Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How to use (and abuse) politics in gaming, GuestPost by MurkyMaster

Hey everyone! I'd like you to read this post from Murky-Murky, a friendly blog, on the subject of politics in RPGs. As my most loyal readers may notice, this ties in nicely with my post about the politic-full game Houses of the Blooded

I'll admit one of my more naive thoughts from yesteryear: "Politics has no place in D&D"

For me, politics was impossible in D&D, because
when the Noble starts to yak, the warriors attack.
Still from the movie "Rob Roy" courtesy of IMDb 
For the most part, adventurers in that august game, no matter the edition, are too busy struggling through dungeons and hacking up enemies for that boring jowl-exercising. Even in game where higher, less dice-driven role-play is king, politics is still treated like bacon at Miss Daisy's breakfast table (i.e. Driving Miss Daisy). Often I have heard, and said, "What is the point of putting skill points into diplomacy?"

Yet DM's, and GM's of every stripe, may benefit from the use of politics. If you aren't using politics, there is a big facet to any world your playing in that your missing, and missing an aspect of your setting means you miss all the plot hooks, devices, and twists you could be using.

Maybe one of your PC's is an assassin doesn't care for diplomacy (or talking in general, because he's just that cool), but another one is a bard who, yes, did put major skill points in diplomacy, sense motive, bluff, etc. Your bard will feel like a moron throughout most of your game, and will be down right p'od if you don't let him trade these skill points, which he never demonstrated in game, for something more slashy. And not to mention, assasins are HEAVILY used by the politically powerful, especially in the middle ages.

And what if your playing Vampire the Masquerade or Vampire the Requiem? Those game books practically demand that you run clandestine intrigue and courtly caterwauling or the Gods Against Billy Badasses will come in the middle the night and bludgeon you with hardcovers. Nobody wants that.

Don't worry, I was in the same place. I was blind, but now I hear. I hear the cries of " I want it my way!"

What is Politics (in gaming)?


Poli-Sci majors and current office holders, plug thy ears.

For a gamer's purposes, all politics is the powerful using their power to get what they want (or what they think is good for their nation, organization, company, etc.), all while reacting to other powerful people trying getting what they want at the same time.

Put yourself in a real-world game setting. Politics could be as dry and boring as a senate meeting in which Republicans and Democrats are arguing over the budget or can be as emotionally charged as the President arguing with his highest general to quarantine and sterilize a town struck with Ebola, while the general says they should give $1 billion dollars to a terrorist group in exchange for the cure they stole an allied nation's labs.

Both examples, however, can mean hundreds of plot implications that can hook the characters into the story. In the first, the government may be so desperate that they have a "garage sale" of old weapons (including nukes) to a trusted ally. Unfortunately, the other nation has budget problems too and sells them to a not-trustworthy enemy of the first nation. Now, you have a stop-the-nuke plot for a spy game. How about the second example; if it were a superhero game, wouldn't practically every hero that could fly or go really fast be trying to steal the stolen cure from the terrorists?

As I said in my last article about using NPCs in your game, that the plot is often forwarded through PC's and NPC's reacting to each other. Politics is often nothing more than powerful NPCs flexing their muscles to manipulate what they can influence. Every good and bad guy with power can use it to forward the story.

The following is an example of how politics can roll in D&D, the game where death usually comes before debate. Little may you know, though, that middle-ages politics can be downright heroic.

Rule by the sword - A D&D political story idea

Castlesin the middle ages were designed for many reasons, here are two important ones. One, castles we a place to run to when the nearby village was attacks. Two, grand castles like this one are symbols of wealth and power (like a giant "Don't mess with us" sign). "Castle Wyvern" by Ona Loots, Elfwood
Imagine if you will, that you and your family and 9 other families are living in a little village by the sea. Its mostly a human village, and your a spunky 18 year old growing awesome beets in the valley. Everyone loves your big, swollen, red beets, especially the buxom daughter of ye olde farrier.

Guess what. Sea-faring, teeth-gnashing Orc barbarians love your beets too. In fact they want to mash your big swollen beets with rusty spiked war hammers to make their pie filling and they aren't interested in paying for them. So they sail across the ocean and sack your tiny village, burn your house, steal your beets and girlfriend.

You. Are. Pissed. No beets, no babe, no house. But remember, I said you were spunky. You're also an attractive guy, a decent fighter and an excellent tactician. You rally the people together. You tell them your plan, to build a castle on top of the hill, to make a place where everyone can run when the barbarians attack again. While they build the castle, you recruit your best buddies and train them in the ways of sword-fighting. Your friends think swords are cool, and this castle thing might work, and they don't want to lose their lives to barbarians: from thus comes your knights.

The barbarians come next year, and chase all the people into the castle. Your villagers whoop their green butts with arrows, tar, rocks, speaks and lots of screaming. The barbarians lose so many people that they never come back again; afterall, your neighbors to the north are much more vulnerable...

You, being smart though, know that they may come back anyway. So you promise your people "If you raise me up as King, and feed me and my knights (who I will call Nobles) your produce, then I and my Nobles will protect you and your families." They agree: you become king, and your buddies become nobles.

Then those neighbors to the north that I mentioned hear of your infrangible castle. When the barbarians attack them, your northern neighbors flee to your castle, beaten, bruised and bludgeoned. You let them in, and promise their ninny-pants, limp-wristed leader that his people can hide in the castle whenever they want to, if he swears allegiance to you. Ninny-pants does, and thus lends you his people.

You get real ambitious. Maybe you can raise an army to go across the ocean to beat some barbarian asses and destroy the threat once and for all. You travel the land with your knights, leaving the syncophant in charge. You talk with other great kings: some agree, and say that they will make arrangements with you when you get back to your kingdom. Others would rather have your land, and try to kill you instead. Your knights protect you, but one-by-one they die at the hands of assaisns, wizards, monsters, and warriors in your long journey back home.

You come back to your kingdom without any knights, and find it taken over by the syncophant. He convinced your people that he had a better idea: instead of fighting the barbarians, Ninny-Pants told them that he would give those Orcs every third girl that turned 18 in his lands, along with a third of the food grown, in exchange for their loyalty as warriors. Why? Cause Ninny-pants want to conquer the other kings to the north and west.

Your castle is overrun by Orc mercenaries, who are not stupid, and would rather have the syncophant's throne for themselves (and they would be even harder to beat than the syncophant, whom is surrounded by big strong Orc guards ready to betray him). Your people are oppressed, their daughters raped daily and weird Orc blood cults are cropping up everywhere. Things suck, and its all your fault, and their nothing you can do about it, for you are alone. Even the allies you made aren't going to come to your rescue until you prove you can get your throne back.

You stumble into a bar, for a very, very stiff drink. Off to the side, you see 4 weird folks, all fit and trim. One carries a huge sword and talks a bunch of smack to a priest of your people's religion, the mace of his office hanging on his side. A dark woman sits in the corner quiet, wrapped tight in leathers and daggers and is giving dagger eyes to the Orcs that are admiring her lovely shadow. And a pointy-eared elf, in a thick cloak, with a staff eteched in symbols, with a Black Cat on his shoulder and an elecrtic look in his eyes, is looking straight at you, wondering why your staring at his friends. The staff-bearing guy's cat leans over and says in his ear "Boss, is that dude checking you out?"

You decide to talk to these people. Maybe they can help you….

As Emerril says, "BAM!" There's your D&D plot. Brought to you by mere, limp-wristed, yak yak politics.

Manipulating the Manipulators: Integrating Politics into your game

So now, how do you use politics to your advantage in D&D or any other game system. Try these simple suggestions.

Know your power structures

Note I say power structures not governments. You don’t need to be in government to be in politics, you just need to be able to make policies (policies = rules, regulations, laws, and command that people must follow). Anybody who can command or influence someone can participate in politics. Its important, therefore, to know who has power in your game.

Vam-politics

An important thing to remember: what you 
cannot enforce, you can't command. Thus, 
vampire princes must makes sure 
everyone knows that they are the most 
powerful vampire in the room. "Vampiric Throne" 
In Vampire :the Masquerade, the power structures are laid out quite nicely. Camarillia Princes and their Primogen make policies on their vampires concerning keeping up the masquerade, enforcing these edicts through fear and bribes. Elder vampires use their influence to tell other vampires what to do, make moves against their fellow elders in their great game. Elder vampires can influence other vampires for several reasons:

  • They can whoop almost any other vampires ass. If a younger vampire refuses to do something, an elder can simply threaten to rip his guts out.
  • Elders usually have more money, and money makes people do things they otherwise would never do.
  • Elders have been collecting allies and minions over the years, and these allies and minions can beat up insolent vampires or make things difficult in their lives. For example, Venture elder tells a Toreador in his court to kill one of his favorite patrons at an art show because he's in the way. Toreador raises his middle finger. Venture has ghouled the editor of the local paper, who gladly publishes an article about how some reliable sources say he's a pedophile. The Toreador has police banging down his door at 11:00 am the next day.

Who are the "politicians" in D&D?

Story Idea: Here, a powerful wizard is about to get jacked
up by his apprentice. Not really knowing the books value,
the apprentice goes to sell that book he is
flipping through to your PC's. The drow wizard's mother
wants that book back, and find out from beating
the apprentice that your PC's stole the book. "At Study"
 by Chris Malidorewww.epilouge.net 
Here are the people I usually think have power in D&D and other fantasy-genre type settings, listed along with what kinds of people they can effect. They are not in any paticular order, but they do have typical spheres of influence, or kinds of people or things they can manipluate. Knowing what a NPC can command can tell you what kind of plot they can bring about.

Note: what I mean by "influence" doesn't mean the powerful people can tell the other groups what to do. It merely means they have the power to make those groups react. A cult can hardly tell the High Priest(ess) what to do (unless they kidnap him…) but its existence can inspire him(her) to hire an adventuring party to destroy them.

This list of groups of people who have power in a typical fantasy game is also not exhaustive; doesn't even have pirates on it.

Powerful groups of people in Fantasy Settings - type of people they can influence

  • Kings and Nobility - peasants, nobles, kings
  • Organized religion - worshipers, outsiders associated with their god
  • Barbarian chieftains - their tribe, their tribal allies, their tribal enemies
  • Powerful spellcasters - their apprentice(s), their magely organizations, outsiders, local villages
  • Epic level characters - practically any individual they meet (due to high charisma, high skill checks, and general butt-kicking abilities)
  • Thieves guilds - any individual in town who can make them a profit, nobility, law enforcement
  • Dragons - other dragons, local populations, outsiders
  • Liches- undead armies, their apprentices, outsiders, local populations
  • Vampires - undead armies, their vampire children, other vampires, mortals under their bondage
  • Fae - other fae, people within their forest, forest animals, forest plants, druids, rangers
  • Cult leaders - their followers, outsiders, law enforcement, Organized religion
  • Drow Priestess- eachother, other underdark creatures, visitors to the underdark 

Exert that power (and create story hooks in the process)

Now that you know who has power, have them exert it.

Say your playing Vampire The Masquerade. You give your vampire prince a problem: a Brujah elder (who actually has a brain) challenges a Venture prince to a non-lethal duel, in order to contradict the Venture vampire's implication that he was the greatest swordsman in the Ural Mountainsin 1640. The Prince gets his frill laced butt handed to him, in front of the prince's court.

Why does this matter? Think about this: If you’re a vampire, you know your powerful. You can rip most people in half. Why would you listen to anyone's commands, much less someone who thinks he's prince? There are only two real reasons a vampire would listen to a Prince: because they have something to gain for him, and because the Prince them is way more powerful than them. Same is true with all government. The Camarilla provides stability, resources, and elegant vampire chic to the vampires that join in. Camarilla princes also whoop anyone's ass who doesn't comply.

So now, the vampire prince has been proven to be weak by this Brujah. One of his two reasons he is listened to, i.e. half his power, is gone. The vampire prince is desperate, because all his former allies are thinking about jumping on the Brujah's boat, especially if he can offer the same stability, or even something better, than the Venture.

The Brujah needs to be brought down a notch or two, so the prince can regain his power. Here's where your story hooks come in...

  1. The Venture could find the most billy badass fighter in the city and pay him lots of money to challenge the Brujah to a duel and win. (good for a solo game)
  2. The Venture could cripple the Brujah's power by killing his mortal minions (great for a ghoul game or Assasin troupe game)
  3. The Venture could have the Brujah seduced and destroyed by his harpies (harpies are like product reviewers, except for people. Whoever they don’t like, nobody else likes)
  4. The Venture could frame Brujah for a crime that will make the other vampires not like him, like demon worship or Sabbat alliances. (good for a socialite game)
  5. The Venture could have the Brujah's rave bombed, killing most of his vampires, and putting the blame for the attack squarely on his shoulders (not the smartest idea on the prince's part, but a really exciting one)

Now they're in trouble- Have your political NPC React to your PCs


Now that your vampire prince has acted through the PC's, have your NPC's react to the PC's actions. Say you pick number 4, linking the Brujah to a cult of Baali by doctoring some photos, which the prince shows off at the next Elysium. The Brujah elder is pissed, and sends his Lasombra ally (Double Take here: Lasombra only like antitribu Brujah…) to try to find who took those photos. In the meantime, the Baali cult hears about this, and think to themselves that someone violated the privacy of their skin-peeling sermon, which doesnot make them happy. The PC's get found by the Lasombra ally, who promptly tries to capture them and bring them to his master, even while the Baali send one of their spies to Elysium to find out who took the photos.

Making that backstabbing feeling last...

How do you fill your game to the brim with politics? Continue to have your political powers duke it out. Its best for your political powers to have a big goal in mind: for vampire elders, it may be as simple as bringing a Sabbat town into Camarilla control, or as epic as bringing a Methusla into power over a whole state. In D&D, it may be that a nation seeks to oppress a race of people, a cult seeks to become a state religion, a wizard wants to settle a fertile Mountain Valley with half-demons from another plane, or a dragon wants to double his annual crop of virgin sacrifices. Your NPC's having a goal means your PCs can build their goal around it.

Don't get mad, GET EVEN!

If you need more political ideas, just turn on the news and pay attention. Politicians are everywhere, in every country. Steal ideas from real life. Pick a thing you like about life, like clean water, and think about someone could destroy it, protect it, make money off of it, or celebrate it. You think up things for your politicians to work on.

Make sure though that whatever issue it is that it’s an issue your PC's would care about. Billy badass cares about nothing but his guns? Try Gun control regulations. Got a pacifist PC? Draft her. Cloistered librarian? Defund his library. Aesthetic monk lives in the middle of no where? Cut a highway around his monastary and throw grant money towards building another version of Las Vegas. The ways government can annoy or infurate your PC's are endless, and you will know you hit the jackpot when your players nostrils flare and they start telling you OOC "He/She cant do that!".

In response, merely say "What's your character gonna do about it…" and let the adventure (in politics) begin.

Gaming bloggers of the world! Have you got any political story ideas? Drop them in the comments along with links back to your blog!

Well, that's enough of Murky. Check his blog, it's full of cool RPG things like this! See you on my next post!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Improvisation in Storytelling: Keeping Track of your Players

One of the questions that usually comes up when discussing the subtle art of narrating RPGs, is where on the spectrum of improvisation and planning your games fall. Some people write down their whole campaign or session, whereas some prefer to go along with the flow, and create a story on the fly depending on what the characters decide.
While I've written about my love for games that approve some amount of improvisation before, I tend to use a mixture when running longer campaigns.
They say the more experienced players are, the less you have to plan and the more you can 'let them be', while newbie players are better handled when controled. That's why my first campaign was a Vampire: The Masquerade one, in which the prince had his Sheriff follow the players closely for the first games, so that they wouldn't start messing with the world and losing humanity, or my HOTB campaign takes place in a highly senate-influenced environment.
When you play with more seasoned people, they already know how to follow the hints of the narrator, and how to create an interesting background, which can be exploited for sake the story.
Lately I've been playing many oneshots, and what I've found is that you can base the entire campaign on the backgrounds of the players and their connections, without much need of actually planning your plot, as long as your improvisation is good enough (or encouraged by the system with Style points, FATE points and whatnot, which allow the players theirselves to add details to the plot and setting) and the players are well-defined.
So maybe it's not so much about planning the plot itself, as about planning the characters, the environment, and then let the players roam in a Sandbox way.
Another good tip I've gotten from many narrators is, always keep a surprise under your sleeve: for each character, have a plot twist ready, that can be adjusted as the story moves in the direction they choose. You can always use the soap-opera-ish 'all the players were related all along!' or maybe 'the bad guy was actually good and you killed him!', but having more personalized plot-twists, based on the character-backgrounds, makes for better surprises.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who carefully plan their plots, write scripts, or maybe just write down important speeches for some characters (the bad guy's 'evil speech' on the end? some politician's stand on a subject? a transcript of an old book?). On this kind of planning, I've found that the most fun stories come when you take the time to design many different endings, which the players will 'choose' among.

So, what about you? Do you prefer to plan your campaigns a lot, or you'd rather let your players take on and improvise along? Tell me in the comments!