Thursday, June 13, 2013


Politics is one of the harder things to pull off in a game. In all honestly I've been playing RPGs for about 20 years and I've played dozens of games with dozens of GMs in that time. You know how many GMs I've played with that I'd say were actually good, not just passable or decent but actually good, at running politics? Two. That isn't a shot at all the other GMs either by the way. Politics is hard. It's one of my weak areas. Still, there are some things to keep in mind that can help you out. Let's talk about those.

A Game of Power
Politics is all about power. The more power you have the better you will do in politics. So what is power? Well, for this I'm going to use a definition that one of my sociology professors used a lot. Power is the ability for person A to get something from person B without person B being able to stop him. So, in other words, the more capable you are of getting something from someone at no cost the more power you have over them.

So how is politics a game of power? Well, because in politics it is all about accumulating as much power as possible. It is all about getting as much of what you want at the lowest cost possible.

The Hand that Controls the Purse Controls the Power
So how is this done? Well, first you need to know what people want. Coin is often a big thing for this. People like having money, and money is a big source of power. The ability to throw money at something and have what yo want to happen happen is huge. However, money isn't the only currency in the purse for politics.

So what does the topic mean? Well, it is one of the four constant rules of history. Essentially it means what I said above in a different way. Namely: when you are in control of the thing that is wanted (in the case of the saying, the money needed to keep everything running) then you are the one with the power. Think about this in current US politics. The big button issues of late have been banks and corporations taking over politics. What do both of those things (banks and corporations) have lots of and in fact control? Yeah, money. They have the money, why are we surprised they have the power?

Four Basic Forms of Currency
In politics there are four basic forms of currency: money, contacts, prestige, and authority. Money is self explanatory, it is actual currency that can be spent for things. Contacts is the amount of people you know and the things they can do. Contacts counts as a currency because it is effectively access to the different sources of the other 3 kinds of currency. Prestige is social position, fame, and how well known you are. This often comes with the other kinds of currency, but it has its own power as well. After all, are you going to want some billionaire noone has ever heard of selling your product or the hollywood movie star? Finally we have authority. This is, probably, the least powerful of the four but it is things you have absolute control over. In many stories the Generals of armies have a lot of this power because they control the military, and that's a bit of a big deal.

You Scratch My Back, I Scratch Yours
So you have your tools, you know the game is about trading power, so how does it work? Well, basically it comes down to backscratching. Person A needs something from Person B. Person B wants something from Person A. Since B only wants while A needs than B has the advantage. What then comes is negotiation between A and B to figure out just how much of what B wants that A has to give in order to get what he needs.

Simple right? No? It works better with a real world example. I have an apple farm and need to make pies to sell at a fair. You have pie shells. Now I need your pie shells, and you likely want some of my apples. So we negotiate. In the end we figure I'll give you 3 apples for every pie shell you give me.

But wait, I hear you saying, isn't that just commerce? Well yes it is. So let's go with a different example. I am putting forward a new education bill for my country and I need you - representing the public school teachers - to agree to it. If you don't agree to it, you'll strike and that looks very bad for me and kinda kills the point of education reform. Now, I need teachers who are provably capable of teaching so that means some means of proving their ability. I want to do it every 3 years. You want more money to go to the public schools to pay for salaries, raises, supplies, repairs and all that other stuff. You also don't want this testing because, well, it is something you don't have to do now. We then negotiate. Odds are I'm not getting my tests every 3 years. However, you'll bend and give me those tests every 5 years - but not done with standardized testing but a board of people who will evaluate the teachers - in exchange for more money going to schools, some of which will be paying for this board.

There, now we've both compromised and both have something close to what we want but not perfect. We've done politics. So why is that so hard to run? Well, because that is just one of several dozen things that could be going on at any point in time. Resources are finite after all, and other places need them. More money going to the school means it isn't going to the arts, to public works, to the military. It is all just one pie, and we argue over who gets what. People going for specifics areas (i.e. representing teachers) want to make the pie slice they get as big as possible. People running the country want the pie to cover everything that is needed. Everyone is also looking out for stuff for them. It becomes a big mess, and that is where the challenge comes in. But hey, at least you know how it can work now right?

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