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World Building III: Republics and Empires

In the last blog of this series, World Building II: “The Creator’s Checklist”, I took a look at a fairly long “to-do” list of elements that would need to be envisioned in order to bring a world-building project to life.  monarchy 2To speed up the process, I recommended concentrating on making the contemporary political and social “landscape” of the world setting a high priority, creating its countries and peoples, and to worry about backfilling in the pre-history later.

But in order to create the contemporary political “landscape” for a world setting, it is necessary to consider not only the types of governments that rule the various countries, but also whether their nature is a republic or an empire.

Fantasy Politics

Back in the old AD&D Dungeon Master Guide, there was an extensive and detailed list of possible forms of governments that one might encounter in a fantasy world setting.  I am not sure if this list is exhaustive, but I think that almost any form of government a world-builder might want to envision can be found, in some form, on this list:

[Editor’s Note: I have made a few corrections of the terms and definitions on the original AD&D DMG list.  Definitions and terms change over time and use, after all, and the 1st Edition DMG was published over 30 years ago!]

  • Autocracy – a form of government in which one person possesses unlimited power.
  • Bureaucracy – a government administrated through bureaus or departments staffed with nonelected officials.
  • Confederacy – a government formed from a union of persons, parties, or states.
  • Democracy – a government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.
  • Dictatorship – a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in a dictator or a small clique.
  • Feudality – a government based upon the feudal system
  • Gerontocracy – a government based upon rule by elders.
  • Gynarchy – a government based upon rule by females.
  • Heirarchy – a government organized by different ranks in an administrative body.
  • Magocracy – a form of government in which society is ruled by such magi, wizards, or witches.
  • Monarchy – a form of government in which all political power is passed down to an individual, usually hereditary, known as a monarch.
  • Militocracy – government headed by the military leaders and the armed forces.
  • Oligarchy – a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people, distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, corporate or military control.
  • Plutocracy – a government ruled by the wealthy
  • Republic – a form of government in which the people, or some significant portion of them, retain supreme control over the government.
  • Theocracy – a form of government in which god or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, and/or a state ruled by clergy.
  • Syndicracy – a government of people or firms formed to engage in an enterprise or promote a common interest.

I should note that I chose to remove one entry, Pedocracy, which was on the original DMG list.  The authors of the DMG claimed this was purported to mean a government by sages and savants – but it literally means a government by children.  I suppose that they wanted to represent “pedagogy” as a governmental form, which is the act of teaching, but it really did not translate well.  I have come up with two alternatives to pedocracy which world-builders might want to consider:

  • Academiocracy – a government ruled by scholars and sages engaged in the conquest of research.
  • Technocracy – a government controlled by technicians, especially scientists and technical experts.

Now one of the first things I noted about this list is how some of the systems of government are really variations on a theme, and others can be used in conjunction with each other to create new forms of government.  For instance, plutocracy and monarchy are really just different forms of oligarchy, and autocracy defines several forms of government including a dictatorship, a monarchy, and very likely any theocracy one could imagine.  And then there are combinations of government forms such as a feudalistic monarchy which existed in the medieval world for many centuries, or a democratic bureaucracy which might be used to define the way the modern United States is governed today.

So really, there are all kinds of governmental forms which could exist in a fantasy world, whether in their pure form or in some interesting combination.  But it is also important in the process of world-building to consider how these governments might interact, and how the genres which flavor the world would affect the nature of politics.

Republics versus Empires

Back in the late 1980s, famed science-fiction author Jerry Pournelle created an anthology of short stories called Imperial Stars.  In it, he collected short stories from a variety of authors which all had some sort of imperial theme, discussing the mankind’s conquest of space, not as explorers, but as conquerors and empire builders.  Pournelle wrote some fairly thought-provoking introductions and essays for the various stories, and onne theme that stuck with me most was the nature of empires and republics.

In the introduction to the anthology, Pournelle paraphrased the writings of Herman Kahn, who was one of the foremost authorities of nuclear deterrence and annihilation during the Cold War.  Herman Kahn was purported to be the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s character of Dr. Strangelove from the movie of the same name.

The late Herman Kahn once argued that the natural state of mankind is empire, and the natural size of an empire is the Earth: that empires grow until they encounter something capable of resisting them; and the only institution capable of resisting for generations is another empire.  Republics by contrast are short-lived, and wither succumb to the pressure of the empire on their borders, or transform themselves into an empire in order to remain independent.

And Pournelle is not alone in his thinking – it seems evident that one of the most fundamental elements in any good fantasy (or science-fiction) world is the inclusion of a powerful and expanding empire.  From books like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to movies like the Star Wars saga, nothing quite puts political and social pressure on a world setting (or galaxy) like a powerful, expanding imperial state.

steam tank transSo as you create the contemporary landscape of a campaign world, it is also a good idea to create at least one country which will become an imperial state – either pre-dating the start of the setting, or which will develop into an expansionistic empire shortly after the campaign begins.  And while most empires take the form of an autocracy, either a dictatorship or a monarchy, do not discount the potential of other governmental forms to become an empire that will pose a threat to the fantasy world’s order – particularly governments which have unusual characteristics based upon the genres you have chosen to add to your world-setting.

For instance, one could have a technocracy based upon a Steampunk/Clockwork genre, that uses its powerful machines and inventions to begin to expand its borders and become an empire.  Feudalistic monarchies and confederacies of city-states might find themselves easy prey for this new empire, having few options to fight against soldiers backed by steam tanks and airships.  cthulhu_cultist2And in response to the steam-powered threat, a peaceful magocracy or quiet theocracy might feel forced take up arms to combat the new imperial menace, calling upon dark magicks and outré horrors to fight back!  The devastation that would come from a world war, where vile sorceries battle against steam-driven armaments, could make for a very dark setting for heroes to find themselves adventuring in!

The force of politics, and the governments that wield that force, are powerful tools to use in world-building.  And when added to a selection of interesting genres, empires and republics can help to make a setting a truly unique play experience for almost any heroic fantasy role-playing game.

So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


4 Responses to “World Building III: Republics and Empires”

  1. Sean Holland says:

    Good article.

    I am not sure if I am convinced by Pournelle. Rome was at it strongest and most adaptable when it was a republic. Great Britain and the US won two world wars as various flavours of democracy. Empires seem to become brittle and corrupt and are rarely capable of reform,while democracies and republics are also prone to corruption that are more able to purge themselves of such and survive.

  2. Dave says:

    Well, leaving aside theebate o longevity of republics (we are talkig game worlds here, they only need to be consistant to be plausible in mosy cases) – the Evil Empire is often a useful thing to build into a game world. Use several of them. Some in the past (they built some many of the ancient wonders still around to be adventurered in) and left nasty things that need desposal by heroes. And a reoccurring villian that the players cannot easily kill off is always a good thing.

    In my world the Empire of Terini is the “villian”. They’re a human based society roughly based on the Imperial Roman format that allows half elves and teiflings in lesser society roles. Expansioists, slave holding, and human supremists, they often send aget teams innto the neaighboring city-state confederation to worsen relations between the cities and fan human / non human unrest whenever possible. My players love to stop the nefarious plas of “the Imperials” even though they cannot realistically expect to topple that empire. But just by slowing the Terini plans down here and there they get the sense that they are affecting the world’s history.

    I don’t have fancy names for them, but other government types might include one where ruling power is invested in intelligent Undead and a Monsterocracy where a huge dragon or other powerful creature rules the goverment because it basically eats those that dissent.

  3. @Sean – Well, whether you agree with his PoV or not, Pournelle (and Kahn) make a few good points. But we know that the Roman Empire lasted for nearly 5 centuries after the Republic – and I think the Republic existed for about the same length of time prior to the empire, which suggests that Republics and Empires can be somewhat equally resilient. And if you think about it, we’re still waiting to see if the US and GB Republics can stand the test of time. But you have to admit, based upon our own study of history, having rampant Imperialism in a fantasy world creates some great opportunities for adventurers to play the hero in the face of an oppressive political force.

    @Dave – I completely concur with having a couple empires active in the “current” fantasy world, and you bring up a good point about including empires as part of the world setting’s history. I’m thinking of three currently active empires in my campaign world – two humanocentric and one monstrous – with a sprinkling of republics, kingdoms, and city-states caught in between these three expansionistic states. I really like the idea of the Imperials coming in and trying to destabilize their neighbors prior to making a move on them, and it underscores the fun DMs can have making empires the “big bad guys” in a campaign setting.

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