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.