In law a business undertaking in which financial and legal liability is limited by law such that the owners are liable to lose only the sum total of their investment in the company rather than falling liable for a proportionate share of its overall debt. The corporation serves to make investing in business easier and less risky, which in theory promotes investment and developement of commerce and industry. In practice this seems to work pretty well.
However one of the normal functions of a corporation is to seperate ownership and management, and whilst this can be a good thing (traditionally the founder's son is not the man his father was) it can lead to conflicts - the management can be incentivised to concentrate too much on short term benefits in order to maximise their personal rewards and the owners - particularly if they are investment houses trading on the stock market, rather than capitalists seeking to invest in a business - can place unnatural constraints on the business (e.g. by loading the balance sheet for a good share price on the exchange rather than for the health and growth of the business, or by seeking high dividends over re-capitalisation).
Also, a lack of ownership by the management, and the anonimity of the true owners can occasionally breed an amorality which can make 'the faceless corporation' a good, if somewhat hackneyed, villain.
For game and fictional purposes 'the Corporation' is usually a large frequently multinational1 company and usually a conglomerate (that is, trading in multiple, unrelated fields of commerce and/or industry). Neither of these are necessary features of a corporation - which can be as small as one person and normally only have one undertaking - but they make for a more significant presence in fiction.
The corporate model is a lot older than people think - the oldest confirmed sighting was in the form of the Stora Koppaberg mining community in Sweden which was chartered in 1347 (see the wiki entry below) but existed before then, but such powers as the Honourable East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company also belong to this model.
In almost all cases a corporation is a person in law in and of itself, capable of being a party to an agreement seperately to those who own and/or control it.
List of Corporations
- The Honourable East India Company and its many siblings
- The Hudson Bay Company
- Corrupt Corporate Executive
- Maryland PR firm runs for Congress - the logical conclusion to a corporation being a person in law.
Game and Story Use
- If you like cliches, the Corporate State dystopia probably has plenty of wear left in it, and even without that particular setting a single company - like Joss Whedon's Wolfram & Hart can make a good BBEG substitute.
- For those who don't like cliches, the corporation can either be a neutral but pervasive influence like Joss Whedon's (again…) Blue Sun or even a patron for PCs. The patron role is somewhat rarer, but Earth Resource Technology Services from Michael Crichton's Congo might be a useful example.
- in the colonial era the HEIC and the Hudson Bay (and there non-British equivalents) make ideal patrons for PCs … the HEIC had it's own army, navy and secret service, arguably better organsied than those run by the Crown.
- A modern era campaign that sets the PCs in the employ of a private security contractor such as Blackwater or Executive Outcomes (or the security division of a conglomerate) is a perfect excuse for all sorts of not necessarily connected adventures around the planet - a sort of modern day Fighter's Guild campaign.
- Consider that, by definition, a corporation is an entity in its own right and the owners are not necessarily responsible for its actions - and of course neither are all (or even most of) the employees (unless you are found of unrealistic monlithic villany) … not all of the managment may even be responsible for a given form of villany. All this is great for piling on the moral ambiguity.
- The PCs may find they own shares in an enemy company - if only through their pension fund - or that their parents depend on shares in the enemy company for their retirement income.
- The 'evil corporation' may be both patron (or at least employer) and enemy to the PCs - if they are in the role of a whistleblower or work for a 'white' branch of the company.
- Alternatively, perhaps someone they know - or a community they care about - relies on the enemy company, either as the sole employer or because of a PR philanthropy programme (again, Joss Whedon … try the Angel episode Blood Money).
- Taking on a company may just get up the noses of some other important allies or patrons of the PCs who have invested heavily in their stocks.
- If the company is big enough, the PCs may be able to hurt it by throwing a stone in the air - wherever it lands it will hit company property unless they do it below the grid - but many of the potential targets will be illegitimate: even the heroic sociopath antihero should probably balk at blowing up the local 24h supermarket because the parent conglomerate is up to no good. If he doesn't then the PCs will be quite accurately labelled as terrorists and treated accordingly.
- When you're fighting a business, it's easy to look like a common criminal (particularly if you stop to grab some loot) … ironically this may be a good thing (as per the previous entry). Great for a 21st century plus Robin Hood game.
- It may well be hard picking out exactly which parts of the business you need to hit - and by their nature corporations can be like starfish: cut a bit off and sooner or later it grows right back.
- In a fantasy or science-fiction campaign, the corporation might literally be a separate entity (such as a mythago, a sentient meme, or an artificial intelligence). Projects start becoming coordinated in odd ways, despite having none of the same staff; employees start receiving orders but are unable to remember who gave them; and all of it points to some purpose that might go against the people at the top. Is the corporation starting a slave revolt?