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Agents of Governance: Decoding Government from The Ground Up

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue

For most of us, the UWP is a glimpse of the grand scheme of a world, waiting to be fleshed out and adventures discovered. Occasionally, however, one hits a little snag. Most often, this snag is trying to turn these details into something the players can act upon. And frequently, this is the result of Top-Down Worldbuilding – painting in broad strokes and working downwards in layers of detail, like an artist working with oil paints. It even makes sense, building grand relationships between massive conglomerates of people that drive potential adventure in trickle-down tensions, giving a big picture to hang your plot on while details emerge as relevant.

But what if we didn’t?

What if we built worlds from the bottom up, starting with the details the players need now? You, the Referee, might care that the king of this world is a mere figurehead who hands power to legal lobbyists financed by criminal strongmen. Do your players? Are they going to meet the king while they root around seedy bars, looking for a risk-averse patron with needs that overrule financial sense while their captain negotiates with a vaguely defined broker who sells slightly less vague goods? No. They’re not. Traveller is a sandbox, shifting locations at a barely constrained whim, driven by the desires of the players and the goals of their characters. The top-down picture takes too long to build, lacking in details that are needed now instead of being anxiously brushed aside in a hurry as you scramble to extrapolate from the grand overview you wrote already. So, focus on the details the players need, starting from a street-level framework and building higher as they chose to delve deeper into a world. Build a world, from the ground they start on, up to the heights they might turn their eyes to.

Government, and how it affects the players outside of Law Level, has long been a stumbling block in top-down worldbuilding. Extrapolating an entire government from a single generic description and a terse explanation, then taking it down to “what does this mean for the party?” strains the mind, most especially in how one defines “Ruling Functions”. Instead, view Government from the position of action: it doesn’t matter who sets the policy, it matters who enacts it. The Ruling Functions, or the Functions of Government, are the services it provides. When the common person needs something from the government, who is it that they deal with? Who are these people, these hands of political will? How are they selected, what structure do they operate under, what is their relationship with their superiors and the population? Who are these Agents of Governance, and how do they operate?

The idea of the government code describing the common civil servant can make worldbuilding much easier, especially when a location might be abandoned in a single session. The relationship between a petitioner and the gatekeepers of government services is easily defined, as is the structure they operate in. It is these people, and these structures, that the players might have to navigate in the course of ordinary events, much less the extraordinary ones. In this context, only a few of the government codes require more work to interpret, as they can very easily describe a top-down view.

Of course, one must remember that the UWP is a starting point for the imagination. Nothing prevents the Referee from selecting the government (it is, according to the dice, impossible for a pop5 world to be ruled by a Religious Dictatorship, yet a cult can start a small colony), or combining governments (the USA, as an example, is a Pop8 sovereign planetary region (Gov7) ruled by Elected Representatives (Gov4) who direct departments of government employees (Gov8/9). Which does the average person interact with the most?). The Referee can even dig down into specific locations, creating the particular power structures and struggles the players will most likely run into (A Corporation [Gov1] seeks to subvert the publicly appointed police force [Gov2] complicated by the strongest local religion having more influence than either [Gov13]. Their agents come to blows in a bar. The one the players are in).

So, working from the bottom up, let’s have a look at each government code (sticking to the original 13) in turn, alongside the population ranges it typically shows up in and their typical law level (up to Law Level 10+). As a note, a few these require the context of an interstellar society. For a recently contacted world, or an isolated one, just skip past those codes. Furthermore, the fact that a government will tend to show up at a population level equal to itself shows a form of progression – the social situation evolves as more people are added.

Gov0 – None (Pop1-5, LL0-5) (X): There is no government to work for, and there is no structure to provide services outside of negotiating with individuals. Absent membership in, or proximity to, some interstellar state, there might not even be a common currency. This is almost always a temporary (on the historical scale) state, as eventually the population creates a common structure for dealing with issues. Law Level indicates the presence and strength of a Social Contract – the common rules that individuals follow to avoid conflict with their neighbors.

Gov1 – Corporate (Pop1-6. LL0-6) (CO): This can be top-down, indicating that the world, and its population, belong to an interstellar corporation, or a group of them. It can also indicate (especially on higher population worlds) that the government contracts private companies to provide services to the citizens (as opposed to hiring companies to provide services to the government, or companies hiring governments to… Most likely hire them to provide services to government and populace). It can also be that a company provides the functions of a government. Law Level can mean corporate rules, but could also be the legal requirements of the world the company is legally chartered on. This structure typically doesn’t evolve naturally, developing societies will jump to either Gov2 or Gov3. In economic terms, it means the government is a Command Economy – all production of goods and the distribution of products is by decree of the government.

Gov2 – Direct Democracy (Pop1-7, LL0-7) (DD): Civil servants are chosen by the voting populace. This differs from Representative Democracy in that these people are not chosen to create policy, but to enforce policies voted on by the public at large. This can get a bit tricky, as many factors can be at play here – how often are votes called for, how long can a person serve in a role, and what defines a voting citizen. Many direct democracies will put limitations on who can vote – age is typically the minimum restriction, but others are possible, such as: males over 35, prior military service, ownership of land, the elders of a tribe, or the second daughter of your oldest living matrilineal ancestor. Those with stringent or expensive requirements will tend to create a Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy, while those who prevent the rise of a ruling class will fall into Representative Democracy as population grows. Direct Democracies are limited in their maximum voting population size by the available communications technology – one linked by verbal couriers calling the voters to a meeting can only reach maybe a few thousand people, while handheld computers on a wireless network can count millions of votes a second – as well as the frequency of votes, since frequent voting will restrict the total number who can dedicate enough time to the process. As a rough guideline, the Tech Level or TL-1 will provide a good estimate of the maximum voting population at TL3-, while TL or TL+1 serves for TL4+. Voting populations in excess of this will be very slow, and easily fragmented, perhaps leading to a tradition of proxy votes that create the first Representative Democracies. Voting populations that are a small segment of the total population will eventually form Oligarchies.

Gov3 – Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy (Pop1-8, LL0-8) (OL): Government services are performed, or directed, solely by those drawn from a specific group, usually marked by familial inheritance. Non-familial inheritance is also possible, with civil servants choosing and training their replacements, but this usually ends up creating the same effect over time. Oligarchies can be created on their own, such as by warlords or other leaders taking control of a chaotic situation, but can also very easily emerge from direct democracies that do not prevent voting rights from being restricted to a small group that can inherit the qualifications to vote. Oligarchs will have another governmental structure attached that defines how they are chosen to perform or direct their duties, but in the absence of such notes a family inheritance of these duties can be assumed (the common bailiffs of the European Medieval period are a great example of how Oligarchies based around familial inheritance of duty does not require the inheritor to be a noble).

Gov4 – Representative Democracy (Pop1-9, LL0-9) (RD): Civil servants are chosen by elected representatives. Many municipalities use this in conjunction with Civil-Service Bureaucracy – an elected council uses their power to select the head of a municipal department, who then directs the department in activities and hiring. The actual selection process of this dutiful servant of the state, and even who is eligible for consideration, should be given some thought. This sort of local power structure is also the most familiar to players, as our modern society makes extensive use of it; plot ideas can be mined from small town political news.

Gov5 – Feudal Technocracy (Pop1-10, LL0-10) (FT): First, read the sidebar on Feudalism. Taking this definition in the context of determining the common government worker, the term actually breaks down to its component parts – Technocrats, or people competent in a particular field of expertise, working in a Feudal structure. Keep in mind that this does not mean a ruling caste of scientists and engineers – that’s a Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy with a cultural requirement. Putting it all together, it means civil servants are chosen and promoted on the basis of personal loyalty and competence at the job. Their obligation to the person who chose them for the job is the provision of services related to their field. Their superior is obligated to provide them with what they require to perform those services. Both are obligated to their society or government to fulfill these duties. While commonly a vertical structure (such as a corporation where employees are guaranteed work and pay appropriate to their abilities in exchange for an unbreakable long-term employment contract; or a bureaucracy where managers create teams according to their needs), it can also be a horizontal structure (such as an anarchic society where the specialists in a field pick their representative and manager, who then works to ensure they have the resources they require; or a Libertarian society bound by contracts to provide services). Feudal Technocracy is easily implemented in other government structures – it could be how an Oligarchy functions, the civil servant hiring process of a Representative or Direct Democracy, or the chain of command stretching down from a Dictator. It can easily grow out of a Representative Democracy, be the remnants of a Bureaucracy, or backslide into an Oligarchy when loyalty and family favors outweigh competence.

Gov6 – Captive Government (Pop1-11, LL0-10+) (CG): This is absolutely a top-down view, as it indicates that control over all governmental functions does not belong to a local institution – and probably not even one that the locals can participate in. To find out what is going on at the level of the local paper-stamper, you must first figure out the controlling world, then determine the relationship between the two. A colony world, or one that has joined an interstellar state that provides all government functions, will share the same government type and nominal law level as the capitol world. Policy is made on the controlling world, and many times civil servants are either selected from its population, or managed by people from that world. One example is a colony world where local bureaucrats must be sent to the capitol for training, certification, and assignment, while another has resettled dissidents being managed by the ideologically pure. On the interstellar state side, one can imagine a centralized hub of decision making, with local functions being performed by a mixture of locals and assigned offworlders. A captured area is most likely placed under a strict rule chosen by the controlling world, lead and staffed by their citizens, and very likely to be subjected to greater control than they would tolerate in their own lives. Let population and law level be your guide.

Gov7 – Balkanised (Pop2-11, LL2-10+) (BA): Another top down view, it simply means, in this context, that there is no governmental structure common to the whole world. Different regions have different governments, or similar governments with different identities. Balkanised worlds don’t have to be at war, as this could also be an alliance or federation of nations that share laws without being part of the same structure (even if they have the same government type). The first determination comes after Tech Level is rolled for, as communications and transportation infrastructure does place a limit on a governments ability to maintain control in many of these other structures; as a rough guideline, a population of TL+1 is about the limit of what a centralized government can handle without replicating itself into decentralized local centers serving lower population areas. This can mean a world where the governments have more potential capacity than world population, but also an alliance, or even just propaganda reach. Next is determining the maximum amount of governments – Pop-0 is 1, Pop-1 is 10, Pop-2 is 100, Pop-3 is 1000, and so on. Then you select the ones the players are most likely to interact with, decide on their populations, then roll for their governments. Easy. Follow this up with their relationships, maybe add some tensions, and see what pops out for adventure complications.

Gov8 – Civil Service Bureaucracy (Pop3-11, LL3-10+) (CB): Civil Servants are hired to work in a set structure, following a set of standards. As noted above, The Civil Service Bureaucracy is the mature form of the Feudal Technocracy. Many people are familiar with the Bureaucracy, as almost every single modern government uses this structure to administrate services. Most of these operate opposite to how the law works for most people – if an action is not specifically permitted, it is presumed forbidden. Bureaucracies kept to a manageable size – specifically the number of layers between the top and the bottom – can be very quick and efficient, as the institutional knowledge of the organization allows them to determine the quickest and most successful way of performing their duties without spending too much time on internal matters. Ones subjected to managerial bloat will very quickly become slow glaciers of corruption, as the number of layers between giving orders and fulfilling them distorts the messages, and people attempting to look like they’re doing something force the generation of internal documentation that takes time away from the actual work. However, more actual work is done on their duties than their internal matters, and they will still be responsive to the needs of the citizens.

Gov9 – Impersonal Bureaucracy (Pop4-11, LL4-10+) (IB): Civil Servants work in a structure where adherence to protocol and tending to interpersonal affairs is more important than getting actual work done. Remember the managerial bloat that can plague a Civil Service Bureaucracy? This is the end result, where the needs of the organization take precedence over its duties. They are nasty places to live and work, generating massive amounts of paperwork and memorandums that go nowhere, do nothing, and say very little, existing only to cover ones backside or be used as a weapon against someone who didn’t cover theirs. Internal politics is the battlefield of their careers, shying away from the battlements that stand between the common citizen and a lack of services. It’s easy to see how managerial bloat leads to an ineffective organization – after all, if every hour of actual work leads to four hours of internal paperwork, and that leaves no time to respond the endless stream of memos being passed down from above, who will be seen as “not a team player”? This existential threat to their jobs then pushes those who exist anywhere above the lowest positions to spend more time on defending their jobs than on doing them. The only thing that keeps them afloat is inertia and pockets of Feudal Technocrats who build teams of people who want to do their jobs before spending every waking moment on defending their ability to do so. Players who want to get anything done without breaking the law must find these people.

GovA(10) – Charismatic Dictator (Pop5-11, LL5-10+) (CD): From the top down, this can be found anywhere where a single person has been given the right (or taken it by force) to make decisions for a single group, but how they direct the functions of government must still be determined. The position of this government, coming after the Impersonal Bureaucracy, shows a very different picture from the bottom-up context than the idea of a revolution kicking the managers to the curb. This picture is one where the average person is unable to get services out of the government, a situation where they then turn to those who know how to game the system, or otherwise get what they need. Very often, these are criminal organizations, but could easily be trusted members of the bureaucracy. In any case, the people rely on those who can get things done.

GovB(11) – Non-Charismatic Leader (Pop6-11, LL6-10+) (NL): The informal “get things done” structure that existed outside of the government seen in GovA has become its own institution. On the top-down view, the single person empowered to make decisions has been replaced by another person operating in the same power structure.

GovC(12) – Charismatic Oligarchy (Pop7-11, LL7-10+) (CO): In many ways, this is just a variant of the Charismatic Dictator, but instead has a group of people empowered to make decisions for the population, or a group outside the government that provides services (not to be confused with an organization lead by a Charismatic Dictator who provides services with resources hijacked from the government). What really distinguishes the two is the top-down view: Charismatic Oligarchies often arise from revolutions, but can also be the transition phase between a Direct Democracy and a Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. The selection process of these Oligarchs is typically not hereditary, but organizational (they are selected by being promoted through the ranks of civil servants) or ideological (such as a one-party system). The ability to enter the selection process might have requirements that can be fulfilled by inheriting them, but that typically bleeds over into being an ordinary Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. As with a top-down view of the Charismatic Dictator, the structure these Oligarchs use to perform the daily tasks of governance has to be determined.

GovD(13) – Religious Dicatorship (Pop8-11, LL8-10+) (RG): Civil Servants are part of a religious structure. This is absolutely a top-down view, so determining the actual structure used internally is required. In many cases, Religious Dictatorships have to be selected typically (as their minimum population is far higher than the typical colony world that a religion can found), and their oddball position at the top of the list can puzzle many. If one takes the view that government codes can be seen as a progression, then a Religious Dictatorship can be seen as the end result of an ideologically based Charismatic Oligarchy, where the single-party system has become a system of faith.

Final Notes

The specific structure of the Government Table is mutable – it was originally built this way to suggest a common type of universe, where low population worlds used small, typically decentralized, structures because they didn’t have the population to support anything complex; while high population worlds used complex structures that were eventually replaced by people and organizations that used ideology to control people. It the middle was a sweet spot, between not enough people to support complex government, but too many people to keep integrated into a single political unit, right next to the colonies and captured areas of other worlds. Modifying the table to create a new sequence of government structures takes some thought, but is doable.

Gov 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
0 15/36 10/36 6/36 3/36 1/36 0 0 0 0 0 0
1 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26 1/36 0 0 0 0 0
2 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26 1/36 0 0 0 0
3 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26 1/36 0 0 0
4 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26 1/36 0 0
5 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26 1/36 0
6 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26 1/36
7 0 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36 2/26
8 0 0 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36 3/36
9 0 0 0 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36 4/36
10 0 0 0 0 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36 5/36
11 0 0 0 0 0 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36 6/36
12 0 0 0 0 0 0 1/36 2/26 3/36 4/36 5/36
13 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1/36 3/36 6/36 10/36

On another thought, combining types of governments can create much deeper and richer worlds, and allows for nominally similar worlds to be significantly different. As an example, an interstellar nation might require all of its member worlds to be Representative Democracies operating through Civil Service Bureaucracies. Rather than just running each world as politically the same, the Referee can roll another government code, this one indicating how that structure works locally, or the issues that plague it. One might have all the Representatives come from a de facto Oligarchy, while in another they can be recalled or ordered to vote a certain way at any time by their constituents in a Direct Democracy. Some Bureaucracies might be Impersonal, while others are Feudal Technocrats playing fast and loose with the standards they get sent. Criminals might work behind the scenes as a form of Charismatic Dictator, infiltrating the Companies that hold the contracts to actually provide the services required. Infinite combinations are possible.

For the final note, a table of probabilities for government by population is provided. This is expressed as a fraction of the total number of possible die combinations.