Add Corruption To Your World
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1107
I was reading a Dungeon World worldbook for Star Wars the other day and there was a section on corruption that caught my eye.
I often plan corruption within plots and factions, but I have not thought of it in world building terms before.
So I did a bit of research.
Buckets of Corruption
Turns out you can put corruption into four categories based on its effects:
Affecting governance of people, places, and things.
- Who comes to power by what means?
- How are laws created and which ones are enforced through what methods?
- How are policies created and enforced?
For example, the mage mafia in Duskfall might lean on the King to issue an edict: wearing metal armour in towns requires a purchased permit.
King likes this because it generates more money.
Mage mafia likes this because it makes people more vulnerable to their attacks.
Money affects private company, public company, and government expenditures.
- Who spends how much on what for what reason?
- What are the checks and balances on where money flows and what privileges it can buy?
For example, in the Jotunn tribe of collasai in Duskfall, the storm giant ruler Hyroknn takes bribes from the outlawed Kouzelnik to allow free passage through their territory.
Guilds and unions, societal organizations like charities, and pretty much all factions can suffer from corruption.
- How is power manifested and wielded?
- How and where does group money and resources flow?
- How are children, genders, and races treated?
For example, the leader of the Tallowmaker’s Guild pockets 25% of members’ dues to pay for his strange monster menagerie.
The resources of a community can be abused, segregated, and destroyed.
For example, in one campaign I had two towns along the same river. The upriver town hated the downriver town. So they didn’t care what they put in the water.
In one terrible incident, the upriver town stole all the downriver town’s sheep, killed the sheep, and then put the animal bodies into the river.
After a while, the dead sheep started to poison people downriver and the PCs were hired to find out why people were getting sick and put a stop to it.
Corruption By Size
Another way of categorizing corruption in your world is through scale:
- Petty Corruption
- Grand Corruption
- Systemic Corruption
Petty corruption occurs at an individual level.
For example, a half-orc tax collector in the city of Ashguard overcharges citizens and keeps the difference.
Grand corruption involves subverting legal, economic, and political systems.
For example, the Gold Elf queen wants her youngest child to be the next king. So she manipulates events to discredit and exile the older children.
Systemic corruption occurs when an organization or process is exploitable because it is flawed or weak.
For example, the Bankers’ Guild keeps the elven kingdom afloat with ever more loans to the elven king. There’s no oversight of deals between king and guild, so bankers now have undue influence over elven policies and kingdom actions.
Here are a few additional ideas for your campaign from my world of Duskfall.
Puppet Government. The mage mafia wields such influence with its wealth and magic that smaller governments are mere fronts for mafia operations.
Election. The villain blocks voters from going to the polls through intimidation, threats, and blockades.
Wars. The size of the Makaran Empire on the largest continent of Duskfall is so big that the Emperor has lost the ability to govern effectively. As a result, brutal conflicts between factions are common.
Crime. Thieves’ Guilds operate with impunity because they pay off officials and forbid guild members to target certain powerful NPCs.
Monopoly. Through conflict and intimidation, the Watersellers Guild is the exclusive source of potable water in The Badlands. They’ve jacked prices up so the poor always go thirsty. And, though they won’t admit it, they won’t serve elves.
The Gods. Pantheon, the collective of gods worshipped universally in Duskfall, has undue influence over the affairs of mortals, turning the world into various tyrannical nation states.
Fiends. In Duskfall, demons live on the moon Mallus and devils live on the moon Orphus. They travel through the astra to meddle in the affairs of kings and commoners alike, and they have many local collaborators.
Rogue Princes. In The Badlands, if you can take power and hold it, it’s yours. Several individuals have carved out self-proclaimed kingdoms and treat citizens like slaves to be exploited to serve great ambitions.
The Awakened. Animals have begun thinking and speaking. They are organizing themselves to overthrow their oppressive handlers, no longer willing to be beasts of burden and food.
The Nobles. In recent times, the power stemming from inheritance has been heavily eroded by other factions. They still have enough land and wealth, however, that bribery maintains their influence in various courts and governments.
Bureaucrats. Clergy and other faction members who maintain records, laws, literacy, and other important functions within the empire now peddle their dwindling influence for personal gains.
Add Corruption To Your Game
Corruption offers us a second degree source of adventure hooks and gameplay opportunities.
First degree sources act directly upon the PCs. An outright physical attack, for example.
Second degree sources act upon agents and elements that act upon the PCs.
This is how you create a juicy, layered onion sure to make the characters’ eyes water.
Bring corruption to bear against the party through means of trade, services, relationships, laws, and environment.
Use corruption to make other encounters more difficult. You might find this article on using bureaucracy in your game world of interest as supplemental material.