The Pain of Campaigning IV: Put a Little Politics in it

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)


  1. Did this very thing in my first campaign with an ambitious new king taking over for a puppet figurehead…toss in a little suspicion of assassination, a sprinkle of unusually large standing army, blend thoroughly (oh yes, standing armies will blend), and I had me quite the political smoothie…

    Good times…

  2. OriginalSultan says:

    The New World Age of Discovery game was one of the more memorable ones that you ran. The players definitely had a big role to play in the political landscape of that game.

    Which of your games were based on WW1 and WW2?

  3. TheMainEvent says:

    WWI / WW2: I kinda combined them both. The big war in game 2.5 (where the ‘Original Characters’ were around, but spread out doing their own thing… like running kindgoms) was sparked by Bobo the Bullywug King (a 2nd Tier PC w/ a Trident of Fish Command) uniting the Bullywug tribes with a rogue noble and declaring independence after an assassination…. that was WWI.

    The war though was against a monolithic evil undead kingdom and involved uniting the other people’s against their might. WW2ish.

  4. Rauthik says:

    This was a great article. Nice job! I’m now reading the other parts that I somehow missed (instead of doing my work.. you might get a call from my boss, by the way). I’ve only attempted a political campaign once (back in 2nd edition) and it worked out great. Now I’m planning 4e campaigns and you’ve kind of re-opened doors that I had forgotten about. Thanks again and keep this kind of stuff coming!

  5. I am yet to run a game where the players play nobility, but see no reason to start a really political game in any other way.

  6. You really have to pitch it right. In our last game, there were two players who were somewhat interested in the “pick a faction to back” political maneuvering and two players who checked out. J mentioned that she gets plenty of political maneuvering at work, and B often fights to stay awake after a long and draining week.

    Part of the new campaign pitch was that politics would be explicitly skippable… it still moves in the backgrounds, but if the PCs want to skip ahead and get to the next confrontation, that works.

  7. This is some of my favorite stuff, to the point where I’ve had players complain about it!

    Power of Faerun is a great resource for this sort of thing, by the way, even if you’re not playing Realms.

  8. ok. I’ll be that guy who comments on an old post and in the context of other posters who won’t even notice. Fine.

    I want to mention a slightly different perspective.
    That is from the ‘why do PC’s adventure?’ Games that are normally deep enough to get into politics normally have PC’s that are not just adventuring for the sake of adventuring, they are collecting prestige and wealth…and in most societies, that normally starts equating into power.

    This also means figuring out not just the top layer of the politcal cake, but the underpinnings as well. What guilds have power? What power does the military really have? The priesthood? Who is out of power and wants to get in?
    And at the base of this, who uses money to get where? Who does the thieve’s guild pay off? Who runs the docks, who smuggles drugs, who needs weapons, what laws are their to break, who hires assassins, who needs protecting…

    It’s only when you can answer these questions in some way that your PC’s can really fall into the political side of the game.

  9. I’m glad we re-posted this because I’d forgotten a lot of the specifics from the post, and I hadn’t gotten to going back and reading it yet. It’s fun because when the Main Event wrote this we were discussing my preparations for my game, and now my game has been running for a couple of months and we’re just getting to the parts that more directly involve some politics.

    Vreeg: I really like the list of considerations you have there, thanks for sharing! I’ll have to add most of those to my notes and see if I can answer / outline them.

  10. I was thinking of a homebrew that reflects the modern financial crisis… Where the loans and investments in a particular nation have gotten out of hand and the financial system has deteriorated to the point of riots and anarchy. At this point powerful merchant cartels are vying for control for cities and provinces in the country. To further complicate matters leaders in specific provinces of the country have appealed to neighboring demi-human nations for help. In one area the local authorities have given an elven kingdom carte blanche with the elves ruling and controlling the economy in all but name.


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