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Although it's a fair way off yet there's a decent chance that my campaign is heading towards becoming very political. I've considered running political games before, but it seems like it would basically just involve the players going up to each of the people who disagree with them and arguing at them until they change their minds, which is clearly not a good basis for a story. How do you go about running an interesting political campaign?

The example I'm faced with: The setting is 95% nWoD Changling and the political aspect will be opposing factions of Faeries arguing whether or not they should declare war on the mortals for various reasons. The side the players will be aiming to push this towards isn't actually clear yet (and indeed it's possible they may be split in this regard).

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Political games require both excellent record keeping and a willingness to let players have excessive impact by comparison to normal gaming styles.

Taking my own prior experiences, the best working political campaigns were in L5R and Pendragon... both games where I've made extensive use of record sheets in various levels of detail.

The details needed don't include the combat capabilities of the NPC's most of the time. They do require tracking what secrets they have, what their resistance is to PC manipulations.

It also helps to make a map of the major players.

Further, it's important to distinguish a Court game from a Rulers game... they are very different in how you scope things out.

For a court game, the secrets are very important. Everyone collects dirt on everyone else. So everyone should have some dirt to be collected. And then it helps to have a grip on who likes, hates, or is sleeping with whom. And, as history shows, often, gender was no barrier to that last one, nor was hatred.

For a Rulership game, the kind of game where one or more PC's are rulers in their own right, the secrets are less important, but the resources in terms of troops, allies, and enemies are more so.

In either case, knowing who wants what and has what else to offer for it is important.

Political games are where a good information storage mode is vital... you can very quickly wind up with more NPC's than you can remember. But you don't have to remember; you can instead just make certain you can find it when you need it.

Likewise, it's vital to be consistent in who has what opinion about any particular other important NPC. Which is where the cross-reference table is wonderful:

\begin{array}{l c c c c} & & \rlap{\text{About}} \\ \text{Who} & \text{Edmund} & \text{Franz} & \text{Corwin} & \text{Ld. Dunny}\\ \hline \text{Edmund} & - & +5 & +3 & -5\\ \text{Franz} & +1 & - & -1 & +1\\ \text{Corwin} & +5 & +6 & - & +6\\ \text{Lord Dunny} & -1 & +1 & -5 & -\\ \end{array}

You can see that Dunny really dislikes corwin, but Corwin likes everyone. (That's why Dunny is unhappy with him... he thinks him an annoying suckup.)

Such a table is particularly useful for court games. Likewise, if you number or letter their secrets, you can record their dirty secrets on a second grid showing who knows which ones for whom.

Also, keep in mind that allies need not be friendly... Just needing or wanting the same thing(s).

Further, depending upon the game system and style of play and GMing, the amount of prep needed can vary widely. In a strongly narrativist game, such as Blood & Honor, you start with blank map and relationship grids, and fill in as established by the group in play. In a GURPS game, a strongly simulationist system, it's far more likely to have the map populated, and the grid at start filled in, and let players modify from there. Either way, being able to find what you need to know is the most useful skill.

Each character should have a page of notes, as well... starting off, pretty slim. As the game progresses, note down favors done for or by them, and manipulations, alliances, and backstabs.

Don't forget that, in the absence of PC interaction, all relationships are subject to change as well. Provide a means for doing so "off camera." This could be as simple as GM Fiat ("I think it's time for Dunny to put Corwin out to the front lines...") or as convoluted as making rolls on their loyalty scores to each other, to see if there's a chance of raising or lowering the other's score...

But the single-most important element of a political game is that nothing survives contact with PC's unchanged. Any political action by a PC should have an effect. Not always a good one, and not always a direct one. Other parties who know what they did may react to it. THe person manipulated should have a reaction whether they succeed or fail... even if that reaction isn't evident to the players immediately. Failed blackmail becomes a secret. Failed or successful sexual liaisons become secrets. Revealed secrets become scandals.

So, why do it?

Because in a political game, a lot of it is pure roleplay. A lot more is making the efforts to get where you need to be. It's not all about the convincing. A lot of it is etting up plots and strokes that happen outside the scope.

In fact, in my own political games, the politics are more scenario-generation than scenario themselves. The nastiness of courtly politics leads to flared tempers, rage, and pinning murders on others in order to get them out of your own way. Rulership games involve marshaling your troops, fighting your wars when they happen, and dealing with threats outside of court.

If you can find copies, Birthright for AD&D 2E and the stand-alone Reign or Houses of the Blooded all have great advice on the political game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ My, that's a thorough answer. I had considering fleshing out the earlier parts of the campaign and leaving the political stuff as just being implied post-campaign so I didn't have to deal with it, but now I'm actually quite excited about the idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Braiba Dec 21 '11 at 8:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's work, but it's enjoyable to pull off, with more traditional systems. In the more narrativist ones, players will do more of the work, all you have to do is keep track of "who's doing what to whom for how many cookies..." \$\endgroup\$ – aramis Dec 21 '11 at 21:41
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The core of a political campaign is the nature of conflicting desires. Presume that everyone that the PCs will interact with has something they want personally and is willing to exercise his or her influence in ways the players desire in order to get it. The interesting part comes in trying to satisfy allies who want opposing things, or enemies who -- despite not being in favor of the players' goals -- are nonetheless inclined to help in exchange for services to promote their own agendas.

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The previous answers are all very valuable so here just a small addition.

To pull off the scandals and the conflicting desires and chaotic, uncertain cooperation or backstabbing you will need a game system that supports you at least a bit. Very traditional, D&D style systems are very bad for this as the majority of their rules revolve around combat and the game is very fixated on you battling monsters and villains.

What you need form your game in the end is solid support for all manners of non violent conflict resolution. You could just handle it via in character conversations but that would make it hard for rhetorically proficient players to play bubbling buffoons and, even more, for not so well spoken players to play silver tongued spymasters. You will also need to provide an incentive for the players to get their characters into trouble so that secrets and scandals get generated on them, so your system has to have a mechanism to handle desires and flaws of the characters. Again, you could do it with pure roleplay but some hard rules can be handy.

I would advice to look into Burning Wheel for a detailed "verbal combat" system and a strong beliefs/desires/flaws system closely integrated with a reward cycle. For non violent conflict handling with a seamless means to escalating it to violence check Dogs in the Vineyard. It could be used as an inspiration for a escalation of verbal conflict to multiple levels of animosity by throwing in secrets or something like that.

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