You Win Or You Die: Political Games and You
I’ll be completely honest – in my opinion, Game of Thrones is not a very good TV show. That doesn’t stop me from watching it (doing my best to avoid the constant misogyny and racism). The only actually enjoyable part of Game of Thrones is the political intrigue and power plays. Because boy are those a lot of fun! Watching people scheme against one another and forge (and break) powerful alliances in the name of their aspirations and deep-set character desires is great! Getting to be a mover and shaker in a situation like that one is an amazing example of meaningful choice – your actions have direct consequences for the entire world. Sometimes at Wayfinder we try to capture the experience of that situation in what we call “Political Games”. We’re not the only people to try that out – obviously other LARPs enjoy political settings, and you could easily argue that Model UN and Model Congress are perfect examples of political games (just without the roleplay). But, in my experience, it’s incredibly hard to write a good political game. In order to understand why, and how we can do better, we should take a look at what exactly a political game is and what it needs.
Tell me about it!
When I visualize a political game, I imagine something like the third game of Legendary Camp 2011. In it, representatives from across the known world gathered to petition the representatives of the gods in order to achieve their agendas and manipulate their future. There was a huge map with soldiers on it, political intrigue, assassination attempts, and drama. It determined the very fate of the world (which was the shared setting for the rest of the camp and for the Finale of that year). A small group of bureaucrats became dictators through careful use of council legislation, and silkworm farmers from the far north helped save the world. Now, a visualization is nice and all, but we can’t go around categorizing a game as political or not without some kind of definition. For the purposes of this article, I will define a political game as the following:
A game in which individuals or small groups have very direct goals (free your people from slavery, shut down your enemy’s factories, get your plan to save the world approved by the UN) These goals cannot be achieved by action and quest-taking – they require social interaction, negotiation, and scheming. (You can’t save your people from the slavers without the permission of the Emperor)
There is no external enemy interrupting the negotiation process. People are free to argue in peace, and while there might be pressure from outside (negotiators hide in a bunker, etc.) ultimately, this doesn’t stop the arguments.
That’s cool, and simple too! However, you might be able to see some flaws in this structure. First and foremost, not everyone enjoys arguing. A lot of our players are here to fight with swords, have emotional moments, or, y’know, do things. If a game is purely political, with no room for anything else, it’s going to miss the mark for almost everyone. That’s a big problem. Also, another issue is that most people either lack the personal initiative or the in-character ability to make a ton of meaningful change. Anyone can swing a sword or cast a spell, but not everyone feels comfortable with public speaking or backroom deals. In any political game, there will be people with more status and charisma than others. If you lack both of those things, you’re not going to get much done. The final issue, which isn’t universally true but is overwhelmingly common, is that nothing actually means anything. In Game of Thrones, the characters care about the fate of Westeros because they’re the fools living there. In a political game, once the game is over, none of it mattered. There’s no rewards for becoming king (besides bragging rights) and no one is going to be blown away that you shut down your competitor’s factory. It’s really hard to become invested in something when it doesn’t really matter to you (even if it matters to your character).
Yikes! Those are some pretty tough hurdles to overcome. However, I love political games so much, that I want to find some solutions. So first off, I’m going to talk about what’s needed to make a good political game. Then, I’m going to talk about what you need for a great political game, that will get everyone involved.
The fundamentally most necessary thing for a political game is stuff. Information, secrets, rumors, factoids, legal documents, the whole nine yards. This creates an immersive environment, as people now have tools they can fall back on to prove their points and engage in intrigue. In most games, we enjoy being able to make things up as we go along (improv!) but in political games, it’s good to have a framework that gives people a solid benchmark for reality. It’s best if this stuff can have a physical form in game – people can’t hold all the information they need in their heads at once. Writing all of this stuff is a lot of work, however. If you’re comfortable with that (like me) you’ll do strong, but if you’re not, you’re going to need another solution. That’s okay! I bet you can come up with a lot of creative solutions that will all accomplish the same thing – giving people tools in game that they can use to feel like the setting around them is real and that their actions will have meaningful impact.
Another good tool is to have a mediator, someone who can help keep game flowing smoothly. In most games, this role is filled by PC leaders. But in political games, PC leaders often have their own goals and intentions that run counter to being a good PC leader. For example, a PC leader in a political game wants their faction to win, for their own goals to succeed, and for their enemies to be crushed. This means that they can’t step in and encourage someone on the enemy team to speak up, and if they’re the best at debating on their team, why wouldn’t they just take center stage at all times? A mediator fulfills the functions of a PC leader – facilitating player empowerment, ensuring the game goes according to plan – while also keeping the playing field level and ensuring that the mechanics of the game still work. This mediator can be anyone – an emperor, the executor of a will, the commander of the military guiding the figures on the map – but in my opinion is an essential figure.
Another option is to build into the very mechanics of the game ways for every player to be involved. This could be how the political mechanisms work – there’s a senate who vote on issues and events cannot transpire without majority approval, for example – or it could be based on classes and magic. If every team has a unique way of approaching a problem, then they can feel special and involved even though they’re all doing similar things. I remember in one Frontier, I was the leader of a team of aliens who were covered in eyes. We had the special power that we could communicate with one another without other people hearing, and we’d do that constantly, discussing our plans and coming to a consensus together, which helped us feel like the agrarian populists we were. You should tailor the magic system of your game to fit with what a political game needs (something that is very, very different from what a normal adventure game requires!)
The fourth part of a good political game is very challenging, but solves one of the biggest problems a political game faces – having things to do in the game that isn’t just politicking. There’s a lot of ways to do this. You can give the characters intense emotional connections that move past the politics, or you could disrupt the politics with monsters, forcing the players to stand up and defend themselves. You could also have a game be non-political with political elements, where there’s a small group of people flowed to argue about politics in a room while everyone else runs around and plays a normal game. I don’t really know of a way to do this that both keeps the political game feeling secure without feeling a little ham-fisted, but finding a solution to how to do this will help the political game function.
These are vital and cool things for a political game to have, and I would consider them baseline pieces of advice. Having all of these things will help ensure your game goes as smoothly as possible and are tried-and-true methods for keeping your game involved. However, all of these notes, while important, don’t actually solve the problems inherent in a political game. I’m going to propose some of my solutions, and touch on the question brought up by the previous paragraph – how do you make politics play nice with the rest of a game?
Consequences and “Mafioso Politics”
The first and biggest thing you can add to your political games to make them meaningful is consequences. This is especially easy in serial games – the actions of one game directly influence the outcome of the next game, and that means your choices really matter! You want to protect your people, because you know that if you don’t, they could be wiped off the face of the world. This is harder in a game that’s on its own, but there are solutions. One way I could imagine is that anyone who fails at becoming emperor are executed – you want to be emperor so you don’t die! Another way could be as simple as having a map in-game, and when places are wiped off the map, they are physically erased. Giving something as simple as a physical or event-based indicator of your choices doing things helps ground them in reality, and make it feel meaningful.
Another solution, which is honestly it’s own kind of game entirely, is what I call “Mafioso Politics”. In a mafioso political game, small groups have distinct goals which can mainly be achieved by negotiation, but! They all have knives. Something simple like that suddenly adds a new tone to the politics. You want to work together, because otherwise you’ll be stabbed! And vice versa, you have a sudden and powerful tool to get what you want if you need to, by stabbing your enemy. I’ve run two mafioso political games, both at Frontiers (although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I run one at an Advanced camp), Partition City and Monsoon City, it’s spiritual successor. Both games were, at their core, political games, but they were also set at a market with plenty of other things happening, and disagreements were settled with knives and violence in addition to words and subtle discussions. Perhaps the strongest thing Partition City did to pull its weight as a political game was the use of rumors. Everyone had 3-5 rumors about their character as their character sheet, and they had full liberty to choose which rumors were true and by how much. Other characters could buy rumors as part of the point-buy system, and then use those rumors in-game. A couple of players spent the whole game trying to collect as many rumors as possible, and use them against people. This was a cool way for politics to be relevant and play a role, without feeling like people had to sit around a table and argue.
These are obviously just a couple of solutions to the political game problem. If you’re going to write a political game, you need to seriously think about the problems I’ve outlined, but once you think you’ve conquered them, your game is going to be amazing. Now that we’ve gone over what a political game is, some of the problems with a political game, and some of the solutions, we can talk about something which a number of people requested – flow! How do you write the flow for a political game?
The Flow of Politics
Even though political games tend to have very loose flow, understanding how that flow fits together will make your political games shine. If your game only has minor political elements, it should still make use of this simple structure to make sure things stay interesting for the political aspects. This flow has a simple structure, and it’s easy to add other parts to it in order to make it function better. I’m not quite sure what diamond flow would look like for a political game, but integrating those two structures could work really well! I could also imagine including a “final battle” or something similar.
The political game begins with Act 1: the Introduction. In the introduction, everyone meets each other, hands are shaken, and the basic structure of the game is established. It’s always important to have time for this, so people can understand how the game ticks and get comfortable with the structure. If you imagine playing a political game to be like playing a board game, you’re going to want people to be familiar with the rules and be used to it before the exciting things happen!
The next act is Act 2: the Twist(s)! Even though I compared playing a political game to being like playing a board game earlier, the reality is that you don’t want to be “just” playing a game – you want excitement! Intrigue! Everything fun! In light of that, something really weird should happen about halfway through game. Maybe the king dies, or one of the leading political figures reveals themself to be an alien, or maybe a barbarian horde invades – whatever it is, it should change the landscape of the politics without putting an end to the politics themselves. One twist can often be enough for a smaller game, but a bigger game can always benefit from more and more complex twists. Just make sure they’re staggered carefully – having too many twists at once will lead to information overload.
The final act is Act 3: the Conclusion. Players should be aware that the end of the game is fast approaching, and be able to act with that knowledge. The new king is crowned, the UN implements a plan, the space constitution is written. Game reaches a satisfactory ending, and people are able to understand whether their schemes have failed or succeeded. It is vital that, despite all the conflict and disagreement over the course of the game that has occurred, there is still something that wraps it up. People need and want a satisfying conclusion, and it’s important that your political game is able to provide that.
There are two forces acting within a political game, defining the tension of the flow. On one hand, you want your political game to be like a board game (as established in act 1), with consistent rules that people can understand and take advantage of in order to “win”. On the other hand, you want the game to have room for change and excitement, and not to become dull and repetitive. Striking this balance is one of the most fun parts of writing a political game, as you establish how people can have fun as characters but also as players. The fact that we call them adventure “games” underlines how important it is for the game to have fun built into the mechanics of the game. In political games, this is more important than in any other form of game. Gives you something to think about!
And Now the Rains Weep O’er his Hall
Well that’s it everyone! I hope this article was able to inspire you with your next big endeavor, and even if you’re not writing a political game, that it was able to teach you a fair bit about what games need to be functional and fun for everyone. Political games are my favorite kind of game to be a PC in, and it’s a real shame that we’ve stopped writing them as often as we used to. I hope this article can inspire you to find the Tyrion Lannister inside of you, and get ready to play the most dangerous game.
Written by Jay Dragon
Posted on 1/23/18