Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When the PC has Societal Power

With the release of Fable 3 yesterday (today at time of writing), I find myself thinking about what can happen when PCs climb up to the ranks of real power in a game. Now, I'm not talking about mechanical power - though often that is included - but rather about societal power. When the PCs become Lords and Ladies, rulers of nations, in charge of armies and vast swarms of various little deadly NPCs. Basically, when the PCs become the kind of people you probably used to get the game started in the beginning. So what do you need to be aware of when making this transition? Read on, and let's find out.

A Change of Scope
So, the first thing you need to be aware of is that the scope of your challenges is going to need to change, and be variable. By taking their position of power, the PC has opened themselves up to a world of responses that they don't normally have. What do I mean by this? Well, by being in charge of people, they can then task those people with various jobs. Is someone harassing them and going after their money? Send an assassin to take care of that person. Is a dragon burning their villages? Send an army, or hire some dragon hunters. Either way, the point is that the PC now has the option of sending NPCs to "do their work."

Now, when this happens you basically have two options as the GM. You can go with it, in which case you have to find new ways to keep things going; or you can shut down the idea of the NPCs, in which case I have to ask why you let them have that place of power to begin with? What is the point of being King, or the Lead Assassin, if you can't send NPCs to do work and solve problems?

Focus on the Story
At this power level, the focus is generally more on story than it is on the actual mechanics. After all, when a person is in this level of power not only can they send others to do jobs for them, but they are expected to. As such, the game becomes less about pitting your character against others, and more about who can run their various enterprises better. This brings a focus on story into play that can be good, provided your players are fine with it.

My advice is that when a PC enters this level of ability, to talk to them about it. Do they want to shift to the more administrative type play? or do they want to be the lead from the front type? Do they hire dragon hunters? Or do they lead a force out to defend their kingdom personally. Obviously, the focus of the story should be where the PC is, and you need to be ready to hit them with things around it. However, the scope of the game also lets you hit them with things where they're not.

For example, if the PC King goes off to fight the Dragon, problems can arise while they're away from the throne and off on campaign. Someone can try seizing power, crimes can happen, perhaps something isn't handled right that has long reaching consequences. When the PC comes back, they have to clean up the problems and move along. At the same time, if the PC does send Dragon Hunters to take care of the dragon, what happens if they fail? Or, in killing the dragon they also caused massive destruction to the country side that is letting enemies in?

These are still primarily narrative problems, but they are things the player has to deal with now that they are in that place of power, and it can be something good to focus on.

All positions of power have politics, and while this is a headache for some, others absolutely revel in it. At these levels of power though, the PC is going to have to deal with the politics of their situation. Now, politics generally come in two types. Internal and External.

Internal politics are the politics inside the group the player is a part of. If they run a thieves guild, it is the thieves guilds politics. If they are a king, it is their Kingdom's politics. Either way, it is the group they belong to. Internal politics are usually the more cut throat, after all, you have to appear to be on the same side. This is where a lot of the cloak and dagger assassination stories can come from, as people send others to bump off rivals and secure their places of power. It is also the kind to be the most infuriating to deal with.

External politics are the politics outside the group the player is a part of. If they run a thieves guild, it is the guilds relationships with other guilds. If they run a kingdom, it is the politics with other neighboring kingdoms. This is the more fun one, where you get the stories like James Bond and other daring tales of espionage. The politics can still cause headaches, but at least there is a clear "us vs. them" type thing going on.

In either case, politics brings the wonderful concept up of strange bedfellows, where the enemy of yesterday is the friend of today, and the rival of tomorrow. Alliances shift, and you need to constantly play to maximize your gain, while not ostracizing yourself, or helping a potential enemy too much.

Final Thoughts
Moving a game into this power level can be a lot of fun, but you need to be prepared for it. Be ready for the player to want to throw NPCs at things, and don't respond by just making the NPCs all incompetent. For extra fun, you can twist things around and have the PC - now in power - have to deal with a group of 4-6 upstarts whoa re coming after them for some perceived wrong. Suddenly, they're the bad guy and another group of adventurers is coming to collect.

Have fun with it though. And let me know how it goes.


  1. This is exactly where my Star Wars campaign is. Having started in 1991, the campaign has evolved from very low power to the point where the players are now in the upper echelons of Galactic Political power. One Character has become the new Mandalore- uniting his people once more (or at least trying to). Another is a high-ranking Intelligence agent who would probably be a 'director' if she didn't want to continue field work. She also happens to be a high-ranking Jedi. Another character is a Great Shaman of the Tusken people. He recently united various tribes to form a 'Horde' that repelled an alien incursion onto his homeworld. He is also a Jedi, though a decidedly unorthodox one. Even the lowly space pirate recently found out that he is a long-lost descendant of a legendary Alien warlord- and has been thrust into a position of command among those aliens. These characters are making decisions that affect a great many lives. And oddly enough, they don't seem to want to throw NPCs at problems, they want to do things themselves- which is admirable. It really adds depth to the campaign- because on top of all the personal challenges (adventures and combats), there are the political ramifications of their actions.

    For instance, "Mandalore" has to deal with the infighting of various clans, some of whom are out to take him down. He has also been approached by a group of veteran clone troopers who consider themselves 'mandalorians'. They want to join his new Mandalorian 'state', but Mandalore can't really accept them at the moment, because he (and the New Republic) have a tenuous alliance with the Empire, and suddenly having an entire legion of veteran clone stormtroopers 'defect' would be a political mess.

  2. The old 2E Birthright setting/rule set was wonderful for running characters at this level of power. The basic rules shouldn't be hard to adapt to any other type of rule set.

    Also, I have always assumed that if a player was willing to allow his character to take on the added power/responsibility then he understood what he was getting himself into; ie the new processes of decision making. If not a character could always walk away from his new position.

  3. It is a fun change of pace to play this style of game. Of course, even when you want to be the stay at home and rule kind of king, something will end up dragging you out of the palace.

  4. Callin, you make a wonderful point and I'm actually going to be talking about it in tomorrow's post. There is some level of implicit permission given in doing it, though I still stand by the fact that you can always talk to the player about where you want the game to be going. I'll expand on it more tomorrow.

    Still, good to see the responses and the points people are making :)