Social Science and Fiction Part 4: Of Constitutions

Last time, I encouraged you to consider the nature of the politics within your worlds. What are the forms of your polities? What are the extent of their dominions? How do they interact with their rivals, allies, and enemies?

This time I want you to think about initial rule formation. Think about constitutional rules. How do your societies make rules about making rules?

Start small. If you’re dabbling in world creation, I assume that you have been a player at one point. How did you negotiate table rules with your fellows? Out of game, how do you decide snack rotation or venue? In game, how do you decide ahead of time how to split loot? How do you share provisioning costs? Do you vote on these decisions? Let the GM decide? If you vote, do you rely on a simple majority? Quorum? Unanimity? What is your procedure for inviting new players? Ejecting misfits? How do you handle irreconcilable differences of opinion?

Formal constitutions can spare you a lot of grief in times of travail. Figuring out the rules is hard enough. Adding to that the difficultly of figuring out how to figure out the rules asks too much. Imagine how much more challenging the problem becomes when you double your group size. Now move to even a small hamlet. Or a city.

I don’t mean to extol the virtues of a formal constitution overmuch. Even if they aren’t written down, every society has meta-rules. Perhaps they are known as “custom” or “heritage” or “common sense” or other euphemism, but the effect is the same. The rules of the game get around. This is as true for Red Rover as for Parliamentary proceedings.

Play around with organizational rules a little. Start with something small like, the founder of the nation was literally tasked by the gods to create the first settlement, and this fable can be directly confirmed by communing with the deity in question. Solve for the equilibrium, as they say.

Move on to more sophisticated fare. How would impeachment rules work in a society dominated by shapeshifters or Jedi or superpowered entities? What effect would proportional representation have in a nation containing necromancers or sentient magical constructs?

Maybe your world contains a few hereditary monarchies. Suddenly, reliable two-way time travel becomes feasible. What would happen to the rules of succession? Maybe it’s up to your players to preserve the timeline as best they can. What do they do when the True King returns?

A good campaign should have a few big plot points, as in something fundamentally changes the composition of the world. Wars, first contact with alien societies, introduction of disruptive technology, or natural disasters are all proven candidates. Imagine something like the Enlightenment. From the point of view of loyalists, anyone with the temerity to claim that supreme executive power comes from a mandate from the masses is not merely a traitor, but a heretic. Instead of merely disrupting the status quo ante, you develop a plot point that asks your players to create ex nihilo the rules of a new society.

Literary and historical precedent obviously abounds, and there are frontier or colonial game settings, but imagine rolling diplomacy checks for John Rutledge or James Madison at the Constitutional Convention (aka ConCon) of 1787. Put your players on the first extraplanetary colony and have them work out the Martian Bill of Rights using nothing but their Mountain Dew fuelled wits.

Not to be that guy, but if you’re the sort of GM who likes to include meaningful life lessons in your games, it could be that you may send your players off with a greater appreciation for the challenging task of designing a polity from the ground up with little else than some fire in their bellies and the lingering tacit understandings of the society that cradled them. I know, I know; games let players escape the misery of the post-2012 simulation. But folks love a good challenge, and drafting resilient meta-rules that may well allow their fledgling community to thrive could be a nice little obstacle for them to ponder for a few sessions.

Xeno races will have their own meta-rules. Not to harp on the longevity issue, but I would encourage you to think about what effect a long lifespan would have on the enumeration of powers among long-lived creatures. Reputation is fleeting among humans. In order to preserve a semblance of reputation effects, humans end up relying on less-effective heuristics like stereotypes, be they racial, socio-economic, or otherwise. Races with long memories or exceptionally high Dunbar’s Numbers have less need to substitute preconceptions for earned merit. Imagine what impact this would have on system-level rulemaking in such a society.

Perhaps a more fundamental question to answer is this: how does the sovereign obtain the consent of the governed? Follow this up with the closely-related question of how the sovereign maintains consent. How strongly do you want to lean on social contract theory? How cheap is exit? How open is the frontier? What competition does the king face?

You may find that if you spend a little time noodling the fundamentals of constitutional forms and constraints in your fictional societies, you will develop a better understanding of how they should react to exogenous developments (the aforementioned big plot points) in your world. Then again, maybe the tiny little soupcon of immersion this may or may not produce won’t end up being worth the hassle unless you’re running a campaign specifically focused on the founding of a new sovereignty or a civil war or some such.

At any rate, it’s past time I caught up with reader comments.

Bookdragon writes

While Star Trek has a lot of holes in terms of universe consistancy, when I saw this I wondered how Vulcans and Romulans fit. I’ve played in a number of Star Trek based RPGS and it is always interesting to explore the culture and mindset of a species that can expect 250 years or so of lifespan. (I admit that I particularly enjoy when Romulans are played as something other than just ‘scheming inscrutable enemy’ and the game accounts for the fact that longer lifespans can mean much longer range goals and planning).

But this is a case I think where nature/nurture breaks a bit more in favor of nurture. Both have the volatile temper inherent to vulcanoids, but Vulcans have tempered it through emotional suppression taught from earliest childhood. Romulans otoh channel it through martial discipline. The resulting cultures and outlooks are quite different despite a genetic heritage that (despite the weird brow ridges introduced in TNG) shows little evolutionary drift.

This was something that always sat a little wrong with me. I have this hunch that as the Spock character developed, Roddenberry wanted to adjust the relative status of pure intellect. At the time of TOS, Boomers were all-in on the Apollo program, and you could look at stuff like the Manhattan Project as being the deciding factor in winning the war. The idea of the intellect triumphing over base emotion seems somewhat attenuated when you consider that if anything, the Romulans were even more technologically advanced than the Vulcans. But maybe I’m misreading it, since I still think that the pointy-eared greenbloods are proxies for Chinese vs Soviet communists. /shrug/

Jaybird writes

Opening the door to evopsych opens the door to casual bigotry.

Is it okay to have a setting in which a Drow refer to humans as “Iblith“? Let’s say a human refers to his dagger as a “Halfling Longsword”. Let’s say a Dwarf refers to a human as a “Dire Halfling”. Or an elf refers to one as a “Mayfly”. Or to humans in general as “Rabbits”.

Keep the door shut. The only acceptable bigotry is against the things that light up when you cast “Detect Evil”.

Read the room. Some players may be more open to in-game expressions of bigotry than others. Just remember to keep it all in-game.

Follow-up discussion addressed the nature of good and evil in an RPG setting. For what it’s worth, here’s the 5e D&D spell description for Detect Evil and Good: “For the duration [Concentration, up to 10 minutes], you know if there is an aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead within 30 feet of you, as well as where the creature is located. Similarly, you know if there is a place or object within 30 feet of you that has been magically consecrated or desecrated.

So it’s less a matter of disposition than it is of plane of origin. Mass murdering humans won’t ping the spell (though high-level paladins might? Hm. I’ll have to look into that).

Jaybird also writes

Imagine a society with, like, 15th level Clerics.

That gives you 8th level spells.

Control Weather. There you go. You’ve got a governor who can make it rain. Or make it stop raining. Forget resurrection, why wouldn’t you want to be ruled by a guy who can ensure that your harvest will be sufficient to make it through the winter?

Hell, why wouldn’t you worship the deity who this guy worships? You get good crops!

Hold that thought. I’ll return to religion later. The short answer is, yes: carefully consider the implications of living gods active in their demesnes. The equilibrium is probably far weirder than most folks think.


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2 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 4: Of Constitutions

  1. Well, if it’s fantasy (low or high), it’s easiest to just have a monarch.

    Who is in charge? King Wally. Depending on how you want to play it, give Wally an adjective. Wally The Terrible. Wally The Great. Wally The Unready. Wally The Unfortunate.

    High Fantasy? A grand castle. Golden gates. Ermine. Diadems.
    Low Fantasy? People covered in dung. Buildings that leak. A feast that consists of a chicken and some mealy rutabagas.

    If you want social cohesion, have people speak of the monarch in neutral to good terms. You want unrest? Have the monarch hire you to squash a rebellion. (Want a plot twist? The rebels aren’t good like Che or Fidel in the hagiographies. They’d be bad like Che or Fidel in the propaganda.)

    You don’t need a constitution. You need an *UNWRITTEN* constitution and show what is enough to get the people to rebel.

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