Remember, Remember, The Fifth Of November... Politics & Intrigue in RPGs

Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night - a night full of bonfires and fireworks! What political plots and themes have you included in your tabletop roleplaying games? Plus my three suggestions for intrigue-focused tabletop RPGs.


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Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.


A politically-themed adventure can be great fun. Complex villains, intrigue, plots, and skullduggery all combine into a different type of experience to the more traditional dungeon crawl. Of course, there will almost always be combat, but in a political adventure the combat is not at the forefront of the game. Games like this require a little more player buy-in than some other styles, but the extra effort can be very rewarding.

Some roleplaying games - Green Ronin's Blue Rose and Robin Lawes' Hillfolk spring to mind - embrace such things right from the outset. Other games, including D&D and its variations, may require a little more effort when making a political game fun, but most systems should be able to handle it If you enjoy investigation as part of the overall theme, then the Gumshoe system (which powers games like Ken Hite's Night's Black Agents) is specifically designed to take that ball and run with it.

So here's my list - in alphabetical order - of great games for political or investigative games! What would you add?

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Green Ronin's Blue Rose is a game of "romantic fantasy" - which means it focuses on relationships of all kinds, from political to social to romantic. Written by WotC's Jeremy Crawford, Dawn Elliot, Steve Kenson of Mutants & Masterminds fame, and John Snead back in 2005, the new version uses Green Ronin's Adventure Game Engine.

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Hillfolk, by Robin D. Lawes, and published by Pelgrane Press, uses the Drama System with mechanics which focus heavily on the roleplaying aspect of the game. While the initial focus was an Iron Age setting, it was expanded - via a successful Kickstarter - to cover multiple settings including Hollywood, mad scientists, espionage, Mafia, sci-fi, and more, from a veritable who's-who list of the industry's best designers. "You know those magical game sessions where the dice and rules fall away, and the entire group spontaneously enters a collective zone of pure story and character? DramaSystem’s basic structure reproduces that dynamic on demand."

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Night's Black Agents uses the Gumshoe system. By Ken Hite, this is also published by Pelgrane Press. The Gumshoe system features investigation and plot heavily in its core structure. If you enjoys spies or thrillers, this system is for you. NBA features highly competent operatives battling vampires in a modern setting. The Gumshoe system was created by Robin Laws (Hillfolk) and powers a range of games - Ecoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars - and has as a core concept the idea that you will always find the clues, with the challenge being that of interpreting them.
 
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Russ Morrissey

Comments

Fasckira

Visitor
Currently running A Red and Pleasant Land, its non-stop politics hidden behind a layer of random whimsical moments and jam.

In the most recent session the players have begun a plan to assassinate one of the Red King's Brides and replace her with one of the players so that she may act as a proxy for the Colourless Queen. I am however still generating the background political setting every session thanks to the appropriate table so I really have no idea how their plan is going to pan out in the face of this.
 

Kramodlog

Naked and living in a barrel
One of the most political campaign I've made was set on the Rock of Bral (orbiting in Selûne's Tears), with various factions and individuals involved in competing plots. It was a Sigil set in Fearunian space. The physically weak prince Andru wanted to secure his throne by becoming a vampire. The Imperial Elven Navy wanted the Rock as a base so they let Illithids and dopplegangers pose as a threat only they could stop. A cult of Shar wanted to blow up the moon by assembling the different parts of the Stellar Dragon Orb. The Tenth Pit, under control of Gargauth's clergy, wanted an official state religion for the Rock. An ancient Duergar asteroid forteress arrived at Bral with tones of stellar adamantine to sell to whom ever wanted to buy it. Janns responsable for portal to the plane of Air wanted to asphyxiate Bral if they didn't get some stellar adamantine from Andru, so a new pact with Djinns needed to be negociated. A Tsochar posed as a pregnant woman leading a network of spies in Andru's court. A Reigar waited to loan his amazon army to anyone who would teach him how to turn stellar adamatine into living metal to create a new symbiotic tools.

A bit like Bral, it was a mess of a campaign, but it was fun.
 

Aoirorentsu

Explorer
The 13th Age ruleset around Icons and their warfare is a nice, simple tool for having politics be a source of adventure and plotting in a more traditional high fantasy setting. C.f. (http://www.13thagesrd.com/icons)

Also, Blades in the Dark, currently under development after a wildly successful kickstarter, has faction rules that provide the core of the mission-generation. It feels a lot like a combination of Lies of Locke Lamora and Dishonored, which is to say "fun as all get-out" and also "the kind of intrigue/mystery I want in my tabletop roleplaying game". Not sure there's a website for it yet, but here's the (now-elapsed) kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2080350433/blades-in-the-dark
 
Political and religious revolution are the central themes of my campaign. The city where the campaign takes place is a powderkeg, and I'm just waiting to see if the PCs support or oppose revolution and Terror.
 
The Legends of the Five Rings RPG has the Courtier as a base class, one that hardly (if ever) engages in physical combat. Each of the Clans has their own courtier schools and styles of political influence. I often GM my L5R games in the annual Winter Court, and successful courtier characters often influence the way how battles are fought, magic is cast and how trade is conducted in the Empire.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Any game that doesn't grant the heroes enough power to feel invincible around the extant law-enforcement systems. Any game where mortality is a clear and present concern.

Failing that, there's no need for intrigue, because you can just walk up and kill whoever disagrees with you.
 

Porcupine

Visitor
of course, Vampire is one of the best examples of an RPG about intrique and politics.
It always suffered a bit from a lack of mechanical support for it, though.
I ran a year-long DramaSystem game (that is, the system in Hillfolk) about modern-day vampires and found that it was excellent for all the interpersonal drama and power politics encouraged by V:tM.
 

Koloth

Visitor
All a good political intrigue game takes is buy in from both GM and players. One downside is while the GM and Player 2 are dealing with aspect 3 of plot 4, the rest can become bored unless the GM tasks switches fairly often. This is can often be easier to do in an intrigue game then a combat game. Depending on game system, may need to re-purpose a skill or feat or such. Plus for systems where XP or equiv is primarily combat derived, will have to implement some type of reward system for goals accomplished.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Most of my GM energy is gong into an Ashen Stars game at the moment.

While, as you noted, Gumshoe systems are big on the investigation, my players are a bit more interested in the action-adventurey aspects of sci-fi, making it more a game of space opera than gritty intrigue. But that doesn't mean the game is without politics.

They players are undertaking their action and adventure in the background of a galaxy that seems to be slowly slipping its way towards war. Just last session, they decided that they will preferentially take missions from one of the factions within the morass. We'll see how it turns out.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Vampire: The Masquerade…..especially with the live action rules….is built for political intrigue. The various Clans are analogues for political groupings - Ventrue are establishment, Brujah are anarchs, etc, and the way the mechanics support this is pretty slick.

Amber, also diceless, is a game about politics among super-powered immortals. Character generation is based on competitive auctioning of abilities and the intrigue is largely set up by this.

Paranoia is also a political intrigue game, insofar that players are set up to back-stab each other at every opportunity.
 

pemerton

Legend
I've run political intrigue fantasy games using AD&D (mechanically it brings little to the table for this stuff) and Rolemaster (brings a bit more than AD&D, but a lot of the resolution of the intrigue still ends up being free RP/negotiation among participants).

My 4e game has had moments of political intrigue but it's more about cosmological conflicts.

My current Classic Traveller game has political intrigue, which I think is fairly standard for Traveller. (In mechanical terms it's slightly better suited than Rolemaster.) So does my Burning Wheel game. (And ditto with respect to mechanics.)
 

Jhaelen

Visitor
In Ars Magica the majority of adventures are also about politics and intrigue. Whether it's about dealing with the local nobility, the Church, Faerie courts or other covenants in their Tribunal, you always have to tread carefully and make deals. It's really rare that don't have to think about the ramifications and repercussions caused by your actions. Magi are a suspicious and potentially very dangerous bunch, so they're watched carefully by everyone.
 

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