Political Campaign Tips – Part II
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #203
- Establish A Home Base
- Create Conflicting And Compelling Motives And Goals
- Theme One: Order And Position
- Happy New Year
- Visa, Mastercard, Amex Options Now For GM Encyclopedia
- City Essentials Request
- Disappearing Players Or Blue Vein Syndrome
- Marvel Universe RPG Suits Many Player Styles
- Speeding Up Combat: Common Hit Points
- List Of Fantasy Names
Establish A Home Base
There are different setting options for political roleplaying, but one of the best is the Home Base Campaign where the PCs generally stick to a particular area. The majority of adventures, encounters, and interactions take place in or near where the PCs call home, and many plot threads revolve around threats against or opportunities for the home base itself.
Politics as a viable tool and tactic needs a stable environment to thrive, which is the main reason why home base settings are perfect for this type of campaign.
On the game side of things, consistent storytelling in a single locale adds to the level of detail, degrees of interaction, and player area knowledge required for fun politicking. It’s difficult to jump into a new situation and start handshaking, gossiping, deal-making, and leverage- taking. Entering a new adventuring environment every story severely curtails the PCs’ options and resources and reduces player enjoyment.
On the setting side of things, the more chaotic and anarchic a situation is, the smaller the scope of potential politicking becomes until it’s reduced to a pure survival level where the dude with the biggest club rules the street. Side deals, long term schemes, subtle maneuvers, and agreements are impossible if everyone’s fighting for food, water, and shelter and living day-to-day. In effect then, a stable setting nurtures politics.
Fun political situations need some or all of the following, depending on your campaign style:
- NPCs who have resources to wager, wield, lose, and gain, such as money, land, influence, and social status
- A variety of goals, such as a trade agreements, manipulating heirs, leadership, increasing reputation, and gaining popular support
- A social hierarchy
- Different potential degrees of success and failure
- A social environment that respects and follows its own social rules
There are exceptions to these guidelines, but the main point is a compelling, detailed, and highly interactive game setting makes for great political roleplaying. A Home Base campaign can meet these requirements as well as provide excellent stability and growth opportunities for your group.
Home Base location ideas:
- Village. The PCs live in a fixed semi-rural environment. Village politics can get very personal and nasty because rumours spread fast and community resources are often sparse and hard fought over.
- Town or city. The PCs call a fixed, densely populated area home. Urban settings provide unlimited story opportunities as political situations can be simple or complex, and large or small in scope.
- Neighbourhood. The party lives in a sub-community and can work on behalf of their neighbourhood competing against other ‘hoods or they can follow own personal agendas.
- Guild. The campaign is focused on competing within and/or politicking on behalf of a political entity. The location of the guild is a factor but not the key hook to what the PCs call home. The scope of the campaign can spread far beyond the buildings and physical area the guild resides in as well.For example, a guild might have a network of locations, control resources around the world, or have its fingers in many political arenas.
Any social entity fits this category as well, such as a political party, a religion, or fraternal organisation.
- Castle. Assuming the castle, fortress, or keep is a powerbase for a region, the PCs’ entire world might consist of the many rooms, buildings, and residents within the structure. Visitors in the form of emissaries, delegations, special guests, and citizens provide an influx of new plot threads and political permutations.
- Plane, demi-plane, alternate dimension. The player characters call a region of unusual nature their home. The specialness of the place and points of difference can help the PCs become loyal to their Home Base and immediately hook them into your campaign.
- Vehicle or ship. The PCs live in a moving vehicle or vessel that’s large enough to house many people and support different internal resources, power bases, and social hierarchies. A classic example is the starship Enterprise. Internal and external politicking are easily supported.
Home Base motivation ideas (why would the PCs want to stay?):
- Born and raised. There’s something cool about starting and ending a campaign in the same region, assuming the region is fairly dynamic. The PCs are loyal to their place of birth and struggle against villainous leaders, treacherous neighbours, and shifty travellers and drifters.
- Contract. The party has been hired to achieve some long- term political goal, such as destabilizing the current government of a foreign power or community, setting up and protecting a new democracy or government, or sabotaging a villainous guild that employs illegal, unscrupulous, or dangerous methods.
- Divine will or prophesy. The player characters are pulled into a region and confined there through the will of, or an agreement with, a divine power or prophesy. Perhaps a bit heavy-handed, this plot line can be rewarding if the players are given other compelling reasons to stay and pursue their goals.
Create Conflicting And Compelling Motives And Goals
You’ve probably read this NPC-creation tip many times before. However, stop for a moment and think about what it means for a goal to be a fun game component.First thing that comes to my mind is: conflicting and compelling for whom? The GM? The NPCs? While those answers are valid, the best one is for goals to be conflicting and compelling for the players and their characters. The game is all about them in the end.
So, next time you’re creating NPCs, plots, and settings, give each campaign element one or more motives and goals and measure them up against how entertaining they’ll be for the group.
- Conflicting. Ensure that key NPCs, encounters, or environments contain a conflict for the player characters to struggle against. Make the PCs earn their experience, hero points, or skill points. :)In addition, think long-term where possible. Far reaching conflicts will provide you with stable plots and NPCs for the players to politick within. It’s usually not difficult spinning short-term goals out from long running threads, but it’s often much harder doing the opposite.
- Compelling. Players find anything that significantly impacts their PCs compelling. If something bars the PCs’ way, enhances an ability, or provides the opportunity to fulfil a goal, it’ll be compelling. If something generates a favoured activity, such as combat, roleplaying, or problem solving, it’ll be compelling. And if a goal or motive offends a player, makes him laugh, makes him proud or scared, or generates a strong emotion, it’ll be compelling.
- Motives. What drives a villain to scheme and cause such misery? What is the reason behind the reason behind the reason for an NPC’s behaviour? A motive is a big picture insight into a game element that can inspire and empower you to create specific goals, encounters and conflicts with. It’s a tool that’ll help you think on your feet during the game and react accordingly to the PCs’ words and deeds.For example, if the PCs foil a foe’s plan, knowing his motive(s) will help you engineer a new plan that’ll be consistent with the NPC’s personality.
- Goals. These are specific plans and formulas you can use to spawn plots, conflicts, and encounters from. A goal should be derived from an NPC’s motive(s). This extra layer of personality will add depth to your politically oriented games and create another dimension to the NPC for the players to figure out.
- Tweak goals and motives to make them relevant to your campaign in addition to the players and their PCs.
- For each goal and motive, find common ground with as many campaign and adventure elements as possible to tighten up story lines and side-plots.
For example, you want to stir things up in the PCs’ village somehow. You start with a lazy farmer NPC. Here’s a possible series of steps you might take:
Step 1: Create a motive. You decide the farmer’s motive is wealth because he wants to retire sooner rather than later and have servants take care of all his needs.
Step 2: Create a goal. The farmer’s goal is to acquire more and more fertile farmland until he can bank enough profits to retire.
Step 3: Make things compelling and conflicting. You have the farmer target the nearby farms of two PCs’ parents for acquisition.
Step 4: Campaign tweaks. You think up a few possible plans for the villain and try to link them to other plot threads and encounters you have planned:
- Get the PC and/or his parents in so much debt they have to sell the farm. Hypothetical linkages:
- Sabotage the farm’s equipment and buildings by blackmailing a group of local bandits that the PCs are already hunting
- Politick with the Royal Surveyor’s assistant to have the surveyor adjust the farm’s holdings value and thereby increase its tax base. The surveyor is mixed up in a plot thread the PCs are investigating as well (thanks for the idea Jared)
- A PC has recently been cursed with a drug addiction. The farmer bribes an herbalist for the recipe and starts his own crop to sell to the PC (and his whole family, he hopes) until a large debt is accrued
- Ruin the farm’s crops and afflict its animals with disease season after season until the PCs’ parents buckle under and are forced to move. Hypothetical linkages:
- The local druids are unhappy with the village’s aggressive logging. The farmer calls a secret meeting and encourages them to strike first against the farms as a warning. The druid PC is also trying to get membership into the local circle and does not know what the circle is planning.
- The local dam needs repair badly. The farmer secretly meets with several others and creates a coalition against wasting tax money on the dam and spend it on road improvement instead. After several village meetings and an audience with the lord, the coalition has its way and the lazy farmer now sits back chuckling, waiting for the next big rain storm. A water elemental lives in the lake as well, and PC interactions with that creature might also inadvertently serve the farmer’s plotting.
- Poison the well. Hypothetical linkage:
- The PCs discover a colony of Yuan-Ti half-bloods in the nearby area (thanks for the idea Jeremy). On behalf of their lord, they’ve been tasked with reaching a peaceful, regional co-habitation agreement. The farmer hears a rumour that the yuan-ti are poisonous, so he coerces a mercenary to join the party and collect the poison from any yuan-ti casualties the PCs produce.
- Frame the parents for a false crime. Hypothetical linkage:
- A village elder has recently been murdered. The PCs are investigating. You tweak your plans and decide that the villainous farmer was behind the murder and has planted evidence that points to one of the PC’s farm-holding parents for the crime.
- Join the family by convincing the PC to marry his daughter. Hypothetical linkage:
- A local legend has recently come back to life. After a pair of brutal slayings, the lord hires the PCs to investigate as he believes one of the village elders has been afflicted with lycanthropy. While you originally had an elder tagged for the crimes, you change things up by making the farmer’s daughter the lycanthrope, and she’s been smart enough to hide her disease and frame her feedings on the elder.
Theme One: Order And Position
Social hierarchy is very important in politics. For the most part, leaders and persons of influence feel it’s important to communicate and remind everyone what their station is and how important they are.
For example, consider the following list of potential benefits NPCs of note might reap through ongoing status reminders:
- Remind people who’s boss
- Fend off or warn challengers through intimidation
- Advertising: let those who seek to serve know who they can approach
- Advertising: let those who seek to solicit or entreaty know who they should call upon
- Communicate the social order and hierarchy
- Force near-peers and underlings to acknowledge their inferiority
- To communicate to the masses the power structure
- To bolster the morale of friends, followers, employees, and servants and give them status as well
Therefore, the order that things are done in social and political situations is important and you can use the concept of order as a persistent theme to help you run any political encounter.
Look for any opportunity where you can perceptually rank the PCs and NPCs in any encounter. Some ideas are:
- Order of greeting. Imagine if the PCs enter the throne room, trumpets blare, and the group stops before the King. As one they turn and bow…to the nearby guard! Then they turn and bow to the cook in the back row. After several more formal greetings to servants, minor lords, and some favoured pets, they finally turn and bow to the King.That’s an extreme example, but in a political campaign all contestants will be highly aware of their place on the social ladder and who should be greeted in what order. Even one minor order mix-up could cause quite a scandal.
- Seating order. The powerful generally sit at the head, front, or middle position. The leader should have the best seat that forces all eyes to naturally fall to that position.
- Who speaks first. It should be custom and protocol that the leader or most privileged person in a group either start the conversation, be requested to speak first by the #2 person, or be thanked first for their presence in the conversation before conversation begins or resumes.
- Who speaks last. Conversely, custom could dictate that one must ask to be excused if any of higher station are present, or that the most powerful can only call a conversation to an end. Perhaps no one can leave until the leader excuses herself.
- Standing and seating order. Who sits when?
- Service. Who gets served first and last?
- Who can enter or leave an area, and in what order?
- Who can sit at the head table, in the first rows, or in the balconies?
- In what order can people start dancing?
- Who makes the first toast?
- Who cannot speak unless addressed or acknowledged first?
- Who gets what room while visiting?
- Who learns important information and in what order?
Before you execute any encounter with one or more NPCs, think of order as a theme you can layer over it to describe and communicate the social hierarchy. Use the concept of order as a game within the game so that PCs are expected to discover the order of things for themselves and follow customs without any faux pas. Use order to help the PCs know who they should turn to, bribe, get to know, coerce, and so on.
Theme Two: Quantity
Another theme to keep in the back of your mind when running political encounters is quantity. The rule of thumb here is, the most important people receive the optimum quantity and the least important people receive whatever quantity remains.
- Height. The tallest or most prominent elements are usually reserved for the most powerful.
- Height of chairs (hence the use of daises)
- Height of hats or headgear
- Position of banners, shields, and other noble wall dressings
- Who owns the tallest building?
- Size. Larger objects generally signify greater importance.
- Size of crown or diadem (i.e. King’s crown versus Prince’s)
- Size of badges worn
- The length of the herald’s announcement when people walk through the entrance
- Size of home, garden
- Who is allowed the most personal guards and/or servants in attendance?
- Who can wear the most rings?
- How many times must you bow to each type of social class, position, or person?
- Layers of clothing or accessories
- Who gets the biggest wine glass?
- The puffy factor of clothing
- Entrance music is loudest for the most important people
- Length of title or formal introduction
- Who has the longest driveway?
- Who has the longest gown train?
During social encounters, look for any instance of something that can be measured and compared and try to make that some kind of statement, custom, or protocol as to the social hierarchy.
This issue and #201 are the first ones that have focused on political gaming. I have a few other tips on the topic, if you’d like to hear them. Let me know if you are enjoying the politics theme and/or if you have any political tips of your own to share.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Happy New Year
Well, it’s great to be writing the ezine again after a three week Christmas break. It’s like returning to an old friend. Happy New Year to you. I hope you find this week’s article of value for your games.
Visa, Mastercard, Amex Options Now For GM Encyclopedia
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City Essentials Request
I recently posted an update and request to the GMMastery Yahoo! group about the GM Mastery book line that began with NPC Essentials. I’m currently working on book #2, City Essentials. This book will be about designing and gaming urban fantasy environments. It’s focus isn’t simulation or historical accuracy, but on managing city campaigns and making game play in city adventures as fun and exciting as possible.
Though writing is already well underway, I thought I’d invite topic, tips, and article requests for the book from any Tips subscribers who have challenges or issues with city GMing. Just drop me note with your requests and I’ll try to work them into the book.
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Disappearing Players Or Blue Vein Syndrome
From Joshua Petersen
Some RPG groups (mine especially) have problems with people sporadically attending sessions. This can cause a serious break in the feel of the game and often causes the GM to fumble around for some excuse of why the PC isn’t there. In trying to deal with this problem, I game with the following constant in-game reason that, with some editing, can fit many campaigns. I call it “Blue Vein Syndrome”Blue Vein Syndrome (which gains its name by causing the veins of the afflicted to turn blue and glow slightly upon close inspection in complete darkness) is a magical disease caused by too much exposure to planar energy. The typical ways of contracting it involve spending too much time in- between planes, getting caught in a magical experiment involving planar energy going haywire, dimension-travelling, tech messing up, and so on. Only very rarely does someone actively seeking to contract the disease get it.It is a rare malady and comes in three main strains:BVS-A: This is the most benign of the three strains. Contracting this disease will causes the afflicted to occasionally disappear in a blue glow only to reappear– typically near others with BVS-A–some undetermined time later. During this time, they are suspended, unreachable, and in between planes of existence.[Gameplay: whenever a player doesn’t show up to a gaming session, the PC “randomly” fades out, reappearing later when the player does.]BVS-B: BVS-B has all of the attributes of BVS-A while also causing the afflicted to lose their grip on their plane (however, they fade in with those afflicted with BVS-B). This will cause them to risk going unconscious (In D&D: Fortitude or Will save, whichever lower, DC 10 + character level) for 1d10 minutes whenever someone around them with BVS-B fades out.However, this DC can be lowered by taking ranks in a cross- class skill unique to those afflicted referred to as “Veinwalk” (no associated ability). They can also attempt to make the save when someone is not fading to try and slip between planes. If successful, they can cross to an adjacent plane by walking. If they fail they go unconscious for 1d10 minutes and take 1d4 points of constitution damage curable only by magic healing (such as cure light wounds) after 2 days have passed. [Gameplay: this version is more useful if you want to introduce some extra roleplaying experiences to BlueVein Syndrome, so the players don’t see it as just a corny way to avoid incorporating real-life but as something with in-game consequences.]
BVS-C: BVS-C is the most dangerous form of Blue Vein Syndrome. It does not carry the positive benefits of BVS-B (although there are rumors of an extremely rare BVS-D which seems to combine BVS-B and BVS-C). In most aspects, it is like BVS-A (except the afflicted will phase in with those afflicted with BVS-C), except this form of BlueVein is occasionally fatal as it may leave someone in between planes without them ever being retrieved, only to phase in a piece or two of their body or gear, leaving the rest behind, unretrievable by almost all attempted methods.[Gameplay: this version works well when you worry a character may drop out completely at some point in the future (such as someone visiting from very far away), and thus can get rid of their character from the story line when you believe they will not return. When you have given up hope of them coming back, just phase in a piece of them (or vital story line item they’re carrying) letting the other PCs know that they’re gone for good.]
Marvel Universe RPG Suits Many Player Styles
Got a powergamer in your group? He’ll love playing Thor.Got a roleplayer in your group? He’ll love playing Falcon.Got someone who always plays a paladin in your group? He’ll love playing Captain America.Got someone who likes to blur the line between good and bad? He’ll love playing Punisher.Got someone who likes to think his way out of problems? He’ll love playing Mr. Fantastic.Got a GM who has problems dealing with ALL those personalities? Marvel Universe is perfect for that because it’s a storytelling game where the powers the characters have are not as important as the decision making…yet are important enough to let the powergamers in your group still have fun.In the Marvel Universe RPG you can either make up your own character or play one already established. My players seem to enjoy the ease of playing the ones they read in comic books years ago, so only one of five made a new character. Yet, I routinely make new ones for them to face as the GM and it takes less than 5 minutes to make up a group of 6 for them to fight and have all the mechanics in place.The character creation system is very easy. You have a set of attributes (STR, INT, etc.) that you pay for whatever stats you want. After that you have ‘abilities’ and ‘modifiers’ that you again pay for whatever you want. In essence you imagine the character you want and pay for the abilities that fit your description.
Once the characters are made the adventures are quite similar to what you have in comic books. They can involve sneaking around, slugfests, chase scenes, and similar things. The experience system goes by the name “add-a-line”. You get 2 to 4 ‘lines’ of experience each adventure and may assign them to any ability you have. When you get 10 lines in an ability the score of that ability goes up by one. In essence, those are the rules of the game. There just are not that many rules as the game is focused on story telling.
There is usually plenty of action, yet the combat system is so simple that it takes only a few pages to explain it. It may take a few times reading through the rules to get to where you understand it as I at first thought it was pretty complex. But after the first couple fights I realized it was several orders of magnitude easier than any other system I have played.
It’s worth checking out as it is quite a fun game. [Request from Johnn: thanks for the tip Adam. Do any readers have tips on planning super hero games, designing super hero adventures, or running super hero games in general?]
Speeding Up Combat: Common Hit Points
I am an avid reader of the newsletter (even going as far as to print them out, highlight them, and study them like my lecture notes!). Here is tip for speeding up combat – but like all house rules, make sure the players are briefed and have no problems with it. In addition, this tip probably won’t work if you run your game like a wargame.Use a global Hit Point pool for monsters.Say the players are fighting a group of 12 goblins. Instead of generating each goblin’s HP, just create a common HP amount for the whole group. If the players are fighting more than one type of enemy, track of the amount of HP for each type of enemy.
List Of Fantasy Names
From Jonathan Hicks
I came across some old notes and paperwork recently and I found a long list of names I had written down for my games. I have a lot of books about the Arthurian legends, the Mabinogion, and some old Nordic sagas. I had gone through the books, taken the names and twisted them slightly. I figured they’d be put to good use by a fantasy gamer such as yourself!