Salutations, nerds! I hope you’re ready to do some 5E D&D worldbuilding because today we’re going to be talking about revolutions and empires, and what you need if the tabletop roleplaying game storyline you’re planning on running has to do with unseating someone currently in power. Please note, this is going to be a quick run down, not a comprehensive list. I’ve got the span of a quick article to do this — nope, two. Two quick articles. I’ve done the thing again where I had more to say than I thought I did. Ahem. But. I’m going to try to give you enough to springboard off of and hopefully enough to get the gears turning in your head for what you want to do with your plot. Got your notebooks out? Ready? Let’s dive in.
After the revolution
What makes people stay
First point: Why are people following this ruler? I know there will be the temptation to immediately jump to “This ruler is the worst ruler and you are now motivated to go unseat him!”
Do not do this.
You want your players to believe in the villain they are fighting against, so there needs to be a credible reason as to why this person has been able to amass such a force in the first place. Which means your Dark Lord is going to have to offer the people something, because regardless of what else happens he is still just one man. (Perhaps she is still just one woman, you don’t see Dark Ladies as often…)
So typically, what is being offered will be one of a couple of things.
People bend to convenience. Your ruler could be streamlining trade throughout the reaches by opening portals for people to trade their goods.
People bend to safety. If your ruler has a way to stop all the outside threats from hurting people, they might be more willing to put up with their personal brand of subjugation for the sake of not having their brains ripped out by mindflayers.
People bend when they are the ones benefitting. If this is a society where there is a higher class controlling everything, your dark lord wants those people to be the ones of the most use, because it’s in their best interests to keep everyone else down.
Also bear in mind the concept of panem et circuses, bread and circuses. Give your fictional powerhouse something to entertain the masses with. They could be spreading an addictive drug throughout the populace — a literal opiate of the masses. They could offer them something entertaining to watch as Rome did with the gladiatorial arena. Also coincidentally, this is the reason the country in The Hunger Games was called Panem.
Once you’ve figured out how people are benefiting from your dark lord’s rule, then you can move on to why your player characters want to take them down so badly.
Why the ruler is the bad guy
The answer is not, “He’s Hitler, moving on.” Flashy uniforms and large banners are not shorthand for “these are the bad guys.” You probably want a better reason. Genocide is a pretty damn good reason of course, but be careful. I don’t have to tell you how important consenting to content is at the gaming table and if you’re going to get into darker themes, you’re want to make sure your players are cool with this direction.
There are dozens of reasons players might want to see a leader fall from grace. And don’t ever underestimate the power of making it personal, for them. It doesn’t have to be because they’re terrible and the world would be better off without them. It could be as simple as, “They killed my family when they overthrew my lands.”
Opulence is a display of power, of course, and one people tend to lean on quite heavily. When there are people in the empire who can’t afford life saving medicine for their children, those gilded towers are going to start making them feel pretty salty.
If one of your PCs is one of the people who is being subjugated in this system, they’re going to want to revolt. Perhaps one of your PCs really wants the throne for themselves.
If you’re playing with a mostly good party, you have ways of showing them this whole system is more corrupt than it looks, particularly if most of the people in it are being lied to. And they are probably being lied to. Everyone tells their people they’re special and enjoy liberties other people don’t.
For this part, the bigger picture doesn’t matter as much as the parts your PCs are seeing. Think about who suffers most. It won’t be the majority or the force they’re going to topple would have collapsed in on itself long ago. Ultimately, you want to challenge your players. A small threat will not be a satisfying challenge.
One easy way to manage this is to ask your players at the beginning of session one: Why does your character want this to change? Are they from a conquered land, treated poorly during the fight that took them? Did they see their family wiped out at the hands of the current emperor and no one else seems to care? Do they see the plight of the less fortunate and want to do something about it?
Okay, we’ve talked about motive. Next time around we’re going to talk about practice. The things your PCs need to attack to unseat their ruler in the first place, the things they’ll need to do to prepare for the aftermath of a power vacuum and what happens if they don’t.
If you want to do further research on the matter, Hello Future Me over on YouTube has an excellent trilogy on the topic.
If you’ve got a story about a rebellion plot gone wrong or right, please, let me hear about it in the comments below. And as always, stay nerdy.