Appendix O: Sortition as a Plot Device
Okay, yes, “Appendix O” is a cheesy and derivate name for a column title. But I really did love the inspirational appendices of some of my early RPG purchases in the 1980s, and genuinely learned a lot from them. Not as academic sources themselves, but as starting points for me to hunt down ideas and historical or philosophic context of ideas I first encountered in ttRPGs.
So when I realized I wanted a column title for just starting points of ideas I could pitch and explore a bit for gaming, I settled on this… in about 5 minutes without much serious though. I may or may not do more Appendix O articles. If you have an opinion on the idea, let me know!
Given it’s Election Day here in the U.S.A., I thought I’d tackle a government-related idea I’ve been playing with for some time as a potential plot device — sortition.
What is Sortition?
As a broad definition, sortition is the act of selecting, sorting, or deciding something by drawing lots. In governance, sortition is the selection of governing agents through random selection from a bigger pool of qualified candidates.
In 6th century Athens, sortition was considered a crucial part of democracy. The idea was that if positions of power were allowed to be filled through election, competition for those positions would inevitably lead to oligarchy as people made promises, cut deals, and build power bases to ensure they would get elected and re-elected. By assigning governing officers at random (from the male citizens who self-selected to be potential candidates).
However, sortition CAN use anything as qualifying for candidates, or nothing at all. Looking at some of the interesting governments proposed on early ttRPG sourcebooks, a Mageocracy might use sortition to assign important governmental positions to randomly selected spellcasters within the kingdom. A Theocracy that worshipped a god of chance (or has a strong tradition of using random fortune-telling methods to determine the will of the gods, or perhaps the collective will of a whole pantheon of gods) might use sortition to assign those positions not held by the church, or to decide who within the church holds government positions through sortition.
Sortition has been used in many forms over the centuries. In the US, juries for trials are essentially selected by sortition (and it’s easy to see why electing jurors would be seen as rife with corruption.) Sortition has been used to replace just a legislatural body, or to form policy boards, and even to select community leaders.
So, how can a government determined by chance be used in a ttRPG as a plot point?
Congratulations, High Minister
If you present a sortition government to PCs, and explain that anyone who meets certain qualifications can be selected to serve, the PCs may still be surprised when one of them is selected to fill an important role. Depending on the government, the selection may not be something a character is allowed to decline.
This allows a GM to introduce political elements to a campaign without worrying about political parties, campaigning, votes, or even re-election. A PC is handed a position for one term, which could be as short as a few weeks (especially if they are filling in for the end of a term of someone who died in office), and no actions on the PCs’ part is going to get them another term.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, King
You could also have an ally, patron, or even adversary of the PCs have vast political power dropped in their lap–or have them need to rush to complete some project or pass a law before their term ends, since they know they have little chance of keeping the power to do so after the next random assignment of power.
Luck as Political Power
Many ttRPGs have chance-manipulating abilities in the hands of PCs. If a government is strongly influences by sortition, those abilities can be seen as political power. A player might be woo’d by a candidate to skew luck in their favor… or accused of doing so when the PC did no such thing.
Rather than force a plot on PCs, a GM could also just establish a major sortition government as an invitation for PCs who are interested. If candidates must express interest in running for office, but are then chosen by lots, it allows PCs to decide to get involved in politics very spur-of-the moment.
One of the common criticisms of sortition is that it does not select for skill or morality. A GM could use that as a plot point, having a stable, rational, well-liked set of government officials replaced by idiots and crooks with a particularly bad set of randomly assigned positions. This could cause nearly overnight change, and potentially riots and cries for revolution. It can also place the PCs in a position where they must choose between the well-established law of the land, and wishing to replace an objectively terrible ruler, judge, legislator, or all of them above.
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