Monday, August 10, 2015

Bringing Action Oriented Politics into your Campaign

As you have probably seen from this blog - I like getting the player characters involved in the politics of the region. But there are a lot of campaigns out there where this likely seems either boring or too difficult. Let me see if I can convince you otherwise.

First off, why politics? The honest answer is that after game mastering for the same crew for decades, I ran out of ideas for traps. Remember all those fun ticks and traps that you would find in dungeons and you needed to figure out? Well my players love those, but they know me too well. I just couldn’t surprise them anymore. So I looked for something that would get their brains working without a dungeon. I tried a bunch of things, but the two that worked best were: Putting them in situations I had no idea how they could get out of and politics.

Politics can add that level of intrigue, suspense and surprise that you probably can’t get from folks who have been playing FRPGs for more than a couple of years. Let’s face it; after you get good at these games, it is no longer all that interesting to open a dungeon door just to see what is on the other side. By putting politics in, you can surprise them and make them think, and surprises in RPGs are usually pretty cool.

So what do you do? Let’s do what I think is the easiest way to introduce it: I call it, the Little Mermaid Gambit. You remember that movie, right? Forget the source material, we’re thinking mainly about the movie. Princess falls in love and because she is forbidden to marry her love, she risks everything: her life, her father’s life, the kingdom, etc. Even non-feminist women seem to hate the idea that a stupid girl gets herself in trouble only to have boyfriend pull her out after she basically killed her father. How does that play in a FRPG?

It plays perfectly. In politics, it is often about motives and secret motives. Let’s turn this gambit into an adventure: The party has a reputation as guys who can get things done, possibly get things done quietly. They are called to the palace and meet with one of the king’s advisors. It seems that the princess has gone missing. The advisor wants to pay the party to “rescue” the princess without alerting every peasant in the kingdom to the fact that she’s gone. You see the princess is beautiful, just about marrying age, and loved by the people (even if she is a little bubbleheaded). Odd thing is, and the PCs may not pick up on this, the advisor seems to know a lot about where she is.

So the party goes off to retrieve the princess. They probably encounter a few things along the way, just to make them think this is a “normal” adventure. I think we say she’s at some rural cabin, and there are some wilderness encounters along the way. So they get to the cabin and assault it. Inside is a hunter who immediately surrenders. Let’s hope the party accepts his surrender and doesn’t just murder him, but that might depend on your players and the kind of games they’ve played. So they question the hunter and though he admits that he and the princess are in love and have been trying to find a way to run away together, she didn’t show up. She was supposed to come to the cabin the night she disappeared.

So now they have a mystery on their hands. If they need to track, the hunter can probably help with that. You might want to distract them by making them kill a band of bandits that the hunter thinks may have intercepted her. But they need to get back to the palace and talk to that advisor. The advisor knew all about the hunter and assumed the party was just going out to retrieve the princess from her secret boyfriend. Problem is, many people in the palace knew about the boyfriend, and several of them knew she was planning to run off with him. What really happened was {feel free to go any direction you want here} the king’s younger brother/uncle/whatever actually had his goons kidnap the girl, knowing that the hunter would be blamed. He is holding her in a secret part of the palace. The king agreed to marry the princess off to a neighboring prince, thus instigating her desire to flee. Now the king is going to have a huge diplomatic issue on his hands if he cannot produce his daughter when the foreigners come for the big announcement. Meanwhile the evil guy is planning on holding the princess until his nephew/brother looks stupid, then “rescuing” her and giving her to the foreign delegation. This will make him look great and the true king look like an idiot. It will also make the foreigners (who are probably far more powerful than this kingdom) see him as the true power in the kingdom. This is probably just the first step towards the bad guy making an idiot of the king and eventually taking his place.

So what’s different here? The PCs need to start accomplishing tasks without killing people. Killing the main bad guy will be unacceptable, no matter what his crimes are, because he is of royal blood and in some way in line for the throne, though he might be third to sixth in line. Killing the foreign delegation will also be unacceptable - it would lead to war. So no matter what the players may want, they cannot kill some of these folks - at least not and keep their heads. They also need to talk to people in order to learn things. Remember all those spells they didn’t bother to take like charm? Yeah - now they need them. Who’s the bad guy? Even if they figure out where the princess is and rescue her, the bad prince has kept himself distant enough from them that he may not be implicated, so they may fight his hired hands but they never figure out who Mr. Big is. Of course, he’s still actively trying to discredit the king, so more stuff will happen (more missions), which the king will want the party to do because they were so good at this one.

This is actually an overly simplistic write-up. There won’t just be good guys and bad guys. The king’s bodyguard(s) may be good guys who want to protect the king and princess but they might hate the party for showing them up, or just for being riffraff off the streets who shouldn’t be trusted to carry weapons so close to the king. The king’s wife might have been given to him as an alliance prize, and she has her own agenda. She may only be the crying mother while her daughter is missing, but once she’s safe, her true desire to subvert this kingdom under her father’s rule might surface. Who’s the heir? What does she want? What about the lesser nobles? Are they looking to get some pressure on the king to lower their taxes? How far will they go?

I really hope something here jogs something in your brain. Most of what I have been running for some time now works similarly to this. Really not able to come up with any plot lines? Think about Batman - The World’s Greatest Detective. No, not that Joel Schumacher crap, some of the good stories. The more of these you run, the more characters you will be creating for your game world, because unlike dragons at the end of dungeon romps, these guys tend to stay alive. For anyone who has been playing RPGs for more than four years, you’ll make the old new again.

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