One of my proudest games as a GM came from a Vampire: The Masquerade game that I ran a little while ago. It was very small scale and about as "old school" as you could get...I mean, it was set in Gary, it was so old school. My players, most of whom were relatively new to roleplaying, were vicious and cunning and smart and engaged. They lied and politicked, led NPC’s on, and were, in many ways, an idealized Vampire group. Heck, one of them even betrayed the party out of love, and the Ventrue was in charge. Now, I want to go further with that, and try to take such a game to the next level, making it even more social and political and interesting. Here are my thoughts on what is necessary to make a good political game. As these ideas are still being processed, other thoughts and criticisms would be greatly appreciated.
First off you need a setting. It needs to big enough to contain what you need, but small enough that the players can learn it, or at least most of it, relatively quickly. Examples would include a small city/borough for Vampire, a barony for D&D, a single system for Star Wars…that sort of thing. Naturally, any setting needs a cool thematic hook, a conflict that defines the setting; perhaps the kobolds are swarming the Barony, or the city is slowly falling apart due to decay and despair. Whatever fascinates you.
Secondly, you need an opposing group, a faction of people who will, inevitably, come into conflict with PC’s. Assuming you know nothing about the characters, it’s generally safest to make these people conservative (with a small “c”)—those who stand for the status quo. For example: the long on going war with the kobolds? They have no desire to see it resolved. As most players roll into a new area and immediately start mucking things up—“Kobolds? GET ‘EM!”-- this will almost guarantee some type of conflict.
Now, you need to have a neutral party for the PC’s and their foes to politick about…a leader. This leader should be powerful enough to take on either faction in a toe-to-toe fight, to keep either group from just deposing him—and also to keep civil war from breaking out, encouraging both sides to rely on less-than-lethal tactics. This power can be either internal (elder vampire, high level character, powerful cleric, etc.), or part of his authority as the prince/Baron/Mayor/Governor/what have you. However, while he must be powerful, he can only be so competent at his job. After all, a powerful and competent leader leaves little room for the players to run around and do things, and also you want the players to at least have a chance pf manipulating the leader for their own designs. At the same time, I would hesitate to make the leader too well established, and instead force them to rely on the support of some local faction or the other to effectively maintain control.
Finally, you need “others”—those who are not PC’s, nor defined as the “Enemy” nor part of the current administration. These are the ones the players and their foes will be politicking most actively, trying to sway them as allies, even if only for the short term. Naturally, they should have their own factions and their own goals and desires. In general, since I like my players to be as active as possible, I tend to keep any faction among the others to smaller/poorer/weaker than the players group. Doesn’t mean any faction can dictate to them, just means that the players should have some edge against them.
Hrmm, this already seems long enough, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Thoughts?