Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Levers of Power - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

As a disclaimer, this post will not relate anything to the book, or movie, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" as I have not consumed either in any format. I want to, but so far I have not.

As a second disclaimer, like so many of my GM thoughts, this one was inspired by the content of another creator. And this one is another of Matt Colville's "Politics" videos. If you haven't watched the video, you can find it here. However, the video is not necessary for what I want to talk about - though they are related.

Disclaimers done, let's begin.

In the video, Matt Colville talks about Executive power and where that power comes from when running a kingdom. He breaks this down for D&D and other fantasy settings using Wakanda from the Marvel movie Black Panther. Colville's video talks about Black Panther specific issues relating to who is the king and why/how they are the king more than he does about the levers of power that the king has to balance and keep in mind. This isn't a failing of the video, but it is something I feel is good to talk about.


Because if you are building a fantasy kingdom for your RPG or some other creative work, it is good to consider these four things. I consider these four the 'core' essentials, but I'll also mention to other (we'll call them Sage and Wizard) you may want to consider for High Fantasy settings.

Levers of Power?
First, what do I mean by a Lever of Power. In simple terms, this is the way in which a certain source of power is brought to bear in the country/kingdom's interest. How this lever works can be broken down in the same way you decide who rules or governs the country/kingdom. Is it a single person - like it is in Black Panther - or is it a group of people?

I use the word lever because that is the control, how you leverage that power, but other terms may work better for you such as font, icon, person, or controller.

What Does A Power Want?
When all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. This is true for most tools. A tool - or power if you will - wants to be used. It is also designed to be used in a specific way, and it wants to be used in that specific way. This is the fundamental desire for any tool, because a tool that is not used is in danger of being diminished or discarded, and no one and no thing gives up power without a fight. Keep this in mind as we continue.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?
These words came to mind for me because as I said in the intro, they represent the fundamental core of power that countries and kingdoms are interested in.

  • Tinker - the ability to build things, repair things, and develop new things (i.e. technology, infrastructure, etc.)
  • Tailor - Represents the people, the clothes everyone wears, the arts, the humanities, and the necessities needed for life. This one is a bit of a stretch I admit, but it works.
  • Soldier - The army. How the country/kingdom defends itself from outside threats and expands its area of influence. The sword and shield for  defense and offense.
  • Spy - Intelligence gathering, asymmetrical warfare, leverage on rivals and allies, knowing things before they happen, and keeping tabs on everything so you know where you lie.
  • (Bonus) Sage - Knowledge collection, prophecy, divination, oracles, connection to the Gods and Supernatural
  • (Bonus) Wizard - The arcane, magic. Potentially related to above, but also potentially separate depending on your kingdom.
Whomever controls these things controls power. When the ruling body needs one or the other, there are concessions that need to be made to that lever (work, if you will) in exchange for the desired outcome. And as Matt Colville said, if these 4 levers say someone isn't King, then they are not King - even if they have a crown. Or, as Tywin Lannister put it "anyone who has to tell you that they are king, is not a king."

Who Controls The Lever?
As I mentioned above, this is up to you. Is it a person or is it a group? Each of these can be a miniature 'country' all its own for purposes of world building depending on how granular you want to go. Black Panther went with a single person (the leader of a tribe) for each of these things, but you can go how you want. It is also possible that some things work better with groups (Tinker, Tailor) while others work better with individuals (Soldier, Spy).

Also keep in mind that it is possible there are multiple levers for each control. For example, a Kingdom's navy and army could be separate but equal where they compete with each other for being 'the' premiere 'Soldier' lever but also must work together for the defense of the Kingdom. The same can be true for other groups too.

What Does The Controller Want?
I mentioned above that a tool, or power, wants to be used. This is its fundamental desire because to not be used is to be diminished. Does your kingdom recognize this? And if so, do they safe guard against it? Each source of power, unchecked or over used - causes problems. This is why countries like the United States have a civilian in charge of the military. A civilian is not part of the military, and as such should not be under the sway of the tool known as the military's fundamental need to be used. This should, in theory, bring in restraint.

Fiction is also full of stories with other leaders - often of militaries - who understand that using the military should be a last resort. Fiction is also full of stories with leaders (often of militaries or spy groups) doing false flag operations in order to keep the tool in use in what is otherwise an age of peace and lack of need for their tool.

Like I said though, too much of any power can be detrimental. Unchecked expansion and building can spread a country way too thin or bring it into conflict with neighbors (all of them.) Unchecked indulgence in luxuries and the arts can lead to situations like what befell Rome or may be happening in the US now. Unchecked Spy leads to police states, secret police, and people being black bagged on the streets. And unchecked military leads to war,  dictatorships, and all of that stuff.

Bonus Points: Personal vs. Professional Want
Finally, when making those people who control the power, consider their personal wants vs. their professional wants. The tool wants to be used, and so the General in charge of the army likely wants his troops to be used - at least enough they keep t heir funding and standing - but that same General may have a personal want that puts them in conflict with their professional wants. Being able to play to that is where you can get interesting drama and intrigue.

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