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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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? \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Jan 22, 2013 at 9:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's some fun vote rigging stuff somewhere in The Elenium that might be worth reading. \$\endgroup\$
    – Quentin
    Jan 22, 2013 at 9:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I can't help but think this isn't as useful as it could be without knowing what system you'll be using. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Jan 22, 2013 at 20:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @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. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Jan 22, 2013 at 21:06

5 Answers 5


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.

Another awesome source (and impressively easy to read and derive situations from) is Il Principe (The Prince), by Niccolò Machiavelli. There's a Squashed version of it too.

The Borgias by Showtime is another TV series, this one without fantastical elements but full of intrigue. It correlates a lot with the ideas presented on The Prince. It's easy enough to replace houses and other political forces by members of other fantastical races.

  • \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 22, 2013 at 9:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nigralbus
    Jan 22, 2013 at 10:30

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.


There's a really interesting discussion at Story Games on incorporating political intrigue into a campaign, fantasy or otherwise. Here's a distillation:

  • Establish intrigue by giving political factions a public agenda and a hidden agenda
  • Create secrets within political factions, which gives each faction something to protect
  • Build PC/NPC relationships into the character generation process so PCs have built-in relationships with various factions
  • Make sure PCs need NPCs to accomplish their goals, and vice-versa, in order to embroil PCs in political conflict
  • Be sure you know what each PC and NPC wants and what is keeping them from what they want
  • Remember that political power stems from making promises that large numbers of people (or orcs) believe will be upheld
  • Use a relationship map to track the relationships between individuals and political factions
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you elaborate on this discussion? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 19, 2014 at 13:37

(Note: This answer does not cover Middle Earth, but the OP invited answers which are not Middle-Earth specific)

One of the Exated Second Edition digital-only books is "Mandate of Heaven", and provides rules for Statecraft. Specifically, Mandate of Heaven is designed as something to do between sessions, rather than being game sessions in and of themselves. To quote directly from the book:

What Exactly is This?

The Mandate of Heaven lets Storytellers and players explore the philosophy of rule presented by The Assiduous Maxims. It is also a plot generator describing the rise and fall of nations in Exalted. Players and Storytellers interested in directing nations can use this “Exalted mini-game” during downtime to develop the direction of a series. Although you can use the Mandate of Heaven to develop plots, it is by no means the only way to do so.

The Mandate of Heaven rules provide an abstraction, not every single interaction between the leaders of nations. Whereas turns in Exalted martial combat take seconds of in-game time and turns in social combat or mass combat take minutes, turns in Mandate of Heaven take months.

Several traits familiar to an Exalted player carry over to the traits of a Mandate of Heaven Dominion sheet -- 10 of the 25 Abilities, for example, as well as Virtue Flaw, Limit Break, Willpower, and the four Virtues. Magnitude should also be familiar to anyone who has engaged in Exalted mass combat. In fact, while some of the existing traits might be used slightly differently in Mandate of Heaven (such as Limit being used as a resource rather than purely as a ticking time bomb), the only truly new traits of a Dominion are the three attributes: Military, Culture, and Government.

The setting for Mandate of Heaven is the same as that of the rest of Exalted. The political atmosphere at "present day" is already politically charged:

  • The Scarlet Empress, ruler of the Realm, has gone missing, and she set up her empire to pretty much fail utterly without her. The 11 great houses led by her descendants are on the brink of igniting civil war over the throne.
  • The Solar Exalted -- the souls of most of their number trapped in a prison millennia ago -- have begun reincarnating again. From the point of view of most of the world, the Solars are demonic Anathema. It doesn't help that at least one Solar has begun building a small nation.
    • In addition to the golden Solars, two new types of "Anathema" have begun appearing: the dark Abyssals, and the sickly green Infernals.
    • The mercurial Lunars have jump-started multiple small city-states, some populated by humans, and some populated by... other.
  • One of the satraps of the Realm has been captured by a powerful ghost and his undead army.
  • The changelings from outside the world are always intent on reverting Creation to the chaos from whence it came. And without the Scarlet Empress to control the network of war manses that drove back their last Crusade...

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.

  • \$\begingroup\$ 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). \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Jan 22, 2013 at 12:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1. A lot of your history is over simplified to the point of being just wrong. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 22, 2013 at 12:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ For example, no geography preserved the Benelux countries. The Netherlands in fact had to fight the Eight Years War in order to escape their suzerain, and they only succeeded because of luck and politics. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 19, 2014 at 15:53

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