5 Tips On Using Bureaucracy In Your Game World

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0056

  1. Bureaucracy Makes Good Roleplaying
  2. Use Bureaucracy As A Pacing Tool
  3. Be Creative Where You Install Bureaucracy
  4. Bureaucracy Is A Method For Villains
  5. Examples Of Bureaucracy’s Methods
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A Brief Word From Johnn

Your Tips Submissions Always Welcome!

Thanks to everyone for your tips emails! I’ve been receiving feedback on topics from recent and archived issues and always enjoy hearing from you. I read every one and then permanently file them in a special folder for future reference. I publish the best 1-5 tips in each week’s issue.

I also frequently peruse all the tips and feedback you send in for topic ideas and improvement ideas. If you don’t see your tip published in the ezine or in a supplemental issue, please understand that it is still valuable to me and all the subscribers because it’s helping me publish a better newsletter.

Good Consumer Experience At Hyperbooks.com

While our sponsor, FunUSA.com, is an excellent, secure and very reliable place to purchase your RPG sourcebooks and games from, HyperBooks Online has a few products which can only be obtained through their web site. The Fractal Mapper software is one example.

I’ve known about Hyperbooks.com for awhile, and I was taken to their site this week after clicking the order link at the Fractal Mapper’s web site. I just wanted to report that my credit card transaction was successfully processed within 24 hours. I received a professional and orderly email confirmation statement along with clear download instructions. And Fractal Mapper downloaded quickly and easily and worked perfectly after installation.

Sometimes e-purchasing can be “iffy” if you don’t know much about who your are doing business with, but my experiences have proven to me that Hyperbooks.com and FunUSA.com are definitely trustworthy merchants.

(HyperBooks has not rewarded me in anyway for this testimonial — I’m just letting you know about another good online RPG resource, one that I’ve wondered about for some time now


Johnn Four
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5 Tips On Using Bureaucracy In Your Game World

Bureaucracy Makes Good Roleplaying

Dictionary.com says bureaucracy is “an administrative system in which the need…to follow complex procedures impedes effective action.”

GMs, you can use this to your great advantage to create roleplaying-based encounters in your sessions!

Imagine the following:

  • The party’s mage needs to use the city’s library for research. The librarian asks to see the mage’s pass. The mage asks where she can get one and is told to see the mage’s guild office. She goes there (it’s across town) but is told she needs to get a membership first. The clerk is all out of applications but there are some at the library. The mage returns to the library only to find that it closes at noon, unless you have a pass to show the guard outside…
  • The barbarian, victorious from a recent dungeon raid, plunks down his bag of gold and points at the big, shiny axe mounted on the wall. The arms merchant starts counting the coin but suddenly stops and says “oh, this coin doesn’t bear the King’s face. I’m afraid you need to exchange it for King’s currency with the exchequer at the palace. It’s illegal for me to take this money.”The barbarian stomps off to the palace and demands an appointment with the exchequer. Upon hearing that the money is fresh from a dungeon, the official asks where the barbarian is staying and who else was travelling with the warrior. Then the official discreetly orders a small army of guards to go to the barbarian’s inn, seize all money and goods and to arrest the barbarian’s friends. Then he also places the barbarian under arrest.You see, the barbarian and his friends broke a number of laws concerning bringing loot into the city. Ancient loot can carry strange diseases, curses and plagues. The original owners of the loot may try to get it back. Not to mention there’s the royal tax, of course….

Next time you want to create an encounter that involves roleplaying, tension and conflict, think bureaucracy.

Use Bureaucracy As A Pacing Tool

If you want to slow things down, buy time to think and plan, or just limit the PCs in some way, bureaucracy is the perfect tool.

Use laws, procedures, paperwork and delays between each step to accomplish what you need.

This technique is best used if the PCs’ are already somewhat aware of what they are up against ahead of time. Suddenly springing strange rules or laws on them may appear arbitrary or heavy-handed to the players (unless they are new to the area).

So, plant seeds before the bureaucratic need arises:

  • Create your own loose set of guidelines (i.e. tax everything you can without pushing the area into rebellion) so you can GM consistently
  • Officials can post vague notices about new and changed laws
  • Friendly warnings from helpful NPCs
  • Area knowledge skill checks

Examples of pacing:

  • Travel permits (local and foreign) restrict travel plans
  • Treasure Tax (it will take time for officials to count all that loot, detect for magic and curses and record everything–the PCs may be without their treasure for awhile)
  • Passes and visas (i.e. libraries, city districts)
  • Building permits slows those castle plans down
  • Party and special event permits
  • Magic item and foreign technology quarantine

Be Creative Where You Install Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is not just an affliction of big government.

Be creative where you use it:

  • Guilds (i.e. dues, memberships, approved activities, promotion)
  • Churches (i.e. tithes, promotion, meeting with officials)
  • Social organizations (i.e. membership, rules of conduct, favours)
  • Tribal councils (i.e. making decisions, passing laws, granting priviledges)
  • Committees and meetings (i.e. co-ordinating, consensus, agendas)

Any place where there’s organization and authority you have a chance to add in a little bureaucracy to liven things up.

Bureaucracy Is A Method For Villains

You can help players become more involved in your stories by making them really despise the villain. And bureaucracy is a perfect way to do that!

Perhaps your villain is employing cruel or unusual laws and rules. Or, in indirect attacks against the PCs, the villain pulls bureaucratic strings to make sure the heroes are delayed, severely penalized or worse.

Examples Of Bureaucracy’s Methods

Here are some examples of the evil methods of bureaucracies you can easily insert into your campaign:

  • Taxes and processing
  • Memberships
  • Permits
  • Unsympathetic officials
  • Corrupt officials
  • Distant offices
  • Confusing hierarchies
  • Public scrutiny


  • Processing time
  • Delays
  • Mistakes
  • Lost files
  • Prying questions
  • Application forms
  • Audits
  • Unjust decisions
  • Bribes
  • Inflexible rules

Do you have any bureaucracy tips or stories to share? Send ’em in to [email protected].


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Helping Players Empathize

From Tris

The best device I ever dreamed up while GMing, was to make the players meet themselves….or to be more precise meet people in their situation.

The characters had, at that point, deserted from an army, and were making their way back towards their home city. They met a group of men, some of whom had items of clothing which the group had seen before while they were marching with the army. The characters approached slowly and were approached equally cautiously by the men. It took about 15 minutes of tense roleplaying, neither side willing to volunteer information, until they finally realised that they were both in the same boat.

The players actually laughed with nervous release when they realised what was going on.

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Blindness & Silence Tricks

From Pete Stevens

My tip on how to make good role-playing sessions:

Used sparingly, having enemy spell casters can be extremely effective. Casting blindness or silence on the party is great fun. When I cast blindness on a character I force the player to wear a blindfold the whole time. Since I draw out all of my room maps rather than desribing them this means that the other players have to do all of the room description to this player. Similar for silence spells I forbid the players to talk to anyone other than to the GM.

This encourages hilarious role-playing between the players and makes these spells *greatly* feared. It requires players who can take a joke and public humiliation though.

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Finding Inspiration

From Roberta Barnhart

Shake the cobwebs loose from your brain by reading a sourcebook from a completely different game. Even if you never plan on PLAYING the game, just thinking in a different genre might be enough to trigger an adventure idea or two. For instance, if you normally play D&D, reading the Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: The Apocolypse might shake some ideas loose (how about a SYMPATHETIC vampire or werewolf pack?).

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Perfect Gaming Environment?

From Gareth Hodges

We have just shifted from gaming in our living room, sprawled on couches, to gaming at the kitchen table, and it’s made a huge difference. The players aren’t falling asleep as much, and out-of-game conversation has dropped off a lot since people are much closer together.

I know that most people probably already game at the table (hence tabletop), but it’d be interesting to see what other groups do to structure the gaming experience at a player level. The props issue had a few ideas. What are people’s “perfect” game situation? [Johnn: I’d be interested in hearing about perfect gaming environments too. Send your gaming environment tips to [email protected]]

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A New Year’s Idea

From Jim Anuszczyk

Hi Johnn,Your question about whether or not worlds include new years celebrations inspired me to write in for the first time. The world I’m currently running, The City States of Shaturia (home grown), has a very distinct new years that others might find interesting.

In this land, the moon only cycles once per year. At the dead of winter the days are very short and there is no moon at all for roughly two weeks. This time is hell on earth. The evil powers plan all year for the destruction and domination that will occur during the days of darkness. Many of the evil organizations based out of the northern wilderness have prizes for the best trophies their members can bring back from the “civilized lands”.

The player characters in this game are no heroes, but even these scoundrels recognize the need to protect the people they buy all their equipment from. So, come mindwinter night (new years), the towns on the edge of the wilderness become very strange places where everyone puts aside their differences and band together for common defense.

I think it’s quite likely that the player characters will find themselves fighting right beside the local baron who they’ve had all kinds of trouble with since the autumnal equinox. It should be interesting.

Thanks for the great newsletter.