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Dark Ages Politics in Theory and Practice

by Dave Kennerly

Note on Terms: The political, civic, and judicial terms used are rough approximations and are intended devoid of their emotional connotations in real-life politics. Just as a computer's use of a function name (e.g. getMana()) strays from the preceding real-life usage, so do these terms used by this non-political scientist.

In Theory

"[G]ood for humanity was possible only if men were free in body, mind, and spirit. And if each man limited his own freedom. A good state or work of art or piece of thinking was possible only through self-mastery of the free individual; self-government."

Edith Hamilton, The Echo of Greece

Synthetic Government

Dark Ages: Online Roleplaying's political system synthesizes and balances popular opinion, administrative control, role-playing merit, and scalability. The balance of influences enriches the atmosphere and counters corruption of the community's intent: entertainment for all its members.

Organization of players, at least for this article, may be divided between top-down, bottom-up, player-driven, and administrator-driven.1 Online communities combine some or all of these to some degree.

Democracy (Bottom-Up, Player-Driven)

Dark Ages citizens have equal political influence. One has an opportunity, regardless of their real-life political atmosphere, to have a voice, to support a candidate. The popularly supported official wields legitimate influence. He is, and must remain, the representative of his supporters' needs or at least their momentary wishes. Players participate, as well, in creating and evolving the laws of a village. Players have created a wide variety of laws. The law board for the village was a blank slate; players created the village constitution, its laws, and laws on making laws.2

Players' wishful woes may become political blows by an irresponsible mob. Most popular opinion is shortsighted and sometimes led astray by cliché cries that provides no practicable alternatives. As with Greece, democracy, rule by the many, requires good decisions by the many,

"[T]he prerequisite to good government was citizens who were good men ... While to expect ... officials to be honorable when their voters were indifferent to their being so was a kind of folly..."

Edith Hamilton, The Echo of Greece

Monarchy (Top-Down, Player-Driven)

The Dark Ages role-playing contest host awards politically potent scholarships. To the degree that role-playing contests determine one's office, there exists a something like Plato's Philosopher-King,3 who is highly educated in one or more arts, and necessarily intellectual.

But the qualities of intellect or artistry and communal wisdom and concern don't necessarily correlate. If role-playing contests determined power too much, some officials would take the citizens for granted. Acquiring scholarship does not depend on popular approval.

Competition (Bottom-Up, Administrator-Driven)

There are free borders in the villages, and out of context: the game itself; therefore, there is at least some competition for citizens and players. Citizens that dislike any part of the politics of a village may leave the village and join another. More dramatically, players that dislike Dark Ages leave the whole community. For this method, players don't set policy to suit their needs, the social administrator does. Of these four, competition requires the largest conspiracy with which to corrupt; its variable operation cost, however it is as expensive as totalitarianism.

Like democracy, decisions come from many sources. Commercial massive multiplayer societies feel the feedback quantitatively, swiftly, and severely: income. Free massive multiplayer societies can have equally effective popular feedback, but it isn't necessary for survival. Real-life governments do not get this degree of feedback, because real-life citizenship is tightly controlled. The citizen in a competitive online society, in this limited sense, has (or at least has the illusion of) greater freedom and influence than a citizen in a real-life community without free borders.

Totalitarianism (Top-Down, Administrator-Driven)

Dark Ages politics is not laissez faire. The social administrator supervises, reviews, investigates, judges several cases, and leads the society's mores. However, there are no godly-powered administrator characters. The social administrator is the equivalent, in that he can ban someone from the world while offline. But he does so without an interfering body in the world, and infrequently exercises control.

Direct social administrative control quickly drains resources.4 The average player plays for three hours a day. If only 0.25% of the player's time requires administrative decision for each two thousand players (an optimistic ratio), each a social administrator would have to work 15 hours each day, 105 hours each week. As an experiment: Ask a real-life day care professional to take one additional charge for 21 hours a week, at $10 a month, and measure the decibels of the response.

Social administration creates a positive feedback resource sink. When an administrator silences a harasser, sometimes the harasser and harassed join together against the administrator. The harasser and harassed discovered a win-win strategy. Also, social administration causes some players to request more social administration,5 ad adminum mortuum.

Staffed social administration also dampens communication. Communication is impossible between non-equals.6 Too much staff administration invalidates feedback. Players curry favor from administrators by distorted reporting, and some stir, with rebellious or miserable glee, apocalyptic reports.


Many an online community evolves quickly to suit its players' needs because of competition. Without the influence of competition, totalitarianism evolves to suit the social administrator's needs. Yet, competition and totalitarianism are only two of the four-corners of a two-dimensional array. Players drive the other two.

Dark Ages' government system aims at a 90% rule: solve 90% of the social conflicts within the political system. Citizens conflict. Officials resolve the majority of the cases, and higher officials partially administer lower officials, but the staff social administrator moderates the higher office holders. The administrator solves cases beyond player official power, removes poor higher officials, and in cases of malicious intent, bars reentry into politics or into the game-world at all.

Decentralized Power

Jurisdiction impacts. Banishment from a village wounds the social and mechanical advancement of the banished character. He loses social relationships, access to several pieces of equipment, quests, holy temples, and sources of adventure.

No character has absolute territorial jurisdiction. In fact, to some extent, all characters combined do not have universal jurisdiction. Each village political system has no direct mechanical interaction with another village's citizens. A citizen of one village may not support a citizen of another village. A Guard may not banish a citizen of another village.

Economic Politics

Economics is broadly the study of scarce resources and their distribution. Economic politics makes sense, especially when scarce resources can be counted. Dark Ages political system counts and manipulates participants Clout and Labor.


Clout becomes the biosurvival imprint in political society.7 Clout is represents the political health and power of the character. Clout is economically political, because it is spent to take office each time, and is spent to exercise political activity each time.

A political character gains clout democratically (citizens' support), and by merit (role-playing contests). Clout self-balances the ratio of officials to population size. The smaller the population, the less votes available.

Clout interaction is a bit like a hand of poker, a character's total is private and the character bids clout in a political battle. No one else knows exactly how powerful another is. This privacy increases drama and social information gathering.


Time: the great equalizer of poor and rich alike. Entrenched characters have exactly the same amount of labor time as new characters do. Labor is measured in discrete quantities. The character doesn't actually take any time to do his action, but the labor credit is deducted. While the high level character can kill more creatures, while the skilled herbalist can create more potions from collected herbs, each person can labor an equal amount in a day.

Labor becomes fluidly economic because a character may labor for another. All political and legal actions consume substantial amounts of labor. This offsets the corruption of convenience and reroutes some socially irresponsible behavior. Each person has a fixed supply of labor; each few hours of it used in politics is hours unavailable for polishing gems or other profitable crafts.

Glory and Shame8

Player-driven politics empowers socializers. 9 While the office doesn't pay in coins or any other game recognizable attribute, 10 it offers specialized social power. The socializer becomes a power to be reckoned with, a source of glory or shame. Use of, or expectation, of glory and shame resolves most civil conflicts.


While in office a person may wear that office's uniform, which is unique to that village, and custom-tailored to that character. The uniform denotes status and authority. It especially designed to decrease combat effectiveness by expensive repair cost, to deter combat achievers.


Legends display a character's political deeds and consequences.11 Whenever he performs or is subject to a serious action, his publicly viewable legend of deeds updates. Glory and shame are written for any to see who meets him. This encourages social responsibility for some. Some players avoid crime in order to avoid the negative engraving, and often seek other actions for the prestige of the positive engraving.


One legend in particular carries a legal bond: sponsorship. Other officials must sponsor an official taking office. Sponsoring an official requires trust. The glory or shame of the sponsored official becomes shared. The name of the sponsor is publicly displayed on the legend. The community holds the sponsor partially accountable for good or bad performance of the sponsored official.

Asynchronous Terms

Officials collect support at any time, and officials activate their office at any time. The player politician isn't elected for life and isn't elected until overthrown or thrown out of office. The player politician is constantly seeking re-election, thus is constantly seeking to meet citizens' needs in return for support.

The synchronous term cycle's harmonics distort the society. Low-grade hysteria envelops the land when several candidates seek reelection at the same time. Politicians rabidly solicit support a until the peak of the ballot's drop, and then... nothing. Asynchronous term provides smooth transition as each official enters and exits the political arena.

In Practice

"The greatest and fairest wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of States."



While operating and administrating Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds beta-test in early 1998, I created a typical GM (game master) system. My experience encouraged me to imagine how a participatory, non-godly GM system may be designed as a viable social game feature. The traditional social administrator is a bottleneck in one of the needs of a society: to participate in its politics.

In June 1999, after finishing the player-driven religious system, I looked at a tightly scheduled commercial release of August 2 on one side and my naive dream for player-driven politics on the other. Within the extreme limitations of a primitive quest scripting language, I created it. As with the religious system, no programmer added a line of code. Many functions are better programmed, but a communication barrier existed: Nexon's programmers speak Korean, and I, English. I discarded, for the present, self-stabilizing algorithms,12 because the game's script cannot implement them.

As Dark Ages social administrator, I refined and continue to refine my rough draft of ignorant political and social administrative understanding. The design/feedback loop is painfully direct.


Dark Ages is a shareware MORPG (Massive Online Role-Playing Game). Only registered characters can participate in politics. Otherwise a player could multiply their political influence infinitely by creating extra trial characters. As far as this author has speculated, votes correlate abysmally to real people in a free MORPG.

A character advances positions in order,13 requiring prerequisite positions and Clout expenditure. Positions last for a maximum of two weeks, at which time the candidate may seek office again.

Each village's positions above Respected Citizen bestow a unique uniform that cannot be worn by anyone else, is retained through death, is taken away at the end of office, is very expensive to repair, and offers no protection in combat.14


Private citizens with no public powers make up the vast majority of characters.

Nomad: Does not belong to a village. Powers: None.

Citizen: Citizen, protected by and under jurisdiction of a village. Powers: Support, Widdle.

Respected Citizen: Powers: Tutor, Regional Tailoring, Admit Citizen, Attack.

Trial Positions: Judge appoints temporary positions for the duration of a trial.

Juror: Judge case and rightfulness of a law in a trial. Powers: Interpret Law, Verdict.

Advocate: Prosecutor or defender at a trial. Powers: Advocate.


Political branch writes laws and policies, polices writing, and reinforces the law branches execution. Each position has a unique uniform and a unique style for each village.

Demagogue: Write constitution. Write and amend laws. Administers village bulletin boards.

Powers: Support, Regional Tailoring, Admit Citizen, Attack, Demote, Sponsor, Dismiss, Remove Post, Write Law, Exile, Assist Sgath.

Burgess: Write constitution. Write and amend laws. Organize and preside over Demagogues.

Powers: Support, Regional Tailoring, Demote, Sponsor, Dismiss, Remove Post, Write Law, Exile, Bar, Sgath.


Law branch interprets, judges, and executes the law. Each position has a unique uniform and a unique style for each village.

Guard: Banish law-breaker.

Powers: Support, Regional Tailoring, Attack, Demote, Sponsor, Dismiss, Banish.

Guard Captain: Banish severe law-breaker. Organize and manage Guards.

Powers: Support, Regional Tailoring, Attack, Demote, Sponsor, Dismiss, Banish, Assist Sgath.

Judge: Interpret law. Administrate Guard Captains. Banish severe law-breaker.

Powers: Support, Regional Tailoring, Attack, Demote, Sponsor, Dismiss, Banish, Interpret Law, Hold Trial, Sgath.


Social administrator performs mundane roles.

Scholar: Awards scholarships in art, history, literature, lore, and philosophy.

Prime Burgess: Administrate Burgesses, Judges, and top officials. Exiles worst criminals and Dark Ages contract violators from the world.


Major actions are listed on the character's legend. Each action requires some amount of clout and labor.15 During players' initial settlement of a new village, some dependent prerequisites are waived, such as sponsorship for office.


Friendly actions may be performed by anyone for anyone in the village.

Labor: All positions, even Nomads, may labor. Each character can only labor an equal amount in a real-life day.

Support: Generate clout for the target.

Endow: Transfer large amount of clout to the target.

Scholarship: Generate great clout for the target. Only the scholar awards scholarship, and only for the greatest scholarly works in each category (art, biography, history, literature, lore, philosophy) once per month.16

Admit Citizen: Admit a nomad as a citizen into the village. All previous political legends and clout from a new citizen's previous village are lost.

Regional Tailoring: Tailor a garment in the style of that village. This alters the fashion of the garment, it does not change its game mechanical effectiveness.

Tutor: Enter the interactive, online tutorial.

Sponsor: Swear the official's good character and aptitude for the position. The sponsor shares responsibility for the sponsored official's actions, and has the power to Dismiss the sponsored official. Each term, one may sponsor a fixed number of lower rank (costs 1/10 of term), equal rank (costs 1/2 of term), and/or higher rank (costs whole term) officials.

Issue Fair Seal: License merchant, event, and theater director's seals, which are limited time licenses during a Fair.


Hostile actions may be performed with discretion. Hostile and punitive actions require an assistant, who agrees that the action is beneficial to the village. The assistant shares responsibility for the hostile or punitive action. It is illegal to retaliate to a punitive action with a hostile action, by oneself or one's allies.

Widdle: Feebly, but anonymously, reduce the clout of the target.

Attack: Reduce the clout of the target.

Demote: Efficiently reduces the clout of an immediately lower ranking official in the same branch. Examples: A Judge may demote a Guard Captain, but a Judge may not demote a Guard. A Burgess may not dismiss a Guard Captain.

Dismiss: Very efficiently reduce the clout of a sponsored official.

Remove: Remove an official with no clout from office.


Punitive actions may only be performed on a village law-breaker and require an assistant who agrees that the action is necessary for the village's benefit. All punitive actions require the target to have no clout, and all may be forgiven by the same rank official or higher.

Remove Post: Remove a post from a bulletin board. No assistant required.

Banish: Prevent the target from entering the village for one real-life day. No assistant required. An unregistered character that is exiled is exiled to Salachar, the realm of filth. He may never leave or communicate from there.

Bar: Prevent the target from participating in politics indefinitely.

Exile: Prevent target from entering the village indefinitely. An unregistered character that is exiled is exiled to Salachar, the realm of filth. He may never leave or communicate from there.

Sgath: The Shadow Hunger. Place target into a pit and summon the Shadow Hunger, which is borne from evil deeds. The Shadow Hunger is about strong as the target. If multiple shadow hungers are summoned, death is certain. Death is not permanent, but is a severe setback.

Denounce: Remove all political legends. Only Prime Burgess may do this.

World Exile: Prevent reentry into the world. Only all Prime Burgesses of all villages agreeing can do this.


Verdict: State guilt or innocence or discredit a law in a trial.

Advocate: Argue for the defense or prosecution in a trial.

Write Law: Write a law to the law board. Higher rank may veto a law. Each village's politicians created laws on how laws may be added, amended, and removed.

Interpret Law: Interpret a law. There is no game mechanical effect. It is an important power, as it can be used to judge the law as well as the participants in the case.17 Interpretations become precedence for future trials and may lead to changing a law.

Hold Trial: Hold a legal trial. Appoint jury, prosecutor, and defender.


[bold denotes a map. italic denotes a bulletin board]


Dark Ages political system design was influenced by discussions with decision theorist Robert Bass and other libertarians.

Further Reading

1 Matthew Mihaly, "Constructive Politics in a Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game" (Game Developer, Online 2000/03/09)

2 Peter Suber, "Nomic" in "Metamagical Themas" column (Commentary by Douglas Hofstadter, Scientific American, June 1982) Reprinted in Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstader.

3 Plato, The Republic, Book V. "Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy ... cities will never have a rest from their evils ..."

4 Derek Sanderson, "Online Justice Systems" (Game Developer, April 1999)

As well as my social administration experience.

5 "Hal Black's Elaboration: The more responsive an admin is to user feedback of a given type, the more of that type an admin will get." in "Laws of Online World Design" (Compiled by Raph Koster from MUD-Dev discussions and other sources)

As well as my social administration experience.

6 Paraphrase from The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, 1975 (undoubtedly documented by a several thinker before)

7 Adapted paraphrase of: Money replaces the bio-survival imprint. Robert Anton Wilson, "Neuroeconomics" (No Governor, written as "Hagbard Celine", reprinted in The Illuminati Papers, 1980)

8 Johnathan Baron, "Glory and Shame" (Game Developer, Online 1999/11/10)

9 Richard Bartle, "MUDs and the Players that Suit Them." (Journal of MUD Research, June 1996)

Socialiser = NF, Myers-Briggs Personality Temperament (Idealists, NF: Intuitive-Feeling).

10 Beloved by achievers. Richard Bartle, "MUDs and the Players that Suit Them." (Journal of MUD Research, June 1996)

Achiever = SJ, Myers-Briggs Personality Temperament (Guardians, SJ: Sensing-Judging).

11 Example of a player's legends:

12Similar to those summarized by Bart Kosko, Fuzzy Thinking, 1993

13 Similar to a simple version of the profession system in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1995)

14 There is no non-consensual player-vs-player combat in Dark Ages.

15 Clout/labor quantities vary. I list up-to-date quantities in the Dark Ages game,

16 Scholarship:

Several hundred works that I award scholarship to, I post in the Aisling Library:

17 Inspired by FIJA (Fully Informed Juror's Association), which was inspired by Colonial American court reactions to some British laws.