While there are plenty of campaigns where the tech of a nearby era could be useful, nothing is quite as satisfying as a good, old-fashioned struggle against a grim dystopia. Today, we’re going to close this series of articles with a 5 step guide for building a better dictatorship.
Mooks, cronies and leashed bullies can be easily found and persuaded into service with the promise of a little power and a decent paycheck. While the proverbial jack-booted thug may be easily had for a mere 99 cents per pound, those who clawed their way to the top of the chain usually have far more complex reasons for doing so.
Have a clear idea of what your dictatorship’s goals and motivations are. These will shape the structure, methods and demeanor of the organization and give you a better idea of what sort of enforcers, surveillance and propaganda they might use.
A religious order might seek to establish the utter supremacy of their faith and weed out heretics, apostates or other undesirables that might crop up on occasion. The founder of a ruthless hypercorp, conversely, is likely set out to force the world/country/city into an empire where profit is king and other trivial concerns, such as human rights and overall well-being, are ignored at best and trampled at worst.
While you don’t need to know every piddly little rank within the organization, getting a feel for who the big dogs are within the ranks of the ruling body can be essential. A solitary dictator enjoys the greatest level of autonomy. Their word goes unchecked, and they will likely have security that is virtually impossible to penetrate. A single individual, however, is easier to deceive, and the power structure is far more likely collapse if they can be killed or sufficiently disgraced.
A ruling council, on the other hand, will be far more decentralized and able to whether the deaths of individual members without as much impact to the overall structure of the organization. They keep each other in check and if one of them starts going off of the deep end, they can step in and remove them from the equation before too much damage is done. On the other hand, members of a council might be easier to get to than an isolated emperor, and their ambitions could be played against eachother. The party might even find temporary allies in some members of the board when going after others, though they should probably expect betrayal at the earliest convenience of their uneasy allies.
Regardless of which structure you use, every dictator worth their salt has a small handful of trusted lieutenants, highly capable and (usually) loyal subordinates tasked with solving problems, suppressing rebellions and keeping the population nice and compliant. How “hands on” they are with their duties depends entirely on the individual, but there should be at least two or three lieutenants with strongly contrasting methods to really keep things interesting.
The rank-and-file enforcers of the authority in question are a critical component of your setting. The choice is largely an aesthetic one, but it can really set the tone of the campaign if done properly. Even hordes of faceless Sturmtruppen can still make for distinct and compelling adversaries with the right tweaking.
Adding touches of the macabre or inhuman to the generic grunts will add a layer of intensity and dehumanization to them that will make for much more satisfying, guilt-free opponents. It could be as simple as unsettling masks and flat vocoder voices to enslaved dissidents wired with crude, bulky cybernetics and pumped full of compliance/combat drugs. Give your mooks a mailing address in Uncanny Valley, and they’ll be a lot more interesting to fight.
On that note, make sure they have appropriate backup for whatever situation is at hand. UAV combat drones in less populated areas and some sort of genetically and/or cybernetically enhanced bloodhounds for a lengthy PC chase through the sewers.
Any decent dystopia will have surveillance out (and possibly up) the backside. While this can be downright inconvenient for your story, especially considering the laissez-faire attitude towards collateral damage possessed by most player parties, it does force your players to be a little more subtle in their actions. The direct consequences of their actions not withstanding, the constant monitoring of communications, computer use and even conversations in the street or in the home can be an excellent background element to drive home the true, invasive nature of their society.
Fear is a fantastic tool in the arsenal of public compliance, and every proper dictatorship needs a vague and nebulous enemy. Heretics, infected, communists and thought criminals are all nice, ill-defined categories that can be used for a justification for snatching up undesirables as a generating a constant, ever-present threat to keep the average citizen in a constant state of fear. Propaganda makes great background flavor, and you could prepare snippets of radio or television, possibly even whipping up a few propaganda posters to appear in mandatory pop-up ads or light up the roads in an LED billboard. When looking for graphic inspiration for such a thing, have a look at some of the old WW2 propaganda posters to see some effective methods of marginalizing and dehumanizing the enemy through that medium.
A named and notable figure spouting the whims of the ruling faction will add a hated face to the incessant noise of the dystopian overlords, and possibly even provide the characters with a target if they feel like causing a serious ruckus. Don’t forget to come up with a flag, banner or symbol to be liberally spread across every flat surface. A nice, patriotic color theme for official uniforms wouldn’t go to far amiss earlier.