This entry is part 5 in the series City Government Power Bases
What forces govern your city?

What forces govern your city?

A power base is an asset you can use to achieve goals. It serves as a foundation or tool. You can wield it like a weapon, use it like a tool or draw upon it like a resource.

Governments are typically boring game elements. However, design a power base for each government or government agency, and you turn them into NPCs of a sort. The power base offers you storytelling options because it guides what actions agencies take when confronted with challenges or opportunities.

This series offers you several example power bases you can give governments so they become integral and interesting to your campaigns. This week we discuss the various facets of social leverage, marriage and wealth and how an agency or official can use them for gain.

Social Leverage

Government and politics operate at a social level to some degree. After all, it’s about governing and organizing people, regardless of whether the motivation is selfish or selfless.

Social leverage is purely about using some form of negative influence to get what one wants. Often, these methods are used in pursuit of a valuable or just goal. However, many might say the end doesn’t justify the means. Regardless, social leverage is a much-used and effective power base.

There are several types of social leverage one can add to their political repertoire:

  • Blackmail. The government threatens to reveal a dark secret if some condition is not met or some action is not taken. Darker secrets mean greater leverage.
  • Scandal. Most governments fear the “S” word. Scandals result in loss of popularity, authority or power.Even absolute governments, such as monarchies and dictatorships, seek to avoid scandal because it makes their power games more complicated and difficult. In addition, governments do not exist in a vacuum. Relationships with trading partners, forces of justice, treaty holders and other third parties are often impacted by scandal as well.
  • Reputation. This powerful form of social leverage works because it influences the thoughts, decisions, choices and actions of many at once.For example, if a government can foster a reputation of generosity, it can get away with ungenerous acts from time to time without negative repercussions. If a government can establish an international reputation of being strong defensively and militarily, this can dissipate many war and raiding plans before they hatch.
  • Politicking. This activity is all about the art of the deal. To get what one wants, whether its food for the poor or gold for the treasury, a government must get others to take action for its cause. These third parties have their own needs and agendas that must be appeased before they’ll act.Often, the needs and agendas conflict with others’. Therefore, the government must make compromises and capitulations, and wield whatever leverage it can – and is willing – to use to get the problem solved. The ability to get the deal done is a powerful form of social leverage, as the best at it can make practically any arrangement happen.Another form of politicking is making a deal out of nothing to suit one’s purposes. In this arrangement, the government is skilled at getting two or more parties contributing to a scheme and then it fails to follow through on some or all of its end of the bargain. This makes such deals very profitable for the government!One might think a government or official can’t keep up such social leverage for long, but true masters of politicking know how to make new, false deals with wounded parties to keep stringing them along for years, decades and even longer.
  • Fear. Threats, reputation, blackmail, strong military and other things can create fear in a government’s jurisdiction and beyond.The fear it successfully cultivates can be wielded to ensure consent and that certain actions are taken, specific choices are made, objections and counteractions are limited, and much more. Fear is a powerful motivator amongst individuals and groups.

Strengths

In most arrangements and agreements, one party will fail to act if the challenge or adversity is great enough, and as governments know, many parties have low adversity thresholds!

Social leverage helps raise the level at which a party will default on its promises. It might not be a nice way to ensure compliancy, but it’s effective.

The Miner’s Guild might not like the new, higher production quotas, but it fears the government will hand the guild’s control over to another agency, so it hustles to comply. The wealthy merchants living in their large mansions on the hill might not like the tax increases, but if they bark, their selfish and traitorous deals will be exposed to the public. Next year, the mine production rates and taxation levels go up again – but still everyone complies. Such is the power of social leverage.

Weaknesses

Social leverage is fragile. Fear fades and secrets can eventually be nullified. Other parties can out-leverage the victim with even darker secrets or a greater fear factor.

In addition, the government must constantly appear strong and impregnable to the parties it’s leveraging. Any sign of weakness will spawn counteractions and resistance. The maintenance of strength can often be tiring and expensive, possibly even defeating in the long run.

Flavor

Social leverage is the grist of many plots and adventures. As mentioned, the party wielding the leverage must appear strong. In your campaign, this can take many forms.

Let’s take a few clues from real world dictatorships: large military; extensive use of propaganda; unified messaging in the form of uniforms, symbols, and logos; frequent use of force; control of public communication; severely limiting personal freedoms; state control of industry; and the use of secret police.

Pick one or more of these techniques and figure out how they manifest in your government. For example, perhaps your city government employs a highly effective force of doppleganger police and it uses disguised spellcasters to randomly monitor the thoughts of the populace.

Except in the most absolute governments and departments, a degree of consensus is required to initiate action. Perhaps plebiscite regularly take place, or a senate exists, or weighted voting amongst merchants based on wealth gets things done. Regardless, whenever a vote or show of support is involved, a party or faction has two options:

  1. Win by getting more of their supporters to show up and vote than the opposition does
  2. Win by ensuring fewer of the opposition’s supporters vote or participate

This definition opens up many possibilities for campaign flavor as each faction uses social leverage in public and private ways to achieve a win.

Marriage

Marriage into a powerful, wealthy, noble or political clan is a fast path to power. It’s often an acceptable method for furthering a political career, though societies will usually have unwritten rules about what arrangements are acceptable and what races, classes, backgrounds and ancestries can be mixed.

For example, your city’s upper crust might frown upon a landless law official wedding a noble’s daughter and then running for office.

Strengths

Depending on the length and nature of the courtship, the conditions of a dowry (maternal or paternal side, if there is any), and how inheritance works, marriage can quickly establish a power base.

For example, a city’s leader might wed his son to the daughter of a neighboring city’s leader to ensure peace, and eventually, more power for the leader’s son’s son, assuming the grandson would be allowed to inherit both cities.

Marriage can have numerous benefits for individuals and governments:

  • Status
  • Capital
  • Military
  • Alliances and relationships
  • Business(es)
  • Land
  • Authority
  • Reputation

Not bad for the signing of a single contract. Marriage is a long-term power base as well. Unless divorce or separation is allowed or common in your city, assets and benefits are joined until death or as long as they last, whichever comes first.

Weaknesses

Joining with another clan can be a double-edged sword. They will have reasons of their own for agreeing to the wedding and these reasons might not suit the suitor. The other family might have secrets or drawbacks waiting to be discovered after it’s too late.

In addition, except in rare circumstances, the new clan member will not be able to control all of their new relatives. A reckless but favored son might loose a large part of the family fortune at a card game or on a sour business deal. The father-in-law might drag everyone into a war or feud. There is no guarantee the new power base will last unless careful steps are taken.

Flavor

Weddings are wonderful ways to add session flavor. They can serve as high profile backdrop events. They can directly involve the PCs.

Buzz, rumors, preparations, and the special day can all provide fodder for NPC parley and setting descriptions. A marriage between powerful clans can cause a shift in the balance of power, and everyone, from nobles to peasants, can feel its impact.

Wealth

As a medium of exchange, nothing beats money as a source of power. With cold, hard gold coinage, a government can buy friends and influence, arm and train soldiers, fill the private coffers of its officials, build defenses, and much more.

Other forms of wealth have different levels of liquidity, but are no less valuable to a government with bills to pay, dreams to fund and people to impress.

Examples of wealth might include land ownership and control, mineral and ore mines, and the crown jewels.

Strengths

  • City governments face numerous expenses, such as:
  • Paying its staff
  • Building or repairing the city’s infrastructure (i.e. walls, roads, bridges, public buildings, market places)
  • Maintaining standing armies
  • Supporting its bureaucracy with supplies and services
  • Hosting public events or important guests,

Wealth can also be used as a negotiating chip to broker deals and solve civic disputes. Politicians can use wealth to fund their careers, whether it’s to support electoral campaigns, maintain a certain standard of living and public image, or for disbursements to important supporters and influential third parties. Some government officials might feel the need to hire a personal guard, have a large staff, host expensive parties, and engage in other expensive habits – all of which require deep pockets.

A key strength of wealth is that, when properly managed, it begets more wealth. Though it might seem crazy, wealth attracts more wealth, leaving many to bemoan that you need to be rich in order to get rich.

For example, if your city has a bank or lender that pays interest on citizens’ deposits, then wealthy citizens can earn money just by letting their gold sit in the bank’s vault for awhile. In addition, those with capital are often sought to fund business deals. These capitalists often charge high interest or require a large chunk of the endeavor’s revenues as payment, and they often don’t have to lift a finger in the enterprise they’re funding.

Wealth is also nearly universally respected. Alien races, intelligent monsters, inter-planar entities, foreign governments, external guilds, and other forces can respect wealth, thus allowing these parties and your city’s government to do business or come to terms on various issues.

Weaknesses

As a power base, wealth has a few key potential weaknesses.

  • Protection. Wealth requires expense to protect it. City treasuries must be guarded. Vaults need traps and trap maintenance. Land needs fences and, possibly, troops and lawyers to deal with hungry neighbors. Mines, crops and industry need social and economic stability.
  • Liquidity. A government needs cash flow. It cannot spend its land, else it will soon have no land to govern. Staff need to be paid in a currency they can exchange for food and daily needs.A silver mine by itself only represents the potential of wealth – ore must actually be dug out and processed before that mine is valuable. Orchards must bear fruit for those trees, and they land they occupy, to produce tangible wealth. Different forms of wealth have different levels of convertibility into currency, and a government needs certain amounts of currency on hand at any given time to take care of its expenses.
  • Exhaustible. Most forms of wealth are finite. Some forms can be nurtured and managed to become renewable. Cash reserves used as investment, croplands, and skilled workforces are good examples. Other forms, such as mines, will ultimately run out, regardless of management.
  • Devaluation. Some forms of wealth might have a historically stable value, but many others are risky in terms of fluctuating value rates based on factors that cannot be controlled.The weather, for instance, can determine the value of croplands in any given season. Even a solid historical record does not hold any guarantees. For example, in a high fantasy setting, an accessible infinite plane might be discovered and land values drop until the government can gain control of the gates, mages, magic items and any other access points.
  • Theft. As mentioned, wealth incurs expense for its own protection. If that protection fails, then the wealth is gone.

Flavor

The types and natures of the wealth a government has can influence numerous other societal factors.

If a government relies upon slave labor, for example, then city life would be impacted differently than if a city’s power were based on a skilled, unionized work force.

Another example would be how a mine-based wealth source would be quite different from an exotic crop-based source.

Take a step back and think about how the sources of the government’s wealth affect daily life, administration, commerce, art and other elements of society.

In most cities, citizens expect the government to share its wealth. The people might demand parks, competent police, protection from invaders, clean streets and more. The wealthier a citizenship perceives its government to be, the more expenditure it expects to be lavished upon it.

It would be an interesting campaign if the perception of the government’s wealth did not match the reality. Imagine a government design where the coffers were overflowing but the people were poor. Then imagine the opposite extreme, where the city was spending out of control on gold gilded street lamps and brightly uniformed elite guards when, in fact, the government was bankrupt.

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