FORMS OF GOVERNMENT
The next thing you’re going to want to consider is what sort of government (if any) each society that inhabits your fictional world will have and how stable it is. If you take a look inside any typical history book, you will quickly realize that the story it tells is mainly concerned with the political arena, and that the events focused on most are those that lead up to and take place during and after periods of political instability (or other crises, such as war, famine, drought, and plague, all of which can cause political instability but needn’t necessarily do so). Any period during which there is relative political stability is likely to be glossed over in a history book because history is really the story of how things got to be how they are today; in other words, it is the story of how things have changed, not how they have stayed the same. If things never changed there wouldn’t be much of a demand for history books.
Still, maybe you’d rather your fantasy stories took place in a time and place of political stability so that you can focus solely on the story of your characters and their daily lives. There’s nothing wrong with that; but you might want to write a bit of history for the region anyway, which your characters can allude to once in a while, in order to give the story more depth, as J. R. R. Tolkien did from time to time in The Hobbit. On the other hand, unless you are writing your fantasy novel in the guise of a history book, you’re going to want any political events to be mostly just a backdrop for the real story which is of the characters and their daily lives and relationships. A great example of how this is done can be found in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Even when he’s writing about political events and intrigues which directly concern the political higher-ups, it’s always from their very human perspective.
When it comes to the tidal forces of great events of government, war, and diplomacy, it is always how they affect real people that we want to read or hear about. That’s why history books can often be a dull read; their authors are constrained to cram many important events into a comparatively short narrative, with very little room for character development. That being said, once you know all the ins and outs of how your society is organized, you will be able to add this extra dimension to your storytelling in a natural way that will give it depth and interest without dumping a boatload of dry facts on the reader’s head all at once. For Gamemasters, of course, this will be a natural consequence of running your campaign, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t hurt to have as much as possible of the history of your world already written so you aren’t constantly forced to come up with stuff on the spot. Also, this probably goes without saying, but if you do end up making a few things up as you go along, it’s important to take notes, as most if not all of your players likely will!
Likewise, whether you’re writing a fantasy novel or running a tabletop roleplaying campaign, unless you really like flying by the seat of your pants (I’m a plantser myself), it will help to have at least a vague idea of what sort of government (again, if any) your characters or player’s characters will be operating under, if only to give the world a bit more depth and realism (not to mention consequences). Perhaps from time to time the inhabitants of your fantasy world will discuss the latest political intrigue, or complain about the recent increase in taxes, or gleefully plot their bloody rise to the throne, but however you introduce these elements, it will help if you first create at least the barest outline, perhaps a political tree (like a family tree, only showing political relationships and hierarchies–and in the case of royalty, this may be a family tree as well), at least just so you can keep it all straight in your head. It’s not something you need include in your published works, unless you want to (but keep in mind that even Tolkien put his own diagrams of this sort in the appendices of his greatest novel, The Lord of the Rings).
The type of political system your society has is also going to be determined by the type of society as outlined previously. After all, a hunter-gatherer society is not likely to have tax collectors, trade commissions, or a paid police force. In general, the more complex the society, the greater the importance of law over custom, and the greater the importance of law over custom, the greater the need for officials and/or political institutions to enforce the law.
Below are listed a few types of government you can play around with (and if you want more ideas, here’s an exhaustive list of forms of government from acracy to xenocracy).
Government by none.
Government by the nobility.
Government by a body of ranked individuals. Originally meant government by priests.
Government by priests or by religious law.
Government by the wealthy.
Government by the people.
Government by a single individual, usually royalty.
Government by two individuals.
Government by a small body of individuals.
Government by a body of elected representatives.
In a future post, I’ll get into a few of these different forms of government in more detail, as we explore the more complex types of societies that were able to evolve as a result of the first agricultural revolution.