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It's Not Just A Game!

Politricks Part One: Out of Character

by Coilean mac Caiside
Aug 21,2002


Politricks Part One: Out of Character

The difficulty of running pretty much any type of campaign, is that the GM has to do all the work. This is especially true in the case of political campaigns, where the GM has to keep track of a continually evolving set of perceptions for every participant involved - players, their characters, and of course, the villains. Each of which may differ in many ways from that original source, "the truth" [which has been displaced to the next article]. "Political" isn't just the campaign-type, either - it's the politics of . . .

The Players

A gaming group may not always get along well, especially if not everyone in the group is happy with Secrets being kept from them, or "Evil" people acting against the party. And someone may feel that "metagaming" is justified, to act immediately in preventing something unwanted from happening or even knowing instantly who was responsible for it. Passing notes is an appropriate strategy for avoiding this - but even if you've bypassed the delay factor by writing all the notes you could possibly need [ahead of time], the other players are going to notice the GM consulting your notes or you slipping one to her, and connect it with what immediately happens next. This can build resentment, despite your attempts to minimize it by not "rubbing it in their face". Which is exactly what I propose you do.

Have a few minor, independently-run [i.e., not connected with a faction or positively vital to the plot] NPC's that, for one reason or another, have cause [at the moment] to interfere with the PC's. Each session, select a single player and take them aside, to explain that you need some help running all the NPC's, and ask that they be responsible for this one [for the session]. The player should feel free to state directly to the GM what the NPC is doing, but still speak in first-person [or whatever that player uses for describing their character's actions] - because, for that session, the player is managing a second character. This second character's powers would be bureaucratical or magically/psionically remote/subtle, such as to avoid direct confrontation, and the realization of that character's identity [either on her/his own basis or of being separate from the player's usual]. As GM, you will also guarantee them the ability to prove that their [normal] character was not involved, should the other players metagame to "become aware of" it.

This method requires a bit of intuition on the part of the GM to understand which character's abilities are being utilized [or the player being more descriptive and adopting a bit of the narrative control to show what happened without specifically naming anything], but can be well worth it. If the character has no such abilities, the other players may suspect a secret multi-classing [or concealment of some other powers], and if the character does, all use of them suddenly loses credibility when the second half of this ploy comes into effect.

After enough of your players have been asked to do this, enough times, they may make a connection - and realize that the OTHER players are also doing so occasionally. You may decide to up the complexity by having more than one player running a "mischief" NPC in a given session, which really confuses the issue of whether or not a given action, by any player, is their character or an NPC.

Make as sure as you can that the player understands they're to properly roleplay the NPC, however. The basic motivations might be sketched out, but the person will have extended their hatred onto the rest of the party, or decided to gain revenge on the PC they are jealous of by causing disruption in her/his life [by ruining her/his friends]. In short, the NPC should not be targeting a particular PC with all abilities, but just going for whomever seems the ripest target of opportunity [not whoever the player has it in for - these NPC's should not be a way for the players to safely enact petty vengeance schemes].

In return, you can offer bonuses to the player - additional experience for his primary character, things in the world generally going their way. In the meantime, your would-be metagamers will become incredibly frustrated at their inability to quickly and accurately pin down who did what. They will also lose credibility with the rest of the group as their continual accusations of fellow player's characters are refuted. But [aside from easing the burden on the shoulders of yourself, the poor GM] this method helps little unless your players are metagaming, in which case it may ease tensions there . What about avoiding undeserved persecution between . . . ?

Their Characters

In a fight, everyone can participate. But in a more intrigue-oriented game, characters may want to interact with key NPC's alone, and perform actions that are unseen by the other characters. That leaves the GM to choose between possible resentment as several of the other players wander off bored since they're not doing anything, and bringing the characters back together at the expense of this intrigue. One solution [often dismissed out of hand because it would make "metagaming" much simpler] is to allow the players to sit in on each other's private sessions - I recommend this.

It's much easier to keep your character's viewpoint straight in your head if you don't know anything else, true. But the effort to be a good roleplayer should not preclude appreciation of the entire campaign. And being true to your character is only part of roleplaying - you also have to perceive the other characters [as opposed to their players].

Not everyone is a good actor. Allocate a few minutes for each player, at the end of each session, to describe in more objective terms [than were used while roleplaying] precisely what their character was thinking or feeling during a given moment. Don't rely on just the player's skill in conveying their character; give everyone a chance to know each other's characters much better. This can help them support each other in roleplaying - I've heard some people say that, when they're feeling angry/sad/whatever, they won't come to a game because they don't believe they would be able to play their characters right. Wouldn't it be nice if you knew you could depend on the other [role-]players to know your character so well, between them, that they could spot when you weren't succeeding fully at RP? Reminding players at the end of each session in this way [objectively], can help cement in their minds that there is a difference between the player and the character. But what about the difference between the GM and . . . ?

The Villains

Coming up with good villains for a political campaign can be a real strain on the GM, and even for non-political campaigns - anything where the GM wants to create villains with depth . Filling out all that detail, and giving them individual motivations that interact with the environment and the PC's in a fashion unique to that villain . . . it all adds to the time and effort required for the GM.

Characters with depth? Plenty of detail? Individual motivations? Isn't this what a player already does , albeit just for their own character?

Run one campaign, with two groups. Meet with entirely different players, on different days or alternating weeks. Have the two groups belong to separate factions within the game world, that are currently opposed. Do not, of course, tell either group what you are doing. In fact, if you do it cleverly enough, the players from either group may mingle and discuss their characters without figuring it out.

There are many reasons for which the two groups might be opposed, but I will only go over the three traditional major ones:

National: You are in one country, and [officially or non] at war with another one. In the case of an official war, or other well-known reasons for hatred [atrocities, for example], this could be the hardest to stop without one side being first defeated - too many people still possess hostilities toward the other side and are reluctant to relinquish them.

Political: You are at odds with someone else - you each want something different to happen, or both want to have a limited resource for yourself. This can be easier to end [compensation is offered, settlements are made, or a third party steals/obtains the limited resource], and also a great way of getting the party together [since they all want the same thing but do not have enough power on their own, they can team up to try and accomplish the same results cooperating].

Religious: Your Deity is annoyed at their Deity, and hence you are commanded to harass their followers everywhere you encounter them. This is often the easiest to end - their Deity apologizes to your Deity, and all followers of your faith receive a mental message next time they pray to not bother the others anymore.

Those are just examples. But the key is to use situations where physical distance or chronological separation or simply shrouded identities prevent either group from directly interacting with the other - and you, as the GM, having to roleplay them [which should not be such a difficult matter, since you know the characters well - but railroading the scene past the other player, in the next session, is].

How do the groups interact with each other at all, then? How do they become each other's villains? And how can they affect each other?

Use spies. Agents. As the characters in each group progress, have them move up within the power structure of their respective organizations. Word will slowly move into the other area, where the news will eventually come to the ears of the other PC's. By allowing both sides to employ assassins and give orders to those agents already in place, as well as receive reports from them, you allow the two groups to have influence over each other. Just don't forget the time delay. On Month Three of the campaign, one group could finally be seeing the effects of the plans the other group made and set in motion back during Month One. And they won't hear whether an attempt succeeded or failed for another two months.

Give yourself a decent buffer zone, basically. A lot of time to throw in corruption of information. And a group could be Passive in alignment through the remoteness of their actions - they tell a Seneschal what they want to happen, and then leave it up to this capable person to decide who to contact. But of course, the Seneschal may also pass on the orders as he interpreted them, and the agents may have their own way of carrying out orders, that are not in the resume. Still, this same group could be of an Active alignment on their home territory - in dealing with the agents sent by the enemy.

In Closing

Feel free to employ these methods in any combination that seems helpful - in enhancing the campaign[s] you already have running, or enabling you to run one with more politics by resolving potential conflicts before they can get started.

Next Time - Politricks Part Two: In-Character

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  • (The Final) Conflict by Coilean mac Caiside, 20sep02
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