Dungeons & Dragons-like games are carried by their combat systems, which have a very distinct way of creating tension and presenting constrained choices within a system to try to resolve that tension in your favor. In the 1970s, D&D built on decades of wargame experience, and today’s games have built on decades more of experience fine-tuning the mechanical apparatus of combat. Where D&D and TTRPGs in general have struggled is everything outside of combat, which lacks that focus and tangibility: players are usually left to either talk or roll dice at things until it resolves itself or turns into a combat scenario. Today, I want to talk about politics & intrigue.
One of the event-based adventure types listed in the 5e DMG is Intrigue, and it describes a couple of options for the premise of an intrigue and whether there may be no villain or multiple villains, and suggests tracking influence with each faction or even each individual somehow. That’s a start, but it’s quite far from enough to understand the apparatus that supports an engaging intrigue. Just as a battle has well-defined parameters of what is possible and how likely things are to work (even if there is a significant amount of room for creative choices and rulings), a grander intrigue needs those same structures. Instead of jumping immediately to abstract game structures like faction points and tension levels and so on, I find this is one area where thinking of the in-universe mechanisms at work is the best starting point.
While “intrigue” refers to the fascinating or mysterious quality of the scenario, the actual substance of the intrigue is usually politics: the contest for power within a social system of some kind. When you want to go full Game of Thrones with the greatest power in the local world up for grabs and want to create the tension and present constrained choices within a system to try to resolve it in one side’s favor, you need to flesh out the full context significantly, so that players can at least somewhat accurately predict the consequences of their actions and be agents in the political world.
The political intrigue plots that are the spine of e.g. GoT hinge on manipulation and power plays, whether those are in personal relationships, political affairs, or war. The tropes here are the naked accumulation, manipulation, and exercise of power, which tends to overshadow the exploration of other themes.
So, for a game to feel like that, you have to 1) have individuals that run factions with certain power, circumstances or relationships, and goals, and then 2) have them go about growing, manipulating, and exercising their power. So let’s talk about power real fast.
Sources of Power
United States National Strategy recognizes four primary kinds of national power: diplomacy, information, military, and economy. You can add or subtract from that to suit your particular needs, but I think it’s a good place to start. These all affect each other, too, e.g. “Diplomacy” here includes your faction’s ability to convince others of your proposals, based on loyalty, shared values, cashing in owed favors, sweetening the deal with side offers, and/or promising/threatening consequences. Much of that depends on information, military, or economic advantage.
How do you increase or decrease these sources of power?
Diplomatic capacity is usually built by doing it: by meeting with the other faction, making what deals you can, influencing the other side’s rank-and-file to trust you, even simply by giving gifts and honor to the other factions/individuals (especially in any Asian-flavored society). Of course, the more military, informational, or economic power you have, the wider and deeper the topics you can deal on. You lose diplomatic power by neglect; when you fail to live up to your side of a bargain (even for good reason), when you make better deals with other groups, when you simply fail to meet face-to-face with the other faction’s leaders, etc., then their loyalty turns to suspicion. Diplomacy is a relationship, and like all relationships, it needs time, energy, commitment, etc.
Information capacity can come in the form of intelligence or propaganda. The better you know your competitor factions’ capabilities, weaknesses, and desires, the better you can manipulate them. Propaganda is your ability to communicate a favorable perspective to both your own faction and to others, to create fertile ground for diplomatic or other efforts. You have to have a presence in or around both your own faction’s rank-and-file as well as that of other factions, both to observe and understand, but also to influence via propaganda. Likewise, information power decreases when you are blind and dumb, so to speak; when your ability to observe or to influence others is restrained. The speed at which you can pass this information is also critical; the difference between a teleportation circle and the pony express could mean a lot.
Military power is pretty straightforward: the numbers, training, quality of arms and armament, location, and mobility are the factors that matter. The bigger your army, the more experienced, the better equipped, the closer to strategic locations, and the faster they can respond or act, the more military power you have. The less, the weaker. Monsters that fight for/against you go here, too: a single Dragon can negotiate for quite a bit just on raw hard power.
Economic power is a combination of resources, technologies, and institutions which enable production and trade. The more abundant your resources, the more developed your technology, and the more stable and efficient your market institutions, the more economic power you will be able to deliver. Inefficient or unstable institutions, technological shortfalls, or lack of resources all limit your ability to interact via the economy. Credit and debt are important resources to consider, too.
Playing for Keeps
Now figure out your factions’ organization, relationships, liabilities, and desires. Who is in charge of the power it possesses? What do they still need to accomplish their goals? How are they best equipped to get what they need? Who or what are they dependent on or otherwise tied to? How is the faction internally organized? How much power over the organization do the various leaders and advisers have? What do they want out of all of this? Are they set up to get that, or are they still politicking to get where they really want? Who is loyal to whom? Who mistrusts whom? Who loves whom?
Some factions are going to rely on hard military power, so in order to oppose them militarily weaker factions might try to employ propaganda to disrupt the troops or blackmail senior leaders (an information power play). Maybe the military faction is reliant on a creditor for money to pay its troops; could a third faction offer the creditor something in exchange for cutting off the military faction’s funds (a diplomatic/economic power play)? Perhaps you can find or invent someone with a compelling claim to the throne and cause an internal political division (information/diplomacy)?
Then there’s manipulating the individuals: using your own power, what can you influence the advisers with? Money? Vengeance? Lust? Secrets? The idea that their leader is a traitor to the cause?
The name of the game is finding weak points and using them to disrupt the power of your enemies while simultaneously increasing your power and setting yourself up to reach your objectives. The other factions should be feeling out and springing on the party’s weak points a good amount, too. That means your PCs have to care about their goals and the NPCs that are probably helping them, so that when they are threatened or turned away from the PCs, you catch some of that emotional punch.
To Sum Up
What the finished product will look like is a web of factions, individuals, their power, their goals, and what stands in their way. From that point, the ripple effects of any action on the web should be relatively easy to figure out: simply rotate through any factions/individuals who it might impact and answer two questions: When (if at all) do they find out about the action? What will they do/change in response?
The core things you need are sources of power and fleshed-out NPCs in control of them, with relationships, weaknesses, and goals. From there it’s just a matter of the PCs getting engaged in the struggle, then giving them sources of power and NPCs of their own. Then play ruthless power politics.
The Road Ahead
For many scenarios you could conceivably keep track of all these relationships manually with enough notes. But in many instances, it may be useful to abstract some of the relationships. In a future article, I will look at what kind of tools you can use to create a short-hand for political relationships, and discuss whether and in what ways players can engage with those tools directly. But the foundation of it all is understanding the web of politics they are playing on, comprised of the capabilities, liabilities, and desires of all the individuals and factions involved.