The old 1st Edition DMG had a list of government types that DM's could consider using in their campaigns. I got to thinking about that one day and came up with the following:
This is a government that comes to power through an open thieves guild takeover. It may be that the prior government was actually more corrupt than the so-called criminals are and that this is actually a step toward a more just form of rule. It may simply be that the rulership was inept enough that a well-organized guild could seize power. Certainly the "theft" of a city, or better yet an entire country, from its ruler(s) has to be one of the greatest crimes that could be committed. The ability of a government to use the guise of lawful rulership to squeeze money from a populace is very tempting.
Whatever the Mafia have in mind when they take over it is very important to determine how such an unusual government would operate. If they simply plan to loot the country ten ways from Sunday and then give it to whoever wants it the rule is likely to be harsh, totalitarian, and dependant on keeping the population in a state of fear. However, if Organized Crime simply saw an opportunity and took over without some real plan in mind what would they do once the dust settled?
Criminal organizations might be quite unprepared to deal with the day to day struggles of operating a government. Unless they had some fairly inspired leadership I'd say it's likely their rule would be fairly brief - especially if they have any trouble keeping people content. If the thieves' guild leadership is serious about running things properly the thieves' guild itself is likely to see some very drastic and rapid changes.
I think it's likely that once in power a guildmaster may give up any claim to his guild. It's hard to steal from people with the left hand while you try to rule and even protect them with the right - the two objectives tend to contradict each other. I can see a reasonable Guildmaster trying to "go legit" at this point and asking most of the top echelons of his organization to do the same. If he's really cagey he'll realize that having a thieves guild is inevitable and rather than abandon it he'll let it run with government blessings and oversight. The old guild can evolve into, or do double duty as, the new Secret Police but in any case this can allow the new ruler to have a unique control on crime.
This brings to mind the Discworld series of novels by Terry Pratchett. In the city of Ankh-Morpork the thieves guild is so pervasive that people who are robbed or mugged are given receipts by the guild so that nobody gets robbed of too much or too often - crime is spread "fairly" to all the citizens.
Military threats are probably the most dangerous area for a Mafia government. The very fact that the thieves have taken over suggests that internally the country was already very weak. If it can be taken from the inside it is probably just as fragile from the outside and any neighboring governments might see the change in government as the perfect time to strike militarily when command and control are the most confused.
The second possibility, and the more likely, is that the man on the throne doesn't change but the real power is now held by those who operate illegally behind the scenes. The legitimate government might even be a somewhat willing participant in the shift of power if the Mafia have sufficiently infiltrated the government before finally moving to solidify themselves as the power behind the throne. It could also be that the power is wielded so skillfully and so secretly that it goes unnoticed - the king may think he is making his own decisions but if all his advisors are "controlled" by the Mafia then his decision making is highly compromised. If the criminal elements have permeated the rulership of a society they may not have precise enough control to make the government into a puppet but they may not want to either. If they can simply run their illegal operations more openly or efficiently by seeing to it that the government fails to stop them or even facilitates their efforts they may be happy to limit their attempts to control the government at that.
This puts me in mind of Chicago of the 1920's era when Al Capone and other gangsters used the profits from their bootlegging and other illegal operations for bribery and had a near stranglehold on the police and the politicians.
The main threat I see, though, is still a military one. Keeping a government from moving against criminal elements would tend to involve keeping the government ineffective at doing anything at all. Degrees of control higher than this would be hard to achieve when you are trying to keep your control of the government a secret.
The possibilities here are similar to those of a Mafia-run government but on a far more legal basis. A takeover by some sort of cartel is easily possible if the business that that cartel controls is highly important for the city/country. Say, for example, that a small country is highly dependent upon trading its mined ores with other countries for goods. Now its mines come under control of a cartel or syndicate. However that syndicate wants to run things is going to be how things are run because the country may not be able to survive otherwise.
Another possible approach is that it's a sociological phenomenon where everyone is obsessed with business (the Ferengi of Star Trek spring to mind). In this case the leaders of business are by default the political leaders as well. Decisions are made, not by what is just or best for the people, but by what will be best for business or increase profits.
There are a great number of real-world examples of dictatorships. A dictatorship does not necessarily have to be bad (there have been benevolent dictators who have ruled well), but placing absolute power in the hands of one person who directly controls a society seldom seems to lead to a pleasant end. Many people seem to regard the position of a King in a fantasy setting as being the position of a "Benevolent Dictator". In real life, however, a King is far more often restricted to at least a modest degree. He could be restrained by the religion of his people or society; a constitution might restrict his powers; a social/political caste of nobility in the land could scheme to replace the king if he can't keep them happy or something similar. A king doesn't rule by force alone. He must obey the same laws as the people that he rules. Okay, he obeys most of the laws.
A more likely sort of dictator is a hatemonger who blames all the ills of his society on a select race, religious group, social class, or (since this is D&D) a specific character class (mages being a common target here). Stirring up hatred and fear of these persecuted people a dictator might then be swept to power by promising to eliminate the "problems" the scapegoats are "responsible" for causing.
The political advantage to be found in a dictatorship is that power can be rapidly applied wherever it is needed. If a problem arises the dictator does not have to follow any laws, political processes, or consult with anyone. He just gives orders and the problem is solved (assuming his orders are appropriate). Therein lies the problem, even for a benevolent dictator. Things naturally tend not get done without his direct order and that means that he may have to be making so many decisions that he cannot deal with it. Also, if he is mistaken in giving his orders no one under him can contradict those orders without placing himself at great personal or political risk.
A common method of becoming a dictator is the straightforward military takeover. One of the dangers a dictator has to deal with is maintaining his position at the top. If he doesn't maintain a reliable power base once he's at the top he loses his ability to ensure that his orders are followed. Then someone else might be able to create a power base sufficient to replace him. Even having a cadre of loyal followers may not be enough: the most common replacement for a dictator is - another dictator. Dictators thus often need to keep tight control over the very same military forces that enabled them to become dictators.
Plenty of good examples exist where competing noble families form the government. In this case though I began thinking more along the lines of the module The Vault of the Drow and plantations of the pre-Civil War American south (complete with accents!). I hadn't thought about the slavery issue at first but this wouldn't be the first D&D government to use institutionalized slavery (however benign the intent).
Anyway, I envisioned a society that exaggerated the institution of the plantation for economic reasons but that the owners of those plantations were the only ones eligible for composing the government.
I don't know if it would actually have a formal name but this sounds accurate to what I had in mind. That is, a government where not just the top dog (king, emperor...) is hereditary but where members of a single family hold the entire government and even virtually all positions of real authority. Nobody but that family is allowed to rule. No one from another family has ever been allowed to rule and that's all that the family does is rule. It's a concept I thought might be interesting, particularly if this family were possessed of some trait that no other family were known to have such as psionics.
There are a couple of problems I could see occurring with such an arrangement. First, there may not be enough family members to go around. This might end up restricting the ability of the government, forcing the use of 5 year old Ministers of the Interior, or compromising the "one family rules all" standard. The other is that there might be too many family members with nothing to do. Once you start getting into cousins of cousins of your third brothers uncle you can get a lot of people who have "authority without portfolio". That kind of leads into the last problem which is that not everyone in the family may be suited for positions of authority or that it will undoubtedly eventually come to pass that the power gets abused unless there are restrictions placed on that authority.
How about a land run by committees that adheres almost religiously to the equivalent of Roberts Rules of Order. Even minor concerns result in the creation of whole new departments or sub-committees to oversee the causes, solutions, etc. Of course, the government response to just about everything would be glacially slow since things have to be handled by consensus of not just one committee but all those committees who have jurisdiction. There might even be a need for a whole bureau that simply tries to determine which bureaus DO have jurisdiction.
Probably not the sort of nation you want to make the central focus of your campaign but it might be interesting as a lesser nation visited by the PC's.
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