Ask GV: Of Fist and Famine

Belial asks:

I have heard recently that a group of people are 3 missed meals from revolting. Is that still applicable when one is running their country using more ‘villainous’ methods (fear, severe punishment, etc.), or is this a problem only ‘good guy’ leaders face? Short of providing your people with basic necessities across the board, how does one keep the populace under one’s thumb when the economy turns sour?”

Dear Belial,

First thing I need to point out is that, as you may have noted from my riffs on conquest, I’m not too fond of 100% “villainous” authority measures. Yes, they often keep the populace too scared to actively rise up against you, but at that point you’re also getting dangerously close to the point where they decide it’s worth it to try anyway. A person who has next to nothing can be threatened with taking away what he has left. A person who has nothing whatsoever has nothing whatsoever to lose. And that’s before times get rough.

I find the most important rule in dealing with your subjects is that people like to think they have some vestige of control over their lives—that if they do X (or avoid doing Z), they can be assured of Y outcome. If they pay their bills, the electricity stays on; if they heat water, it will boil; if they keep their heads down and don’t interfere with your legions, they will be protected from further threats and your legions will not steal their food or threaten their families. For the most part, fear utilizes this principle: if you avoid doing this, you will not meet this certain horrible fate. So far, so good, right?

The problem is, their cause and effect can be a little shaky. We already know that blame tends to move vertically, cascading downward from the upper ranks to the lower until someone doesn’t know how to avoid punishment; but it also moves the opposite way, with people of the lowest stations attributing their circumstances to their rulers whether it makes sense or not. (And unfortunately, in almost all cases it ‘makes sense’ even when it doesn’t because somebody’s guaranteed to go Fisher King principle on us and declare that the land is infertile or parched or whatever because a Hand of Darkness is in charge.) And then we get to where “keep your head down and you will be protected” butts up against “get rid of the bad-thing and you will enjoy prosperity again”, and fear fights hope, and somewhere in there a protagonist pops up because these situations are ripe breeding grounds for them.

One thing we can do to avert this is to find a better scapegoat. It doesn’t matter if it’s another country, a minority within your domain, a local elemental, users of a specific type of magic: if you can find some way to pin your domain’s woes on them, your people are likely to be too busy either trying to deal with the problem directly or engaging in moral conundra over whether it is right to do that to start rebelling against you. If your enemy is another domain, they might even volunteer for your legions (or at least accept a lower-than-they’d-normally-consider salary) to go engage in some good old swarm the rotters and take their stuff; win-win, right?

Another is to establish that however bad this place is, that one over there is worse. Your people are having food rationing? They’re having to steal from each other to get by, or eating their pets. Wild monsters running through your towns? At least your legions are fighting them, not just leaving the poor little peasants to their plight.

So in tough times, you don’t necessarily have to provide your people with necessities, just the illusion of potential/control. Then point them in the right direction and the rest should take care of itself.

To the rest of you out there: if you, too, have an ill-intentioned conundrum or dark debacle, don’t be afraid to Ask GV! Just leave a question on any Generic Villain post, and it will be answered within the next couple of weeks (barring ongoing series or other potential obstacles). We like your questions.

1 comment

  1. Much appreciated, Generic Villain. I may have been unclear – I normally do not rule with an iron fist – I leave my people to their own devices as best I can, but this came up in a conversation with a less…considerate villain. I had heard the quote and I commented on it, and he insisted that *he* would never have that problem.

    Luckily things are not too bad yet in my area, and I already blame the neighboring country for every problem (alas, it is not yet convenient to raid them and take their stuff).

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