What with everything going on, it's a good time to write about government and authority in the game world.
Many DMs don't like to consider the subject at all, wishing their worlds not to be tainted with ideology and moralism. At the same time, most DMs casually use non-player characters in authority as leverage to force the players into adventures and other actions. We're familiar with the trope of players standing before a king promising, a la Conan, riches if the party saves his daughter from the terrible cult, while implying prison and execution if they don't. But that isn't the sort of authority this post means to address.
Large-scale entities, like kingdoms, provinces and even cities, rely upon a shared identity among their citizens. This identity is accumulated over history through heterogenous occupations, like farming or seafaring; or through moments of crisis, like a war or the act of rebuilding after an invasion, a flood, an earthquake; or through a shared religious belief; and most importantly, through shared tradition. Tradition describes the sense of possession a population feels with regards to their place of origin ... specifically, the sense of home. This is our city, our land, our country, our people. And we know who belongs within our corner of the world by how we eat, how we raise our families, how we wear clothes ... and outsiders are those who don't live by these things, or recognise their importance ... to us.
Now, within our shared community, each person has his or her portion, according to his or her role — and these roles are also defined by tradition. The baker is entitled to the baker's portion, along with the city guard, the laundress, the accounts clerk and the beggar. The portions aren't the same; and in many cases the stake controlled by one may be seen by others as more than appropriate, while our own may seem less ... but in a community defined by tradition, we don't choose the manner in which our share is allocated. Time, and history, and circumstances choose it for us.
Why does this matter for our D&D world? It's because the players are, in many ways, the anti-traditionalists in the mix. The fly in the soup. First, because by definition of the game, they owe no fealty to anyone, not even the monarch of the land in which they were born, because the players don't feel
this fealty — and the game doesn't expect it of them. In addition, because the players are creatures of the 21st century, with a 21st century viewpoint, where traditionalism has either been abolished or weaponised through the media. We can't live comfortably in a 15th century world because it rankles our liberal sensibilities ... and here I mean "liberal" in a sense that applies to every person
not now living in a completely subservient culture. What we
perceive to be "oppression" is a hysterical joke
compared to the ordinary, accepted
shared traditionalism of the fantasy world's time period. We, as products of our time, naturally chafe against the principles upon which earlier periods were founded.
Which helps explain why some players insist on viewing the time-travelling element of returning to an earlier time like a sort of Disneyland of freebooting murder and rampage ... because the lack of infrastructure and media made it possible to raise an army, slaughter a town, carry away the loot and get away with it. More than that, such persons were often praised and delivered social status, in the way we might put a corporate raider's name on a stadium or a city art gallery, no matter how many innocents they worked to death in however many hidden, obscure sweatshops and slave mines. Why shouldn't players see the game's backdrop as a legitimate shelving of liberal sensibilities in order to wallow in a little good old-fashioned bloody pillage and slaughter? "After all," says one, "I've got a shift tomorrow with my supervisor Bob, the prick, that I'm not looking forward to. Why shouldn't I massacre some fictional peasants? They'll suffer a lot less than me in my nine-to-five under Bob."
We can't imagine the isolation that earlier cultures accepted as a norm. We might want to ignore it, and all the foundations of traditionalism that sustained it, pretending our fantasy worlds can be as liberal and socially minded as our present one — where the players live — but there is no logic that can explain how people who can't read, who don't have the time to travel by foot, and couldn't travel very far if they tried, are able to perceive the world in any sense beyond "us" and "them" ... this being the only safe way to view the more primitive medieval world.
Yet this is a dynamic that must be understood in order to provide a sense of verisimilitude for the players. On the one hand, we need them to relate to the setting; on the other, we need the setting to be frank and honest with the players. This game world operates according to principles and belief systems that are recognisable to the players, but distasteful as well.
Consider, for example, the matter of privilege. Search privilege on the modern internet and we find ourselves challenged to find a real definition beyond, "It's something some people think they have, which they ought not to have, as it's a very bad moral sense of entitlement." That's it. We won't find an explanation for how modern privilege is structured, or how it's sustained, or who has it legitimately, even though it's expressly obvious real privilege exists for certain people who have it. Instead, the internet approaches the subject by putting its fists in its ears and shouting na-na-na-na as loudly as it can.
Privilege is based upon three factors. We start with privilege of movement, that defines whose allowed to go where; those without privileges are shut out, or denied passage, or literally imprisoned in one capacity or another. A serf was considered tied to the land by the feudal system, a tradition that maintained its authority effectively until the rise of towns. Formerly, if a peasant left the land, there was no place to go — except to another collective, whose inhabitants didn't eat and didn't dress like us, nor us like them ... so even a better landlord wasn't an option. With urbanisation, however, came a tradition based on money and skill; if a peasant could reach a town, and find work there, then he or she might find an authority who would swear that yes, the peasant had managed to remain in this town for a set period of time, abolishing that peasant's fealty to his or her former lord. [Though, let's be honest; we really mean HIS former lord, as it was virtually impossible for a single woman to travel or find work in a town, without falling under the authority of some man. But let's not get into that.]
We grant the players privilege of movement because they're players. It's hardly ever discussed; the players aren't expected to possess patents, which are open letters or official documents granting permission to do something, such as walk freely on a road, buy property, build a house, have a particular name and so on. If we had such an expectation, the DM would rightly conjure them instantly out of thin air; instead, we pretend that such game settings don't need patents, that peasants and merchants were free to wander as they choose, like a family of four going to see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota
The privilege of action limits our freedom to make use of things; in the modern world, this means things like driving cars and flying planes, where and how to shoot guns, and how much ordnance we can legally buy. In the medieval tradition this also applied to weapons, and strange to us most persons were denied the use of the halls of power for their benefit. Even if they somehow had the money — and having money was a red flag that drew institutions dedicated to take it from them — they couldn't hire a lawyer to have their day in court. Pre-16th century, persons might not have the privilege of speaking in court at all, even as the ones being charged; they were at the mercy of voices who had privilege, who could say what they wished, and decide fates without the victim's say. That's the world that was.
Persons had to be recognised by a guild before they could open a shop in a town; and recognised by the lord if they attempted to do so in the country. Freedom was something that was granted according to our role, our place in the tradition, our permissions to act as we were expected to act, as our ancestors acted and as our peers allowed. We could not just do whatever we liked.
Again, we overlook this because the players need a considerable latitude if they're going to accumulate money and freely pursue their ambitions. The mere presence of a rude patrol demanding to know the player's business is seen as a violation of the player's freedom to act as gamers. Yet the institution of this very thing is a terrific way to smarten up a party towards recognising the world is against them; that privilege and freedom is something they don't have, but which they'd like to sincerely acquire, and right away. Take away something the players take for granted and watch them move to get it back, so they can once again take it for granted.
The privilege of association reflects some of what we've already said. The freedom to enter a place, or be considered an institutional member of a place, is part and parcel with being allowed to speak and relate to persons of equal status and importance. But not being allowed to communicate with even a courtier, much less a noble or a monarch; or not being able to force our enemy into court, even though he or she is plainly a villain; is a grinding, frustrating experience. We take it for granted that a reporter can approach the most important political leader in the country and ask a question; but we're speaking of a medieval setting where the reporter can be executed, forthwith, for daring to speak any words at all to the lord or monarch, without formal express permission to do so first. And remember, this punishment can be very painful, it can be wide-reaching into our family and associates, for it's based upon the whim of someone with privilege, who has the power to act brutally and stop our power to communicate or be recognised.
We can hardly conceive of such a thing; and so, for the game world, we pretend it doesn't exist. We pretend the king is a chuckling, lackidaisical fellow, who has the time and inclination to chat up a few adventurers and confess his troubles — that he would bother to explain his or her self, ever, for the sake of looking good in front of the media. There is no media. There's no written word, and no literacy with which to read it.
The invention of the printing press took 60 years to create the kerfuffle of propaganda in 1520s Germany surrounding the defense of Martin Luther vs. the Pope. The result was a steady escalation of destruction and violence as various entities fought over the privilege of enforcing silence and obedience over the privilege of stirring resentment and aiming it at an enemy. Neither side cared much for ordinary people ... though many millions of all sorts of people, privileged and unprivileged alike, were massacred in the century and a half of war deciding which privilege would have its triumph.
I expect the reader knows which did.
Let's summarise this and move forward. Society is held together through different types of tradition, which includes religion and shared historical experiences; and some persons of that society are alloted certain amounts of privilege, according to where they're allowed to go, what they're allowed to do and whose ear they're allowed to address. Within this structure exists the players. The players begin at first level with what privileges we allow; and seek to obtain privileges we withhold, if we choose to include withheld privileges in our setting.
From this, we can understand that the strength of a city, a province or a kingdom depends on the wherewithal of its citizens to support their own tradition. In a merciless setting where the weakness of a given entity is certain to be exploited, Machiavellian-like, by stronger, more rigid states, we must permit that any weakness the entity feels within itself must be as brutally cut out as a foreign power would do, if that weakness were allowed to fester. Therefore, if I'm a magistrate, and I wish my city to live, and I know that fighting in the streets would permit an enemy to march in and easily overcome my city at a loss to us all, I should feel no compunction at all not to hard-heartedly and ruthlessly exterminate every enemy of the city I can, no matter how many innocents are also callously killed along the way. After all, if this city gets attacked by an outsider, the outsider won't care how many innocents are killed. Why should I?
This kind of world represents a game puzzle for the players. Do they join in? Do they fume against the system? Is a better system even possible? And if so, how? Where could it exist? And to what extent? Are we talking a whole province, a valley, or just within the confines of my own castle? And how much challenge would exist if my castle, with its liberalism, was to be perceived as "weak" by my neighbours?
These are substantive, long-term fundamental brain-twisters that a lengthy D&D campaign can offer; the sort of troubles that sustain the players' awe and immersion, for these things do not only apply to the game setting, but to the real world as well. How my player acts becomes a reflection of who I am, and what I believe, and what I'm ready to fight and die for. And when my player acts expediently, because it seems the necessary thing to do, my knowing that I made that choice at that time, with those consequences, has the potential to prey on my imagination because the player character is still alive, still participating in the online campaign, still subject to the consequences of that action.
It is vastly easier to be a murder-hobo when the player character will be discarded for another next week, when we get together to play some other role-playing game. Or some other adventure. Where the moral slate is conveniently wiped clean.
Let's look at Muetar.
While Hothior is the financial center of the continent, astride the combined land and sea trade, Muetar is the continent's military center. Like Germany, it's surrounded by enemies on every side. Every boundary represents a danger, from every direction. Yet in compensation for this, Muetar is the richest and most powerful state, for it has the resources and the cultural stability it needs to fight a war in every direction, for as long as it must.
Consider. A war with Muetar cuts off Hothior's inland trade, devastating its commitments and manufacturing. The country has grown fat and dependent on Muetar's production of foodstuffs, facilitated by two great rivers and by what we should assume are expansive wheat fields growing upon well-watered flat plains. The sheer quantity of food in Muetar assures a fast-growing, hearty population ... whose social tradition is built upon the toiling, resilient practices of farmers. Every corner of Muetar is farmed in the same way, by the same culture ... thus the people of Plibba identify with the needs of the distant Basimar, and the reverse also.
Like Hothiar, Immer too is dependent upon Muetar. Immer is a cold land, lacking in easily grown food, and equally lacking in the rich literary establishment that grows fruitfully in places where much of the population can occupy themselves with research, philosophy and inventiveness. Muetar's food supply ensures that many specialised professions will sprout like grapes on a vine. Immer may have the most elite and experience soldiers in the world, as I explained earlier
, but Muetar can put more
soldiers in the field than any other, with better equipment and available resources.
Should the goblins of Zorn, the dark green entity atop the map, choose to raid into Muetar, they will find themselves crossing the river "Deep," or forced to round Lake Carth, many miles from their homeland. Once they cross the Deep, the lands around Basimar are very unlike home ... a rural land with no place to hide, in which their presence is recognized by farmers and shared in every direction.
And when the goblins are forced to retreat by the armies of Muetar, they will find the Deep at their backs. I'm sure many goblin armies have been slaughtered on the Deep's left bank, encouraging the goblins of Zorn to raid, but never to commit. Though I don't doubt that the small forest of Tanglefoot has numerous expatriated goblins within.
That leaves Pon and Shucassam. Pon is a hodgepodge kingdom; we've spoken very little about it, since it's far from those places we've examined. The kingdom is made of three parts: the Mountains of Ice, the Border Forest and "The Scab," a hilly scrub-land. The peoples from these parts are very different from one another, with different expectations and different traditions. As a kingdom, it lacks the cohesion Muetar possesses ... so although Pon is highly defensible due to its geography, it is really three kingdoms bound together. Alone, it can never be a real threat.
Shucassam is a southern, desert kingdom ... and though it shares a long border with Muetar, much of Shucassam's claimed land is desolate and dry. At 40 miles a hex, Adeese and Khuzdul are 280 miles of desert
from Beolon and Yando. And between is the Stubstaff Keep, a Knights of Malta like entity that must be overcome before Muetar can be truly challenged. The distances are simply impractical; the supply lines too long; the needed water not available. Shucassam needs a considerable motivation to join in a war against Muetar ... which, as we've seen, is in nobody's interest.
Still, two or three of Muetar's neighbours wouldn't hesitate to join should Muetar begin a war ... and as with Germany, this would mean a war on two, even three fronts (since there are no Alps to protect Muetar's southern flank. And so, a contented peace develops, as the people of Muetar occasionally flex their might knowing they habitually keep five enemies at bay. Their tradition is to be ready for war; to expect war; and yet to be completely sure they will win any war that happens. For they are one people. One single culture. A culture not based on exploitation, like Hothior; or upon aesthetic resilence, like Immer. The people of Muetar are not petty raiders, like Zorn; or discordant malcontents, like Pon. Nor are they fat olive oil-and-date merchants, like the people of Shucassam, lolling around in their hot climate through the long days. No, the people of Muetar are creative, active and industrious ... and whatever happens, the day will come, they know, when they will rule the world.
For everyone out there, I appreciate your support of my patreon or for your input in the comments. I have more things to write about worldbuilding and I just want you to know that I'll continue to make the material the best I can.