It’s the middle of summer of an election year, which means we Americans are about as sick of hearing about politics as human beings have a capacity for being. Despite this, I’ve chosen now to write about politics in your tabletop campaign, because apparently I hate fun.
Unlike in real life, I absolutely adore political intrigue in games when it’s done right, most especially when it isn’t the core thrust of the game, but just delicious icing slathered liberally on top of an otherwise straightforward plot.
“Politics” is a dirty word in a lot of contexts for a very good reason – it often involves a lot of complicated dealing, murky alliances, broken promises, and most importantly, a lot of words with no immediate action behind them. It’s easy to see why it leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.
But political intrigue in a game can also give a tangible face to the larger forces at play in your game world – a face that the PCs may have the opportunity to punch, if they’re so inclined (and they very often are). “Politics” here becomes an avatar for the background radiation of societal inertia that often seems too ingrained or too slippery to have any real impact on. It takes those vague, frustrating problems and turns them into something concrete that can, at least in part, be solved.
Politics in this sense hint at a great societal wheel that has been turning before the PCs got involved and will continue turning after they’re done, no matter how epic they might otherwise be. It’s something most players are vaguely aware of anyway, but by giving it a name and a face and a shape, you give them the chance to at least tinker with those larger cultural leylines while they go about the more specific, more guided plot of the game itself.
Say your main plot is to have the PCs save Coastal City from the evil Doctor Faraday and his electric nets. Great! But while they’re wrestling with his patented Cathodemons, they uncover that the city is also suffering a terrible housing crisis, and the mayor is using Faraday’s rampage to distract from the fact that he’s been drawing kickbacks from the companies largely responsible for said crisis.
The PCs can choose to ignore it – the mayor isn’t in league with Doctor Faraday, merely profiting from it – but they also have the chance to do more than just stop one lone supervillain. They can expose the mayor’s corrupt connections along the way, or use some of the devices recovered from the evil Faraday to help the city’s citizen’s in need and remove the weakness the mayor is trying to exploit.
Without that element, your players still stop a supervillain, but the victory may feel more like a return to the status quo than an improvement for the people of the city. Giving those players who want one a chance to make a more personal, more real impact to the area will often have much more emotional impact than socking a guy wearing a lightning-bolt unitard.
The Coastal City mayor is the most blatant use of “politics” in a game, but remember that it’s a fair broader concept, and the source of the issue may not always be an evil person or group. Politics can stem from cultural clashes, resource crises, haves and have-nots, etc. The elements of a good political thread in any game typically carry the following traits:
- the issue impacts a populace, but rarely the whole populace (a neighborhood, the poor, half-orcs, etc.)
- the issue predates the PCs’ impact on the region, and seems likely to continue in one form or another after they leave
- the issue is a present threat, but typically not a mortal one and not so immediate that it interrupts the main plot
- the issue can’t be solved simply by taking one person or group out of the equation (remove the mayor, the company he was working with will still bulldoze the neighborhood)
- the issue isn’t so big that it can’t make a noticeable dent in it, even if they can’t solve it completely or immediately
- the issue isn’t the core thrust of the campaign, although it should run parallel to it so that it’s not completely unrelated
Following those guidelines, you can introduce poignant issues into any segment of a campaign and leave them for those players who have an interest in them to follow up on. Because the issue isn’t the real bad guy of the game, it also gives your players the power to ignore it and just play a simple hack-and-slash if they’re in the mood to – they can always change their minds and pick those threads up later, the whole point is that these are the sort of problems that won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
For some players, this will be plenty. For others, you may have to make it more personal. Have NPCs (good and bad) give hot takes on the issue in the midst of other discussions or exposition. Make NPCs the players seem to like be especially impacted by the issue, or care deeply about it – either should help motivate the players to tug on a few of those additional threads and see what they can pull apart.
And it’s always nice to have them pulling things apart on purpose for a change.