can an over-reliance on the power base be used to create interesting situations for the PCs to encounter?
  • Is it possible to reverse-engineer the situation or design decision at hand to reveal the core power base involved? If not, consider adding more evidence.
  • What are the effects of using (and abusing) the power base? What consequences, are felt at the society level? What consequences are noticed during day-to-day life?
  • Does the power base have positive or negative effect any particular sub-group of the society? For example, each year that Imran Cookson gets reappointed as community warden because of his clan’s reputation, the social status of his family and that of his in-laws rises, causing jealousy and rivalry with certain other clans in the district.
  • Is the fuel for the power base unlimited? If it’s finite, can it be replenished? If so, how? For example, a department might abuse its budget but then it schemes up a request for additional funds at the next council meeting. A politician might pass a few laws for the betterment of society that severely reduces her popularity, but then she approves a series of low-cost public works over the next few months to bolster her image.
  • How can the power base be increased? How can it be lost?

Next in the series

This has been a broad overview of city government and a key design tool, power bases. The rest of the series delves into specific power bases you can use for city and government design, adventure hooks and encounter ideas. Next part we take a stab at Law and Affiliation – power games and killer handshakes.

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