Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Running Politics

This Friday my L5R game is taking a very rokugani turn into an area where I'm not super comfortable in my ability as a GM. Where is that you ask? Well, the PCs are taking a bit more of a court focus, which means that politics is coming into play. What does that mean for me, as the GM, and the game in general? Well, let's take a look.

So Much Harder To Wing It
This is something I already know, but does sometimes come as a surprise to folks. You can fairly easily wing any action session, even a mass battle with large armies. The books for game systems are so full of combat rules that you just kind of have to follow a script. This isn't the case with political type sessions. Here, everyone's personal motivations - both stated and hidden - are so important. Names are vital. Allegiances are vital. You need to know a lot more, and know it in advance, or you're going to be hemming and hawing while the players are waiting on reactions to things.

Preparation is Key
If it is that much harder to wing it, then that means preparation is key. Personally, for me, I'm focusing on the usual "3 things" rule for the NPCs. Essentially, for the NPCs I'm planning on having front and center I am giving them a name, a goal, and then defining 3 characteristics about them. For example, one of them is:

Bayushi Reiko - Scorpion Duelist
Goal: Keep an eye on new arrivals
fact 1: Likes larger men
fact 2: Lies very well
fact 3: Immaculate hair

Reiko is designed to interact with one of the PCs in specific, but there is also enough there for me to keep track of her. my full plan is to start setting up flash cards with these for the NPCs, but we'll see if I do that.

Divide and Conquer
The last bit in my preparation is that I am specifically keying some of the NPCs to some of my PCs. This doesn't mean that - for example - Reiko will only interact with one specific PC, but she is meant to be a main encounter for one and more side dressing for the other PCs. In this way, my hope, is I can define a large crowd and the general scene while giving the PCs individualized attention with a few specific NPCs.

This also lets me better tier the goings on. The high Status PCs are going to be in a different world than the low status ones, and both need to be shown. After all, the actions of the low status characters are the foundations for the plots of the high status folks, and that needs to be addressed carefully.

No Assassinations
This is more a personal goal for me. At least for the first few sessions you need to establish the court/political scene with how it normally works. If you bring folks into politics just to turn it into another gunfight, then the contrast is lost. As such, at least for the next few sessions, I can't do any freaky ninja through the window with a blow gun routines. We'll see how long I can last.

What about you? Any advice on running politics you'd like to share? Some GMs are absolutely amazing at this sort of thing. Others are less so. Would love to see some views from both sides.


  1. I like to run politics in my game. The key to doing politics right in my view is to note down the goals of the main leaders of your city/region/or kingdom. Every leader in politics has at least one public and one private goal. The king's main public goal is probably to stay in power while his private goal might be to weaken the merchants in the city. As such his actions for the most part should always be to maintain his power but secretly and maybe overtly he'll make decisions that will weaken the merchants. Should the players propose a course of action that compliments both of these goals then the King will support it. Any action that will strengthen the merchants will be met with resistance from the king. I would then draw up say the king's main advisor his public goal is to strengthen the king but privately he wants to crush his rival the court wizard. Again he'll support player actions that meet the public one but will drag his feet on anything that doesn't support his private goal. So basically NPC's will outright deny anything against their main public goal and will work more subversively against those that don't meet their private goals. You only need like 2 or 3 goals per main NPC. The interplay of those goals will create your political drama as they will all look to use the players to further these agendas which they might not always share with the players.

    1. Example NPC's:
      King Eric: Public Goal (PG) - Maintain his rule. Secret Goal (SG) - Reduce Power of the Merchants. (SG) - Destroy Duke Enric's support.

      Sylvia Pallermo, Head of Merchant Guild - (PG) - Increase trade to/within city. (SG) - Reduce the production of grain outside the city to increase price of grain. (SG) - Gather ownership of more farmland outside the city.

      Duke Enric - (PG) Increase land held in the kingdom. (SG) - Make King Eric look weak or foolish. (SG) - Secure grain and farmland for his subjects.

      Just from these three NPC's you can see a secret power play is happening to somehow increase the price of grain and fight it out over who owns what land outside the city. But that's all secret so that will come out as the players interact with these individuals and they subtly suggest courses of action that point to those motivations. "You should probably seize those farms near the haunted forest to keep people from getting hurt. I'll have my guards watch over the property in the meantime," said Duke Enric.

  2. I like the idea of the public goal vs. the private goal. Going to have to use that. Thanks :)

  3. Advice: Everyone important knows everything. Unless you go to ridiculous lengths to hide what you're doing, everyone knows about everything you did, every conversation you had, and every word you said.

    This helps to keep who knows what straight and can help drive home the idea that it's not the PCs vs. one important NPC, but PCs versus a whole bureaucracy of spies, informants, and favor/information traders.

  4. I am really digging this post and the advice herein. I especially commend your no assassinations rule.

    Along these lines, and stealing from Burning Wheel,for the Vampire game I'm about to start up, I'm making every player write down a long term goal and at least one short term goal.

    If they put themselves at risk to achieve these goals, I will reward them with a Willpower point. Moreover, at the end of a session if they can argue that they have made significant progress towards a goal, then they will be rewarded with an XP point.

  5. Another thing about politics in game is not just what you say but how you say it. I often allow my players to say what they're going to say and also tag a skill to indicate the flavor it might be said in. "I would love to support your grain operation if you would allocate further men to the western front. I'll put that through intimidate." That tells me the player is not trying to be diplomatic in that statement but push that person to do what they want. The NPC should pick up on that unless completely obtuse. Intimidate and Bluff in these situations are not straight out lying but more subtle for the situation. Again NPC's will use the appropriate skills. Merchants might use diplomacy/bluff while old Generals tend to often use Intimidate. Just an idea for how to work in skill checks. Opposed rolls result in one person's viewpoint out weighing anothers earning them a point in the discussion. When a certain number of unknown points accumlate in regards to a certain course of action that is what the court decides on. Also allow other skills to be involved such as history for discourses on past actions/tactics, religion for parables/verses that are poignant to the situation, and even nature for examples of how things in nature act/react in regards to certain courses. Allow the players to be imaginative in dealing with the conversation but remember that this verbal discourse is a fight in it's own rights just one fought with words. Allow damage to occur to the player's stature within the court. Winning here should net them enemies that over time might have to use more violent means of dispatching their adversaries if they can't get the better of them in public.

  6. So much good stuff here. Thanks guys. Lots of notes that can be used for almost any game.

    I like the idea of passing phrases through certain skills. I may have to steal that too...

  7. There are a couple of easy alternatives to the "ninja strike!" fallback in a political situation.

    * A messenger rushes in, whispers to one top-tier NPC out of the hearing of any of the PCs, then rushes out again. The whole party begins buzzing with speculation.

    * One of the middle-tier NPCs suddenly faints, or gets sick somehow. (I seem to recall that Crane suffer from epilepsy?) Again, it mostly serves to shake up the scene, and possibly give a PC with Medicine or the like an in to gain a favor.

    * One of the low-tier NPCs suddenly begins shouting drunkenly at one of the middle-tier NPCs, revealing the secret goal (or some other secret) of the middle-tier person. Everyone plays at being embarrassed, but is actually amused.

    * A young bushi, at least as awkward at court as the PCs, starts bragging WAY above his pay grade. He seems to be deliberately trying to provoke a duel, to have something to do. No one wants to duel him, because it would be politically awkward. But he's saying some things that are equally awkward to ignore.