My L5R game has ventured into the realm of politics as the PCs, now big damn heroes for standing the line against a large shadowlands army, are being used to recruit more troops into the Imperial Legion. Now, while going to the Legion is an honor and every clan is happy to sere, the numbers the Legion are looking for are where the problem comes in. It's one thing, after all, to give sixty men to help bolster the legion and do one's part, it is another thing entirely to hand over several hundred - or several thousand - men and weaken your own armies for the coming summer.
However, while I've had in my head that this session would be the first big "political battle", I'm not sure how well that is conveyed and it has me thinking on the differences between politics and combat when it comes to set piece events.
Mass Battle vs. A big Court Event
If I were to say that next session we were going to do the big battle scene where the Imperial Legion pits off against the Shadowlands no one would have a problem seeing that this is a big event, a momentous occasion, and effectively a large set piece in the campaign. On the other hand, if I were to say that next session we were going to handle a large party at the Lion embassy where you will be introduced to the court...it doesn't sound as big, now does it?
Both are momentously important, but in one the stakes and the scale are so much evidently higher. Win and you save the day, fight back the darkness, and probably live. Lose, and among other things you die. In court? What is winning? What is losing? Is it losing if you don't win everyone over immediately? What if you make some enemies but also some allies? The lines are a lot more blurry in court, and in general it is a lot more of a long con. This is the first obstacle that has to be overcome to make it work.
Swords Are Neat. People Are Messy
Ultimately, while a sword makes a huge mess it is quite clear on the outcome. One person is dead, one person is still alive, and that is where things go. Court and politics are messier. Sure, sometimes people get destroyed. Court is one of the fastest ways in L5R to die in such a way that you also lose all honor and glory, but winning is a lot harder too.
People are complicated and prone to doing things slower than steel does. A meeting good bear fruit this session, but could also lead to a betrayal down the line or utter defeat in three months. At the same time, things are more subtle and need to be shown to the players so they know what is going on. This is the second obstacle.
How I'm Tackling It
I'm tackling these two things in more or less the same way, and that is with mechanics talk so to speak. I have been, while we dip our toes in political water, flat out saying what is going on "outside" of the conversation. For example, in a recent meeting with the Crane emissary's Karo, I handled a conversation with a couple courtier checks and then spoke plainly. I explained how the PC managed to negotiate for what they wanted, and what the Crane wanted in return. I then - based on the PCs roll - explained what the crane got out of their end, why they would want it, and some of the things they could do with it.
Why did I do this? Because I'm not a politician. I am not a master of rhetoric, nor are my players, and nor should I expect them to be. In a political game negotiations and deals are every bit as important to life and death as combat is, so why should I handicap my players by what they can say and what they can perceive? Especially when the failure to perceive could actually be my failure to project.
So far it is working, and I am seeing the way court works unfolding before my players in a way that I like. They're thinking more about what they have to offer, what they want, and who to go and get it from. I am openly pointing out where pitfalls could lie (short answer: everywhere, seriously, everywhere) and they in turn are beginning to approach some of the conversations with the same preparation that they approach combat. Frankly, I like it, and I hope I can get it to grow.
However, this coming session still has me nervous...
People Are Jerks And Everyone Wants Something...
My players are in the position they're in because they did well. The promotion in rank, the duties assigned, and the resources given were a reward. The Legion had to cover it with a mission so they chose recruitment, but a lot of it was also to get them off the front line and some R&R. However, in doing this session they are going to come across some people who are in the opposition and not all the PCs are really capable of defending themselves as need be. For this I am stacking things in their favor, but some of what is going to come up may come across as callous and cruel.
The highest ranking PC being called on their quick promotions with implications that perhaps they got the promotion because they managed to get people who were political rivals to their superior killed. The Unicorn about the death of their horse. The Dragon on the loss of a friend.
These are all points of pain for the players that were suffered for rewards, and in court those things can be turned on them. In court those things have to be turned on them, and the story needs me to do it. The problem is finding the line between acceptable and actually pulling them down too far.
With any other group I'd probably err more on the side of caution, but this group deserves me going all out for it. If I pull it off, it could be one of the best sessions we've had yet. If I fail...well, we'll see.
Go big or go home, right?