A casual watching of any of the “news” channels on television will show you how passionate many people get about politics. Why should that be any different in the D&D world? Murder In Baldur’s Gate showed us a brief look at Ducal elections, but overall the inner-workings of various groups in a fantasy city or town are overlooked by many setting writers (unless it’s the murderous politics of a Drow city). With recent films like the new Captain America: Winter Soldier bringing political thrillers back to the forefront of our minds, we thought you might be interested in playing with the political leanings of your party.
Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. This year we’ve decided that every article will provide our readers with new adventure hooks. Joe Lastowski has come up with more great adventure hooks as today “P” is for politics.
You can also get a lot of mileage by having characters’ families have differing opinions on political ideas. I often ask my players to list something that their characters parents believe that they disagree with. It helps players define their own characters more, but in a relatively innocuous way (“Her dad believes only raw ore should be given as a sacrifice to Moradin on the High Forge Days, but my character thinks a finished, forged weapon is a much more appropriate gift to her god.”).
Below are some examples of the sort of political interactions your players might find themselves stuck in the middle of if you’d like to give them some interesting interactions in fantasy cities. One neat thing to note about these is that, unlike many of our other posts this month, there are often several answers and opinions the players might seek, and none of them are 100% “right.” Every side has multiple issues, and can be argued for with relative ease.
Adventure Hooks: Politics
1. If Necromancy is Outlawed…
Most people believe that necromancy is a bad thing. However, a group of scholars are making a lot of headway with the population by advocating that necromancy be studied so that they know how to stop it. “If necromancy is outlawed,” they decry, “then only outlaws will understand necromancy.” This is a great plot twist to throw at a party of Clerics or Paladins. Obviously they won’t want to outright kill these political agitators (who may or may not have actual necromancers among them) without some investigation, but finding out who is behind these protests – especially when one of the chief undead gods, Vecna, is also a god of Secrets – can be a tough order indeed. And if Necromancy is outlawed, how will your party’s Wizard look when he uses that Ray of Enfeeblement, or what will folks say when the Cleric starts Speaking With Dead?
2. Guild Wars
If the Farmers Union and the Cattle Ranchers Guild have a dispute over who gets a large chunk of land, there could well be armed confontations between the two groups, and the party may be called in to negotiate. If the bandit attacks have increased the price of spices, which has begun to put the city’s restaurants out of business, maybe the Restaurant Association will start hiring vigilantes (or the PCs) to either smuggle in goods or deal with the bandits outside of the normal law structure. And let’s not forget the sort of “accidental building burnings” that can happen when turf wars cause one “legitimate businessperson” to try to convince other businesspeople to sell (see also the Jet Li film Romeo Must Die).
3. Corrupt Officials
This can be a tough one, because many parties will just want to kill a politician who is clearly a little dirty. If you structure the laws of a city well enough, though, that should turn out not to be an option for your party, who may end up having to “grin and bear it” as the district leader takes all the credit for the party’s victories (“If I hadn’t hired them in my great wisdom…”). I played in a game once where we were in a similar situation, and then the politician ended up murdered. Suddenly we had to justify all the times we’d spoken out against the official, and conduct our own investigation into his murder before we ourselves were found guilty of the crime.
4. Country Folk vs. City Folk
The tension between Druids and city-builders has a long history. One need only watch Princess Mononoke to see how this could play out in an extremely epic struggle. In many worlds, I’ll make the god of Civilization an enemy of the nature gods, just to drive the point home. If a local logging operation calls in the party for help with the wild Owlbear attacks they’ve been suffering, the party may then be faced with a moral dilemma when they see that it was the region’s Druid using nature’s fury to push back the destroyers.
5. Racial Intolerance
Depending on how racist (or, more accurately, specist) your world is, maybe a character’s Human parents don’t approve of hanging around with those “Elvish folks” and their strange tree-loving ideas. Prejudice and politics, sadly, are often close bedfellows in any world, so keep those ideas in mind too. If there’s an idea some group doesn’t like, there’s probably another group that they blame for that idea, whether or not that makes any actual sense to a rational outsider. Especially when you’ve got entire species that look like Demons (Tieflings), Dragons (Dragonborn), or other monstrous things, it’s easy to believe that the stories about Drow stealing Human babies would make a Human village treat a Drow PC poorly. Be careful with this one, though, as it’s entirely possible that players at your table may have experienced real life racial tensions, so be sensitive to that and communicate with your players before and after the game to make sure everyone is okay with taking the game in this direction.
The election of a new Duke/Mayor/Governor/whatever can be a great opportunity for a game session or two (see Murder in Baldur’s Gate for a great setup for this). The PCs may have to talk with different candidates to decide on who to support. Being well-known heroes, their support should go a long way towards helping that candidate. But what happens when some of that candidate’s supporters are found to be silencing their opponents? Or what if there’s ballot tampering and the PCs must defend the polls? In a world where magic is fairly commonplace, what sort of magical advertising campaigns might be possible? If you’re using some of the racial intolerance from #5, are any groups not allowed to vote? Are the Tiefling areas “accidentally” not sent as many ballots by the Dragonborn-run central government? And what if someone besides the PCs’ candidate wins?
7. Taxing the 1%
In a weird spin on some of our own political realities, in a fantasy setting, adventurers are often the smallest, yet frequently richest folks in any given village or hamlet. If a local government, struggling for years under attacks from monsters, decides to recoup its losses by taxing adventurers highly on any treasure they find in the region, that could have a huge impact on how the heroes decide to interact with the town.
8. Religious Differences
Sure, the D&D world is full of a wide-ranging polytheistic pantheons. Sure, in most situations, a worshipper of the battle god Kord has no reason to hate a servant of the knowledge goddess Ioun. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own names for one another, or their own thoughts on what folks who are “a little too devoted” to one deity might be like. If the action-oriented church of Kord gets fed up with the what they perceive to be the overly-litigious nature of the civilization-idolizing church of Erathis, that could cause all kinds of political upheaval. What about when a particular artifact the PCs find is claimed by more than one church? (“Clearly the Dragonslayer valued Knowledge, so this Draconomicon belongs in the halls of Ioun, where True Scholars can appreciate it.” “Bahamut is the god of all Dragons, and his clergy demand that they be given custody of the guide to slaying evil Dragons.” “Hey, dudes, the book is about fighting, so me & my Kordian brute squad are just going to take it, okay?”)
9. Open Source vs. Proprietary
I often frame the Ioun/Vecna dispute in my gaming worlds as an Open-Source vs. Proprietary debate. Ioun wants knowledge for everyone, so every bit of data should be shared. Vecna loves secrets, so the really powerful knowledge should be kept from the masses. How might that play out in your fantasy setting? Is there some knowledge that shouldn’t be released to the general public? What about someone who breaks into your Wizard college to steal the rare tomes because he wants to share that info with everyone? What if an insider in a tense military situation decides that secrets are sacrilege and suddenly all the coded messages are being revealed to the enemy? Where will you draw that line in your campaign world between keeping secrets for the good of others and sharing information that will ultimately help the world?
As with real world politics, many of these adventure hooks could lead you to very tense (and loud) confrontations. Be sure to communicate with your party, so that they know they can step away from their characters if things get too heated. This is a game in which we have fun, and while the occasional fantasy political disagreement might be a nice change-up, don’t let any lasting out-of-game grudges form because of it.