As a GM, I am constantly trying to push myself to try new things with planning encounters, adventures, and campaigns. Sometimes it works out great (opera house). Sometimes it turns out terrible. But every time I try something new, I feel like I get a little better at running games.
This week I have been working on a FATE political campaign, which has always sounded fun and has never looked easy. The adventures I run are usual story challenges with combat scattered here and there as necessary. Political campaigns add multiple levels of plot complexity, with choices having long-reaching consequences.
In this first brainstorm, we will discuss how to structure a political adventure, what sort of characters we should encourage players to play, and how to make a complicated plot without getting lost in it.
Fair warning. When I want to work out a solution to a problem in my mind, I tend to just keep typing whatever I am thinking so that I can later go back to different thoughts and fine-tune them. It makes a lot of sense to me. Hopefully you can get something out of it, too.
The Heart of Political Adventures: Winning Allies
In a political adventure, NPCs will need goals and desires. They should also be scaled in usefulness, possibly through skill ranks. The Crane method appeals to the goals, aiding NPCs with what they want to do in exchange for help with their own goals. The Scorpion method appeals more to desires, manipulating weaknesses to make people aid their own goals.
So what are some options for persuading people to aid your cause? Find someone with the same goal and convince them to work together with you. Find someone with a similar goal and offer to work on both goals at the same time. Find someone with a long-term goal and convince them that helping you with your goal will allow you to aid them in theirs. Find someone with a goal that has nothing to do with yours and offer an exchange of favors. Find someone with a goal that opposes yours and convince them to abandon that goal. Find someone that desires something you can spare and trade it for aid. Find someone that has a secret and blackmail them into helping. Find someone in your way with a destructive weakness and empower them to give in. Find someone opposing you that depends on a source for their power and take it from them.
4 Stages of a Political Adventure
So what tools can the character use for these purposes? The first part is the conversation. This can be done via message or in person and would require the ability to convince based on sincerity, deception, or suggestion (or a mixture). Sincerity is the art of showing why you are worthy of their trust. Deception involves working against the reasons you should not be trusted. Suggestion is subtle and indirect, making you more appealing to the NPC so that sincerity and deception are easier.
The next part is preparation. The character needs to get things moving. This could involve gathering resources, starting a new encounter with a different NPC, arranging circumstances, or observing. This is the important stage where you prepare for the actions of the next stage, making sure all of the pieces are in place and making minor adjustments to compensate unexpected changes.
The third stage is action. This is where you act on the arrangement made during the conversation. This could mean keeping your end of the bargain, ensuring that the NPC keeps their side of the bargain, or taking action against foreseeable consequences.
The final stage is reaping the results of the negotiation. This should include benefits, consequences, and unexpected surprises. How much of each will depend on how well the previous stages went. Note that the second and third stage may be a bit fluid in their placement depending on the nature of the arrangement. The final stage should not occur until all previous stages are complete. It is not a small sense of accomplishment. This stage is an obvious conclusion. Players have very little ability to make changes at this stage (if any). They have done all they can by now.
Making Capable Characters for a Political Campaign
Every player character should be capable of participating in all four stages, especially stage 1 and 3. A character needs to have a specialty in how they win allies and a general tendency towards one of the three schools of approach. They need to be capable of performing preparation that packs up their specialization in action, and that action needs to have multiple applications. They should be competent at multiple courses of action, at least 3 I should think. Reaping the results should be very simple, as this is more of a GM stage, but the player character should feel like the means justified the ends.
Note that when I say ‘specialization’ what I mean is a dependable method of approach. A player character should have a way to feasibly obtain Epic (+7) results when they really want to, and anything below a Good (+3) result should rarely happen without the character’s control. High skill ranks, aspects (for fate point bonuses) and Stunts all contribute to this. For example, a Superb (+5) skill rank only requires one fate point spent to keep within this range. A stunt that gives a +2 bonus could easily work with a Great (+4) skill to keep it in this range. A pair of aspects, such as a Main and a Trouble, can be used to insure that so long as a player is willing to pay the price any action that matches with a stunt is going to succeed.
Why Can’t Characters Specialize in 1 Stage
There are a number of reasons that players should be able to excel in every stage. Game play would be boring if players only shine at one stage. Party balance would also be an issue if only one specialized in stage 1 and another in stage 3. There would also be very limited dynamics which tends to railroad game play. It is much better for 3 players to have 1 option each for negotiations that it is for one player to have even 5 options.
Theoretically there could be a stage 0 – finding an NPC that you want to work with. Most likely this is handled by the GM or at most would require a single skill check early in a campaign. As the game progresses, however, the players will interact with many NPCs and odds are that they will request adventures involving these NPCs to further their own goals.
Let’s take a step back and look at specialization in more detail. Why is multiple specialization important for each character in a political campaign? Because if a player can only cover 1 or 2 stages, then they are completely dependent on someone else in another stage, and that is political suicide. Players ALWAYS need to have an option, even if it is one with heavy consequences. Choice makes all the difference. Killing a player character does not make a player happy. A player character allowed to die for something makes a player happy. There are really no exceptions to this rule. Clever player characters may think they have some solutions, but they will at best only work until someone actually tries to oppose them.
For example, say someone decides to only specialize in resources. They have aspects reflecting wealth and supplies, their skill is at Superb (+5), and they have multiple stunts giving them bonuses for spending money and acquiring items. They could argue that they will use their wealth to bribe anyone with direct cash or items to do what they want, whether that is NPCs in negotiation of step 1 or carrying out plans in step 3. So long as they can control other people, it should make sense that those other people could cover any other skill they are lacking in, right? Wrong.
The example has some obvious problems. First of all, this could get very boring (a stage 3 of obtaining documents becomes a check to buy them or pay someone to steal them). Second, there are people that do not care about money and thus will be swayed by NPCs with other skills. Third, people that are bought can be bought for higher prices (or become greedy and turn on their employee for more money). The player character has no way to deal with this treachery. This leaves the GM with 2 choices: limit NPCs to allow the player character to do their thing, or allow the character to be ruined when they face one of MANY possibilities that they cannot deal with.
The example above works with any specialization designed to have the player character get others to do their work for them. No matter how charming a character, some people can be bought to turn against them. No matter how strong the blackmail, NPC’s can become self destructive (and bring others down). And there is always someone out there with a bigger army, or else you would be ruling the empire already.
For argument’s sake, let’s look at someone that would rather specialize in the third stage. They want to be the best at getting a certain type of job done. Combat is a common choice, so let’s assume they want to fight their way through everything. Again, same problems as above. Even if they are the best duelist, how do they ensure that the people they want things from are the ones trying to make deals with them? And what about missions that require stealth, resources, or any sort of finesse? The player character has to become a bully or the GM has to set them up for failure.
Even if a group fills gaps, players are going to be excluded if they cannot participate in each stage. You do NOT want this in a political campaign. Players are going to have enough down time taking turns. And you never know when one stage is going to be vastly time consuming or over after one roll. Players should have an invested interest in every part of the story that you are playing out.
Too Many Specializations
So why 2 specializations? Why not 3 or 4 or 5? Well if you are going to let the characters succeed at everything they want to, then just do away with the dice and fate points all together. With 2 specializations, there is exponentially more flexibility. A character with plenty of money and high combat skills can enforce purchased loyalty, afford risky gambles in duels, and win people over by protecting them AND buying things like food for their family. There are still plenty of weak spots even after other skills make other moves possible, but the GM can safely exploit those without making the player or the campaign suffer.
Aspects and Skills have a good relationship. Skills are often fairly broad and interpretive, especially the good ones. Aspects give a deeper level to what the skills truly are. The Shoot skill, for example, could apply to archery, guns, or slingshots. Mechanically they all mean the same thing, but an aspect like Prodigy Elven Archer or Rocket Gun Bunny leaves very little doubt as to what the skill looks like in action. They also truly do define what the skill can do. You can’t evoke Rocket Gun Bunny to attempt to pin a target to a wall with your Shoot skill, but you could with Prodigy Elven Archer because it makes sense.
Making Things Complicated
Now for the tricky part. Political campaigns are supposed to be complex, but that can lead to a lot of overcomplicated and unnecessary work for the GM. More importantly an overcomplicated game, especially in the early stages, will confuse and likely frustrate a lot of players. What you REALLY want for a political campaign is a game that grows in complexity with the party.
One method of doing this is overlapping quests. Starting new quests while you are on the second or third step of another quest will quickly make things feel complicated, but the planning is only a little longer than planning two separate adventures. Expand that through 10 adventures and you will have to check your notes to keep track of progress: a sure sign of a complicated plot.
Let’s look at an example. The party wants a voice on the senior council, so they decide to secure a recommendation from another member of the council. After putting some feelers out at a ball, they find a member that collects relics from the last age. In stage 2, they find someone who is willing to part with an artifact if they shame his enemy, thus beginning another quest. They catch the enemy in bed with another man’s wife, so they use this to force the enemy to retire early, which they agree to so long as all evidence is given to him (quest 3). The conclusion of this leads to the conclusions of the other 2 quests, but also leaves a 4th possible quest: the blackmail of the woman involved in the affair for her support.
Another method is consequence aspects. This method takes something interesting that a character did during a quest and using it to justify a response later in the game. Examples of this would include an army of goblins coming for revenge for the raiding party your group killed or the colonel refusing to give the party aid after one of the characters slept with his wife. These are more natural to a GM, as we tend to enjoy punishing and rewarding players for creativity anyway.
This method also works well for the FATE system because of the existence of aspects. You can simply tag an aspect onto an NPC in your notes, such as “PC’s Had My Nephew Assassinated” or “I Know They Have the Pearl of Time” and then you can forget about it until that NPC comes up later. They will act with that aspect influencing them, which means the party is genuinely shaping the world with their actions. This also makes it easier to keep track of what the relationships are between each NPC and the party.
This is as far as I have gotten so far. Let me know if you have ever run a successful political campaign, especially with the FATE Core system. Questions and comments are much appreciated!