Behind the Screen: Political Intrigue…

2007 December 16
by Dante

Today’s topic was inspired by a comment from our good buddy Yax over at DungeonMastering regarding political intrigue. He jokingly mentioned that his players would gladly face the dungeon instead of sticking around for the political intrigue that he had planned, and that got the ol’ gears turning.

Since I often talk about what not to do, today I’m going to take the opposite approach and unpack some elements that I think are truly necessary to make a political plot work.

Find the balance between realism and boring

Politics by their very nature are fraught with detail and nuance. In order to make a political campaign work best, I believe that a balance must be struck between realism and simplicity. I don’t recall where I heard this advice, but you should be able to explain your ruling class in adequate detail using only a few sentences. Any more than that, and your players will run the risk of tuning out, or forgetting important detail that you had counted on them remembering.

As a player, I have been involved in several political campaigns over the years and I have to say that I vastly prefer the ones that kept the heirarchy and society structure detail to a minimum and focused more on the plot elements. These campaigns tended to have only one or two key NPC characters, and favored deep involvement with these NPCs.

As a DM, you want to be very careful about overwhelming your players. If they must keep track of the six cities of this barony and be able to recite the names of the last five rulers and their wives in order to be involved in the plot that you wrote, they will become disengaged very quickly. On the other hand, if you cop out with “the king rules the land, that’s it” your players will not give a damn about that king, his land, or any trouble that he might be getting into UNLESS you roleplay the crap out of that king and make his plight extremely relevant to them. We all know that is a tough nut to crack sometimes.

Give your characters a break

If immersed in a political campaign over the span of several sessions, your players (and their characters) will start to grow weary of even the most well structured plot. My advice to making a political game work is to build in some completely unattached side quests, shopping trips, and the like that have nothing to do with your main plot.

In this vein, try your best not to corner your party in a position where they can’t make use of one of these plot threads. If you’re a good planner, you might be able to come up with generalized episodes that would allow you to drop one in literally anywhere but that is also a very difficult and potentially time consuming task.

Yax’s tongue-in-cheek joke is actually pretty spot on in this regard. If you know the politics are going to get grating, build in a completely detached dungeon for your characters to crawl for a session or two and resist the urge to drop a plot point in at the end. Just allow the characters to let off the steam of the campaign up to this point and pick it back up when they get done with their task. It will be cathartic and they will likely emerge ready for more plot.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story: structure things simply enough so they are not overwhelming and give the characters an out if it becomes overwhelming despite your best efforts.

Much more can be said on this topic, there could very well be a follow-on article on Wednesday after I get to mull it over for a few days. In the meantime, how do you ensure success of your politically charged games?

3 Responses leave one →
  1. ChattyDM permalink
    December 17, 2007

    I’m not exactly sure that Yax was joking when he said that…. Running away from Ptolus’ very intense political scene is a very common reaction by players…


    Being a Ptolus DM, I found that by making the story-driven players agents of a political group helps create a sense of belonging. When the choice the make or an adventure they finish has an impact on the Great Game… it makes it all the more interesting…

    Godd post as always…

  2. Yax permalink
    December 17, 2007

    I was half-serious when I wrote that. Political intrigue is a lot of fun to plan for me, but my players like dungeon crawling. I’m going to do both.

  3. ChattyDM permalink
    December 17, 2007

    If you don’t already do it… I invite you to read my campaign log on how I mixed both to good effect…

    Come on Yax, it’s only like about 10 000 words! 🙂

    Sorry for the shilling… 🙂

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