Avoid Boring 5E D&D with Bureaucracy
You’ve made it! The domain is saved, you and your party are renowned for your successes and the big baddie behind the first big bad has been soundly beaten. You’ve mastered rare and powerful magics. New upstarts look to you and yours as an example of what could be. Mechanically, you’ve just reached 10th level as a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventurer. Now what?
Punching up 5E D&D with politics and bureaucracy
Mid-level 5E D&D seems to be a sort of tipping point for many people. With your party’s aspirations mostly achieved, all background stories wrapped up fairly well and the world as you know it currently out of harm’s way, what do you do? The middle levels of 5E D&D, which I’m defining as 9th-12th level, are a crossroads.
If you’re not careful those levels can dip into a sagging middle, transforming your once epic campaign into a boring string of empty combats or rehashing similar threats. Or worse yet jumping the shark so anything thereafter pales in comparison.
Maybe your Dungeon Master decides to go full stop and shift your attention to the outer planes. Your world is but one in need of saving and the cosmos awaits your influence. This is useful for groups who want to get weird with their encounters. It’s also great for players who live for combat both individual and tactical.
Another option — the option we’re coincidentally talking about today — involves maintaining your tangible empire and mastering the occult art of bureaucracy. This style is ideal for roleplay heavy groups and can recontextualize the inner workings of the domain at large.
Red tape, doused in blood
One can’t talk about bureaucracy without also talking politics. Every fantasy world possesses some form of government (at least every one I’ve encountered). Even if your characters started at the proverbial top sovereigns struggle on a daily basis to avoid their domains falling into the hands of another. After all the world is littered with people clawing for the top. You didn’t think your party were the only ones with grand aspirations did you?
In the courts of nobles a scandal is akin to a fireball spell. A secret is your Divine Smite. Your rogue wears a gilded mask at a ball instead of a tattered covering in the back alley. Every smile hides a knife and every word is laced with poison.
Sometimes, your party’s greatest enemy is not one who can brute force them into submission but a mundane lesser noble with a few too many allies among the kitchen staff. The games of nobility are a veritable chess match. The wrong move might cost you so much more than a mere game. Sometimes the most frustrating and devious villains are those within arm’s reach who are physically quite frail but socially the equivalent of a beholder.
To really drive home the dangers of the wrong slipped word or the lost wager try introducing characters to a few of their foe’s recent victims who lost a political duel with the current threat. Castles, weapons, magic and more might be severely taxed or regulated if not properly managed. Lives of serfs might be lost, taken on a capricious whim due to a suspected coup.
Using political games and bureaucracy to threaten all the characters have achieved and all the people they’ve known on their journeys is just one way to up the ante when it comes to a regal party or formal dinner conference. Shifting the focus of the campaign to maintaining what they have is an awesome way to avoid further power creep while emphasizing the preciousness of what the characters have — especially if they lose just one battle and pay a hefty price as a result.
Expand your world with kingdom romance
When I suggest you elaborate your worldbuilding with domain romance I don’t mean literal romance. Rather, the idea revolves around characters dancing in a grand diplomatic scheme.
Sending a 5E D&D party on diplomatic missions is an excellent way to expand the feel of the world and showcase cultures the characters have yet to encounter. It can also reframe cultures they encountered in a narrow purview and reveal nuances of such.
Maybe the party had a previous run in with some elven bandits and now they’re going into the domain only to learn these bandits have accosted everyone regardless of loyalties or race.
Much like the aforementioned soirees of the nobility, diplomatic endeavors can carry heavy stakes. However, with such missions there’s more openness for travel, solving more conventional adventurer problems and things of that nature.
Change the status quo
One of the biggest and most important points I need to emphasize when talking about using bureaucracy and politics in your 5E D&D games is the status quo must change in order for it to feel epic. Allow characters’ actions to have real and meaningful consequences on these domains they encounter. Make sure these consequences aren’t merely superficial.
If characters had a hand in the rise or fall of a monarch that’s something the players will remember but if the monarch doesn’t change anything it’s purely cosmetic. And that’s cheap.
Whether magical, political or anything else it’s important to make sure the characters’ actions have a real impact on the world around them either for positive if they succeed or negative if they fail. If you want to get really weird maybe allow a failed diplomatic mission to lead into something epic and magical or even extraplanar! Whatever you do let the players change things.
You can say the whole world is at stake a dozen different ways, whether threatened by encroaching illithid nautiloid ships or an invading army from a neighboring domain but if nothing the characters do holds any weight — if there’s no real risk of losing anything tangible — then there’s ultimately no difference.
When I run 5E D&D games I like to show players over time how their characters’ actions have impacted the world even if only in small ways. If a player made some great rolls with a legislator to lessen the taxes on the impoverished that person is likely to be a hero when among those people and the evidences of the change begin to show in society and the characters’ environment.
Whatever players choose, freedom or tyranny, make sure there are consequences because consequences feel special. And maybe with time the characters might even cut some of the red tape of bureaucracy binding their world.
*Featured image — In Frost King adventurers travel to the seat of the Frost King’s power for the Clansmeet and become embroiled in a cold-blooded murder investigation. Check it out here.