Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Non-Combat Conflict

With shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards becoming increasingly popular it wouldn't be surprising for players to look towards characters whose skills are more focused on the political side of things rather than the combat side of things. This isn't anything new for RPGs really. Birthright was about running your own kingdom, World of Darkness had a lot of politics going on in it in the background, and other games like L5R, Seventh Sea, Shadowrun, and Corporation have all had large portions of them dedicated to the non-shooty/stabby parts of their aspect.

Unfortunately, all of these things suffer from the same core problem. The game table is an absolutely horrible place for these kind of conflicts to take place. Don't get me wrong, it can be done, but it is hard and takes a lot of shaved corners and duct tape. At least, as far as I've seen.

Don't believe me? Well, let's take a look at a small scene from the third season of Game of Thrones. The scene has two actors: Verys and Littlefinger. Littlefinger is planning to abscond away from the Capital with Sansa Stark who is poised to soon be the key to claiming the Northern lands. Verys finds out about this, leaks the importance of Sansa to another interested party and they make a counterplay. Littlefinger finds out about this, leaks the new plot to the Lannisters and they make a counterplay. In the end Littlefinger gets favor with the Lannisters but at the cost of Sansa Stark's marriage.

Now, all of this seems simple enough but look at it from a game perspective. For one, it involves Verys getting this information on Littlefinger's plots. Now if Littlefinger is a PC that means that another PC or NPC gets to "trump" whatever he does to be discreet in his plans and find out about it. Then a counterplan is made which Littlefinger finds out about. This means that if Verys is a PC that what I just said happened to Littlefinger happens to him. Then, in the end you end up with the zero sum of Littlefinger cutting losses to play the game again a bit later.

Story wise this works out. However, with the vast majority of players I've met - even the really good ones - a lot of this will rankle as them being held back or not allowed to win. I mean, let's just assume the victor of this contest - Littlefinger - is the only PC. That means that an NPC found out about his plans and interfered so much that the best he could hope for is a small boon from the Lannisters in exchange for torpedoing his own plans. Not necessarily ideal, right?

What about if Verys is also a PC? This works better. PvP can get messy but generally players can understand another player managing to trump their plans on occasion. In the end though this is still a situation where nobody wins.

So what is the solution? Honestly, there isn't one. Politics and PvP in a game require two things and both of them are trust. There needs to be trust between the players and the GM that the GM is doing what they can to run things fairly and that the GM has no value in particular outcomes in the game. This is often the hardest one because human beings are pre-disposed to think in terms of winners and losers, and if I am losing then that must mean whomever controls the opposition is winning. The other thing that needs to exist is trust between the players.

Essentially what I am saying is that everyone needs to know to keep things in character, look at things only in character, and trust everyone else to do the same thing. Some GMs can pull this off. Some groups are better suited for it than others. Most though, even if they're really really good groups will have a few places where it's just not perfect and that can make running non-combat conflict a lot harder.

Then again, maybe I'm just doing it wrong. Your thoughts?


  1. Nice post! I love introducing politics in my games, it's not fun if they're not furthering someone else's agenda without knowing it... check out my article on houses of the blooded, a game-of-thronish game, I posted it on

  2. I tend to find player involvement in political intrigue works best when the players act in the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" mold - they don't know 100% (or maybe even 50%) of the bigger events taking place but are affected by the actions they take as part of global intrigue. Then it becomes a puzzle for them to determine the implications of their involvement, even if it seems trivial at the time. ("Wait, delivering that scroll caused this war? Ummmm...")

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