A multifaceted blog on RPGs

Fantasy Civics in RPGs

In D&D 4E on March 17, 2009 at 8:16 am

Are your campaign worlds series of identical fiefdoms with warring kings and mischievous noblemen. Gets kind of old, doesn’t it? To spice up the life of you and your players, I’ll give you some alternatives. Next time your players save the country, perhaps they’ll marry the consul’s daughter? Read on for my take on some alternative fantasy civics.

So, I’m not a civics major, I actually haven’t read any civics since high school, but I consider myself to be somewhat of a history buff and I have a certain interest in believable political powerplay in roleplaying. This leads to the subject of fantasy civics. Without civics, there’s no politics, without politics there is no intrigue, without intrigue, roleplaying quickly degenerates to sequential orc-bashing. At least the orc-bashing should serve a higher purpose!


A republic can be many different things, its main defining quality is the fact that unlike the monarchy, it is not hereditary. Typically, the republic is controlled by a parliament, e.g. the roman senate. In this parliament, the different factions of the state are represented, perhaps wealthy families, trade companies, scholarly institutions and the different castes or classes of the society. Sometimes the republic has some person seen as the leader of the parliament, the executive function, in Rome they used a system of two consuls in war-time to speed up the decision making (they were two, because one was deemed to be too unstable). Republics are often seen as enlightened, but may very well be oppressive and a republic does not by any mean need to be a democracy, Rome certainly wasn’t.


Republics are ideal for political intrigue. The positioning of the different factions on different issues, combined with cloak-and-dagger-politics make for great adventure. While monarchy politics are quite static, often transcending generations, republican politics ar dynamic and unpredictable. Some ideas for roleplaying:

  • The characters are used by a senator for the shadier part of senate politics; blackmail, threats, theft and perhaps even murder. At first, they do their master’s biddings, but soon they realize that his motives for power are not as innocent as they seemed at first. Is he really an agent for the enemy empire, or trying to awaken one of The Sleeping Gods or is that just rumors flung about by his political enemies?
  • War with a neighbouring state is looming on the horizon and the senate struggles to elect a consul to lead them. Among the candidates is a former employer of the heroes’ and now they are approached by an agent of one of his enemies. Do they have any dirt on their former employer, and if not, are they willing to improvise? They will be greatly rewarded… if they end up supporting the winning side.


Regardless of personal spiritual inclinations, most can pretty much agree that theocracies in pur world have mostly had to make do with only the implicit support of their chosen deity. In a fantasy setting, this support need not be as implicit. In a theocracy ruled by the living incarnation of the deity or one of his avatars, you don’t have to guess what the god wants you to do. You can ask him.

The characteristics of a living god theocracy depend fully on the deity in question. It can be an enlightened Shangri-La where everyone gets together (or else…) or it can be a nightmarish terror and human sacrifice. As in any theocracy, the clergy makes out the ruling class, but who gets to be a cleric could in this society be much less political than in more implicit theocracies where religion and politics typically interbreed. One would assume that a society ruled by a god would be pretty self-centered. Unless the god-king says so, there is no real need to look outside the borders, as any other country, by definition would be more imperfect and all progress is made by adhering to the god-king’s tennets.


  • The characters enter the kingdom by boat, having only heard vague rumors of it. They now have to deal with the implicit and explicit rules of the society. Failure to do so will result in the offending character suffering from God’s Wrath Fever for days of nightmares and suffering until he repents.
  • The characters are approached by an acolyte, a junior clergyman of the god-king. This acolyte has stumbled upon something, an old scripture telling of a time before the god-king and of other gods imprisoned by him. Or perhaps the old writings contain evidence that the god-king is no god at all but merely… a king.

The Bureaucracy

A bureaucracy may formally be an empire with an emperor or a theocracy run by clergymen. It’s defining characteristic is the unwieldy administration surrounding all decision-making and powerbroking. The chinese courts are a prime example of this. In a bureaucracy, the emperor is as much a part of the machinery as anyone else. Perhaps all is dictated by an ancient prophecy or a code of law written hundreds or thousands of years ago.


  • The characters travel to the bureaucracy to visit the Great Library, but get bogged down by the library administration. Perhaps they decide that breaking into the library is easier than acquiring legal access.
  • The law dictates that an emperor serving over two solar eclipses must resign, but nothing can be found on who becomes the new emperor. A nationwide search is initiated after the yellow scrolls, lost centuries ago, dealing with rare rules of ascension. Rumor has it that the writings of the scrolls dictate that whomever finds them becomes the new emperor.

Concluding words

This post had a long time coming, lots of real life stuff getting in the way. For those looking for more on the different possible civics in fantasy worlds, I recommend GURPS Fantasy and Aria Worlds (though the latter is a tad academic and dry at times). For those looking for more gunpowder posts, they are in the pipeline…

  1. Interesting—I don’t see much written about breaking your RPG fantasy world out of the “feudal kingdom” rut, but, like you, I have an interest in real-world history, a lot of which can, with a little work, be used to spice up more story-oriented RPG settings.

    It seems to me that the Republic and Bureaucracy types of political structures are more common in larger states: they would have evolved out of the need to hold together a country that was simply too big to be controlled by more direct rule.

    Of course, these three categories are not mutually exclusive: a country could combine all three of these, for example pre-Meiji Restoration Japan. The Emperor was considered a living god and the center of the Shinto faith; the daimyo (parliament) ruled the country, headed by a shogun (consul); and an extensive bureaucracy existed to keep everyone in place according to their caste.

  2. True that these can definitely mix and that they are more or less appropriate at different levels. Real world examples are , of course, great sources of inspiration when designing different fantasy societies, but one could also go the other way around, the what-if scenario. What kind of society would evolve if different races had different aptitudes. When humanity, in all its homogeneity have developed slavery and caste-systems, what would happen if there actually was big differences in intelligence, strength, lifespan expectancy, etc among the races.

    When creating worlds like this, you have to make sure that the world you end up with is not only plausible, but also playable. A good rule of thumb is, if you can’t sum it up in one sentence, it’s probably too complicated and far-fetched for roleplaying use. As any chef would tell you, spice should be used with moderation 😉

  3. Thought provoking post, even though I can’t imagine any feudal fantasy games since Harn. Or maybe I just haven’t studied hard enough?

    You missed The Corporation in your list, which is a corner stone in Post-apocalyptic fantasy and Cyber/Steampunk. Also, anarchy or The Tribe would be big in Stone Age fantasy. For real life examples, apart from Meiji Era Japan, one could look to The East India Company and their role in shaping the colonies, The Venetian Republic, The Khanate, Ancient China, Aztec/Inca, etc.

    As for the problem with other races, perhaps that is the reason most societies in fantasy RPGs tend to be single race affairs? See Earthdawn for a classic example or how to make and break that “rule”.

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