D&D 5E Brainstorming/Worldbuilding: A Land of Lost Hope

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Okay, sorry for the unclear title. Basically, I've been having this idea in my head for quite awhile now of having a nation in my homebrew world that is an authoritarian country ruled by a dictatorship-magocracy that uses D&D's different casting classes to stabilize their country and keep the power centralized in its rulers (in my version it's a Triumvirate of biologically immortal evil mages, but it theoretically could be anything, from an evil council of spellcasters to a single magical dictatorship, or even a hidden figure that the public never sees that may or may not actually exist/still be alive, much like Big Brother from 1984). I've always loved the power of D&D's spellcasting system and its flexibility, and practically all of the BBEGs in my D&D campaigns have been super powerful spellcasters (Erandis Vol in my Eberron campaign, Halaster Blackcloak in my Dungeon of the Mad Mage campaign, etc). There's just something so satisfying as a DM of being able to use the players' own tools against them and watch them squirm as they try to come up with some way to beat the villian (and eventually succeed, like they always do). As the saying goes, "a story is only as good as its villain(s)", after all, and effective villains thrive on power and the competence to use what the resources that are available to them. Nothing will make a D&D villain more powerful and give them as large of a toolbox in D&D 5e as Spellcasting does.

(Also, note that this is sort of a sequel thread to this one of mine that I created awhile back.)

And this train of thought combined with a few books that I had been reading/had on my mind recently, primarily being Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Beyonders by Brandon Mull, and 1984 by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), which all involve authoritarian regimes that have nigh-complete control over their people, and use very effective and frightening tactics to keep their citizens under control. The idea the came from this was to take some of these ideas and combine them together into a nation in a D&D world that uses similar tactics to the villains in these books as well as D&D 5e's spellcasting system. A nation led by evil spellcasters, with factions made up of evil spellcasters, that use 5e spells to keep their people under control. The players in a campaign taking place in this landscape would likely be rebels, trying to take down the regime that's oppressing their people, and would have to fight against a power that has no rivals in the local climate. The single most powerful "entity"/organization in the land. No divinities to save them, no band of adventurers from outside the nation to come to the rescue, only the party and their small band of friends/allies within the nation, struggling to stand up against this monstrous dominion that has ruled over their people for as long as anyone within the nation can remember. This would be a Land of Lost Hope, where the only chance of liberation that the citizens of the nation have would be in the PCs, who are up against a government so powerful that it has lasted over a millennia without being overthrown. Longer than any empire in the real world, with power beyond the comprehension of us on Earth.

Now, the exact details of what race the people/regime is composed of is fairly unimportant here. This also goes for their origins/history, the individuals within the society and government, as well as exactly how old the regime is. So long as the country is old enough that the people have lost hope of freedom, because they have forgotten exactly what freedom means, and that the nation has had no major uprisings within the last century or so, all that really matters are the methods of the regime (i.e. how, exactly, they control their people so well). We've already narrowed that down fairly well: Magic. Spellcasting. That's what the regime uses. However, D&D 5e has quite a few different ways to use/gain magic, so we're going to have to get a bit more specific than that. For this part, I'm going to go down each spellcasting class/subclass that the leaders of the government have abundant numbers of in their organization, how they use them to control the public, and what they would be called in the society. Let's get started:
  1. Artificers. I'm not exactly clear on what these ones should be called, but they're definitely going to be the faction within the government that provides them with their weaponry (both magical, mundane, and siege weaponry). Artillerists are common here. Ultimate destruction of all that oppose them is what's important here. This group is actually less important than most of the other groups of spellcasters that work for this regime, but are still notable for their job in the nation. Think "STARK Industries, but really evil". (I'm open to suggestions on both the name of this group as well as their role in the government.)
  2. Bards (with this specific part of the government being called the "Obligators". Thanks, Brandon Sanderson). Now this is where things start getting fun. Bards in this organization aren't like standard D&D bards. They don't write songs or poems, or play musical instruments. Instead, this group of primarily College of Eloquence bards write the speeches, chants, and propaganda for the people of the nation to read. They rile up crowds, mind-control others to aid their current needs/goals, and rehabilitate those that commit thoughtcrime (thanks, Orwell). They're simultaneously in charge of the "news" in this nation, as well as using enchantment music to control the public (either through minor stuff like Suggestion, Calm Emotions, Command, and Friends, to stuff like Dominate Person, Geas, Modify Memory, and similar magic). When the organization finds someone that has committed "treason" (including thoughtcrime), they will eventually be sent to the Obligators to have their minds altered until they're sufficiently brainwashed to go back into normal society in this nation. (This site and others recently have had quite a few discussions about "Enchantment is the real evil school of magic", and this group of the organization is basically the embodiment of how you can use enchantment magic in an evil way.)
  3. Clerics (being called "Justiciars". Thanks, Skyrim). The Order Clerics of this nation are in charge of both the "justice" system of the nation, as well as the State Religion of the worship of its God-Emperors, and its police force. They get to be the Jury, the Judge, the Executioner, and the Priest all in one! They're extremely Lawful Evil, but not in the Baator sense of "I'm lawful until it would benefit me to betray a superior and take their place". No, no, no. They're not at all like that. They're Lawful Evil in the sense that they follow a strict code of law, but are extremely evil, and are aware that good behavior will have them eventually be promoted if noticed by their superiors. They don't backstab each other, and obey the law to the extreme. Unfortunately for the people of the nation, the law is written to be absolutely horrific from real world standards. Did you accidentally insult someone that has higher rank than you within the nation? You get to have your mind probed by the Monitors and have your life turned upside-down as they try to see if you've committed Thoughtcrime. If you have, you get sent to the Inquisitors to be tortured until they can get everything you know out of you, who then hand you over to the Obligators for the "reconditioning".
  4. Druids. I don't exactly see a place for druids in this nation. "The Old Ways" and "oneness with nature" are kinda going against the grain of the core identity of the nation, so I imagine that they're probably pretty rare in this society. If they do exist, it's as a group of elite, top-secret spies that Wild Shape into everyday animals to spy on the general public (however, the Monitors are already largely in charge of that, through using their scrying sensors and familiars to keep tabs on the public). So, yeah, this group either doesn't exist within the nation's government, or if it does, no one knows about it and they're largely redundant with the other groups within the government. Or, they might just grow the food for the nation, and not be that important or organized whatsoever.
  5. (Here I'm going to note that while they don't have notable positions or roles within the government, Fighters definitely exist within its military/guard force. Monks probably don't exist, though, and if they do, it's mostly Way of Mercy Monks focusing on torturing those that have committed thoughtcrime.)
  6. Paladins (called "Conscriptors", thanks Brandon Mull). Consciptors are primarily Oath of Conquest Paladins, firm believers in "might makes right" and "hope must be crushed at all costs". They're in charge of the Military and guards of the nation, and often answer to the Justiciars. Whether or not they're actually at war with anyone is a matter of debate and ultimately up to how the DM interprets their role in any given campaign taking place in this land, but they are indeed the primary tool of "we have always been at war with Eastasia" if the DM wants to include it in their campaign. When they're not off doing war or guarding the nation from enemies, they're in charge of one of the nation's primary tactics against its own people: Fear. They're conquest paladins! Frightening both their enemies and their allies is the main source of their power and draw! They lead the military parades, give the speeches and use the warchants written by Obligators, and hold public executions for "war criminals" and "prisoners of war" that are captured from their enemies (again, whether or not they or the war are actually real is a matter of debate). Their primary goal is to keep the public so scared (not just of them, but also of their "enemies") that they wouldn't dare commit thoughtcrime, because there's no better way to crush hope and the human spirit that the threat of death if you don't comply!
  7. (Another note: Rangers probably only exist as members of the army. Much like Druids, they probably don't have any major role in this kind of authoritarian government, largely because of their primal nature (pun intended), but also because their abilities and overall theme doesn't vibe that well with the theme of the authoritarian regime. Additionally, while Sorcerers and Warlocks still exist, they are super rare, practically non-existent in the nation's government, and are also almost always just straight-up executed for "thoughtcrime" or "treason" if they're ever discovered.)
  8. Arcane Trickster Rogues (called "Inquisitors"). If you've read 1984, you'll know of the Thought Police (aka "thinkpol"). In this nation, the "Thought Police" are split up into two main groups to make use of their specialties: the Monitors (Divination Wizards) and the Inquisitors. The Monitors are the ones behind the more "hands-off" group of this nation's Thought Police, while the Inquisitors are much more . . . personal. They use Disguise Self and other Illusion magic to infiltrate the daily life of normal citizens, pretending to be them for a time before just disappearing eventually to take upon a new role. If the government discovers a group of rebels (probably through their Monitors), they'll send in the Inquisitors to infiltrate them and take them down from the inside (like O'Brien from 1984). Once they have discovered all that the rebels know, they'll betray them and take them to the Justiciars to have their crimes judged, and then later to the Obligators to be reconditioned (with the Inquisitor that took them down typically being in charge of torturing the rebels that they caught while the Monitors probe their minds and Obligators reprogram them to become "fit for reintroduction to society" once again). While interrogating caught rebels, they often use Phantasmal Force to manifest their nightmares in order to discover the extent of their crimes, as well as classic torture methods.
  9. Divination Wizards (called "Monitors"). The other half of the Thought Police from 1984, the Monitors are the ones that handle spying on their own citizens. However, unlike 1984, they don't have to make use of poorly hidden cameras and telescreens, instead using invisible scrying sensors, hidden-in-plain-sight Familiars, and even good-ol'-fashioned mind-reading to discover if the citizens that they're in charge of . . . erm, monitoring, have committed any sort of crimes. Have you wondered how the Justiciars know how to prosecute someone of Thoughtcrime without wrongfully accusing people? Well, the Monitors constantly casting Detect Thoughts is how they accomplish that. So, yeah, that's their job. They spy on their own people, and if they discover some sort of crime, they send the Justiciars' Police Force after them (who then typically use Hold Person and similar spells to restrain them as they arrest them). If they committed thoughtcrime, they instead first send the Inquisitors after them to see if they can root out any other traitors, and then turn them over to the Justiciars. As stated above, they also aid in the interrogations of those that commit thoughtcrime, as well as serving as witnesses in court when "criminals" that they caught are put on trial.
That's the basic rundown of who the party would be going up against in a campaign that takes place in this type of nation. Take that, Dark Sun and Ravenloft! Who's the most gritty, grimdark setting in D&D now!? (/s)

So, now that we covered exactly how the base form of government functions and is maintained, let's cover what happens when players enter the picture. Now, clearly this world is very hostile to the typical image of a D&D adventuring party, and there could be major consequences if the PCs are discovered, which is practically inevitable with how the nation is run. However, PCs can exist, in a few different possible origins. I'll cover some of the different types of characters that the players can draw inspiration from when creating their characters here:
  1. The Winston. The PC grew up in this society, has lived almost all of their life thoroughly brainwashed, and just recently discovered how absolutely terrible it actually is. They're probably fairly well off in comparison to the average citizen of the society, but are struggling to keep their realization and acts of thoughtcrime a secret, and are in the process of attempting to learn of any weaknesses that the system of government may have. Their main hope comes from finding other people that have also "escaped the Matrix" to give them hope of eventually overthrowing their oppressors.
  2. The Julia. The PC has always known that there was something wrong with this society, routinely being oppressed by its system, and have kept a low-enough profile throughout their life that they haven't been caught committing thoughtcrime (yet). Typical classes could be Bard, Monk, Rogue, or Sorcerer. (For if they're a Sorcerer, they may be similar to Vin from Mistborn, secretly and unknowingly using their magical powers throughout their life, and never being caught, until now . . .)
  3. The Michael (thanks, The Good Place). The PC has been a member of the government for a long time, happy to receive the privileges that they've been given by the system through sheer luck, but being completely aware of the oppression that the government routinely enforces on its lower class, and fine to go along with it. However, recently they had an awakening, grew some morals, and are trying to take down the system . . . one way or the other. They might still be in it for themselves, they might decide to turn on the party if a situation presents itself where that would be advantageous, or they genuinely might have done a heel-face turn. This character is almost definitely a member of a class determined by the part of the government they were/are a member of, but there might be some outliers (like they were secretly a Sorcerer the whole time while pretending to be a Bard, Cleric, or Wizard).
  4. The Kelsier (thanks, Mistborn). The PC committed thoughtcrime (and probably some other crimes), was caught, and somehow avoided being killed/having their memory be wiped and mind reprogrammed. They might have even gained some super-awesome magical powers in the process (possibly becoming a Sorcerer, Warlock, Paladin, or Cleric in the process), which probably aided them in escaping their terrible fate.
  5. The Outsider. You're from somewhere else (possibly just another nation, to another Plane of Existence or World of the Multiverse), and recently came to the nation (probably accidentally). You're probably on the run from the Justiciars (or even the Conscriptors), as outsiders are regularly hunted down and executed as "war criminals". You can theoretically be any race or class, especially if you're from a different world/plane of existence.
And that's about it for now. I might post more ideas in this thread later on as I get them, but I'm pretty satisfied with the base concept right now. Feel free to give suggestions, ask questions, or just discuss any of the ideas presented in this post. This country would be an absolutely terrible place to live, but potentially very fun to play in and explore as a player. It would be tricky, though.

Thoughts? Ideas?
 
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High and wide magic would make it very difficult to stay hidden, kind of a Matrix situation. Low level characters would almost have to count on the loyal forces being distracted by much bigger problems than the PCs can cause.

I'd like to offer up my alt-Trickster, a rogue that specializes in hiding the revolution. It needs another rewrite because some of the language is a bit off and none of my players have picked it up. The Veil and Shadow is an attempt to hide from powerful mages (in my case dragons, lots of them).
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
High and wide magic would make it very difficult to stay hidden, kind of a Matrix situation. Low level characters would almost have to count on the loyal forces being distracted by much bigger problems than the PCs can cause.
Yeah, it would. I've been thinking of making a player option (maybe a supernatural gift? A Feat? Or a race?) where you're effectively "null" to magic, so scrying sensors and similar spells don't work on you. That could help the players. Or maybe some illusion spells that specifically fool scrying sensors?
I'd like to offer up my alt-Trickster, a rogue that specializes in hiding the revolution. It needs another rewrite because some of the language is a bit off and none of my players have picked it up. The Veil and Shadow is an attempt to hide from powerful mages (in my case dragons, lots of them).
Thanks. I'll take a look at this when I can.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
Your set-up resembles Nazi Germany only far more efficient due to magic, at least in terms of control. Even without magic, around 80% of Gestapo arrests were down to informants, rather than their own investigations.
So where are the chinks in this system of control that the players can exploit?
Well, holding to the Germany post-1933 analogy, they could lie in the system itself: there were immense rivalries among leading Nazis and a constant jostling for power and influence under Hitler. This could form a way in for players by initially being protected by a powerful, evil patron attempting to undermine a rival’s own machinations, but revealing potential weaknesses in doing so.
A second area is that control, even total control, fails to guarantee success in terms of the economy (particularly as this type of regime may find foreign trade difficult) and starvation creates desperation, no matter how effective control is.
Thirdly, foreign powers. A country like this is probably perceived as a threat, and other states are likely to attempt to undermine or sabotage. A foreign-funded espionage programme could include magical protection (amulets of mind protection etc) available for its agents.
Finally, resistance. I like to think that courage and decency can often shine, even in darkness: it might be worth you looking at the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany, and then applying a bit of magic to it for your setting.

Sounds like a great game.
 

I do like that you are mostly going for a pastiche of dystopian hyper-controlling fiction. Some of the elements from Solo and Rogue One, though not fantasy, could help inspire how to rebel against a power so much mightier than the PCs.
 

steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
Seems like Rangers, Druids, and Sorcerers would be your default "Rebels" characters. Those individuals with magical power who would be the only ones capable of masking their activities from magically prying eyes and sensors in such a society...and/or outside the society. You could also use Druids as "Witches" (according to the propaganda) who are those crazy evil magic workers in the wilds...definitely not to be trusted. Definitely innately evil and against the society. Rangers...as the original/former Druidic organization's guard/defensive forces are automatically enemies of the state for defending the wicked "witches" in the wilds trying to destroy society. Sorcerers...meh, well they're sorcerers. So they have their own magic they can CHOOSE to use for good. They don't depend on the society's corrupting brainwashing magical academies or organizational indoctrinations...and they are, rather [super]naturally, prone to be able to thwart or overcome the overlords' mental tamperings.

So if the wizards, bards, clerics, and paladins are the "bad guys." Supported by scads of non-magical henchmen fighters and rogues. Rangers, sorcerers, and druids are those -the only ones really- capable of rallying a resistance because they can supply cover from divinations, some infiltration magics, AND undo the magical influence of the ruling class/castes...allowing them to add to their numbers. Then they also get some fighters and rogues of conscience (or self-interest) to work with them. Barbarians, similarly, could work for either side.
 

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