How do campaign governments deal with adventurers?

Whether adventurers represent a substantial portion of your game world’s population or your player characters represent the only heroes in your Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, there will undoubtedly be times when your heroes will be at cross-purposes with local, regional or national campaign governments. Heroes can run afoul of governments by deliberate action, such as by engaging in violence within municipalities, exploring sensitive areas (governments call that tomb-robbing), and provoking reprisals from evil groups (who attack towns after the heroes depart). Even law-abiding heroes can become sources of tension; as their power grows and their ability to impact their environment increases, prudent governments must constantly check their motives against those of the heroes to detect potential sources of conflict.

The question of how institutions deal with growing player character power is compounded by the fact that, mathematically speaking, especially powerful characters are few in number. The second edition Dungeon Master’s Option: High Level Campaigns book used a basic calculation to illustrate how rare exceptionally high-level characters are. The calculation assumes that one person in 10 is capable of having a class and level. Of all first level heroes, assume half don’t reach second level (the half remaining at first level retire, die, or don’t have enough experience yet to advance in level); of the half that reached second, assume half have reached third, and so forth. Using those assumptions as a rough estimate, there would be one level 20 character out of every two million people.

Clearly, surrounding level 20 heroes with level 20 village watchmen cheapens the players’ accomplishment of reaching such a high level. So how do campaign governments deal with heroes in their lands, apart from attacking with outrageously-powered militia? That is the focus of this post.

Consider, for example, a party consisting of a cleric from a temple that is gaining prominence, a wizard who belongs to a regional magical academy, a fighter who plans to establish his own domain, and a rogue who hopes to create his own thieves’ guild in the kingdom’s largest city.

At low levels of play, local governments may see the party as a tool for accomplishing ends beyond the means of standing law enforcement, such as making roads safe from bandits, driving humanoids from nearby ruins or safeguarding merchant traffic. Low-level heroes typically don’t pose much of a threat to town and village security, as the local guard captain is probably powerful enough to overcome and apprehend the party single-handedly. Local governors may view dealing with low-level heroes as something of a balancing act. It is safest to keep them out of town on missions, but they tend to bring wealth into the local economy when staying in town; local governors must try to keep the adventurers happy and while keeping their people safe.

Mid-level heroes can be strong enough to muscle past local law enforcement, although regional governments may still have the resources to prevent the party from ignoring the law. The personal and organizational goals become a matter of greater concern for regional governments. In our example:

  •        The priest’s temple gains power as the priest does, and more prominent religions will exert pressure on governments to watch the priest as a growing threat to their power;
  •        The magic academy has a new rising star in the wizard, and governments will try to determine if the academy’s goals are at cross-purposes with those of the region;
  •        The fighter has created quite a reputation, and may be gaining a following. If his goals are known, he may even attract some followers, and if the regional government’s enemies join the fighter’s supporters, a rebellion could be brewing; and
  •        Everybody has a reason to be worried about the rogue, by definition.

It is likely that regional governors make note about the mid-level party’s movements and suspected motives in their reports to superiors, along with descriptions of any obvious magical items. Depending on the relative power of the heroes, governments or law enforcement may even have the party discreetly followed to report on their movements. If the party includes a cleric or wizard affiliated with an organization that exerts influence in the region, the party’s movements and the names of persons with whom they meet will likely be reported as well.

Campaign settings which seem to have unusually high populations of adventurers may see powerful rulers recruiting adventurers to aid the cause of domestic security if other adventurers cause domestic trouble. The Harpers in the famous Forgotten Realms setting are a textbook example of this tactic at work. 

At high levels, the heroes can command reality-shaking ability, and may rival national leaders in power. Such heroes are closely watched by rulers, who may try to arrange alliances or curry favor with the heroes. Chances are that the heroes have nearly completed their stated goals, altering the political equilibrium of the region for good or ill. 

Most of their public movements are accompanied by groups of interested townsfolk, well-wishers and admirers, so reporting heroic movements is hardly necessary – and detecting their private activities is very difficult. Upon hearing of the party’s arrival in a city, rulers may summon such heroes to audiences framed as a formal welcome – with the true motive being the discovery of the heroes’ plans in the region. Unlike mid-level heroes who could be held in check by the presence of a Harper-like organization, characters approaching the highest experience levels and contemplating immortality should be above the ability of most governments to police; hopefully, the heroes’ attention will be sufficiently occupied by world-shaking threats and the rising of ancient evils, so that plans of dominating governments seem less urgent.

Having governments react to the presence of heroes shouldn’t create a “Big Brother is Watching” atmosphere; if players make remarks about their characters being closely watched, comment that power is something all authorities monitor closely, and the attention drawn by their characters’ actions is a testimony to the party’s growing influence.

What steps have governments taken in your games to prevent adventurers from running roughshod through your campaign world? Consider posting comments to this post describing your experiences with this dynamic.


11 comments on “How do campaign governments deal with adventurers?

  1. TMan says:

    Great food for thought! I’m trying my first urban campaign and everybody is still 3rd level. I need to start thinking about what will happen as the party becomes larger than life.

    As it happens, one character wants to become the thieves guild leader and another wants revenge against the people who destroyed his childhood village – some minor outfit called the Zhentarim? I’ll need to do some planning for that…. 🙂

    • Alric says:

      Hi TMan, and thank you for reading my blog.

      Your calling the Zhentarim “a minor outfit” tells me your heroes may need a good insurance agent! On their way to Fzoul, though, how about putting them against a disgusting, gooey aboleth in the sewers? I always wanted to use one of those…

      • TMan says:

        Yes, I’m definitely getting ready for some sewer encounters and every disgusting aboration I can think of will be down there!

        I (and the player) plan on having some fun as his character ‘discovers’ just how big an operation he’s committed himself to as he tries to wipe out the Zhents. Hijinks ensue!

  2. Max.Elliott says:

    A thought on Monarchies.

    A lot of our thinking will reflect having grown up thinking about government in a bureaucratic manner. Large, faceless, and anonymous, ruled by policy at a distance. Monarchies don’t work that way. A monarch is LOVED or FEARED by his people. A group of strangers asking awkward questions could very well touch off a lynching. These foreigners are not trusted by the people and the rumor mill goes to town on them. Perhaps they eat babies? If the PC’s are locals, they will hold similar attitudes of loyalty and knee-jerk obedience. For an American, we trust to peoples willingness to adhere to the written law and that’s what we have. For a middle-earth orc, the pounding violence of the captain is where his faith lays. The Dark-ages Knight trusts that his king has his back and will lay waste to him if he commits betrayal, he can point at a man on a throne and say “There is my sir, my lord, my government.”

    What makes a fantasy king? Might makes right and the fist to back it up? Possibly. Divine backing, the love of the populous and/or controlling the most powerful assets in the area are more likely. Most fantasy settings are ruled by a king, guild, or council (Monarchy, or oligarchy in one form or another) and these systems of government are very different from our world of Common-Law courts and elected-short-term officials.

    The monarch, he watches those of great personal power and learns about them, who they love, what their weaknesses are, what they like to eat. If they are going to threaten his power base, well, that’s not so healthy. The response differs only in ruling style. They might get volunteered for a front-line assault on the neighboring kingdom, poisoned, or challenged and killed. Perhaps the characters get lucky and the monarch truly trusts them. Then they will be viewed as his greatest pawns, err, *cough* trusted right hands. When the King invites you to his court for an interview, you are served your favorite foods. Not just foods you would like or are popular, but your personal favoriates. The night-clothes will fit you EXACTLY. The maids will attract your eye. The King is telling you how well he knows you, and showing you what his pleasure is like. You can bet that at some point, you’ll be sternly invited to watch an execution. The King is talking to you then too, even if he declines to show.

    On another note:

    In the games I have played in that reach epic levels, the party almost always ended up, at one point or another, mired down in governance. Most of the time we found others to foist the trouble off on. In an earlier post I mentioned a party founding their own town. We elected a mayor and set elections somewhere between 6 months and “whenever”. Other times parties have turned governance over to a church and once back to the original disposed king… the most recent king having tragically died on the end of our fighters sword.

    Unrelated, that last time is where the quote “He uses a SOUL_SUCKING sword!” “But that doesn’t make him a bad father.” originated.

    • Alric says:

      “The king is talking to you then, too…”

      Very true, indeed, and keen observations on your part as usual, Max. I hadn’t considered the king being pleasant to show what it’s like to be in his good graces, it’s a very interesting angle that I’ll now be employing during my next two sessions. Thanks for the tip!

  3. satyre says:

    Monarchies are ideally loved AND feared – life in court is mercurial and those adventurers will come to love or hate it. Naturally schemers will try to embroil PCs in their schemes or rivals to the rising power of the PCs will appear.

    Consider the Musketeers of France and their travails to keep a queen’s good name against the agents of Cardinal Richelieu or Camelot in Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur where magical proof of adultery can be found and damages your health and reputation.

    Enemies in high places is one problem. How about enemies in low places kidnapping allies, blackmail attempts over past indiscretions, links to notorious criminal families and much more? This need not be exclusive to the rogue of course…

    • Alric says:

      Very true indeed. Students of literature make the best dungeon masters, in my estimation – and you’ve certainly done your homework! I love the “enemies in low places” angle – it can bring the party into the thick of things at first level. A very astute observation on your part, satyre…

  4. Mercuratura says:

    In the two epic level campaigns I have been in, both eventually got mired in governance. In one instance a Chaotic Neutral fighter with fits of paranoia thought that all governments were out to kill him and frequently disposed of local leaders. This lead to an all out war between the players themselves with half on the fighter’s side and the other half siding with the king. As a side note the king and his armies won. In the second game a barbarian took control of his tribe and subsequently had his tribe raid the villages of the other players. The barbarian denied any involvement until he succeeded in uniting all of the southern barbarian tribes and wiped out all the other players lands. Now I would have been in the wrong to force an adventure on such fracturing groups. In the first case it was hard to work in hooks as for the most part the fighter would see each NPC that gave a hook as the enemy. In the second it was during a period of rest that each player founded or went to their home city. It was the barbarian player’s idea to attack the other PC’s towns and so I decided to scrap the planned adventure and go with a new barbarian threat to the townspeople. The final session was such a memorable event, the look of “OH S***” on the other players faces as each was attacked was priceless.

    • Alric says:

      Hi, Mercuratura, and welcome.

      A civil war with party members on both sides? Now, that is unusual. Did the barbarian’s player find himself unpopular with the other players afterward, or did everybody just leave the disagreements “in the game?”

      • Mercuratura says:

        The Barbarian was applauded by one of our older players for his role playing but the three teens were quite enraged. After about 10 months of games to simply turn on the others did not make him a popular guy. In fact both him and the friend that brought him in were kinda blacklisted.
        From my perspective he played it the way his character would have. A lil bit of back story is that a few adventures before hand they others had literally left him to die so they could escape. A well timed rage and the fast movement ability allowed him to narrowly escape. Asking him why he did it, just out of curiosity, the player said his character felt betrayed. So on their downtime he turned his people into a war band to rectify the situation.

      • Alric says:

        Revenge is a dish best served cold… I suppose the other players asked for it by establishing the “every man for himself” precedent.

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