“Lessons From The West Wing” is a series of occasional articles inspired by the Television Series. I’ve had this article sitting around in partially completed form for a couple of years now, waiting for the right example with which to illustrate the concluding point. Finally, that condition has been met, so it’s time to look at the concept of Victory for its own sake…
The episode “Bartlet For America” makes an understated point of contrasting the behavior of a Congressman, who wants to win just to score a victory over the enemy, with that of the Majority Council, whose ideals are more idealistic and who has a sense of responsibility to something larger than his own ambitions.
This is a recurring theme throughout the entire series, and one that deserves some analysis in the context of RPGs, both from the perspective of player behavior and in that of characters within the game.
Talking About Players
RPGs are highly objective-driven, and there is a constant danger that players will fall into the trap of prizing the victory at the expense of other considerations. There’s a common misperception that this is a driving flaw of Power Gamers, but that is putting the cart before the horse and as a result, GMs can make serious errors in judgment in dealing with the expectations of their players.
Power Gamers are portrayed as individuals who can be collectively characterized by a willingness to exploit any loophole in the rules, to subvert any constraint, in order to win an encounter. I think there are at least two other motivational factors in the mix, and any one of the three can be the driving motivation behind a power gamer. Those additional factors are the desire for the capacity to win and insecurity. Target the wrong one, by assuming that all Power Gamers think alike, and your responses – no matter how measured they appear to be from your perspective – can invite all-out war at the gaming table. What’s more, I would argue that there are two subtypes to the Capacity motivation: conceptual characterization, and the bright-shiny-cool factor.
This is where the player has some idealized notion in his head of what his character should be able to do, and the GM has a different concept of the same thing. The player is therefore motivated to find ways of being able to fulfill his idealized vision of the character that he wants to play, and every move that the GM makes to restrict his capability to do so becomes a direct attack on the character. Before you know it, a cold war is brewing. An obvious example of this takes place when discussing skill levels – the character achieves what the player wants to do more easily than the GM thinks it should be able to, so he ramps up the difficulty in order to boost the challenge to the character, so the player finds ways to enhance his skill levels still further – a vicious cycle that can only end in disaster if it is not recognized in time, and the real problem addressed.
I have seen this problem crop up in numerous game systems with many different characters. Inevitably, as soon as the obvious mechanisms for increase in capabilities are achieved, the player is left with no option but to pursue loopholes in the restrictions placed apon them. As the GM closes these down, one by one, the player is ultimately left with two choices: to concede defeat, or to cheat; and by now, the contest has become so personal, and so much effort has been invested, and the idealized vision of the character has become so entrenched, that defeat is unacceptable. The conflict inevitably escalates until the player either leaves the game in frustration, or steps over the line and becomes corrupt. The need for victory has become so entrenched that it must be achieved – at any cost.
I want to make special mention of the 3.x system here, because the basic system makes a key mistake, and because there is a fundamental flaw in the way they handle epic levels which is not addressed by the epic-level handbook, and both of these have bitten my campaigns more than once.
The key mistake is in ascribing a single, achievable, target value for all “superhuman” skill usages – DC 25. If it were only possible to achieve these capabilities in one or two skills, and only at extremely high character levels, and character growth is capped at 20 character levels, this would be tolerable, even acceptable. But this number, as I’ve shown in the past, is achievable too easily, and therefore can be achieved in too many skills by the time the character reaches high levels, and can therefore be a game-breaker. To forestall this, a number of GMs seek to add on masses of circumstantial negative modifiers; but to be consistent in their rulings, they also have to apply those modifiers at lower levels, and that is an open invitation to the Conceptual Characterization Cold War.
A far better alternative is to be generous with modifiers when circumstances are on the character’s side and give little or no penalty at all when they are opposed – and to move the goal posts. Corrected DC = 5+ 2x (DC-5) is the formula that I use.
Of course, if characters in your campaigns rarely reach level 15+, you might not even have noticed this problem, and therefore it might BE no problem in your campaigns.
3.x Epic Levels
The problem with setting all superhuman expressions of Skills at the same level only really becomes overwhelming if your campaign runs into Epic Levels.
When your plotline is so vast that it will earn the characters more than 20 levels at standard rates of character progression, according to the XP awards given in the DMG, you have only four choices: Give up the plotline, stretch it over multiple generations of characters, reduce the rate of character progression, or proceed into epic levels. All of these solutions have problems.
- Give up the plotline – this is the equivalent of reading the first volume of a trilogy and stopping there, even though you enjoyed it immensely – because the only way to go is downhill from there. It’s not a solution, it’s avoiding the problem and killing the campaign to do so.
- Stretch the plotline over multiple generations of characters – If you can manage it, this solution is fine. But it means that the problems encountered must be cyclic in difficulty – they build to a crescendo when the characters reach 20th level and then abruptly drop to almost zero when the next generation arrives. Rather than one big plotline, what you have is a series of connected smaller campaigns. Nothing wrong with that, but it limits the plotlines that your campaign can contain – so, at best, it’s only a partial solution.
- Reduce the rate of character progression – This is a more serious solution, involving stretching the character progression to fit the plotline and not changing the plotline to fit the character progression. But, in practice, it runs into difficulty, because accumulated bonuses from magical equipment become the dominant factor. Characters may have +5 weapons by the time they reach 5th level, under this solution. That forces you either to increase the range of magical equipment available – up to say, +20 – which brings back the very problem that I raised in the “3.x” section above, and leads the campaign down the merry path to pure Monty Haul – or you have to restrict the availability of magical equipment proportionately. But that brings in a new problem – it’s too easy for characters to make their own equipment, under this campaign regime, and to generate vast quantities of wealth. So you also have to clamp down on the magic item creation rules. And all of these changes can be perceived by players as restricting what their characters can do, given how much adventuring they have done, compared to what the players think the character should be able to do – and that starts the escalating cold-war cycle I described earlier. What’s more, because certain character types (mages and clerics) are going to be impacted by these changes more strongly than others, the players of those characters are more likely to react negatively; and the people who enjoy playing those character types are exactly the ones most likely to go crawling through the rules seeking every advantage they can find, making the war between player and GM even more likely.
- Proceed into epic levels – Inevitably, then, you are forced to the conclusion that an epic plotline requires epic level characters. But that’s when the problems of escalation really overtake the entire campaign. The entire progression of what characters can do needs to be stretched to fit by the epic rules, reshaping the character capabilities at lower levels, increasing DCs as appropriate, and differentiating between the skill totals required for different epic-level applications – and the epic-level handbook simply doesn’t go far enough. It assumes that the first 20 levels don’t need to be changed, that the mechanisms provided by the DMG continue just fine, and that all you need is to tack some extras onto the top. Quite frankly, it reads as though it were written without playtesting by someone who has never actually played a campaign at that level. The inadequacies of this official extension to the rules, quite frankly, force the GM into adding in some of the earlier solutions discussed – and bringing in the problems that they contain.
The public interest solution
Both the players and the GM need to work together to solve the problem. The player has to recognize that the GM is willing for the character to be able to match most of his idealized vision of what it can do – eventually – and be willing to let go of those parts that can’t be accommodated. The GM has to make sure that his in-game rulings and the house rules that he has devised to make the plotline playable also make it clear that eventually characters will achieve that standard. Egos need to be set aside; if the player feels that the GM is making tasks unduly difficult to achieve, he should say so, rather than trying to find a way to make them possible regardless, and the GM has to be willing to listen and take that perception on board – and then do something about it. Cooperation, not antagonism, is the solution, and communications is the key to unlocking it. The answer to all such issues should always be predicated on “What’s in the best interests of the campaign?”
The worst thing that can happen is for the GM to assume that the character is a rules lawyer or a power gamer because they are behaving like one; treating the player that way when he is not, and seeking to “curb the excesses”, is only poking the bear with a stick. It will make things worse, not better, and will only escalate the problem.
Some players appear to be power gamers because they are always attracted to the next “cool” ability on the horizon. It might be the latest prestige class to catch their eye, or the latest magical gimmick they came across on the net or in a game supplement.
A variant on this style occurs when players seek to minimize or obliterate any vulnerability or flaw that the GM exploits “because the character is smart and that’s the smart thing to do”. Rather than seeking these reductions in impairment through roleplaying, they attempt to add a new ability to their repertoire that will compensate for or overcome the problem.
Ultimately, the variant is usually an expression of mistrust. The Player does not trust the GM not to exploit the vulnerability, and so seeks to eliminate the GMs control over the character. They don’t see the weakness/flaw/vulnerability as part of the character, an opportunity to roleplay or overcome a challenge. You especially see this all the time in Champions. The best solution is a metagame one: Work out ways for the player to retain control of the character while the flaw is in play, if necessary, giving the player advance notice that the problem will have an impact in the adventure, and communicating the GMs thinking about the way that it will manifest (in broad strokes) by note. That lets the player collaborate with the GM to create a more interesting adventure. I have, in the past, even gone so far as to have a player co-write selected scenes (without telling them the context); it works well, but slows the adventure creation process, so it’s something I will do again if it’s an important-enough element of the adventure I have planned. I especially like doing that when the player is likely to assume the situation in which the scene will occur is something completely different to what is actually supposed to happen, maintaining the element of surprise for the player.
Having solved the variant problem, let’s look back at the original. I find that this is generally a problem more likely to occur with younger players, and especially those who have come to tabletop RPGs through video or collectable card games, where they are used to continually finding new powerups and bright, shiny, new toys. The solution is for the GM to think about the character in terms of “what is it missing” and “what’s the highest priority of those” – based on what the characters have experienced lately, NOT what is coming up next! – and matching those perceptions with something that the player is (hopefully) going to find “cool” but that will only partially alleviate the need, or alleviate it only in the right circumstances. If you plan it right, you can “steer” the character development direction simply by carefully planning your adventures – using the age-old marketing technique of creating a perception of need and then satisfying that need.
The worst thing that you can do is to treat these players like power gamers and try to refuse them the “powerups” they feel they need. That will only aggravate the situation and their determination to crawl through broken glass to attain satisfaction of their needs – or eliminate one of the primary attractions of the campaign. You need to consider what is best for the campaign overall – and not what you think is best for the campaign.
The Capacity to Win
For some players, it’s not about the victory, but the capacity to achieve the victory – about the means at their disposal, and not the ends. This can be tricky to identify when you encounter it; it’s usually about avoiding any feeling of helplessness on the part of the player, or about the confidence that comes from being able to cope with anything that comes their way. Closely monitoring reactions when the characters are confronted with problems may provide clues. It can sometimes be helpful to talk about this with the player concerned, but often they will not know why they act the way they do, themselves, and wrong guesses can be more damaging to the campaign than letting things ride until you get a proper handle on the real issue.
Once again, this is often a question of trust at its heart. The Player wants to be secure in his confidence that the character can win, and the GM wants the character to succeed only after raising the tension with difficulties. The player sense the GM closing off avenues to an easy success, placing difficulties in his character’s path, and identifies with the character’s situation to the extent that the player feels as trapped by circumstances as he character is; realizing that is what leads the GM to the solution. Instead of simply ramping up the problems and difficulties, the GM needs to permit the character a few small victories along the way. “Problem – Success – Setback – Success – Worsen problem – Success – Setback – Solution” should be the pattern, instead of the basic three-act structure “Problem – Setback – Solution”. It may make the adventures bigger and longer, but it will keep the players happier. In other words, structure your adventures in the way that is best for the campaign, even if that means compromising the story.
That, of course, is one expression of the broader emotion of insecurity. Most problems with players and power-gaming come down, in the end, to some form of insecurity, and everything else that we’ve talked about is an expression of that insecurity.
It’s not your job as a GM to solve the personal and emotional problems of your players. You aren’t trained in doing so, you aren’t qualified to do so, and you don’t have the right to interfere. Your players signed up to play a game and be entertained in the process, not to have their heads shrunk by an armchair psychoanalyst.
But because your players are people, with all the complexities and convolutions that are part of people, it is impossible to completely separate the two. The most difficult decisions that a GM ever has to make are the ones that have real-life consequences. While most decisions can be made with a view to what is best for the game, there are two considerations that can, and should, overrule that perspective. If something is best for the game but not for the participants psychologically, it is the game that must, and should, give way. If something is best for the game but not for the health of the participants, once again, the game should be sacrificed.
These issues all come to a head when we start talking about how the emotional and psychological state of the player impacts on the playing of the game. It’s fair enough to change the game to minimize the impact of these personal issues and help the game, and if that’s beneficial to the people playing the game, that’s a happy accident.
Talking about Characters
“The price of victory” is always a fertile ground for GMs to explore in adventures. How far are the characters willing to go to win? Can they find another way through the problem that the GM has presented? It’s a nice, dramatic plot premise that deserves a place in every GM’s repertoire. It hardly ever seems the case that a GM will ask themselves if this plot is good for the campaign at this point in time, and that’s a serious problem lurking in the tall grass. It can completely derail a campaign.
The problem is that the premise implies a choice, and a choice always means that there is an alternative – and the GM rarely gives enough thought to that alternative.
The GM has to walk a fine line between balancing the negatives of the unwanted outcome and the difficulties that he puts in the path of the desired outcome. If this balance is off in one direction, the adventure will lack challenge, and the GM will usually react to that by last-minute extra difficulties – opening the door to over-reaction. If the balance is off in the other, the price or difficulty of the desired outcome is too great, and drives Players to complain about being railroaded – in the direction the GM doesn’t want the adventure to go!
Before I contemplate running a “price of victory” adventure, I will always do two things:
- Identify the adventure as one in which the real price of victory will not become apparent until long after this adventure;
- Or, if this adventure is not one of those, make sure I have a plan to let the PCs win in the end if they make the “wrong” choice because I have overestimated the undesirability of the price to be paid or underestimated the effectiveness of the difficulties I have put in place.
If I can’t tick one of these boxes for the adventure, I won’t run it. I would rather come up with a half-assed “filler” adventure on the fly than run an adventure with a potentially critical impact on the campaign that is incomplete or inadequately prepared. The players will understand.
The campaign is more important than any single adventure.
The Relevance to RPGs
The idea of being of service to something greater than yourself or your own personal ambitions is one that GMs should embrace. That means lending a plotting hand to another GM when they ask for it, or are having trouble making a game ruling. It means not being too precious with your ideas. It means sharing the thousands – well, hundreds – of little tips and tricks that you have picked up along the way. It means placing the welfare of yourself and your players ahead of the game, and the welfare of the game ahead of characters or plots that the GM may have fallen in love with. Keep your priorities straight and do the best you can, and you can hold your head high regardless of the outcome.
One of the most gratifying things about this hobby is that most GMs get genuine enjoyment from problem-solving, and are happy to do these things – often without being asked, and certainly when they are asked. Few of them would realize that this is a form of civic-mindedness, and something that is increasingly noteworthy in the modern world.
So here’s the bottom-line purpose of this article: Kudos to my fellow GMs.
Extending the relevance
But the relevance can go deeper than that. Every campaign has characters who are good guys, or who think they are good guys. All too often, these characters are presented as very generic because they all act in accordance with the GMs moral code, perhaps modified to the era and social climate of the campaign. The alternative seems to be characters who are obsessed with achieving one specific thing (whether that’s broad or narrow in scope) that they think of as “a good thing”. Sometimes they’re right about that, sometimes they are not, but more often than not their appearances become morality plays about their being obsessed and not about the subject of their obsession.
Characterization can run a lot deeper than that, with just a little more thought. You can have characters who are more human – neither devils nor angels, but flawed and fallible human beings – who nevertheless are dedicating their lives to the service of something they think of as being bigger than they are. If that something is altruistic in nature, that makes them good guys. If that something is generally considered evil or dark or self-centered, that makes them bad guys. If that something is more complex than a simple black-and-white good-or-bad proposition, that makes them “interesting” – and “real”.
It’s often said, and I have advised as much myself in past articles, that the bad guys rarely think of themselves as “the bad guys”. At best, if they think what they are trying to do is important enough, they may be willing to let themselves be ‘seen’ as the bad guys buy the general public, especially if what they are trying to achieve is more easily achieved from the shadows.
Villains can serve the public good as a byproduct of lining their own pockets. Heroes can occasionally be forced to get their hands a little dirty. And the whole campaign can become more interesting as a result.
A concluding example
I thought I would end this article with a series of illustrative excerpts from the most recent Adventurer’s Club adventure, which was based on the putative conspiracy / coup attempt in the 1930s. Some 9 months earlier, a security crisis had led to the FBI taking control of the Adventurer’s Club, much to the dismay and anger of many of the members. The Club’s founder, “Doc” Storm (modeled on Doc Savage), immediately headed for Washington to look for a way to reverse this decision. At this point in the story, The PCs were in search of Doc for assistance in dealing with the plot that they have uncovered, and were directed to speak with Senator Bronson Cutting, who has become Doc’s numbers man and assistant in dealing with the politics of the situation. After introducing Cutting, this scene briefs the PCs on the political realities so that they don’t go rushing in and undoing all of Doc’s hard work. The “P numbers” refer to illustrations – in this case, mostly photos (some of the real people, some invented) of the people being referred to, or of offices or other locations. I can only show one of them, a pie chart illustrating the relative sizes of the political factions (note that we worked *very* hard on the numbers!) Oh, and the bio of Bronson Cutting is real, as are some of the others, but they have all been fictionalized to at least some extent…
Bronson Cutting (P12) is a relatively young Senator who was born in New York but moved to Santa Fe on medical advice. There he became a publisher. In the Great War he was commissioned as a Captain and served as Assistant Military Attaché to the American Embassy in London. Apon his return to the US, he served five years as Regent of the New Mexico Military Institute (also known as the ‘West Point Of The West’ and became Chairman of the New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1925. On December 29, 1927, he was appointed to Congress to replace deceased Republican Congressman Andreaus S. Jones but gave up the seat when a duly-qualified replacement was elected on December 6, 1928 – an election in which Cutting did not stand. That replacement, Octavio Ambrosio Larrazolo, was the first Hispanic to serve in the American Senate; at this time there was only six months remaining of Jones’ elected term, and (due to failing health), Larrazolo did not wish to contest the reelection. He instead endorsed the man he was currently replacing, resulting in Cutting’s reelection in November 1928. He has served in the Senate ever since. Well known as a numbers man who knows which levers to pull to make things happen in Washington, Cutting has been active and successful in bringing the Hispanic vote into mainstream US Politics and has successfully negotiated several important Acts through both Upper and Lower US Houses against concerted opposition. An idealist with extremely liberal values and progressive opinions, and well known as a man of conviction who knows how to get things done, there is even talk of a Presidential Nomination in 1936 when Roosevelt’s first term expires. An impassioned public speaker, his rails against “back-door” censorship through the use of Tarriff Bills has won him the public support of Publishers, Booksellers, Authors and Civil Liberties Organizations on both sides of politics.
He greets the PCs warmly and ushers them into his Office where they can speak more privately. “How can I help you?” he asks as you settle into the slightly-uncomfortable chairs. Noticing your discomfort, he winks – “a political device to make people more amenable to quick agreement. I just keep them here until they agree with me.” (reply, request)
“Hmmm. That’s a difficult question. Let me give you some background. Washington can be divided into four groups on the subject: 59% support FBI control for various reasons, while Doc and I have gathered a coalition of 31% in favor of club independence, also for various reasons. There are another 10% who are uncommitted and might be swayed to our point of view – but even if we get all 10% of the fence-sitters, that still leaves us at losing 41 per cent to 59. That’s the bad news.
“The good news is that we might be able to shear away as much as 14% out of that 59 – converting some into abstentions and some into reluctant supporters. Most important, that makes it 45 to 41 – plus however many we persuade over to our side of the fence from amongst the nominal opposition, less however many we don’t convince of the uncommitted. So we still lose – and that’s the second piece of bad news.
(P13) “The only member of the Cabinet who has spoken up so far is Homer Cummings, the Attorney General – and that’s because the FBI is under his jurisdiction and he likes to be able to say that he’s in charge of the Adventurer’s Club. FDR hasn’t committed himself one way or the other. The instant he does, twelve percent of one faction move to the position he indicates – and four percent move in the opposite direction. If he supports FBI control, that would be 53 to 37 and the ball game. If he supports independence, that’s 37 to 49 and a party in Manhattan. Right now, though, even if he speaks up, it’s still not enough. We need to not only get most of the fence-sitters but we have to move some of the opposition – just to get to the point where a Democrat President with an overwhelming majority in both Houses can call the shots. The more we can move, the better.
“Lobbying is a tug-of-war on a slippery slope that tilts without warning in unexpected directions. You can win the support of a key figure, who brings with him 6 hangers-on – and who loses you five votes who used to support you, but who oppose him more. The larger a coalition in favor of something gets, the harder it is to hold it together.
“So there are four factions right now.” (P14).
“Doc’s supporters include a few people who trust Doc implicitly, a number of Democrats and Republicans who don’t trust Hoover, a number of committed republicans who oppose FBI control simply because there’s a Democrat in charge of the FBI, a few who oppose the current policy of isolationism, a few who dislike the current regime in Germany – whose ambassadors have made open overtures to Roosevelt on this matter – and a few Opportunists who expect a quid-pro-quo on something else or some other gain in mind. The committed opposition include most Democrats, because a democrat is currently in charge of the FBI; Militarists and National Security Advocates who want to use Doc’s research for the construction of weapons; a whole heap of people from Big Business and their elected lackeys; a number of science lobbyists who are upset because Doc doesn’t publish his research; Isolationists; Pro-Germans; and, once again, a few opportunists.
“Those are the battle lines. Straddling the fence – and swayable – are a whole mess of different folks. There’s those as are swayable by political support from Doc for their reelection; those that are swayable by favorable publicity; those who can simply be persuaded by a reasonable arguement; those who can be swayed by legitimate Money (donations to campaigns etc); those who can be swayed by a donation to a charitable organization that means something to them, personally; those who can be swayed by Doc doing them a personal favor, like getting a nephew a cushy job somewhere; those who can be persuaded by someone else – parents, friends, family, wife, trusted advisor, minister, whatever – those who can be intimidated by prospective bad consequences or ideology into support; a few who can be influenced politically by trade deals with other governments that might be possible, governments who feel threatened, and so on – and a small group who can be swayed by results. So far there’s been no train wrecks as a result of the FBI supervision, and until they see how the dust is going to settle, they won’t take sides.
“And that leaves the 14 per cent. The corrupt who can be exposed & removed from office – and replaced with someone more supportive of our position – or who is at least in the negotiable category. The slimy who we can’t get any hard proof on, but who are swayable by blackmail nevertheless. The slimy who we can’t get any proof on, but who can be persuaded to retire by blackmail. The slimy who can be persuaded by personal bribery. A few cowards who can be intimidated by threats – either openly or covertly. And a few who might be persuadable by opportunism – our allies promising them positions on important committees or boards of directors or the like. Politics can be a dirty game, but we need all of that estimated fourteen per cent we can get. But Doc refuses to deal in rumor and false evidence, and I agree. We can tolerate anyone with a legitimate belief or philosophy, however we might disagree with it, but criminals need to be rooted out – without becoming as corrupt as they are in the process.”
“Doc’s job here in Washington is five-fold. There are 96 Senators and 435 Congressmen and eight members of Cabinet, and they each have an average of three trusted advisors and key backers who support them. Each of those have wives or husbands, fathers and mothers, friends and enemies. They all need to be investigated and placed into one of the four categories and the thirty subcategories. On top of that, each of our supporters needs his hand held at least once a week to keep them from straying. Number three: Once a month we take a run at members of the opposition, looking for any opening to persuasion or handles than can be used to put them into group four. Number four, the uncommitted – we need to identify what levers they will respond to, make an approach, persuade them, and then revisit them regularly to hand-hold them. And finally, group four – Doc needs to gather evidence or proof, decide what to do with it, persuade them or act on the evidence if it’s proof enough, and get in good with their potential replacements.
“If Doc had to investigate all of them, that would be nearly 15,100 people. You don’t do that overnight, and Doc severely underestimated the scale of the job he was taking on when he came down here. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to look into all those 15-odd-thousand people. Once we have someone’s support in our pocket, we don’t need to investigate them further. So that cuts the list to about 4700. Once we have identified a handle on someone, we don’t need to look further – that cuts the list to about 900. I know a lot about the people we have to deal with and can cut the list to about a third that number – that’s leaves about 300 – and can put those 300 in order of priority. A lot of them will be closely located, so you can investigate groups of them at a time – bringing the target to about 60 groups of people.
“The way we’ve been working is that Doc and I will draw up a week’s activities for him to do – and he’ll move from task to task, person to person, on that list, in rough order, doing whatever needs doing and then moving on to the next. At the end of the week, we go over his results and plan the next week. In the last six months there have been 180 days – that’s about 3 days per group. Sometimes those three days are all it takes and sometimes its not long enough and we’ll have to spend more time on them in the next week.
“So I don’t know exactly where Doc is – but I can give you a list, in rough order, of where he is supposed to be, today. Give me about 30 minutes to draw it up – with a few notes so that you don’t go crashing in like a bull in a china shop and ruin everything he’s been doing for the last six months.”
(P15) Duncan Upshaw Fletcher, Senator from Florida. Cantankerous slightly older guy. Cutting’s notes say “Will talk your ear off. Honest. A strong ally to have, a worse enemy. Popular with both political parties. Chairman and member of many high-profile Washington committees, especially those related to finance law and economics.” Democrat, reelected for a fifth term in 1932 unopposed by the Republicans, achieving 99.8% of the vote.
*** Fletcher is argumentative for the sake of being argumentative, continually probing for soft points in the opposition’s debate and exposing them. He is happy to argue with just about anyone.
As soon as the PCs arrive he takes them into his office and asks what they think about the upcoming Shuyler Economic Reform Bill. He will refuse to discuss Doc’s whereabouts until they have talked about this legislation, which will strip the navy of 20% of its current budget, redirecting 10% of the savings into the army, and distributing the remainder into a number of other channels including a reduction in import tariffs, a reduction in stamp duties, increased medical aid for the American Indians, and increased funding for legal aid in federal cases specifically targeted at legal support for minorities. Whatever opinions the PCs voice, he will adopt the contrary position. If they try and avoid coming down on one side or another, he will push them to form an opinion and stick to it – timidity is for mice, not men.
***Mike & Blair to roleplay Fletcher for as long as they can maintain a good line of arguement, taking over from each other as necessary. When it starts to bore those not participating or when we start running short of good arguements, have one of the PCs make a perception roll at +3. If they succeed they will notice a suspicious twinkle in Fletcher’s eye and realize that Fletcher’s position is exactly the opposite of what he has been advocating, and that he has been exploring the arguements that his political enemies are likely to make against him. It’s up to that player to decide how he is going to use this discovery – will they call him on it?
He will then discuss what the PCs wanted to discuss when they first came in. “Storm’s been trying to convince me to let his boys handle their own leash for several months now, on and off. At the moment it’s 6-all and we’re going into triple overtime on the debate. I’ll probably come down on his side of the fence when the time comes but haven’t quite made up my mind just yet.” You again notice the twinkle in the eye as he says this.
“He stopped by early this morning to make another run at my position on the subject, but had to leave after an hour or so to keep an appointment with Little Bairdy, the Senator from New Jersey. That was, oh, two or three hours back, now.”
NB: If the PCs try to skip ahead, they will either find that they have just missed Doc or that he has cancelled his appointment there. If they try to phone ahead to get people to pass on a message, they will either refuse or inform them that Doc has changed his plans and rescheduled the appointment. The general rule of thumb is that the PCs will not catch up with Doc until the early evening when he returns to his hotel.
(P18) David Baird Jnr, Senator from New Jersey. Relatively young, rimless glasses, extremely receded hairline, manner of a used-car salesman, appointed to fill out the senatorial seat vacated by Walter E Edge who resigned to become Ambassador to France, appointed to that position by Herbert Hoover (Republican) 4 years ago. Edge refused to resign and even contested and was reelected to the Senate to ensure the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, raising tariffs and strengthening the protection against imports of US Manufacturers. Only when the bill had cleared all barriers and been enacted into law, and his hand-picked successor been assured of his Senate seat, would Edge resign to take up the appointment by Hoover, by which point Roosevelt (Democrat) was in the white house. Cutting’s notes warn “not to make any deals or accept any proposals, Baird is not to be trusted.”
Baird is obviously in a foul mood when the PCs arrive. “So, Storm’s sent his lackeys to vet my speech. He didn’t have to worry, I promised I would withdraw from the contest for reelection if he didn’t stir up trouble about those political donations from the Bank I used to work for. Here it is – read it, then go and tell your morally-oh-so-superior fuehrer that I’ve followed his instructions.”
He will be uncooperative and unhelpful.
(P22) Bertrand Wesley “Bud” Gearhart is one of the most remarkable figures in US politics. A staunchly conservative Republican who is pro-military and is known throughout the government as one of the most obstinate obstructionists in politics, he is about to face reelection completely unopposed by the Democrats and is well-known as having a few select liberal issues apon which he is just as staunch and unwilling to bend. If he lives long enough, he could even become the first Congressman to be reelected 30 years straight unopposed by the rival party – while being one of their strongest opponents in politics. He keeps party lines as he sees fit and is a holy terror to anyone and everyone who challenges his uncompromising values – The country over the public, the military over the country, and god above everything. Congressman from the California 9th district, which takes in several army military facilities north of Los Angeles and south of San Francisco.
“Bud” is yelling down the phone line when the PCs arrive, calling someone a blind fool who doesn’t deserve to be called human, let alone a Congressman of the United States, and doesn’t have the horse sense with which God gifted a flea, much less a pro-German lapdog, the position to which the person to whom he is speaking is apparently aspiring.
When his tirade is finished, he hangs up surprisingly gently and turns to the PCs. “I have about 10 minutes while that bleating sheep complains to the party leadership before they call me back to berate me. You have that long to talk, don’t waste it.” (reply)
“Yeah, Doc Storm was here a little while back – about 87 minutes ago as I recall. Fool didn’t think I was going to stick, he doesn’t see the dangers as clearly as I do. The Kaiser’s new Fuhrer is preparing for war, sure as dogs chase cats, and right now the most effective weapon we have against that is you folks in the Adventurer’s Club being free to get up his nose without a lot of government restriction and red tape. You’ll do the right thing when the time comes, I’m sure. Dang-blasted Roosevelt should never have agreed to speak to the blasted Jerrie Ambassador knowing that he was only there to demand tighter restrictions on you folks, but it shows that you’re rubbing nerves raw over in Kaisertown so keep it up. I don’t rightly know where he was going from here, but he said something about that milquetoast Advisor from the Department of the Interior.”
(P24) Harold L. Ickes (Eye-Kez) is the current Secretary Of The Interior, Director of the Public Works Administration, and is someone known to have strong influence over FDR and to be one of the mainstays of his Presidency. If Ickes can be persuaded to endorse independence for the club to Roosevelt, the FBI can probably start packing their bags. As a result, Ickes is in incredible demand – one of the most popular roads to FDR’s ear runs right through his office, which books 5-minute appointments months in advance. Accordingly, Doc has sought out someone that Ickes listens to – an advisor on the Domestic Economy, Benjamin H Stephens, and is looking to bypass that clogged avenue to authority.
(P25) Stephens is a mad-keen golfer in his late 30s with dark hair and brown eyes, who always dresses conservatively – except on the course, when he makes up for lost time. He never makes an important decision in his office, but insists on getting to know the real motives on the golf course; he is of the opinion that he can interpret someone’s character by the way they play. He is also known to be suspicious of J Edgar Hoover’s personal empire-building, suspecting that Hoover is more interested in his own power than in supporting the president. Besides, Hoover would never be caught dead on a golf course.
Given this information, it is not surprising to learn from Stephen’s aide that Doc and the cabinet advisor are not in his office, but have instead hit the golf course. Unfortunately the aide is not 100% certain which one it is. He thinks it most likely that it is the Congressional Golf Course (P26), part of the Congressional Country Club, at 8500 River Road, Bethesda. When the PCs arrive at the Congressional Golf Course, there is no sign of Doc or Stephens. Just then, a bell rings and the area is suddenly full of babbling schoolgirls, who immediately zero in on the famous members of the Adventurer’s Club. (P27) The Conelly School of The Holy Child is located on the grounds of the Congressional Country Club)…
The final scene in this sequence has the PCs back at Doc’s Hotel as Doc and Ickes arrive in Icke’s limo, obviously on friendly terms and agreeing to disagree.
So, what’s the point of these excerpts?
The politicians run the gamut from heroes to villains. But some of the villains are on the side of the Good Guys (from the PCs’ points of view) and some of the heroes are opposed – for what they consider to be good reasons. They are all interesting characters, for all that they are only present for the single scene in which they appear. And then there’s the elusive Doc, who doesn’t appear in any of them, but who dominates all of them with his presence – he’s the very definition of one of the good guys, but he’s had to do some morally questionable things in the name of “the end justifies the means”. For the first time in the campaign, he’s not shown as squeaky clean; he has had to compromise his ideals in order to achieve what he considers to be necessary. He may no longer be the textbook cliché of a hero, but as a prominent and recurring NPC within the campaign, he’s infinitely more interesting.
And that’s the point.
- The Pursuit Of Perfection, Part 1 of 5: Don’t Compromise With Mediocrity
- The Pursuit Of Perfection, Part 2 of 5: A Perfect Vision Through A Glass, Darkly
- The Pursuit Of Perfection, Part 3 of 5: Laying A Campaign Foundation
- The Pursuit Of Perfection, Part 4 of 5: Evolving The Campaign
- The Pursuit Of Perfection, Part 5 of 5: Character Evolution
- Lessons From The West Wing II: The Psychology Of Maps
- Lessons From The West Wing III: Time Happens In The Background
- Lessons From The West Wing IV: Victory At Any Price