[MUD-Dev] DGN: Lords, Vassals, Serfs and the Clergy

Jaycen Rigger jaycen.rigger at sbcglobal.net
Sat May 7 19:11:05 New Zealand Standard Time 2005

(Why player governments never work in fantasy MMORPGs)

I've been on a lot of 'player-run' servers.  I've been a Game Master
(GM) on a few.  One concept that never works out is a player-run
city. The reasons for this vary, but rarely do those reasons have
much to do with the ability of the 'mayor' to be a good leader.  The
problem is that designers don't write game mechanics to handle the

Sadly, administrators think that voting (handled either by the
players, or by a GM) is a good way to choose a ruler.  Worse, they
think the players should be able to enforce the rule of law through
'good role-playing' or by shear Lord of the Flies governance (if you
don't listen to me, I'll get my 4 buddies to kill your character and
loot you).  The worst scenario is when an administrator thinks that
a player can rule a city through the beneficent influence of a GM
assigned to that player's city.

VOTING is the basis of democracy.  Democracies make no sense in
terms of a fantasy role-playing game.  Beyond the fact that it's
difficult to get a fair and accurate account of votes from your
player-base (people might not log in for weeks at a time),
democracies make 'getting things done' hard to do.  When things are
left up to a committee, progress grinds to a halt.  In an on-line
world, where there's no real consequence to your choices (you don't
have to live with the effects) it's hard to get people to understand
how important those choices are.  This is especially true if much of
your player-base is young.

PLAYER ENFORCEMENT doesn't work because when it comes to
role-playing, there is no set standard.  If someone chooses not to
'go along' with your idea of role-playing, then the system instantly
breaks down.  Without the ability to actually enforce your will
through the mechanics of the game there is no way for you to
actually have any authority.

GAME MASTER ENFORCEMENT is the worst policy because it always leads
to favoritism.  Even when it doesn't, everyone will think it does.
A Game Master or group of Game Masters will not be able to
objectively and fairly apply all rules all the time to all players.
It simply isn't possible.

It is possible for player governance to be a success, but certain
changes to the game will be required:

  A player government must be built into the game mechanics to
  function.  Game Masters should only have to intervene in rare
  circumstances (the ruler doesn't log in for long periods of time,
  etc).  There must be an in-game system for players to become
  rulers, and for those same players to have their rule deposed.
  The ruler must have real authority over his lands within the game
  and that authority must be backed by the game mechanics.  There
  must be some motivation for the rest of the player-base to:

    1. Put another player into a position of power.

    2. To actually follow the rule of that player or another with
    similar power. (i.e. What's in it for me?)

      - Removal of the ruler from his position of power must result
      in a negative impact for that ruler's subjects.

      - A system must exist to back up the ruler's reign so the
      negative effect of the ruler being deposed is thwarted.

      - The entire system must support the ruler's power and make
      removal of the ruler difficult in order for the system to
      attain stability.

History provides the perfect model for a societal structure that
will function in the context of a fantasy MMORPG.  The rigid
hierarchy of feudal Europe is an ideal system on which to model the
typically chaotic social disorder of a virtual world.

To support the ruler and 'begin the process' of erecting a society,
a system for religion is required.  In most societies, the 'chief'
rules by divine right, or the two power structures are closely

Religions give characters sub-groups in which they can participate
and upon which the greater societal structure is formed.  The
religious orders must have the ability to police themselves via a
game mechanic for indoctrinating new priests and followers, as well
as excommunicating priests and followers who fail to participate in
the religion in a way that is deemed appropriate by the group.
Ultimately, the gods of the religion(s) should be played by Game
Masters who can help 'influence' the direction the order follows.

Priests must not be allowed to be rulers through the game mechanics.
That is, unless a pure theocracy is desired, and the entire game
world is built upon this principle.  Otherwise, that's what you'll

A priest should be necessary to the creation of a ruler.  My
suggestion is that each major city be laid out similarly, such that
each city has its own castle.  The castle is the seat of power, and
is the place in which the ruler should be required to conduct his
official business.  If commands which are accessible to only a ruler
are only accessible while the ruler is in the castle, then the ruler
is encouraged to spend time in the place which serves to maintain
the context of the game.  It is in this castle that the potential
ruler and priest must meet in order to confer the title to the new

I'm also suggesting that multiple religions be capable of performing
the same 'anointing ritual' on the ruler, so a ruler can strengthen
his rule by garnering the support of multiple faiths.  This also
leads into regional banking.

Once a character has become a ruler, he can immediately begin to
subject other Player Characters.  If a PC agrees to subject himself
to the ruler's power, that PC instantly gains any and all benefits
conferred by the active improvements in that ruler's city, and the
PC begins to pay taxes on the next, and subsequent tax cycles.

PCs should be taxed at a standard rate set by the game.  Rulers
should have the ability to adjust the prime tax rate by +/- 10% for
their particular city.  PC tax burden increases for property
ownership and merchant status (owning a player-vendor and vendor
stall).  This places an increasing tax burden upon those most likely
to create and hoard the most junk, encouraging those players to sell
off junk to pay taxes.

Each tax cycle, gold is collected from all the subjects of a city.
This takes the form of a pop-up window asking the player to pay
their taxes.  Requiring players to pay taxes directly and from their
pack (as opposed to having the gold automatically taken from their
'bank account') keeps the tax obligation in the mind of the player.
There is no penalty for failure to pay if the player has not logged
in for a few cycles.  The total tax due is simply collected on their
next log in.  At that time, the PC can pay their taxes, or go get
the gold required to pay and log out and back in, re-prompting the
PC for tax payment.

If a PC refuses tax payment long enough, however, the ruler can
choose to jail the character.  If the character's tax burden becomes
greater than their property value, the ruler can choose to repossess
the PC's property.  This removes the higher tax burden from the PC
(assuming the ruler doesn't kick them out of the city entirely), and
it grants the ruler ownership of all the PC's possessions within
that property.

Once a city accrues enough tax money in the 'coffers', the ruler can
begin to buy improvements for his city.  Each city improvement has a
start up cost and then draws gold from the coffers for upkeep.  Each
tax cycle, the system checks to see if there's going to be enough
gold in the coffers to cover each improvement.  If not, improvements
begin to disappear in order from the most expensive upkeep to the
least, until there is enough gold in the coffers to cover the burden
of the remaining city improvements.

City improvements should confer some skill or attribute bonus to
subjects of the city, or provide some service that is greatly
desired.  In any case, the reward for removing gold and items from
the system should be a service.  This resource/item sink helps to
increase the efficacy of the ruler system as a whole, and helps to
drive the entire system in a realistic fashion, even when the actual
systems for removing the resources aren't totally realistic.  Even
so, the realism with which these systems have been implemented in
some games ended up being a serious negative due to player
expectations of what a game should be (see Raph Koster's treatise on
player economies - work equals profit).

Finally, to add stability and longevity to the entire structure, and
in order to deal with those players who inevitably collect insane
amounts of gold, a 'hierarchy' system needs to be in place.  The
ruler needs to be able to sell 'titles of nobility' to the richest
players.  Titles are priced by the system, but who is allowed to buy
a title is the purview of the ruler.  The nobility must pay a one
time price for their title and then an upkeep fee that is higher
than the standard tax rate, but is not applied to the tax coffers,
but is kept in a separate fund.

If there is no hierarchy in place when the ruler is deposed, then
the entire political structure of that ruler's city collapses.  All
the city improvements and their conferred bonuses are lost.  If a
hierarchy exists, on their next login, each member of the top tier
is prompted for a vote.  If the vote succeeds, the new ruler is
chosen from the top tier, the second tier is then prompted for a
vote to move a member of that level to the next tier, and so on.
Assuming the top tier successfully votes in a new ruler, the gold in
the hierarchy fund is moved to the tax coffers to cover the cost of
all current city improvements until the next tax cycle as the
'ruling families use their own money to prop up the government
during the time of turmoil'.

The ruler would receive pressure from his own subjects to sell
titles to players who can afford them, so everyone doesn't suffer
should his rule be deposed.  At the same time, the ruler will want
to put players in positions of power whom he trusts.

The ruler enforces his law through his knights.  Knights are
standard fighter classes who are 1.) members of the same religion of
that anointed the ruler (or one of the other supporting religions in
the city) and 2.) a current subject of the city.  The ruler can
knight a fighter class character and turn him into a Paladin, the
sword arm of the Priests.  Priests can excommunicate a Paladin and
strip him of his powers should the priests wish.

I've got some more detailed ideas about rewarding crafters and other
classes with experience points and using those points in conjunction
with this system, but I'll save that for the next article.
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