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A friend of mine is running a Middle-earth campaign and wants to make a political twist. As he knows I use to play that gamestyle (although in a contemporary setting), he has asked me to get involved on the setting design. The campaign will be based on a city state in Middle-earth norwest.

I am interested in guidelines and sources of advice for designing political fantasy campaigns. They don't have to be Middle-earth specific, but ideas about converting them to Middle-earth would also be helpful.

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I'm afraid your question might need some further opening-up to get many answers. Are you asking for insight on running political campaigns, or medieval campaigns, or exclusively on running political campaigns in medieval settings? (Also, Middle Earth is very different from a more realistic medieval setting, so that will strongly colour what sources are useful to you.) Perhaps you could stop by in chat to workshop the question with us? –  BESW Jan 22 '13 at 9:27
There's some fun vote rigging stuff somewhere in The Elenium that might be worth reading. –  Quentin Jan 22 '13 at 9:33
I can't help but think this isn't as useful as it could be without knowing what system you'll be using. –  okeefe Jan 22 '13 at 20:48
@okeefe The system is Decipher's coda. I didn't think it had many importance, as we are talking about the setting design, which could be played with any system I'd like. –  Flamma Jan 22 '13 at 21:06
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5 Answers

There's a really interesting discussion at Story Games on incorporating political intrigue into a campaign, with some excellent suggestions.

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There's actually a A Game of Thrones RPG which is D20 and takes into account a lot of political and reputation factors. I would love to play it some day...

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One main source: History.

Two great sources spring to mind: the Thirty Years War (The Thirty Years War by C. V. Wedgwood) and Byzantium (Early, Apogee, and Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich). The Thirty Years War was a massive conflict that span the whole of Europe and masqueraded as a war of religion. Byzantium gave us such terms as Byzantine which kinda describe what you are referring to..

Now, how to apply those in the framework of Middle Earth. Depending on when the game is set -- I'll assume after the fall of Arnor but after the split into Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. You have a somewhat similar setting to Byzantine: besieged by enemies that want to destroy it but disunited and in-fighting. The Thirty Years War can provide you local politics as to how smaller Dukes, Barons, and cities all play into the great game. Of course, the addition of the "new" religion of the All Father (read: Sauron but make sure it's not obvious) could add a certain element of perfidious horror to the setting. How about the orphanages run by priests of the All Father? How about the hospitals? All that good work that the Church does...

Remember: everyone is out there for themselves. They either do not see the Shadow of the North or dismiss it as somebody else's problem. The Witch King is using his power, sorcery, and agents to make sure the right people never get anywhere up the chain of power. More and more, only bad people succeed. Corruption is everywhere.

This is one of Tolkien's main themes: power corrupts. It takes individuals of incredible will to resist it. You should have that as a theme for your game as well.

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Good question.

This will start off as an extremely broad-brush discussion and we will see how specific it gets as I go along.

As one commenter has suggested Middle Earth does not - to my mind - lend itself to a medieval campaign. This is because of the overarching good vs evil backdrop of heroic fantasy in the setting. Medieval politics are far more grubby and, well human, than an endless struggle of ethos.

I subscribe to a certain geographic determinism in the development of human society. For a long, long view of this see Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs and Steel'.

With that stated, an independent city state needs a certain geographic isolation to maintain its independence. If you consider the surviving small states of Europe: San Marino, Monaco, Lichenstieln and to a lesser extent Denmark, the Benelux countries, Switzerland, Scotland and Wales, they have all had geographic features that allowed them to resist absorption by powerful neighbours.

Turning to the 19th century unifications of Germany and Italy, these were predicated on the forced amalgamation of small states by Napoleonic France. In the case of Germany over 300(!) states were reduced to 29.

France is an illustration of the opposite, the first modern state in Europe, it's heartland was a large plain around Paris and it spread through marriage and force into the more inaccessible parts of Normandy, Bordeaux and Provence.

The same argument could be mounted about the ancient city-states of Greece.

So, your city state should be reasonably secure from outside overt threats.

An overarching religious commonality can help too. Before the reformation, Europeans had the Catholic religion to unite them and maintain the status-quo. The thirty-years war was particularly vicious because it was a clash of religion.

So, your city state should have something in common with its near neighbours. A distant enemy (like Islam was to medieval Christendom) could be a good idea.

Look to economics to define your power structures. In a pre-technological society, economics means who controls the means of food production. How does magic impact on this?

Also, a campaign based on political intrigue means that there needs to be secrets, lots of them. How will divination magic play out?

As for sources, anything on medieval Italy (particularly anything about the Medici will be worth a look.

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In Lord of the Rings, Bree is an independent city in which the outer authorities seems to have few power. I think this is the kind of setting my friend is thinking. The role of religion in politics is a theme I like a lot, but unfortunately Middle Earth seems to lack of formal religion (at least the Free Peoples do). –  Flamma Jan 22 '13 at 12:05
-1. A lot of your history is over simplified to the point of being just wrong. –  Sardathrion Jan 22 '13 at 12:38
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Medieval politics should involve marriages, assassinations, bastards, fleeting alliances, long-lasting enemies, blood feud, coups. There is little notion of investigation and justice lies where power is. Who has the biggest army usually wins, who has the biggest wits stay on power.

George R. R. Martin's "A song of ice and fire" is a great inspiration on medieval fantasy leaning heavily on political intrigue. HBO's Game of Thrones gives you a speedy way to "read" it.

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I've been told The world of Greyhawk has a lot of politics, but I'll let someone with actual experience with it tell you how it is. –  Yianes the Sneak Jan 22 '13 at 9:57
And I seem to recall the latest Song of Ice and Fire RPG by Green Ronin has a handful of tools for House / Campaign generation. –  Nigralbus Jan 22 '13 at 10:30
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