This is a rerun. It originally ran May 14th, 2008.
One of the hallmarks of my DMing style is the political element. My games tend to focus on character development and overarching story, with combats serving to accentuate those aspects. One of the key fuels for this kind of game are nations, kings, countries and gods all jockeying for position. It is crucial in this style of game to involve the players in the details without overshadowing them. This can be challenging at times: how do you make 1st level characters jockey for importance with high priests? The answer is complicated, but rewarding. I’ve listed some tips below.
1. Figure out the Political Climate: You need to know what exactly the politics ARE before you put the PCs into the thick of it. This seems simple, but it warrants mentioning. Are nation-states gearing up for war? Is an evil force infiltrating the government? These are questions you must answer, both on the nitty-gritty (who are the opposing force and their leaders) and the general (is this a good-evil conflict, shades of grey, and do you care where the PCs fall in the whole affair?) If you’re stumped, pick your favorite period of history and twist it around. I’ve run games that started as the New World Age of Discovery, World War I, World War 2, and filed the serial numbers off.
2. Ween Out Information Slowly: Reasonably, 1st level PCs aren’t going to be a big deal politically, discounting a MacGuffin plot device (prophecy, bastard birth, etc.) This is mostly for the best. Even if you want to work in some background later, it’s best that the PCs get acclimated to the setting first so they understand the import of their actions on the game world. Use standard adventures, but tie politics into them when possible. Maybe an expansionist church hires the PCs to wipe out a goblin warren, and in the next adventure, an isolationist Governor sends the PCs to track down the local thieves’ guild. Use ‘standard’ and ‘stock’ adventures as opportunities to introduce major political players and ideologies.
3. Provide Easy Political Access: Let players jump right in with backgrounds and nationalities that act as shorthand. Don’t penalize a PC for picking a background, but make his background matter in terms of how everyone treats him. If they’re a no-good money-grubbing Imperial, have people make some comments. Maybe a PC’s father is in an officer in the army: have some soldiers recognize his lineage. Don’t let it inhibit them from doing what they want, but thrust the PCs into the politics on a small level.
4. Ramp Up the Politics: So the PCs know about the conflict and they’ve met the major players. It’s time to make things come to a head. The key to success is to have the PCs act as a tipping point: put them in the limelight. Don’t let the politics bog the PCs down, have the PCs push the resolution. If you’re bold, there won’t be a right choice. The PCs will have to choose a side (and may choose different sides!) or you can have them throw in their lots with fantasy mainstays (the races unite against darkness!)
Postscript: Just because 4E is coming up with Points of Light, don’t think this isn’t applicable. Sure, heroic characters are rare, but the PCs could easily be injected into a conflict between the town and its loggers and the elves and its forest. If you can pull off politics, suddenly things that are overlooked in standard D&D can become paramount. It really is great when high level PCs are trying to woo low level guard captains for an upcoming coup, trust me!
The Pain of Campaigning I: Story and Pre-Game Decisions
The Pain of Campaigning II: Starting the Game
The Pain of Campaigning III: The Plot Thickens
The Pain of Campaigning IV: Put a Little Politics In It
The Pain of Campaigning V: Suitable Villains
The Pain of Campaigning VI: Give Your Villains Some Panache!
The Pain of Campaigning VII: The Finale (Part 1: What You Want the Adventure to be)