Political drama is one of the most popular genres in television and books, but translating it to a roleplaying game can be difficult to do successfully. How do you get your players invested into a game about political intrigue?
Detail in Spades
If you’re looking to run a political campaign, you need to be ready to do a lot of prep work- though unlike the work you might need to do for other games, very little of it is about writing down numbers and charting encounters. Political games first and foremost require you to detail out the who and the why of the politicking itself, because without that you don’t really have much of anything.
This means setting up the factions, both in your world and for your players. You need to have all of the details of who is who and what they are doing in your notes, but also you need to make sure your players are aware of (and care about) these things. For this reason, it’s often easier to have the politics part of your game get introduced later, after you have defined the world and given your players context for what is happening. If you open your game with a story about how the Duke of Howrousaland is plotting with the Bimbarian Alliance to backstab Countess Cromfrumulus they will absolutely not give a single damn about any of that nonsense- but if you can introduce them to those characters first, and give them reason to love (or hate) them on their own merits, then you have the makings of a good political plot.
A Clash of Wills
Each NPC should have both a well-defined personality- likes, dislikes, personality traits, etc- as well as a set of goals that they are pursuing, because it is these goals and personalities coming into conflict that will create the drama and tension of the game. Just as in the real world, there should be limited resources that the parties are fighting over. These can be almost anything that is important in your campaign, but make sure that they are things that are truly valuable- there’s no sense in having two factions fight over access to a river if a high-level mage can simply cast a spell and create a new river.
Depending on how you want to flavor the campaign you can introduce the political players in any number of ways, but always remember that the circumstances you introduce them under will heavily color the PCs views of them. When we first meet Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, he is chopping a man’s head off with his sword while his children watch. That emphasizes what Ned stands for- family, order, and responsibility. You should strive to do the same with your own NPCs; if you want the PCs to find someone suspicious, give them suspicious circumstances like hiring the party to commit a crime or do something underhanded.
Also remember that personalities can create conflict just as much as goals can- if the King believes that he rules by divine right and thus is justified in everything he does because of a blessing from the gods, having a Duke of a heretic faith creates inherent tension in the story and adds interest.
Enemy of My Enemy
Another key part to a political campaign will be setting up alliances and factions. Just as with the real world, no one person or faction should have the power to completely dominate- because even if they did, they would inevitably fracture into sub-factions that would then begin fighting with each other. Instead, have groups of people who share some- but not all- of their goals working together, which sets up possibilities for betrayal and conflict within the alliance. The heretic Duke might still work with the King because he hates the people who killed his son more, but a change in circumstances might see him withdraw his support for someone he thinks is better.
This is also why filling out the campaign world is so important to a political game- you need to have reasons why everyone is on the side they are with and the histories that support it. Of course, you needn’t detail every single thing that has ever happened, as it’s enough to say “the Duke hates his enemies because his son died in the last rebellion and he blames them for it.” That’s enough detail to inform his behavior, and if you want to come back to it later and fill it in you can, but it isn’t necessary to have a thousand-page setting bible before you begin anything.
Shades of Grey
Many political games also feature a lot of moral ambiguity, leaving open the question of who is right and who is wrong. In the context of D&D this can be a little bit trickier due to the alignment system, which you may want to jettison if you are writing such a game as it is not great at actually representing anything remotely realistic. On the other hand, you can also use this as a feature rather than a bug- is a Lawful Evil ruler who makes his populace safer worth supporting? How far must such a ruler go before they should be overthrown, potentially bringing chaos to the nation? By avoiding providing easy right-or-wrong answers to these questions, you can pose a dilemma to the party that will force them to confront difficult realities and make moral choices for their characters.
Much as with any other genre, political action can be incorporated into many sorts of games or be the focus of an entire game, and while it is complicated and often difficult to write, it is also perhaps the most universal and lasting type of conflict. It also benefits from being very “portable” within the context of a campaign- if you see a great political turn in a book, movie, or TV series it is relatively easy to introduce similar elements into your game (changed to be appropriate to the setting, of course) without it seeming like obvious plagiarism, because this kind of human drama is so universal.
And remember, as always, that the Frontline Gaming store sells roleplaying supplies at great discounts every day, whether you’re looking to pick up a sourcebook for one of your characters or some miniatures for your next encounter.