Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Civil Service

Ah, the bureaucracy. The force against change. The body of creatures that comes into existence as the size of the state expands, and who are needed to communicate the commands of the state’s overlords to the people - and in turn, to see to it that those commands are followed. And if they are not followed, then it is also the bureaucracy’s purpose to bring down punishment.

A hideous entity, as we all know far too well. This is the face of the government, for whom we do not vote and towards whom there is little sympathy or affection when it happens that they “are just doing their jobs.” It is, probably, fairly unpleasant work - which helps explain why people untainted with any humanity manage to find themselves part of the cogs and wheels that crush out the happiness of poor citizens such as ourselves.

My apology to any civil servants reading this. Pffft. Like there would be.

Any large political entity is greatly dependent upon its civil service, and even in terms of medieval cultures, those empires or political states possessed of a great bureaucracy stood head and shoulders above the anarchy of their enemies. Venice’s civil service was markedly greater than Genoa’s (the reason given is typically the demand for greater civil engineering on Venice’s part). The Ottoman Empire’s bureaucracy was profoundly organized - the Vizier, the master of the bureaucracy, would become nearly the equal of the Sultan within the state. China, of course, became the behemoth of bureaucratic states - where the civil service grew to such eloquence and far-reaching power that it strangled the state’s vitality. And it is understood that Poland’s steady demise from the vast kingdom that occupied much of Eastern Europe is understood to result from a failure to develop any proper bureaucracy. Tax collectors, inspectors, adjudicators, officers, recruiters, ministers and scribblers cannot be dispensed with where it comes to managing the people, the maintenance of empire, armed forces, courts, infrastructure and so on. No matter how you see it, the state cannot operate otherwise.

But where are these people in D&D?

There are always guardsmen and soldiers. And taxes are collected. And a city ordinance or two might not permit a player to carry a weapon within the confines of a town. But quite honestly, a DM would rather there was no such thing as a bureaucracy. It gets in the way of, well, everything.

Hell, even a bar fight would be more fun if the town didn’t get involved.

There is a strongly held philosophy by many players of D&D - that if it represents something we don’t like about the real world, we don’t want it as part of the game. “I am not here,” would say a number of players, “because I like reality.”

This would be the strongest argument against incorporating any sort of bureaucratic influence into your campaign. Do not, the argument would go, saddle my fun with restrictions created on how I might arm myself, or move freely about the kingdom, or the largest city of that kingdom. Do not fetter me with unnecessary taxations - an occasional toll or fee is fine, but don’t ask my character to add up all of his worth and pay a property tax! Do not insist that I explain my actions or behaviours to government lackeys or insidious officials who demand to know why I’ve decided to fortify my recently purchased inn with chained monsters or rocket firing ballista. Put no courtiers or other bootlicks between me and the local sovereign, nor guilds between me and whatever monopoly I wish to impose upon the local community. I am here to have fun, damn it! I am not interested in wasting my time with a lot of inconvenient paperwork and calculation. This is supposed to be fantasy, is it not?

Yes, I guess it is.

For many people who dream that their fantasy might incorporate a little more thinking and a little less bloody mayhem, I’ve no doubt that they fail to see how the above position does little to help. Of course, many like bloody mayhem - and are prepared to play week after week with that and nothing else. My present party and its ongoing mass battle would be - I hope - a temporary example (woe to me if they get a taste for it), as it has been going on since January. In such a case, frivolities such as state business goes very far to getting in the way of all that fun.

But if you would have intrigue, the gentle reader could do no better than to incorporate a little bureaucracy into the campaign. There is little need to bribe anyone if all the doors are open, no? And for what reason do you spy, if there are no carefully collected papers gathered, if no special bureau exists that will create, store and conceal said papers? What is the value of an overheard word between two knowledgeable servants of the state, if there is nothing more to the state that taking in taxes and giving it to the army?

It is a difficult point to make, but hear me out. A character’s sheet will explain all that the character is able to do, and that is augmented by all that a character is able to plan. But a campaign is not predicated upon what a character can do, but upon what that character cannot do. When you create a closed door, you create a desire to pass through that door. When you create an inconvenient, abusive and seemingly all powerful authority, you create the desire to resist that authority. All that is necessary to boil the blood of your players is one simple answer, to all they wish to accomplish:

Say NO.

No, you can’t do this because this group does not allow it. No, you cannot travel there, it isn’t permitted. No, you are not allowed to wear this, only sanctified people may. No, you can’t. No, you’re not good enough. No. No. No.

Say this enough times and you will create a frustrated, angry group of players who may - if they have no imagination at all - quit playing in your world. And you may find it necessary, upon telling the party 'no' one more time, to have some fellow a few feet away, hiding in a doorway, say: “psst ... want to get in?”

Bureaucracies make the best villains. No one minds when they get torn down.

8 comments:

NetherWerks said...

I agree with you: bureaucracies can make the best villains. Definitely. I am in awe of the Mandarin-developed bureaucracy that made it well-high impossible for anyone to rule China except for those already doing so. The name of the ruler could change, but the same people really ran things for generations. It is also fun to hit a group of PCs with the whole "Do you have a permit to go delving in these sewers?" routine from time to time.

Zzarchov said...

It is also incentive to stay away from the big cities and move to the frontier, to build your own kingdom and gain your own army of bean counters.

Dave R. said...

There's a hint in 3.x of using the Noble npc class for functionaries and politicians as well as true nobility. But it's not a strong hook, and I admit my groups never followed up on it.

Tony said...

I guess it depends on what era/setting you're using. One of the remarkable things about ancient Rome was that, despite its amazing scope and complexity, there were almost NO public servants of any kind.

No police force. No layers of bureaucracy. It's kind of amazing that things got done at all.

Terry Gilliam portrays the coming of the bureaucrat really well in his Baron Von Munchausen. He associates the coming of the modern bureaucrat with the chasing away of romance and magic in the world. And he places it in the 17th century.

Of course, in a fantasy setting you could put in whatever mid-level civic bureaucrats that you wanted, so what was 'real' is only an interesting side note.

5stonegames said...

Solid Post , however as with any game Know your players, especially before springing the dread administrators on them.

I did this in a game of 3.5 and the adventure section was unfavorably compared to a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles , a government agency unjustly as well liked as a root canal

Basically I was informed "Don't Do that Again" in no uncertain terms.

However with the right group its a lot of fun

Alexis said...

Uh, Tony: you might want to learn something about Rome. The bureaucratic system, and its development, was the cause of many internal civil wars six centuries before the birth of Christ - and before the start of the Empire. They had everything you mentioned, and more.

Please know what you're talking about before perpetrating inaccurate information.

Dave R. said...

I think this:

the Department of Motor Vehicles, a government agency unjustly as well liked as a root canal.

Entirely explains this:

I did this in a game of 3.5 ... Basically I was informed "Don't Do that Again" in no uncertain terms.

Dan said...

I'll support Alexis on that. I've been doing a bit of research into the Roman Republic, because I wanted a government in my campaign based upon it. Read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Rome#Government for a quick run down

Terry Gilliam created an even more horrific bureaucracy in Brazil. Fantastic film.

As well as my Rome-based city (with shades of Dune-style politicking) my campaign has an even more bureacratic city-state, which I envisioned as a sort of fantasy version of Bladerunner's Los Angeles, with the added lost-in-the system feel of Gilliam's Brazil. The main 'villain' in this city isn't an individual, it is a mere subcommittee of the labyrinthine government. There are no rulers per se, just levels and levels of clerks and appointed officials to the point where 'the system' has almost taken on a life its own. Identifying who is responsible for the persecution of the heroes is a quest in itself.

Of course all this has to be handled in a way that allows the players to make progress and not get too confused about their goals and options.