Okay, so for the first time since we started this online magazine/blog, one of us has missed getting a post up. Johnn struck problems with his planned post at the last possible moment, and then tried to rewrite it but missed the deadline; thought that he would be able to get it up a day late, but struck problems again. Each day that followed, he thought he was on the verge of getting it done, but like xeno’s paradox, he never quite seemed to get there. Rest assured, he will be back next week, and we’ll both be working doubly hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
For those who don’t know, Australia is currently in the middle of the lead-up to a Federal Election in which both candidates achieved their office by ousting the person who previosuly held office – one by party room ballot and the other by strongarm numbers politics from a dominant faction within their political party. It was quite surprising that the former politician, the Leader of the Australian Opposition, tried to make a big deal about the way his opponant came to power within her party, given that it was not all that different to his own story.
And that got me to thinking about societies in RPGs, and how their rulers were selected.
All too often, it seems that the model is divine right by birth, or seizing power through conquest or skullduggery, or the rulers are simply “there”. Those are far from the only options, so here are a few others to think about.
Appointment By Merit
Perhaps the ruler is appointed because he seems to be the best person for the job. There has been some historical precedent for this. The key question then becomes, “who decides?”. By using different methods of locating and selecting between candidates, quite different social models are achieved.
Perhaps only those who achieve a certain scholastic ability may be considered; what happens then if no candidates meet those criteria? Or perhaps military success is essential – the achievement of a certain ranking, or victory in a war – which means that the society in question must have these wars regularly, just to produce people qualified to lead them! Perhaps all the interested candidates have to fight it out in an arena for the position, and it goes to the last man standing, or have to win a poetry composition contest. All of these imply quite distinctive and unusual societies.
In my Fumanor campaign, prior to their conquest by Lolth, the Elves elected their Royal Family as the most charismatic amongst them (the human democratic model) but gave him absolutely no power except to be their policy mouthpiece. Of course, as my players know full well, that didn’t work out too well for the elves!
Election by Vote
In an era without mass communications, direct election by popular vote is not a viable alternative for a large population. A republican model is the only practical choice for a citizen-based decision within such a society, where the locals elect a local representative, and the local representatives then get together to choose one of their number to serve as a regional representatives; and these then get together and choose one of their number to serve at the next level up the heirarchy, and so on until you reach the very top of the power structure.
In any popular electoral system, the defining parameters of the society are the questions of who has the right to stand for election, and who has the right to vote. In Australia, there is no restriction on the first, and everyone not only has the right to vote, it is manditory. That in turn means that our voting happens on a Saturday. In the US, convicted riminals cannot stand for election, voting is not compulsory, many groups aren’t permitted to vote even if they want to, and voting is held on a weekday. Instead of a situation in which voting is percieved as both a right and a duty, like paying your taxes, the US has a situation in which it is a privilige – one that the system seems to make as inconvenient to exercise as possible, as though they were deliberately trying to covet the votes only of those with strong opinions.
Once again, these are not the only models. What if the right to vote is a privilige that must be purchased from the government at a set rate, and one can buy the right to vote multiple times to get multiple votes, for example – is that a plutocracy, or is it a democracy, or is it something in between?
Or perhaps voting is restricted, or weighted, according to Intelligence?
Or perhaps only those who have served in a military organisation are permitted to vote – the “Stsrship Troopers” model of government.
Election by achievement
Still another, often-overlooked choice, is the old “sword from the stone” standby, and any analagous patterns the GM may concieve. Perhaps, in a culture of hunters, one can only vote once one has a successful kill in a hunt, and there is a ranking of creatures hunted that determines the weighting of that vote?
Perhaps whosever can wear a certain ring is the rightful ruler, and to all others it grows white hot?
Perhaps a ruler must have a certain skill, such as healing? Or must befriend a wild dragon?
The most obvious election by achievement is conquest, of course.
Ruling by Divine Right: A fantasy variation
Even if the “Divine Right” of Rule is the system, we may be talking about a fantasy game in which the Gods are real, tangible, beings. Perhaps instead of rule being inherited from one’s father, all the sons and daughters of noble birth are gathered together and the actual Gods choose which of them shall be King or Queen?
The impact on characters
Consider that, whatever may be required in order to gain office, the current holders of that office must have done those things, met those requirements. Modern politicians live and die by the sound byte. In the recent past, it was a candidate’s ability to Orate that brought office, and there is still an element of that in modern times. In the future, it may be skill in utilizing internet-based social networking that makes the difference.
In earlier days, when politicians and public servants were poorly paid, only those who were independantly wealthy could afford to stand for public office; these days, the position pays so much that only those who already have connections to a political machine can reasonably hope to be elected, save by some wild fluke. Once elected, though, these wild cards tend to stay in office for quite a while, at least in Australia – where even 22 years after his departure from public office, a substantial slice of the community can still tell you who Ted Mack was. (If you don’t know, the page linked to above is worth spending a couple of minutes glancing over – politicians who act with integrity, and are seen to act with integrity, are rare enough that they should be celebrated).
The nature of the government, and how one achieves a position within that government, dictates broadly what sort of people will be attracted to that office and what sort of skills they must have cultivated in order to achieve it. This is not mere abstract information; this constitutes a thread of personal nature common to all representatives of that government, their abilities and personalities. And that in turn speaks to their general level of competance, and morality, within the leaders of the society.
There are so many options available, this article is only capable of scratching the surface, intended only to get you to think about the subject the next time you create a society for an RPG. Spare a little thought for how the officials of that society gain office; if you ensure that this methodology reflects the attitudes and values you want the fictional society to have, it will give you a foundation on which to base everything else in that society.