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D&D General How Would You Do Fantasy 1984?

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Okay, the title is pretty explanatory, but I'll explain it a bit more just in case some people aren't familiar with the book. 1984 is a classic and well-known dystopian novel written by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair was his real name) about the dangers of authoritarianism and government surveillance. If you haven't read the book, you should probably go do that, as it's a short read and it gets referenced a ton (crimethought, doublethink, and Big Brother are some of the most common references to it). A basic rundown of the plot that hopefully doesn't spoil to much for you (I'm not sure why I'm worried about spoiling a 72 year old book, though) is in the spoiler below.

The government in 1984 is attempting to (and succeeding at) erase all attempts to rebel against the government in both action and thought, torturing those who perform "crimethought" until they switch back to their side and begin to love Big Brother again (it has long since been disproven that torture can make someone love you, but that wasn't known when this book was written). They also are changing the English language in order to try and limit the possible ways to commit crimethought by tying simple, everyday words to political ideologies. They also profess that their word is law, especially if it contradicts reality, going so far as to edit documents to make sure that what was said in them is always true and always the same.

So, I don't want to truly replicate 1984 in a campaign, I more want to find a way that such a government in a fantasy world would use spells, racial abilities, and other magic in order to enforce a strong authoritarian state and keep their people under high surveillance in order to keep ahold of their power. Some examples that come to mind from fantasy book series are the Beyonders trilogy and the 5 Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull, both of which have fantasy worlds with evil leaders that use magic to establish/enforce their power as the ruler of the world. In the Beyonders, the Emperor Maldor is the world's only wizard, and he uses a race of body-part-droppers (Displacers) to spy on his enemies, forces the rivals into luxurious retirement in order to get them out of the way, uses rumors of weaknesses as red-herrings in order to test his enemies' power and recruit them if they manage to pass his tests.

So, the question is; how you would use spells, magic items, racial abilities, and other fantastical tools to enforce a dictatorial surveillance state in a D&D world/campaign? Some obvious examples come to mind, like divination magic (scrying, detect thoughts, and locate creature), Changelings and Intellect Devourers as the ultimate spies, Zone of Truth, Antimagic Field, Gift of Gab, Modify Memory, Golem/Construct servants, and so on.

Any thoughts? What kind of setting would you put this in? Would you make it be a specific region/country of the world, or would you be the whole setting that was ruled by this dictatorial state? Would you have the ruler simply be a powerful mage, or would you have them be an otherworldly being, such as a Mind Flayer or fallen angel?
 

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Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I find most settings that have some sort of "Inquisition" like force very 1984. I suppose good analogs are Warhammer Fantasy Battle, or Castlevania, where there is a strong religious element, but also a real demonic threat. Of course, some inquisitors are just abusing their positions for personal/political power. Others are fully convinced demonic forces are all around them and take swift merciless action at the slightest hint of heresy. Some are just sadistic and burn a whole town down to ensure that all demonic influence is purged.
 

Definitely agree with Scrying - a significant part of the book is how even in private, the protagonist is still being watched by the two-way screen (save in one small corner of his apartment).

As for the Detect Thoughts part, I'm a little conflicted. They might save that one for interrogation and reprogramming. Part of the tension of the novel is the fear that IngSoc will find out what the protagonist is thinking, that he will do something to betray his inner thoughts. If they can just look into a person's brainpan at any time, then you lose that fear.

When it comes to setting, I think it would have to urban - the wilderness offers too many opportunities to go off the grid. In the novel there are hidden cameras and sensors even there, but also gaps. And you need lots of people crammed together, all afraid of each other.

 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Aw man, I saw the title and was hoping you were talking about the year 1984 (which was such an awesome year, one of my favorites for a lot of reasons). And I had a whole list of things in how to do a proper fantasy game played in 1984 :D
 

J-H

Adventurer
From what I recall, most of the state power in 1984, and in Farenheit 451, comes not so much from spying and informants as it does from indoctrination. When there's only one acceptable way to think about a topic, and everybody who thinks differently or perceives nuance is evil, a hater, blind to their own endorsement of evil, etc etc. - then it's easy to get others to report them for re-education, or to make them targets for settling petty grievances (get someone fired, boot them to the back of the line for housing, etc.).
It helps if there's some type of internal enemy to unite the people against, but a foreign foe will work as well.

I would look more at ways to indoctrinate and persuade children, teenagers, and adults to believe the prevailing ideology (we have always been at war with Eastasia). This should be frequent, cheap, and common. Government-run schools are a must, with government-endorsed teachers using government-endorsed curricula and training. Pair fear-causing spells or rage-causing spells with images (3d/illusions) of the enemies and their works, with positive reinforcement for saying or believing the right things.

Possible spells:
3.5
Fascinate 2d4 HD of creatures, creates positive attitude, 1st level
Detect Thoughts 2nd level
Suggestion 2nd level "think of someone who doesn't like Big Brother, then tell me that person's name."
Touch of Idiocy use this on the opposition before a "free" and "public" debate
+4 stat spells: Servants of the state who are addressing the crowd are always more charismatic, wiser, and smarter than everyone else.
Geas, Lesser 3rd
Good Hope 3rd Use it secretly as a reward experience for turning in dissidents, etc.
Modify Memory 4th (5 minutes at a time, clean up evidence)

Yeah, you can do some high-level stuff with golems and assassins... but if you really want to make a dystopia, a constant low-level ideological bombardment backed up by low-level emotion magic is the way to go. If the heroes are widely known as enemies of what is Good and Right, then they lose the ability to hide among the people or escape through the crowd.
 

aco175

Legend
There may be some simple ways to start. Government posters on what to think and same clothing to separate people into groups of workers and leaders. There should be an outside group from another country or race that is not us in appearance or religion that is used to rally against. The town can have children all the same walking in rows to the school or farm.

One of the problems is that the players will think this may be wrong, but the PCs may have grown up here and think everything is fine. The trick will be to get the players to play along, but then you get to play Orwell-

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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
As I recall, the nation of Riedra, in Eberron, did this pretty well, essentially being a totalitarian state. Secrets of Sarlona (affiliate link) goes into it more, but it does a pretty good job of demonstrating how that works without resorting to too many magical macguffins. (The big one being the telepathic broadcast system/anti-teleport network they use to blanket most of the inhabited parts of the country, if I understand correctly.)

On the more mundane side, they use a system of secret informants, which everyone knows about but no one can identify. That means that the people are very hesitant to trust anyone with regard to subversive activities, knowing that the person they're confiding in could be the person who turns them in. It's a good way to create paranoia, and with it isolation.

Another thing they use is a fake religion. The notable part is that, while those who follow it obediently supposedly go to paradise (and obedience to their superiors is, unsurprisingly, a central tenet), those who fall off the path go to a realm of never-ending pain. The twist is that, supposedly, some of those eternally-pained spirits supposedly come back to the mortal world, finding out that the only thing that lessens their pain is to make someone else fall into damnation. Naturally, this means that anyone suggesting disobedience or revolution is potentially an evil spirit trying to send you to an eternity of torment. The entire thing is bunk, of course, but it keeps the populace in line.

And of course, the overlords of the place are quori, who have a lot of psionic powers that they use to check on people and keep them in line. Most notably, they tend to use mind seed to quietly plant agents among the population who can quell potential dissent.

I recommend giving the full book a read, it's pretty expansive on how the entire nation is kept in a stranglehold.
 
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Zardnaar

Legend
Problem is in D&D is keeping the secret police or powers that be in line. Eg changelings or whoever is on top.

But the stuff required for 1984 is mostly lacking in D&D eg radio, Monarchy is the default, industrialization.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Any thoughts? What kind of setting would you put this in? Would you make it be a specific region/country of the world, or would you be the whole setting that was ruled by this dictatorial state? Would you have the ruler simply be a powerful mage, or would you have them be an otherworldly being, such as a Mind Flayer or fallen angel?
I think it’s scarier to have an ordinary mage at the head of everything, rather than some kind of monster.

In addition to surveillance, one of the big themes of 1984 is indoctrination. You could use enchantment magic to enforce devotion to the state, rather than torture. Maybe repeated use of charm spells, along with modify memory to make the subject forget that they were influenced by magic could make someone think the feelings created by the charm are genuine and their own.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
I think it’s scarier to have an ordinary mage at the head of everything, rather than some kind of monster.
That's what I've been thinking. It shows that atrocities don't only have to be committed by otherworldly monsters, humans are guilty of them, too.
In addition to surveillance, one of the big themes of 1984 is indoctrination. You could use enchantment magic to enforce devotion to the state, rather than torture. Maybe repeated use of charm spells, along with modify memory to make the subject forget that they were influenced by magic could make someone think the feelings created by the charm are genuine and their own.
Yeah, that's the trick. Charm magic would take away the biggest tool that Players have, which is agency. It would be difficult to explain how they have free will when people can get dominated and magically forced to do what the government tells them to. Perhaps making it only used on caught criminals could help fix this problem, explained by the magic users who cast these spells being in too short of a supply to affect the whole population.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Problem is in D&D is keeping the secret police or powers that be in line. Eg changelings or whoever is on top.
That isn't really a problem, that's how the players likely can come in. Some PCs could be Enforcers that decided to defect and join the rebellion. In 1984, the promise for cooperation is power, the people at the top keeping the power and enforcing the societal structure. That would likely be the motivation for the evil Enforcers against defecting, and also why people would want to fight against the society.
But the stuff required for 1984 is mostly lacking in D&D eg radio, Monarchy is the default, industrialization.
Radio can be mass telepathic messages or Sending spells, monarchy is by no means the default in D&D or 1984 (Big Brother may or may not exist), and there are "industrialized" worlds, like Eberron and Ravnica.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Supporter
For myself I see two major ways to do this in a fantasy world, outside of spell use.

1) City in a Bottle.

2) Gaslight Central.

In option 1 you have a situation where all members of the community are kept away from the outside world. There is no trade, no interaction with others beyond the border. You convince your people that there is only death and pain beyond the outer wall, and anyone who ever tries to approach the outer wall will be killed to protect everyone within the inner wall. Anyone who tries to come in is either turned away or killed without anyone inside the inner wall knowing about it. Maybe even have the ruler working with a local dragon to attack parts of the city and be "Driven Off" by our courageous guards to further indebt the populace to the state.

If you go with the second one, you're in full Fire Nation "There is no war in Ba Sing Se!" territory.
 


AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
City in a Bottle.
That's how I'm going to do it in my setting. There's a region of the main continent that is practically inaccessible. Powerful magic blocks teleportation, and the border between the other kingdoms is very highly surveilled and walled off. This prevents the outside world from getting in, and it stops people from getting out (it happens sometimes, though). Both physical and magical defenses would enforce this, and anyone that crosses the border from either side is killed.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
You'd have to make magic of all kinds illegal for anyone outside the government. If you're familiar with Babylon 5, think of the Psi Corps. Anyone with any magic potential would be brought in or made inert, magically. How they achieve that, no idea, short of simple execution. You could make a split between sorcerers and wizards in that regard. Sorcerers as the Magic Corps and book-learning wizards would be illegal. Books being illegal would be a nice reference to Fahrenheit 451. The head of state, I think, should be a wizard. They want all the knowledge and power for themselves.

Clerics would be a problem. Likely it would be a thought crime to worship any gods not on the list. The list would only include select Lawful Evil deities, or the head of state...or the State itself...but you'd have posters everywhere saying things like "evil is good". Order Domain clerics and Conquest paladins serve the State.

That's about a hair's breadth away from how Dark Sun sets up the sorcerer-kings. Throw in psionics and ecological destruction, and you're there. Check out the setting for tips. The sorcerer-kings and their templars would be great to draw inspiration from.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
You'd have to make magic of all kinds illegal for anyone outside the government. If you're familiar with Babylon 5, think of the Psi Corps. Anyone with any magic potential would be brought in or made inert, magically. How they achieve that, no idea, short of simple execution. You could make a split between sorcerers and wizards in that regard. Sorcerers as the Magic Corps and book-learning wizards would be illegal. Books being illegal would be a nice reference to Fahrenheit 451. The head of state, I think, should be a wizard. They want all the knowledge and power for themselves.
This just gave me an idea. Why not make the Magic Corps/Enforcers be Warlocks . . . whose pacts are with the head mage? That's an "easy" way to ensure that you have the power. Execute/Imprison Sorcerers, ban Wizardry and Bardcraft, and restrict other magic to be under your control, like you suggested.
Clerics would be a problem. Likely it would be a thought crime to worship any gods not on the list. The list would only include select Lawful Evil deities, or the head of state...or the State itself...but you'd have posters everywhere saying things like "evil is good". Order Domain clerics and Conquest paladins serve the State.
Yeah, they would probably straight out ban worship of all deities and require the State to be the only "worshipped entity", unless the State was capable of having Clerics and Paladins devoted to it. "Hospitals" could be indoctrination centers, where you have to go in order to get treatment, but they also check up on you mentally and make you conform with magic if you differ too much.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
That isn't really a problem, that's how the players likely can come in. Some PCs could be Enforcers that decided to defect and join the rebellion. In 1984, the promise for cooperation is power, the people at the top keeping the power and enforcing the societal structure. That would likely be the motivation for the evil Enforcers against defecting, and also why people would want to fight against the society.

Radio can be mass telepathic messages or Sending spells, monarchy is by no means the default in D&D or 1984 (Big Brother may or may not exist), and there are "industrialized" worlds, like Eberron and Ravnica.

They're magi tech. Unless you want to add loudspeakers and radios (or magic variations) at best you have a printing press.

You probably need the following elements at least.
1. An external enemy.

2. Internal enmies (wreckers, ethnic group xyz, traitors, heretics etc)

3. Secret police of some sort.

4. Some way to control the secret police (probably an established army)

5. Culr of personality (optional perhaps see Stalin, Hitler, Kim's in North Korea)

6. Competing centers of influence (various ministries/factions)

7. Some sort of belief system (Communism, Fascism, Juche, religion)

8. Some sort of hierarchy.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Kind of a neat idea, it's got me thinking since it's not a "typically D&D" sort of trope. Here's a spray of stream-of-consciousness, sorry!

What makes 1984 so terrifying, to me, is that it works as is without advanced tech (or magic). For that reason, I'd think that the number one rule in such a world would be No Unapproved Magics. Like, at all. So the basic police are going to be spending a lot of time ferreting out and controlling unapproved items & casters. Alongside would be the total surveillance (in brain and out, ie, the Thought Police) and the total obedience through fear and ignorance.

I can't see this working without complete isolation from the rest of the D&Dverse. Aside from keeping hidden, it seems that the subversive elements getting in/out would be a critical part of adventuring here. For that reason, I'd put it in a demiplane, on a rock in the AStral, or even better, I'd make it a Dread Domain surrounded by the Mist. (Man, for some reason, a Domain based on 1984 seems just too perfect to me, now.)

Not sure who'd make an ideal "controller", though, but I think plain old humans would do nicely. Perhaps not even especially magical ones, if all the magic required to power the surveillance is derived from some sort of great "engine" at the heart of the it all. What if it's just a plump, curly headed guy in a tweed jacket and spectacles who happens to have a dozen illithid liches in his thrall doing all the heavy lifting, while he spends most of his time affably interrogating and sentencing the troublemakers?

Surveillance is everywhere
Surveillance is a school of magic: detect thoughts, etc; truesight, see invisible, etc; detect X, locate X; comprehend languages.
Police have truesight lanterns, detection spects, etc; and prefer taking prisoners alive for interrogation
Interrogators use mundane and magical means, aim to keep prisoners broken but intact.

Magic is subversive
Power in D&D stems from magic,
Ownung magic items, casting spells, so much as thinking "abracadabra" is all forbidden

Communication is subversive
Communication magic is forbidden; and lines are monitored
Unapproved speech (including foreign languages, magical words, codes, etc) are forbidden
Substantive cmmunication is hard (DC checks to convey/understand subversive info when speaking Newspeak in public)

Deception is subversive
Illusion, disguise, shapeshifting are forbidden (to the people)
Hiding & privacy are fobidden
mindblank, private sanctum, portable holes, pocket dimensions, etc are forbidden

Propaganda is Truth
Indoctrination is a school of magic: charm, dominate, etc; memory modification; certain illusions
Truth is malleable, and subversive: Asking about that shopkeep who was here yesterday, but isn't anymore, is forbidden.
There is the hated Enemy, and virulent bigotry/otherism is encouraged among the People.

Also, to be forbidden is forbidden: "Nothing is forbidden in Utopia!"
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
As noted above, one of the Dark Sun city-states can be adapted easily to this concept. Gulg (the tropical jungle city, population thinks the sorcerer-queen protects them from wild Nature) or Draj (pseudo-Aztec city, the sorcerer-king already claims to be a god) would be straightforward places to use.
 

MGibster

Legend
All kingdom approved books are subject to the privy councils edits at any time. Of course these are the only books that are legal.
 

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