Politics is one of those inevitable conditions, like death and taxes, that every GM has to master to some extent because it will make its presence felt in every campaign. There’s always something more to say on the subject. In this article, I’m going to look at the basics of political relations between similarly-scaled entities; I’ll be using nations and kingdoms, but the same techniques scale to relations between regional divisions within a single nation, to relations between cities, relations within a single political body, even relations within an organization. The details might change, but the broad principles will be the same.
The First Circle: The Direct Approach
The most basic form of politics is direct – “Do this or we will do that”, “Do this and we will do that”. Cross this line on the map, and all Hell will break loose. Lower your tariffs and we will lower ours. Sell us wheat and we will sell you fish.
A lot of GMs, especially beginners and the young, have no greater understanding of politics than “war” and “peace” – a switch between two diametrically-opposing stances. Nation A is the enemy of Nation B. Nation C is the ally of Nation D. Cause-and-effect domino chains mean that a single incident completely changes the political landscape.
As they gain in sophistication and understanding of the GM’s craft, the length and complexity of these domino chains will usually increase, but the politics themselves remain binary-state switches. Players and GMs alike prefer the simplicity of these conditions because they are easily assimilated. And politicians love oversimplifying issues and relationships to this level because it strips away complications and presents simple choices that are harder to argue against.
This keeps politics simple and leaves the PCs free to adventure, and that’s the big appeal to the GM.
The Second Circle: Basic Subterfuge
Inevitably, one or two nations in such a web of basic political relations will enter the Second Circle, employing basic levels of subterfuge to obtain what they really want. This enables the deceivers to get into position to employ direct tactics to achieve what they desire. Which one of two attacks is a feint, with few men and many stuffed scarecrows, and which is the real assault that needs to be repelled? “We will sign a neutrality pact with our real enemies to lure them into a position of false confidence”. “Before you can stab someone in the back, it is necessary to first get behind them.” “We don’t want the enemy to know we are interested in their mining operations, so we will make a lot of noise about grain production.”
The more transient and short-term these deceptions, the easier they are for a GM to manage, because relations soon resolve back to the simplistic binary state described previously. Trying to maintain such deceptions for any length of time is usually achieved by the GM deciding that the simplistic relations and objectives that one of his simple nations has been pursuing throughout the game/recent history has really been a subterfuge, and it is now time for that subterfuge to end or to be exposed.
But this marks a turning point in the nature of the campaign, because for the first time, adventures begin to be internally-generated within the campaign world instead of representing explorations into the unknown.
It gets a LOT more complicated when every nation in the game world is practicing basic subterfuge. Every nation needs to have both overt objectives and plans to achieve them and their true objectives and plans recorded. The overt plans must be such that they don’t get in the way of the real objectives – and that often means artificially arranging apparent circumstances to rule out obvious approaches to achieving the overt desire. The politics of such a campaign are not simply twice as complicated – the relationship is exponential, and rises with the number of nations involved.
Every course of action, every event that takes place, must be analyzed in terms of both desires (overt and secret) for each and every nation in the game in order to determine how that nation will react or respond. And each of those reactions and responses then also has to be analyzed in the same way, and so on. Background politics requires more and more of the GM’s attention and prep, and over time, he will craft more and more adventures deriving from these efforts simply to kill two birds with one stone – in other words, since he has to do the political work in game prep, he wants to use that same political work as the basis of his adventures rather than having a completely separate load of prep to perform on top of the politics.
Inevitably, as prep time gets tighter, the campaign becomes more and more about game politics. Political subterfuge is a black hole sucking the campaign into it if the GM isn’t careful.
This is the level of sophistication achieved by a good GM with plenty of experience under his belt. Very few advance any further in complexity.
The Third Circle: Misinformation
The third level of sophistication involves deliberate misinformation to provoke desired actions or reactions on the part of a third party. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? A logical outgrowth of second circle activity?
It’s not; it’s a whole new level of political gamesmanship. Once again, once GMs reach the standard of being able to run a political campaign where the second-layer is the standard, they will employ this new level only in isolated individual cases.
The reason is that the second level takes over the direct-relations model completely. No-one has a simplistic relation with overt objectives; every objective is shrouded in secrecy, and direct relations become an oversimplification of the current situation used only to generate easily-digestible soundbites. Or, more properly, they are emergent behavior, the result of acting and reacting to what nations think the real desires are of the nations around them. No-one shows their hands any more, and politics is a perpetual game of mistakes and surprises.
If it were possible for one person to accurately model their game world politics with this degree of sophistication for every nation, the result would be remarkably similar to the real world. This is the degree of political understanding achieved by the best political analysts, but only because they don’t try and cover the whole world – they focus on one region or political activity (military, trade, whatever).
I think it is in fact possible to achieve this standard within a game by making most of the situations static instead of continually evolving; it then becomes possible to deal with in-game events in isolation with no greater game-prep demands than those of a good second-order game.
This is achieved by defining in your campaign notes the true state of affairs for each nation and the public face of that nation, which is the accumulated facade of secrecy, misinformation from all sources, and superficial appearances. You don’t worry about the direct, simple model; you let the events speak for themselves. At least, that’s the approach that I took in creating my Shards Of Divinity campaign in which no-one is exactly what they seem to be, and no-one knows what any of the participants really want.
In other words, while you create the simple relations and objectives of each nation, you never explicitly state what they are; instead you state what they want the world to think as though it were fact, and play political games of shadows and deception. It is at this level of sophistication that each nation needs to develop some form of intelligence agency to try and ferret out the secrets everyone is trying to hide.
The Fourth Circle: The Middleman
It’s a short step to the next level of subtlety, using middlemen for the most important maneuvers. Once again, as soon as the third level of sophistication becomes the standard throughout the campaign, isolated instances of this level start cropping up.
This is the level of sophistication of the recent Chinese plot in the Adventurer’s Club campaign – assassinating a political figure within an allied country and making it look like it was the handiwork of your enemy, so that the alliance would be strengthened when that enemy actually moved against you. They employed a middleman in the expectation that they would be able to maintain political distance between themselves and the plot if it went awry. If that middleman hadn’t tried to further his own ambitions on the side and had simply returned home after the assignment, the plot would never have been exposed.
This is the sort of politics where instead of trying to befriend another nation directly, you befriend a friend of theirs. The direct relationship becomes a three-cornered triangle. This puts distance between you and your intended friend so that if they turn out to be very different from what you think their agenda is, you aren’t committed to a course of action and can stand by on the sidelines.
World War One happened because this level of political sophistication was not reflected in the alliances of the various Imperial Powers – one went to war with another, which caused the allies of each to get involved (whether they wanted to or not), which in turn pulled in the allies of those allies, and so on. The treaties between the parties were of the direct type – “If we go to war to defend ourselves against an aggressor, you are committed to join in our defense, and vice-versa.”
This is also the level of politics in which third party nations are used as political footballs – the Korean and Vietnam wars, for example, in which the real confrontation was between the Communist powers and the West, but this confrontation was indirect.
The problem with middlemen is that they all have their own agendas; they are not mere puppets dancing to your tune, and may not be what they seem.
I have never seen an RPG campaign which simulated every nation employing this standard of political subtlety. In theory, it is possible to achieve by treating each middleman as a separate “nation”, and employing an artificially-limited number of such middlemen; having many nations use the same “middleman” as a power-broker would also reduce the complexities enough that it might be manageable. For now, though, this remains a tool that is used occasionally in a campaign as an indicator that the world has that depth without actually implementing it as a general practice within the game world.
The Fifth Circle: Lies within Lies
The combination of misinformation and making every nations agenda secret naturally gains entrance to the fifth circle of political subtlety in which the secret agenda that is actively being pursued is itself just a cover for an even more secret ambition. An example would be manipulating one nation in such a way that it behaves in a way that furthers your true agenda for you in a third. In other words, this uses entire independent nations as “middlemen” for a secret political agenda.
Allying with the ally of an enemy who doesn’t realize that they are your target so that they will be less prone to interpret your actions as hostile to them. Allying with a nation and then feeding them misinformation designed to foster hostility between them and your real target. The Machiavellian depths and complexities that would be achieved in any game where this was the default state of international relations boggles the mind.
The problem with such convoluted plots is that they rely on a correct interpretation of the true agendas of the nation in the middle so that their reactions become predictable. It’s fair to assume that 90% or more of such plots would partially or completely fail. This is a world in which you can’t tell who your real enemies are, any more than you can tell who your real allies are. Things grow even more complex when sub-behaviors are isolated – a nation may be your enemy militarily, your ally in trade, and a cats-paw in your intelligence activities.
A general implementation of this standard of political chicanery is so difficult to achieve because it raises the number of assessments of events and responses many-fold. In terms of difficulty and required prep involvement, it’s akin to the difference between the first and second orders of sophistication. The best that most GMs can expect to be able to achieve is the individual isolated instance.
Such complexity gives rise to situations in which a respected enemy can be more valuable than any number of paper allies who can’t be trusted – at least with the enemy, you know where you stand, and it may even be possible to have limited, short-term cooperative efforts that benefit both.
My Team Neon Phi campaign, also known as the Agents campaign, in which the PCs were members of an international intelligence agency and opposed to multinational extra-legal organizations and conspiracies in a superheroic world – think Agents of SHIELD but with more enemy organizations – reached this level of sophistication in a very limited way if you consider each of those enemy organizations as nations-within-nations or criminal conspiracies, with their own agendas, rules and policies. That campaign assumed that every nation on Earth would have at least one such conspiracy operating within its borders. Because they had very limited and straightforward agendas – Viper wanted to rule Crime, Genocide wanted “human purity”, the Yakuza aimed at high-tech white-collar & computer crime, Demon wanted to rule the supernatural – and they all wanted political power or influence on the side – it was manageable. The complexities started to arise when traditional intelligence agencies began formulating their own agendas targeting the local branches of these organizations in the same way that the conspiracies had been infiltrating their governments, and you started to get double and triple agents and conspiracies within conspiracies.
Without such narrow restrictions of scope, fragmented implementation of this standard of political subtlety is the best that can be realistically achieved.
The Sixth Circle: The Abstract Advantage
In fact, it doesn’t take very much of the fourth- and fifth-order activities for plots to grow too sophisticated for any but the most able masterminds to find themselves out of their depth. And that leads inevitably to the sixth circle, in which the complexities are too great for practical implementation or manipulation. Instead of concrete ambitions at this level, people simply aim to achieve some sort of advantage down the track sometime that they can use to implement more short-term goals. That’s something that a GM can handle, and is the basis of the mechanisms by which I simulate the activities of such masterminds – refer to my December 2012 article Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind.
Instead of actually implementing this degree of sophistication, you simplify the situation and simulate the greater depth.
Effectively, this adds a third tier of political planning for each nation or nation-equivalent. In addition to the secret agenda, and the hidden true agenda, you add a third more general agenda to create a favorable future environment, a situation in which opportunities will arise for shorter-term plots and plans. Broad goals and philosophies take the place of long-term agendas because such agendas are unsustainable in an unpredictable world.
Ironically, this level of sophistication is far more achievable in an RPG than the fourth and fifth, because it abstracts the complexities and simulates the existence of deeper plotting that can be assumed but only gets shown in concrete terms within individual adventures. Quite often, I will go directly from the second order or third order to the sixth in my campaign backgrounds for this reason. That’s what I do in my superhero campaigns (for the most part) and in most of my D&D campaigns.
The caveat is necessary because some characters do have sophisticated long-term plans. Most of their activities within the campaign prior to those plans becoming overt relate to protecting the conditions necessary for success. Which uses the sixth layer of sophistication in a subtly different way. This results in characters that are really one-trick ponies assuming a depth and sophistication that their single-plan ambitions could not sustain if it were obvious what their plans really were. I mention this because it’s one of my favorite plotting tricks – and sometimes the characters find that the things they have been doing in support of their ultimate goals are actually more fun or profitable than satisfying that underlying ambition, and go native. Enemies can become allies, and false allies can become genuine, and there’s a whole gamut of possibilities in between.
The Seventh Circle: The Characterization Of Power
Every organization is composed of individuals, and Governments are no different. The path to the ultimate level of political sophistication in an RPG is revealed by the sixth circle, and specifically by the technique for some of the masterminds in my Zenith-3 campaigns that I described in the preceding paragraph.
If it works for characters, why not for nations? Why not treat organizations – of any size and stripe – as though they were NPCs, with distinctive personalities, profiles, abilities, flaws, and limitations?
In American law, corporations are treated as “people” for the purposes of law. This principle is what permits an organization to have rights, to own property, and to do all sorts things that people can do. This is a distinction that only matters when business sophistication goes beyond the sole trader or single owner, and there is a natural line of development that leads from individual business operations to general partnerships to limited partnerships to corporations in which no one person or defined group owns the business, it is owned by shareholders and those shares of ownership can be traded as though they were commodities.
If treating organizations as people simplifies legal problems in the real world, why not treat them as people in an RPG to achieve a similar simplification?
NPCs in an RPG come down to four things, when all is said and done: What events can they know about, how will they react to that knowledge, what are their ambitions & goals, and what can they do about those reactions, ambitions, and goals? Organizations in an RPG can be treated as possessing exactly the same four key aspects, with their personnel considered analogous to henchmen and hirelings. It doesn’t matter what the organization is – it could be a town council, a trader’s guild, a church, or a government; the same principles hold.
Achieving the seventh level of sophistication in political planning within your campaign has all sorts of benefits beyond the obvious. First, it permits employees/members to have relationships with the organization the same as they have with other NPCs. Second, it enables all the subtleties and benefits of characterization to apply to organizations and vice-versa. Third, it folds game prep for organizations into game prep for adventures, giving the GM a broader palette to draw upon for his adventures and erasing the artificial distinction between political campaigns and non-political campaigns, and putting the emphasis back onto whatever will be the most entertaining plots for the players to deal with.
I want to look at these in a little more detail before I wrap this article up.
Defining the relationship between an individual and an organization becomes much simpler when they both have personalities. You simply have to look for commonalities and for points of disagreement, just as you would in deciding what relationship would arise between two individuals brought together by the campaign. What’s more, the players will be profiling organizations as though they were individuals because that’s the way we humans tend to think about such things; so this makes it easier for them to assimilate the game world, and also means that you are able to take advantage of that abstraction the same way that they do. Why make things more difficult for yourself?
Characterization of Organizations
It becomes a lot easier to decide how organizations will react to an in-game event because you are now thinking about how a personality will react to that event rather than this nebulous collection of complexities. The benefit for organizations and governments in your game is that all the tools that are available for character interactions and personality definitions suddenly become available for the manipulation and treatment of those organizations and their plans and plots. This broadens the organization beyond single-issue plotting and planning, so they ultimately become more sophisticated entities within the game.
What’s more, it means that all those books for writers that are around on the subject of character interactions suddenly become tools for understanding and manipulating politics within your game!
Characterization of Individuals
Systems that a GM inevitably puts in place for dealing with the reactions of organizations to in-game developments also get applied to individuals. I’ll go into those systems in a little bit – take them as read for the moment. This benefits NPCs by making them less static; just as the game world evolves in response to in-game events, so do the opinions and activities of individuals.
Diversity of Adventures
This approach liberates the GM from all that political game-prep in many ways, and enables him to create a more sophisticated game world with more varieties of adventure. There is no longer a distinction between political campaigns and non-political campaigns. Instead there are in-game events and reactions to those events, an evolving world in which the PCs experience changes as a result of their activities. Every act acquires a political dimension if one is warranted. Because necessary game prep no longer forces the GMs hand in terms of the adventures that become possible, the emphasis shifts back into whatever sounds most entertaining and a lot of stuff going on in the background.
The Entity Binder
Imagine a Binder in which all the important NPCs are recorded. Now add pages characterizing all the important organizations and political bodies as though they were individuals. Organize them in terms of proximity to awareness of PC actions, using tabbed inserts: In a fantasy game, I would use Immediate, one day, one week, one month, longer. If you can remember that those in the front are “immediate”, use that tab for a “two weeks” or a “three months” category (your choice). In a modern campaign, these times would be compressed – Immediate, 1-2 hrs, 6-8 hrs, day, week, month or longer (again, you can manage this with a packet of 5 tabs if you take “Immediate” as being obvious and unlabeled).
You will need also need a diary, in which you will place an entry containing a very brief synopsis of the important events from the last time you played, if you haven’t already. This should be no more than three-to-five lines in length; less is better, if you can manage it. Make sure to note the game dates, even if it’s only in relative terms. The amount of space available will be dictated by the type of diary that you get.
Finally, you need a second diary with matching dates for use as a campaign planner.
The results are one of the most powerful gaming-prep tools you can get.
Here’s how game prep works using such tools: The speed of information awareness – the tabs – show you which groups and individuals (hereafter referred to by the collective term “entities”) know about those events, and which don’t. Go through the binder and ask if this personality will care about the events, and record on that character’s profile an entry referring to the diary entry. Decide what their reactions are, and record both reaction and what they will do about it after that notation (is there an opportunity? is there a threat?), Then ask yourself how soon the PCs will learn of any action taken and make a note in your campaign planning diary of when that reaction will influence the game world around the PCs.
Once you’ve been through the “immediate” knowledge, go through it again looking not at what the PCs have done but at what the entities are doing as a result, and again looking for responses and reactions. Repeat the process for the actions that they take in response, and so on. If you restrict yourself to a very general one- or two- line summary of actions and reactions, this should take less than an hour, two at the outside.
This technique takes advantage of solipsist theory: nothing actually happens until the PCs become aware that it has happened. You don’t really care how long it is before entity X reacts to an event, what you care about is when the PCs will become aware of that reaction. You don’t really care how long it takes for entity Y to react to entity X’s actions in response to the event, either, but you do care about when the PCs will hear about that reaction.
Next, turn to the next time period and look at any past entries in the campaign synopsis diary that this group is only now becoming aware of, and how they will react, in exactly the same way.
Your campaign planner now consists of multiple entries showing what relative game date it will be when the PCs become aware of developments and events in the game world, and how out-of-date that information is. Part of your game planning consists of compiling “the latest news” for the players – though it will still be up to the players when their characters are somewhere that this information can be provided to them. These entries are just brief synopses, so feel free to flesh them out with additional details.
At first, there may not be very many entries. As the game proceeds, more and more will accumulate. Think for a moment of the variety of reactions that people might have to an event. It might be anything from an official sent to ask the PCs to explain, to warrants for arrest, to hit squads being dispatched and assassins being hired. Wars may begin or end. As the events with which the PCs are involved grow more significant, so will the importance of reactions to those events, and these will shift from being purely background material to the sources of internally-generated adventures. Campaign Seeds that were planted at the start of the campaign will sprout, and become the focus of new adventures. And you can always drop a few more campaign seeds into this fertile soil if your planner shows a dead period.
And your world will go from being static to one that is dynamic and interesting, with a heck of a lot less game prep because it builds on prep that you have already done.
The final analysis
To a GM, politics within a campaign should be both an ever-present reality and a game tool. Too many GMs don’t invest the time they should into this aspect of their game worlds because they want to avoid running “a political campaign” or because their own understanding of politics is limited. Neither of these considerations should hold you back; the techniques and information provided in this article give you both the answers you need and all the reasons you should need to change that state of affairs.
In conclusion, I really should also point to a couple of older articles here at Campaign Mastery that are relevant:
- Pulling That Lever: The Selection Of Leaders In RPG Societies
- City Government Power Bases [a large series that I still intend to extend]
- Ask The GMs: How to survive political games with paranoia and intrigue
- Distilled Cultural Essence [4-part series]
- Lore Enforcement: The Legal System in an RPG
- Stiff Upper Lip: Thinking about nations in RPGs
- GM’s Toolbox: World Building Part Two: Communities and Politics [Part of the GM's Toolbox series]
- The poetry of meaning: 16 words to synopsize a national identity
Politics may seem like the seven circles of Hell to a GM, but it doesn’t have to be that way.