Governments are complicated and replicating them in DnD is no easy feat. Because they add a lot of new, complex mechanics to interact with, it’s easy to see why hardcore world builders would want to install a government system in the fantasy world they are creating. However, governments are hard to simulate even with a solid understanding of their functions and components. Let’s take a look at some fantasy governments types, how they function, and how much of them you really need to simulate for your DnD campaign.
Authors note: I am not a student of political science and the way this information is presented is for use in fantasy world building. I may get some real history or politics wrong, but I’ve done my due diligence when it comes to using these for writing. As with anything that contains a lot of specific definitions, there are often multiple ways to define the words that scholars have and will continue to argue about for years to come.
World Building and DnD Governments
What is a government really? At its core, a government is a group of individuals tasked with running a state or nation. This sounds simple, but the real complexities lie just below the surface where we ask the question, “Which group of individuals?” Many government types are defined by who is the controlling group in the government body. Because of this, our core government types can be built out just by defining those groups.
The three major groups of governments are:
- Autocracy – A single ruler, like a monarch or similar sole form of governance
- Aristocracy – A select group of rulers, such as the wealthy or a family line
- Democracy – The people vote on governance issues and everyone rules together
You might think that these three categories fail to catch the major forms of government, but almost every other type of government can be looked at as a sub-type of these three groups. Anarchy, or the total lack of government rule, is the major item that falls outside this grouping, but we’ll cover ways to use that in world building later on.
Types of Autocracy
Autocracies really only come in two major flavors. The first type that you’ll find being heavily used in fantasy and medieval fiction is the monarchy. A single ruler is the king or queen of a country and they make the decisions on how the country is run. These rulers may be good or bad at running their countries and they may be surrounded by a lot of people who help them rule or very few. It’s a broad definition, but the important feature to note is that kings or queens are succeeded by an heir. These heirs are typically princes or princesses, but kings can be chosen by all sorts of means, like by pulling a magical sword out of a rock. Typically, monarchies are the standard form of DnD governments that people use.
The other type of autocracy is a dictatorship. Dictators are not kings, but typically act a lot like them. While kings have a lot of “chosen ruler” or “heroic savior” lore around how they became kings, dictators often rise to power in a pretty straightforward fashion. They have all the power and have taken it by force or through bribery. While it might be possible for everyone to agree that one person should have total authority in a government, that generally doesn’t happen for good reasons.
Another point here is that a dictator is not typically ruling in service to a kingdom. Monarchs are protecting the interests of the land and bad monarchs are disposed of or subject to some form of prevailing constitution or law of the land. Dictators have no such restraints and rule absolutely. If there is a constitution in a dictatorship, the dictator controls that too.
Fantasy worlds provide us space for additional forms of Aristocracy we cannot have in real life. Divine Rule is an example where a deity may provide both the laws and the force to police them. In DnD these systems of government function like a dictatorship, but there is no interfacing with the dictator via normal means.
Types of Aristocracies
Aristocracies can be built up in a variety of ways. We’ll look at a few examples, but due to their nature there are too many possibilities to list out in full. Essentially you’ll need to keep in mind the definition of an aristocracy as an in-group of ruling people and define the aristocracy types by what determines the in-group status.
An oligarchy has recently come to be viewed as rule by the wealthy, but the original definition was just another word for aristocracy. Rule by the rich is actually a plutocracy, and this can be seen in many forms. The government might be “fair” in that anyone with enough money can participate, but often the rich rule by changing rules to keep themselves rich and prevent others from doing so. It might be that obtaining a certain amount of wealth automatically inducts you into the government body. In some cases the rich can even be considered the owners of the country, like lords of England or Japan in bygone ages.
Aristocracies can also be ruled by power types. A military aristocracy (or junta) rules the nation’s military, and by extension, rules the nation itself. In some cases these types of controlling powers sit overtop of other forms of government and pretend that they’re actually a monarchy or a democracy.
Finally, and most broadly, an aristocracy may be made up of a political party. These are people who share the same political beliefs, and only people with those beliefs are allowed to rule. This group can be small or large, but the defining feature of it is that the group prevents rule or decision making by outsiders of the group. The in-group here can even have other forms of governance within it. A political aristocracy might internally elect their leaders who then rule over the nation as a whole.
This is where things get hazy as definitions start to break down. Sure, we could slap labels on all of these types of groups, but it would be a real hassle as small differences crop up all over the place. As long as you keep your in-group definitions consistent, you can define a political aristocracy for your DnD game quite easily.
Types of Democracy
Democracy is a form of government most of us will be familiar with. In a democracy people have some say in their governance. This seems straightforward, but as with anything that involves more people, democracies are extremely complicated.
The most basic democracy is the direct democracy. This means that for any given item in governance, the people all get to vote. While this sounds simple, there are a lot of moving parts.
Who chooses what is voted on? Who gets to vote? After a vote occurs, who is in charge of carrying out its actions? How do you make sure everyone casts their vote? Is voting required or optional?
The answer to each of these questions shapes the type of democracy that is in place. Often in real life, no system of governance fits neatly into our attempts to label them, but for our fantasy systems we can use the general types of democracies as a framework to build off of.
Representative democracies are the next level of abstraction away from direct. People vote on individuals to represent them. These representatives then vote on those individuals’ behalf (or at least we hope that they do). For DnD this could present as each town having a representative that goes and votes on matters for the kingdom as a whole.
A constitutional democracy is like most other forms of democracy except that it has a written set of core rules that it follows. A constitutional democracy can also be representative or direct, but it will have a written constitution that explains which it is. In D&D these might be more rare, but when they do exist there is room for all sorts of core laws to be included. A kingdom’s constitution could contain rules about magic usage or ownership of certain weapons. These are interesting restrictions or freedoms your players might be able to interact with as part of a larger storyline.
Beyond this point democracy gets hazy as well. Just like aristocracies there are a near endless number of definitions that you can apply based on minor differences between democratic systems. There are democracies with party systems, secret ballots, public ballots, gender and race divisions, liberal and conservative ruling systems, or even ethnic and religious provisions. This is barely even scratching the surface of what you can do with a democracy and it serves to highlight the huge amount of options you have for your own DnD governments.
With all that said, there is one final type of democracy worth mentioning for DnD: the demarchy. A demarchy is a representative government where people are chosen at random to represent others. Of all the fantasy government types, this type of government is ripe for fantasy writing. Maybe individuals are chosen via magical orb. Perhaps there are some terrible things people have to make judgments about when they are randomly chosen and people lament being called to rule.
There could be a lot of reasons for people to either rejoice or mourn being selected and any of those reasons can add dramatic tension to your game. Imagine if one of your player characters is selected and a group of people come to whisk them off to govern the land. Does that halt your quests? What about the fate of the world? There are so many things you can do with it, so despite its complexity, it is a fun story element you can’t really get in a lot of other ways.
Anarchy in DnD
While DMs might not think this is the case, many of their worlds contain some anarchies. It’s not that their worlds don’t have governing bodies, it’s just that once you leave a city center or area that has law enforcement the laws stop mattering. This is a sort of anarchy of the wild. This is better thought of as areas where laws simply cannot be enforced and governance plays no role.
In addition to this, the typical DnD party breaks laws at will. They raid tombs, murder, and set things ablaze. Even if someone wanted to stop them, who would? A group of level 5 adventurers could wipe most small towns off a map without breaking a sweat. Because of this, general laws don’t typically apply to them.
Obviously this is kept in check in your game by having either overpowered guards or relying on your party to believe they are the heroes of the story. In reality, the group is extremely dangerous and anyone that can cast fireball is essentially a walking cannon.
So what does this have to do with anarchy? Well, in DnD the world is a fair bit more dangerous than real life. While it has a lot of real life dangers, the presence of monsters, magic, and other obstacles pushes law back into small pockets. This leads to areas that are governed by strict laws and areas that are essentially lawless. And lawless areas are anarchies.
Places that lack government have their own sets of problems too. Wherever there are people, generally some form of power structure will arise and a previously lawless area will form some sort of government. The only places that are ever kept truly lawless are wild or chaotic places. Even still in the most very dangerous areas there is still a rule of power, as the relative strengths of both monsters and individuals in DnD is wildly variable. As sad as is may seem, the strong rule the weak and true anarchy ends up being quite rare. Instead, we are left with wild anarchies that represent a natural order of strength.
So Many More Governments…
There are a lot of other forms of government out there. So many in fact that a lot of people have dedicated their lives to the study of just a single type! Because of this fact we should take a breather here and focus on the importance of governments for DnD. Let’s start talking about what you should use and what you should leave on the cutting room floor.
Building a Fantasy Government
Now that you know a bit about the types of government you can pull from, you can actually build a government for your DnD game! At least, that’s what we’d like to think. In reality, what we’re trying to make for our game is the illusion of a government.
It’s important to make that distinction because governments are complicated, cultural, and often a huge mess internally. Many of the features of a government actually arise from the difficulties associated with running them and a breakdown of things revolving around human nature. Even the best intentions and well written laws breakdown when not embraced or enforced.
So let’s get to business!
Step 1: Why do you Need a Government?
The very first step is to identify the reason you need a government in your game. If it’s just a backdrop for some light story elements you don’t need to do nearly as much as you would if the government is an integral part of a cloak and dagger campaign setting. Before you decide anything, you should think about what you’re going to do with it and keep that core principle in mind.
Step 2: Choose your Framework
Based on your goals and usage, choose a government framework that will fit your story. The less important the government is to the story, the more simple the form of governance should be. The easiest choice you can make here is to use a simple monarchy. Everyone will get the gist of it and you don’t need to explain much.
For a game that touches on government more, you can push away from monarchies and dictatorships and towards democracy. No matter what your history books might say, democracies are not all sunshine and rainbows and they definitely are born out of necessity. The reason you would start thinking about using democracy is because it outlines how people make decisions. The more individual decisions make sense for your campaign, the more complex your government system becomes.
At this point, it is also important to remember that your government does not need to fit nicely into any framework. The framework is a guideline you follow and a government can be a blend of many types rather than just one.
Step 3: List out the Implications of your Government Framework
At this step you should keep a list of items that are important for the government and can be answered simply.
- What is your government type?
- Who is in power?
- If people vote, who can vote?
- If people vote, how do they cast their vote?
- How does the government handle money? Are there taxes?
- Who writes the laws?
- Who enforces the laws?
- Is there a constitution?
- Is there a justice system?
- Does the government prioritize quality of life? Safety? Borders? Expansion? War?
- What are the main political buildings?
- How does the government communicate with its various bodies? With its people?
- What are the people’s general feelings about their government?
- Is there a current war?
Once you answer all these questions for yourself you’ll have a good list of ideas that you can build off of. There are lots of other specifics you can ask that arise from answering any of these as well. To find those questions, take each of your answers and then ask yourself why and how? You will very quickly find you’ve filled a notebook with details that you can pull up at a moment’s notice.
Step 4: Refinement of Ideas
At this point you’ll want to take this rough list of ideas and polish it into clean, usable parts for your story. The big question you are answering here is How do my players interact with this government? It’s a big topic, so make sure at this step you’re taking note of names, places, talking points, relevant lore, common knowledge, and anything else you might need to tell your players as they go through the game. It might also be helpful to think of these as answers to questions your players might ask during any given scene.
These refined ideas might boil down to being just a single point of information. For example, if only nobles vote in a kingdom, then you don’t need to worry about interaction with that system for your players unless they suddenly become nobles. The information about voting is just something to store. It might be plot relevant if, taking the previous example, your player characters needed to convince the nobles to vote in favor of something. This is not always going to be the case for everything, so just know that it is okay for your world building to be simple notes.
The easiest way to keep these notes is by sorting them functionally. You might have a simple document where you write up the general premise for the kingdom along with the big picture governmental information. From there you might add a section for relevant in-game laws and another section for taxes. Each section covers what you need and can easily be flipped through if you need to look something up.
Your document might have only a couple sections or it could be pages long. We recommend only fleshing out the parts that you need. Generally, our notes for these kinds of things usually include a section on a kingdom’s history. This information comes up a lot in the types of games we run. On the flip side, we very rarely include a section on taxes since in most of our games taxes only apply to land holders.
This isn’t always the case, as we’ve run games with kingdoms that were extremely bureaucratic, but those are the exception for us. The key takeaway here is that if you don’t think you’re going to use something, don’t over prepare for it. You can always take notes and build things out later if you need to.
Finally, during this step you’ll want to outline any common knowledge you have identified and either present that to your players in a dialogue or give it to them as text beforehand. This will ensure you don’t have any player character unknowingly breaking rules or offending government sanction in-game when they really should have known.
Implementing Your DnD Governments
At this point you’ve got a pile of notes about the government of your DnD world, but now what do you do with it?
This is actually the easy part.
First, you want to make sure before the game starts you hand out relevant common knowledge to your players. Let them get familiar with things that their characters would already know. Then you want to prepare any informational dialogue your players may encounter that will be game relevant.
This dialogue could be simple rumors, news, or full conversations you plan on NPCs having with your player characters. The easy way to handle this information is to simplify it into bite sized talking points and then, no matter where your players go, be ready to drop that information. If your players head to a tavern it can be something you drop as an overheard rumor. If they walk through town they might overhear guards talking about something.
These pieces of information can be a new tax on adventures, news of an important vote on the use of magic, or rumblings of war with the neighboring country. Any and all of this information relates to your governmental systems and can easily be tied into the overarching plot.
Speaking of plot, this is where the biggest part of implementation happens. You need to ask yourself how you want to tie the government into your plot. A government can be an actor as a protagonist, antagonist, or neutral party. The party might take a stance with or against the government and that would affect how you tell the story.
If you don’t have a story you are trying to tell, then governments are simply a backdrop. In these cases where you have not decided on a plot that involves the government, then your governmental notes are there for if your players decide to interact with them. In that case, we recommend you treat them that same way as you would cultural notes, which we’ve discussed in a previous article. They are there for when you need them, but they don’t need to be forced upon your players.
In some other cases the governmental system is the entire plot. These are storylines that may involve either cloak and dagger information gathering or disputes over a line of succession. In addition to your normal notes, you’ll also need to keep track of NPCs that are plot relevant, and you should know how they tie into this government system.
For example, if you are running a storyline where the king has made questionable decisions after taking on a new advisor, you need to know a bit about the king and the advisor. It’s not enough to simply have a name and identify the villain, you need to know how or why their actions make them villainous in the context of the government system you’ve created.
Handling Open Endedness In Government
It is very easy for a DnD government system to feel nebulous. There’s a lot of information to keep track of and the thought of simulating it mentally can be overwhelming. At this point you should take a step back and take stock of what you actually need.
If you are using your governmental systems a lot in your story, you should try and break the larger plot into a sequence of key events metered out by session. While often your players can control where the story goes and what actually happens at any given time, you still have a lot of control over what options are available to them. Because of this, you can reduce the scope of your governmental simulation to only handle what you need for any given session.
Let’s say you’ve worked out a plot that involves a representative government where each town elects a leader to vote on their behalf before the king of the land, who typically holds less power than a traditional king. The leaders of various towns need to persuade the king to enact certain measures to defend the nation from a soon to be rising evil.
For this story to unfold, your players need to know how the government votes, what the king does, and who has the power. If the players go straight to the king to warn them of the rising evil, the king will inform them that he’s actually powerless to take steps without support of the village leaders. If the party starts by talking to the village leaders, they will need to know that they can’t just get one village leader on their side.
Additionally, if you set the voting system up so that it coincides with a party trying to rally individuals to fight against this unknown evil, they may have to persuade people to vote for a candidate who takes the matter seriously as opposed to a candidate who downplays the danger of the situation.
In this example you have a clear storyline to get through. There are a lot of moving parts, but the story depends mostly on how people vote at various levels. For this particular storyline you don’t need to know much about other laws, taxes, or specific governmental structures. What you do need to know is which area the party will be in and who they might be interacting with, which can easily be managed session by session. Once the players understand how the government system works, they will understand the actions they have available to reach their own goals. Without understanding that, your players might not understand what actions they can or should take and this can lead to frustrated or lost players.
Using Governments in DnD
Understanding the government systems in your DnD world is not always necessary for your game, but it can open up new doors for you and your players to adventure into. A good government system is just like any other worldbuilding project and consists of your core useful notes. If you plan too much or too little, you can run into problems. But you can always build in more time for planning if you pace things out across your sessions. As long as you keep in mind the three basic governmental frameworks that you can build off of, you should have no problem creating the government systems you need for your game without going overboard.