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In many games I GM, corruption plays a big role. Either in my fantasy games with a church with a firm hand on the king or dystopian future like Shadowrun. Almost every time in my games, corruption is obvious and you can easily spot it. Mostly because I'm not sure how to drop clues of a corrupted system without being too obvious about it. I'm looking for symptoms of a corrupted society and how to include them in my game without necessarily involving the characters directly.

For instance, I already got them arrested after they publicly mentioned their disdain for the Pope. I'm looking at different approaches. Maybe a way to get NPC or the news carry the message. I'm just not sure what would be an effective way of doing so.

I'm looking for techniques that can be effective in any settings or examples that can apply in both modern and fantasy settings.

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A word of caution for answerers: while personal experience of corruption makes for a great, if unfortunate answer, make sure you explain how to show that corruption to players, not just tell them about it. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 24 at 9:47
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Why do you want to drop subtle hints in an RPG? Players tend to miss hints even if the hints dance right in front of their face wearing a brightly colored miniskirt. –  Jonas Feb 24 at 16:05
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@Jonas I wouldn't generalize. My group can handle subtle. –  MrJinPengyou Feb 24 at 16:14
    
I think you can find a bunch of nice examples of corrupt behavior in the Wire (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_wire), portrayed with a fair degree of realism. –  Superbest Feb 26 at 13:21

7 Answers 7

up vote 48 down vote accepted

Corruption isn't obvious in "liberal" societies. This answer is firmly situated in the western idea of corruption, best illustrated in House of Cards (BBC 1990). Obvious corruption tends to get corrected, as it has no shadows to hide in. The best signs of corruption are the fact that everything is too polished.

An effective corrupt institution will operate on personal power, good ol' boys networks, and other exclusionsary and opaque power schemes. Everything appears normal to the punters, but it should be impossible to exercise power without being part of the club.

Franics Urquhart, House of Cards - an iconic corrupt official

So, the public arrests for dissent or lese majesty aren't corruption, they're a rather ineffective police state. A corrupt state will quite happily tolerate outsiders who complain, as they're a useful lightning rod for the disenfranchised.

Justice by friendship: It's all about who you know and who you are

Consider instead, how corrupted bureaucracies corrupt people. You can only have corruption where there is nominally a strong rule of law. If there's no strong rule of law, you have anarchy and despotism instead.

In a corrupted world, it's all about who you know, and what you have on them. (Go watch the BBC's original House of Cards to get a feel for how that looks behind the scenes.) If you're an up and coming power, the first clue that you're "part of the machine" is an implict requirement for patronage. When the party interacts with people, there should always be a sense of "what do we have on them?" and "who is backing them?"

As such, one of the obvious things to do is to enable blackmail. The trick here is to set up the ability for characters to choose to be compromised by exercising their various lusts (in whatever fashion.) For a lust for power, set up a mutual backscratching. For a lust for... love, make everything go perfectly well. (and so long as they don't piss off their blackmailer, everything will continue to go perfectly well. When they start making waves, the quiet conversations and the quiet threats will start.

Trust is leveraged ultimatims: the ability to threaten certain harm

In a corrupt world, the only basis for trust is leverage. Therefore, their first quests should be on behalf of a low-power functionary gathering leverage on other low-power functionaries. It is critical that all of these actions be disguised behind pious platitudes, as barring Captain Louis Renault, few people are open about their corruption.

Have the characters observe a culture of gifts of little red envelopes. It should always be easier to bribe your way in than to fight. And, of course, as above, so below. Need to get past a gate guard? Bribe him. Or, better yet, know his pressure points. And, as ever, show, don't tell. Players should be taught this through observing other people, and by getting assignments that stink of corruption.

On the Nature of a Corrupt Society

In many ways, subtle corruption is a private violation of social norms for personal gain. Consider Plato's Ring of Gyges allegory. This is exactly what players should encounter. To be clear, we are discussing corruption in non-failed or hollow states. Personal despotism, autocracy, and oligarchy all present their own possible modes of corruption (however dressed up they are in democratic principles).

While it would be impolitic to quote the entire SEP article on Corruption it is required reading when discussing the nature of the thing, as many of these answers, (mine included) have focused on public, rather than private corruption:

In fact, corruption is exemplified by a very wide and diverse array of phenomena of which bribery is only one kind, and nepotism another. Paradigm cases of corruption include the following. The commissioner of taxation channels public monies into his personal bank account, thereby corrupting the public financial system. A political party secures a majority vote by arranging for ballot boxes to be stuffed with false voting papers, thereby corrupting the electoral process. A police officer fabricates evidence in order to secure convictions, thereby corrupting the judicial process. A number of doctors close ranks and refuse to testify against a colleague who they know has been negligent in relation to an unsuccessful surgical operation leading to loss of life; institutional accountability procedures are thereby undermined. A sports trainer provides the athletes he trains with banned substances in order to enhance their performance, thereby subverting the institutional rules laid down to ensure fair competition. It is self-evident that none of these corrupt actions are instances of bribery.

Therefore, when creating a setting, take a lesson both from Plato and the SEP. For our purposes, a corrupt act is the ultimate hypocrisy: social gains from public virtue while private gains from the denaturing of that virtue. A corrupt official who admits he takes bribes isn't, functionally, corrupt. By publicly changing the rules of the game, he isn't benefiting from the appearance of virtue; he's taken off the ring of gyges. Without getting into Baudrillardian simulacra presenting players with a corrupt society first requires presenting them with a virtuous society.

Showing Corruption in Your World

Let us presume that the characters are strangers in a strange land. Translating between character and player knowledge when dealing with subtle clues is remarkably difficult. (As an aside, if your characters are from the corrupt society, just spell it out to them, as part of their character knowledge of the world.)

Hint at the culture of corruption via including it in skill success outcomes. If the characters are trying to get in somewhere and just blindly roll a diplomacy-equivalent, note how a small "handshake" with gratiutiy palmed smoothes things over (and just grant the currency transferred as a freebie, since the players didn't initiate the bribe.) With character background knowledge (rolling to figure out who X is) always make sure to describe their "good friends" and patrons. And so on.

Enable corruption. Make sure that, when starting out, if the players choose the corrupt path, they succeed. Don't state this pre-judgement, but players will notice details like this quite quite quickly. And once they've done something that gives someone else leverage, the doors open, and the quiet conversations begin.

At the end of the day, in a corrupt society, the only true sin is embarrassing those in power.

The central tenet that must be hammered into the characters heads (best with spikes) is that there is only a single sin. It's not "getting caught" (as with corruption, getting caught simply leads to greater trust..) It's getting caught embarassing those in power. The way to victory is to remove those more powerful than you by embarrassing them via a useful idiot. So long as they have leverage over you and are aware of your actions, the only thing you cannot do is make it so that they no longer want to protect you. It is this hidden and secret despotism that makes corruption so evil: there is no appeal to your blackmailer nor to the court of public opinion. There is no ability to rehabilitate yourself (save via an act of grace of those in power). If you don't do what they say, they can use the organs of the state to destroy you. If this theme isn't the central conceit of the campaign, make sure to show other people destroyed, rather than enmeshing characters in the villains machinations.

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Wow... I had considered asking almost this exact question before, as I'm designing a (mobile/web) game. The roadmap on this is exactly what I was looking for, as the world is incredible corrupt. –  corsiKa Feb 24 at 23:30
    
This is very well thought out. I am wondering, if this question doesn't offend you and if you feel comfortable answering it, where did you become so knowledgeable on this subject? –  DraconeKing May 19 at 1:52
    
I'm an academic and philosopher. I'm good at research, the nature of corruption is well within traditional questions of philosophy. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 19 at 1:54

This is a brief answer not really based on roleplaying games, but on living in corrupt societies, however briefly. Namely, USSR/Russia. The thing about institutionalized corruption is that it's not subtle. Everyone knows about it. Depending on the rest of the social organization, it may be illegal to speak about it openly, but everybody still knows. And once this knowledge is ingrained in the society, the expectation of corruption both exceeds the actual corruption and fulfills it.

There is an unspoken code of behavior that has little to do with official laws. You bribe people to get things done, because that's how you get things done. This could range from a 10% "kick back" on any state tender you give to the bureaucrat that awards it to you, to a chocolate bar to a bureaucrat that files your minor paperwork. Bureaucrats are tiny kings, they are the gatekeepers.

As for laws, they are twisted or written to support this. There are a number of broad laws that many people can be accused of breaking (e.g. internet piracy or criticism of state), which are unenforceable except in individual cases. This lets the state pick and choose whom to prosecute, in effect punishing anyone it feels like.

Back to the game, now. All locals, PC or NPC, already know all this, and behave accordingly. Any non-corrupt interactions PCs have with corrupt agencies will fail, either outright or through processing delays and bureaucratic runaround. It is a painful, laborious process that is trivially circumvented with bribes. That's the true danger of a corrupt society: it makes you corrupt. The greatest enemy of PCs (who typically are the people trying to get things done) are faceless vindictive bureaucrats.

Just as likely as actually following an order from up high to punish someone, a local authority might be trying to meet a quota, or just not letting anyone act out for fear of appearing weak. It is a self-perpetuating machinery that runs on fear and destroys anyone who stands out. Cue PCs.

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Excellent answer. You covered most common types of corruption. I would highlight the one on the third paragraph, adding that sometimes not only laws are broad, but there are a lot of them, in a way that it's impossible not to break some of them. Of course, those laws are not enforced (you can't jail all your population), but they allow authorities to pick on any one they want. –  Flamma Feb 24 at 10:22
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As an addendum, corrupt societies are unfair. And, returning to RPG advice, players hate when the GM or the world is unfair to them. For instance, if they are forced to pay for something that should be free or if authorities pick on them to meet a quota, or use stupid laws to prosecute them. The GM should remember that it's the corrupt society and not himself who is unjust. On the other hand, players can learn to take advantage of corruption. –  Flamma Feb 24 at 10:26
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Flamma, comments are for requests for clarification. If you want to make an answer with your two comments that speaks to the question, it won't be deleted, especially if you can discuss how players can take advantage of corruption. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 24 at 10:52
    
@Flamma This is an excellent point. –  MrJinPengyou Feb 24 at 12:26
    
It's the same thing here in Brazil. –  Metalcoder Feb 24 at 12:58

Like Magician said, sometimes corruption is obvious(I live in Russia, I know it firsthand), but you cant actually prove it(or you dont want to).

I think there is a two types of corruption and you need to decide what's best for your world. Lets think about subtle one. First of all you need to understand why it's subtle. I mean is it because of laws? Or somekind of part for bigger plan in the future(like spy from opposing force, who's trying to undermine current situation). From that you need to take a step. Most obvious clues is somekind of documents or meetings. Players can be official investigators, or just being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some key characters can be a bit sleazy. Few mistakes in speeches or deeds. And remember, if everything goes flawlessly its the 1st sign of something bad is about to happen, since there is always at least some problems. Which can be somekind of hint for players too. Some key persons can dissapear after 'wrong speeches'. Maybe some rumors. Try to make that 'gut feeling' for them that something isnt right, something unnatural.

On the other side is the obvious corruption. Like in Russia. It is common knowledge. But in most cases you cant really prove it. And even if you can - you'll have to go through corrupt judges, law enforcers and whole system. So if you want that kind of corruption - dont be afraid to make it bold. Big corps always bribe some cops and other authorities. If we're talking about somekind of chirch - well, there is always a punish groups, who will always defend dark secrets of that religion. Like inquisitors or other fanatics. They can enforce "truth" via propoganda or repressions. Whatever fits your story. As you might see, you dont need to be subtle in this option. Just silence all objectors quickly, effectivly, sometimes bloody.

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Just take clues from Italy in the last 20 years. One of the most corrupted country of the so-called Western world. I'm Italian, I should know.

Here, the entire political class is corrupt, there's a strong, ancient, well-connected criminal organization (the Mafia) which made deals and sometimes financed local and State politics. Replace the actual actors with what you want. Local majors, deputees, managers get elected because of bribes; entrepreneurs are allowed to live and thrive, or not, based on how much "protection money" they deposit. The outcomes of public auctions and contests are decided well before the are announced. This is true in the North as much as in the South, the only difference being that in the South, working with the Mafia is the only sure way to get a job and, y'know, keep a roof on your head and that of your spouse/children.

And that's because, I reiterate, the whole political class is corrupt and only thinks about keeping their very well-paying jobs, so the country is in stagnation from some 20 years. And not only everyone knows it, but everyone is eager to participate in it, lest they are "cut out" of business by less scrupolous people.

To hint at widespread corruption, just show a small shop sending money to "protectors", and another poor shop-owner terrified by the perspective of not having enough money to pay the racket, and his neighbours not helping him and shunning him for fear of retribution by the powerful local chiefs.

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The first thing about corruption is that it isn't just about a system directed at benefiting a certain person or group. It is, first and foremost, a system that has departed from the values and purposes it was meant to uphold.

An example that doesn't involve a state or nation is the idea of a Fate machine that was meant to ensure specific outcomes for mankind, but isn't working as intended (by the Gods or whoever built it) because it allows free will. While humanity may consider it a blessing, its creator could consider the Fate machine "corrupted".

State systems are built on ideas revolving around supporting and protecting the nation; we consider it corrupted when we perceive individuals distorting it for personal gain. But another case of a corrupted is one that, meant to be representative of its people, acts against a certain minority (racial, ethnic, religious, etc). If it is supported by a large part of the population, the society can be considered corrupted, even if only the targeted minority sees it.

I suggest you to pay attention to the values of the PCs, written in their background or expressed to you. Your best way to give subtle signs of corruption is to create situations that are against a few important values (for lawful and good ones) or that fits perfectly to ones that they know to be improper (mainly chaotic and evil ones).

Another way is to introduce them to the conception of the system, before it was corrupted. It can show which values and purposes guided its creation. With this information, players can perceive the departures from its ideal as they interact with the system, if you showed before, or in retrospect, if shown after they interacted.

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The media, as I see it, is your answer. Mafia is all nice and well, and bribing is still useful, but through knowledge one can achieve everything when used right. A person who holds a giant media corporation or the like can bring this info into every citizen's conscious. This is something that can't be ignored. In many corrupt societies the corruption comes from the fear of finding this info leaked to the papers.

More than the controlling part, media can create or even erase history. 1984 has a great example of this when we first see Winston: He "corrects" the Big Brother's predictions about the economy of the state. Make a campaign newspaper and every now and then change a little statement. The characters witness a speech which is typed differently in the newspaper; a story has been invented about the characters, etc… And most important of all, it has always been like that because this can be invented about everyone.

The combination of those 2 makes a society in which everyone bribes his or her way upwards and then bribes again and again just to make sure that no one will know about that. When one has to save his place against such a major threat, he will do whatever he can to save his ass.

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Some ideas from living in a corrupt country:

  • Media is used for really obvious propaganda. The media often targets certain groups. show that targets propaganda at housewives would play soap operas right before the news. Media that targets everyone might have a corrupt politician buying out most of a popular newspaper.

  • Heavy propaganda is included in education, especially history lessons.

  • The police are selective when dealing with crimes. Reporting a crime can get you grilled heavily by the police, as they're looking to minimize the crime statistics by discouraging people from reporting. Very often they'll tell you that they'll "look into it", but nothing happens.

  • Loose laws exist, like the right to arrest someone without trial. Criticizing the corrupt class can be a crime, often labeled as sedition.

  • Bureaucracy is a hive of corruption. Expect to bribe someone if you don't want any forms you send to take a few months to get through.

  • Nothing is directly stolen, it just 'disappears' along the way. A corrupt bank official would try to convince someone else (usually a junior) to sign a bank transfer then intercept the payment in between banks. The PCs might track down a lost transfer to that junior, but not the mastermind behind the theft.

  • The corrupt tend to avoid paperwork and contracts. Think Nigerian Prince style deals... they'll insist that they can give you a really good cut, but only if you keep everything under wraps.

  • People who report a corrupt official commit suicide right before they can bring in evidence. Or die of natural causes like heart attacks or get randomly blown up. Many agents involved in assassinations face a trial then go free.

  • Outrageous claims, like $10 for a pencil.

  • The corrupt control the people who are in charge of certification and credibility. Auditors can be bribed. Priests can be bribed. An honest God(s)-Fearing priest can be intimidated. If something has to be signed by several people, they can simply bribe or intimidate the ones on top who will intimidate their subordinates.

  • Things like hiring and contracts are sourced out in the open for transparency. Most of the time they'll interview more candidates than they need (like filtering 100 candidates for 1 lucrative contract) and then just happen to pick a relative. They won't pick their own relative, of course... they'll just pick a friend's relative, and that friend repays the favor later.

  • Everyone knows it's like that. But most people will avoid saying so directly, unless they're in a group of trusted friends. They'll usually toss sarcastic comments on the corruption level, though. In some cases, they may even see corruption where it doesn't exist.

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