(Originally posted on my blog: January 12, 2012)
Politics in RPGs (and indeed, in fiction as a whole) are not the same as politics in real life. In fact, I have often said that game politics should be more about throwing chairs than making policy. So, if you’re designing a political system for a game, you need to think less about a functional political system and instead worry about making an interesting one. There are a few things to keep in mind with this.
Avoid Dictators. There’s a reason why the Prince in Vampire: The Masquerade went from the all-powerful elder in First Edition to being a toady largely at the control of a Primogen Council in Revised — dictators are boring on both sides of the equation. Sure, it’s fun for ten minutes to do whatever the hell you want, and there’s some narrative juice you can get from trying to overthrow a heartless bastard to prop up the next idealistic utopia that will ultimately fall to real-world pressures, blah blah blah, but the reality is that playing in that state is binary: you can do nothing or you can do whatever you want. The more people you can spread the power around to, the more interesting your political dynamic will become. (Plus, we have enough dictators in real life.)
Power Needs To Mean Something. On the other hand, “dictator” has to seem like an attractive option. Playing in a town council that only has the authority to change school names or decide on the color of flower arrangements isn’t as exciting as playing a board of organized crime bosses who have the power of life and death. If political power means something, then people will hold on to it harder and work to get more of it, and so will everyone else. This means that those people will constantly clash against each other, which continues to generate entertaining situations. If you’re designing a game, this power has to matter to the mechanics at some level.
There’s Not Quite Enough To Go Around. Part of that meaning has to revolve around resources, and specifically resources that are a little short of being enough for everyone. If there’s a game where all powers require a gem to use and there’s more than enough gems for everyone, there will be liberal sharing. Make the game where there’s enough gems to give to half of the players, and things get interesting. If you’re playing a group of vampires fighting over land, that land has to be small enough that not everyone can have a slice. (And yes, that land has to have a mechanic behind it.)
Politics are Player Vs. Player. I have run heavy political games both with players taking on all the political roles and with NPCs taking up most (or all) of those roles. In general, when the political choices are in the hands of the players, it’s a political game. When they’re in the hands of NPCs, it’s window dressing to a different game. It is certainly possible to have a strong political game where the players are all a coordinated group working against other factions to do something amazing or whatever, but on a basic level it’s no different than fighting a bunch of monsters. There’s a certain dynamic that comes only from players going all-out to screw each other over. The game Diplomacy is pure player vs. player politics, and I have heard more stories of people who won’t speak to each other after playing that game than in any other openly competitive game.
Decide What Politics Means For Your Game. In the end, you have to decide why politics are important.
For most mission-based or adventure-based games, all that matters is that there’s a guy that gives you orders or that you have to overthrow. In that case, prop up a king under whatever name you choose and point the players at him.
If you want a game where politics offers a flavor or spice to your game but isn’t the main thrust, consider a structure where power is divided between a few people or groups. You can define some groups as “bad” and others as “good” or paint them all with a uniform coat of gray, but in the end the players will likely side with one (or form their own faction). The act of picking and choosing a side feels political, but from there the game becomes a slightly more complicated version of “kill the bastard with the crown” again.
If you want a game where politics are the point of the game, you have to give that power to the players, and that power has to have teeth. There have to be reasons to work together as well as be at odds with each other. The right balance is where compromise is the only attractive option because it stops the fighting.