How to GM Political Adventures

From Skye Lansing

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0566


How to GM Political Adventures

Campaigns almost always center on combat in some form or another, but what about games where you want to avoid fighting? Something like this calls for a story centered around politics. And if done properly, you can run games just as exciting, just as high stakes, and just as interesting as combat.

Any scene that focuses on social aspects rather than open conflict can be thought of as a political exchange in one form or another, so you can apply many of the following techniques in situations outside a political campaign.

Step 1: Set the Stage

Before embarking on any political quest you need to work a few things out in advance, much like pre-planning an encounter. Here is what you should develop before you move on.

Player Motivation

What do the players want? This should be something they can’t get by force. One way to work out a good motivator is to look for things that are either intangible or so extensive the players cannot simply take what they need.

For example, this year’s harvest has been poor and the players have been hired by a local noble to secure food for his people before winter. He rules over a large city, so it is going to be impossible for the players to find the food on their own. Raising an army to raid nearby lands is out of the question too, because those nobles are allied with their employer.

If successful, the PCs will receive a land grant and hero status within the city. Any additional political gains the players manage for the lord will also be looked on favorably and leave him in their debt.

As you can see, there is a lot here to motivate different types of players:

  • Stopping the pending famine
  • Having the common people love them
  • A noble owing them favors
  • A land grant
  • A potential stronghold

The Antagonist

Next up, consider your antagonist. I say antagonist because while there are many quests where this will be the villain, that does not have to be the case. The more interesting political games I ran had a major antagonist the players actually liked and respected!

All you need for a good antagonist is someone whose immediate goals conflict with the players’ goals. Make the antagonist someone the players cannot just kill, either because doing so would harm their own cause or it would fail to stop the antagonist’s goals.

Continuing with our example, let’s say the antagonist for this adventure will be another noble who wants to attack the enemy kingdom to the south during winter. To this end he is securing all the food he can get his hands on so his troops will have sufficient supplies to fight.

Depending on how you want things to play out, he can be ambitious and eager to secure new lands, or someone who sympathizes with the players but honestly believes the enemy is the more urgent threat. In either case, many of his arguments will be the same, but the approach the players use may need to change.

Keep in mind the antagonist’s goals do not have to be unrelated to player goals. It is possible to create a story around the idea of the players attempting to prevent someone else’s plans. For more variety, you might also have multiple potential antagonists, and whom the players come into conflict with depends on their actions.

The Setting

Setting deals with three things:

  1. NPCs in the story who can influence the outcome
  2. The physical location where the events will play out
  3. The type of political system in use

How a group handles politics says a lot about who that group is. Small town politics are going to be different from those held by a nomadic tribe or a King’s court.

Culture also has a huge effect on politics. It colors what is considered acceptable and taboo. This can play heavily on adventures where players are being sent to a foreign nation, as they must figure out how to behave so they don’t cause an incident.

Our Example Continued

Considering that I envision this story taking place in a King’s court, the location and NPCs are obvious. Everything happens in the King’s castle, and the NPCs will be other diplomats, a few nobles and some of the staff.

I decide the culture finds social rank important, so those of lower rank must be careful in how they approach those above them.

Further, I decide the King (or in his absence, the Chief Advisor) decides when the court begins or ends, sets the agenda, and decides who gets to speak (and when).

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Step 2: Mechanics

With the stage set, now we think about the actual mechanics of how politics will work. Thankfully, a lot of work will be done for you up front since most game systems have skills, feats and rules to handle social encounters. Though they will not be as extensive as combat rules, in most cases you can co-opt them with a few modifications. Here are some touches I often enjoy adding.

Assign Goal Points

For each NPC the characters will interact with, I take 20 points and divide it amongst their goals and motivations, with those they are more concerned with gaining more points.

You can also assign points to general aspects of the PCs. For example, a knight might be concerned with maintaining the vows of his order, or a noble having an affair may wish to hide this.

When a character threatens or provides aid to an NPC’s listed goal, these points come into play. How they affect the game is up to you. Perhaps they grant bonuses on social rolls that character is opposing. Maybe the NPC will be willing to provide more direct aid as the players gain more leverage. Most of the time I go with something much simpler, though.

In my games I award these points to the character best able to aid the NPC’s goals. When the NPC must then take political action, he will tend to act in support of the character that holds more points, and thus holds greater sway. How strong this support is depends on just how much sway a character has, with only a few points possibly being enough to stop direct opposition or grant only token support.

If we go back to the example adventure we are putting together, perhaps there is a potential ally the players could gain. However, he is being blackmailed, and if he acts in support of the players he will have his reputation ruined. Should the players learn of the blackmail and take steps to put it to an end, the NPC would readily aid their goals as he owes them a huge favor.

Note, it’s a good idea to keep around five of these points unassigned. This allows you wiggle room if you suddenly think of something else the character would care about. You can also represent the NPC befriending the players by awarding them free influence points.

On the flip side, you can also use it to tweak the opposition if the players are steam-rolling through.

Reimagine Social Skills

Most systems do not handle social skills in a conducive way to a political game. Things aren’t interesting if a single diplomacy roll is enough to accomplish the task. A series of rolls won’t cut it either, since it is just more dull dice rolls.

Such mechanics are fine when you want to keep the whole process simple and abstract, but when social interactions are the core of the adventure, the skills need to move in a different direction.

Try treating social skills like knowledge skills. A high diplomacy skill doesn’t automatically result in victory. It can, however, mean the player will be aware of archaic procedures that will help him get his way or save face if he makes a mistake. Sense motive and perception skills make characters able to guess what issues an NPC really cares about, which is vital if they want to influence them.

The beauty of this is it allows players to make use of more than just social skills to progress. It gives every player a chance to take part. Someone with a high history skill could jump in and cite traditions or past events. Rogues with a high streetwise skill might know how the general population feels and use that to their advantage, while the mage uses his talent with magic to covertly gather information on what the others are doing and tries to prevent other spellcasters from spying on the party.

Looking back at our example, you can already see how players might try to influence others to give them surplus food instead of the noble planning for a winter war. Fighters with skills in tactics and strategy can argue how dangerous such a war would be, someone else in the party might realize what other diplomats want so the players can offer to help achieve those goals in exchange for aid, and another character with high economics skill can show that a famine in their city will cause hardship elsewhere in the kingdom.

What I like most about this system is players are given a lot of freedom. If they can justify a reason their skills in a certain area are relevant, then they can participate in the discussion. It also encourages them to come up with novel applications for skills, such as a character with intimidation skills stumbling on the idea of using it to make veiled threats. Finally, it encourages players to diversify their skill sets.

Social Combat

All of this is well and good, but what happens when the players are expected to argue on topics that in reality they and their GM have little experience dealing with (few people have real experience with international politics or the macroeconomic impacts of different forms of trade agreements for example)?

For that matter, what if you are trying to simulate an afternoon in the court but don’t want it to take a whole afternoon?

In this case you may want some sort of social combat system in place. The best example of this I saw in a 4th edition Legend of the Five Rings source book. Exact mechanics don’t matter, but the basics went like this:

Every character had a set of “hit points” that represented their mental endurance based off their will score. When these reach zero that character cannot actively participate in the discussion as they no longer feel able to continue after being verbally outdone.

It is up to the GM to determine if there is some way to bring the character back into debate, but in general the answer should probably be no unless the event is taking a long time.

At the start of any political debate, all PCs and NPCs participating pick a side and choose how committed they are to the argument. Characters may remain neutral and sit out. However, once selecting nobody may change sides for that political encounter. More heavily committed characters gain bonuses to their roles but suffer additional “damage” if their side loses a round of the debate.

At the beginning of each round everyone rolls initiative. The character with the highest initiative selects what topic will be discussed and makes a roll to argue their side (again, any skill may be used so long as the GM deems it acceptable). Proceed in initiative order until everyone on both sides has spoken.

Add up the result for skill rolls on both sides. The higher total wins that round. The losing side takes damage to their mental endurance. Re-roll initiative and begin another round (it is up to the GM if there are other benefits to wining a round in a debate).

The ability to pick the topic can be a major advantage since it allows that side to select something their opposition is poor at, giving the chance to knock out opponents easily. This assumes the proper research has been done.

A weaker side might seize the opportunity to win the topic they are most concerned about before attrition renders their supporters unable to continue the discussion.

There is a lot of potential for complexity here, but I suggest keeping the system simple to start. When a player does something not covered by the rules or that seems to push things, rather than outright refusing see if you can think of a fair way to allow them to attempt the action without making it too easy. If you can think of something, allow it and sometimes have the NPCs do it as well. The complexity will evolve naturally.

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Step 3: Running the Adventure

With the groundwork finally laid down and an idea of how the rules work, you are set to go. Almost. As your last task, think about how the whole adventure will come together. While this falls under each game master’s individual tastes and the needs of the group, here are a few ideas.

Secondary Events

Although the diplomats and politicians are gathered for work, they are still people who want to enjoy themselves. These activities should fit the location, from card games at the town level to intricate plays and jousting matches hosted for those attending the King’s court.

These sorts of things are vital to the success of your adventure. On the metagame side, it gives characters with fewer social skills the opportunity to do something. A fighter, for example, may enter an arms tournament and if he wins that could carry some political capital with it. While subterfuge isn’t particularly social, it would give a rogue the opportunity to contribute by discovering what the opposition’s plans are or digging up blackmail.

On an in-game basis these events also open up additional opportunities. These are not just distractions from the main adventure, but a chance for the players to learn about the NPCs involved.

  • What does an NPC hope to accomplish?
  • How likely is he to aid the PCs’ goals?
  • What things does the NPC like and dislike?
  • What are they talented in discussing?

All of these are tools a clever player can put to use in service to their goals. Of course, the NPCs could be doing the same.

Duels

Though powerful events to insert into the plot, handle duels with care. They should never supersede actual political events. For example, the NPCs should not be able to use a duel to invalidate all the work the players have done except in special cases (such as a militant barbarian tribe).

By the same token, duels should not be an instant win button for the players.

Put in place rules that protect combat-weak characters from being picked on by stronger characters. Perhaps allow those being challenged representation by a champion. Or let them pick the type of contest, the location or time. Make special allowances for the infirm, elderly or women as dictated by the local culture.

Probably the best way I have seen duels used is as a method of indirect assassination. A character will continually insult another until the target can no longer stand the ridicule and loss of face. When challenged to a duel, they will accept and hire a skilled champion to represent them, killing their harasser. A crafty villain will take advantage of this.

Duels do not always need to be to the death. When resolving minor disputes, they can end after either side has taken a certain amount of damage. They can even be non-lethal, such as with two priests engaging in a debate on theology or mages competing to create the most impressive magic item. This depends on the parties involved, and are possibilities to keep in mind.

Surprises at Court

For a good plot twist, introduce some sort of surprise that happens during the course of the adventure. The exact nature does not matter so long as it has the potential to change the dynamics of the adventure.

Perhaps someone is found dead and now all the politicians are suspicious of one another to the point that accusations begin to fly. Perhaps an ally switches sides. Maybe while out on a walk one of the characters notices a prominent official on a romantic rendezvous with another’s wife.

Never use the same thing twice or adventures become predictable. Have a couple surprises ready to spring. Political maneuvering naturally leads to intrigue and gives players an opportunity to investigate why things have changed. Try to think of ways to turn it to their advantage, and even deal with moral dilemmas.

Politics Are Fun

Add more roleplaying and intrigue in your campaigns through political adventures. Start by figuring out what PCs and key NPCs want. Aim for big intangible goals that combat can’t solve.

Next, position NPCs so their goals conflict with what the PCs want. Ensure the PCs can’t just assassinate their way to victory.

Then create the setting. Flesh out the NPCs, locations and political system that will make up your adventure. Choose mechanics that reward good roleplaying, political maneuvering and non-combat characters.

Finally, add events and encounters to round out your adventure that give PCs the chance to get to know their allies and rivals better.

Political adventures are fun to play. Use these tips to help makes yours a success.