“Well, Mrs. Miggins, at last we can return to sanity. The hustings are over, the bunting is down, the mad hysteria is at an end. After the chaos of a general election, we can return to normal.” – Edmund Blackadder
With the US presidential elections behind us, I thought it might be a good time to look at ways politics can influence almost any RPG. Even if your game is not political in any way, politics can still influence the setting, adding color, interest, and perhaps a little excitement to the PCs’ lives. Modern or historical games naturally lend themselves to politics, but any game that includes a large society can be subject to political forces, whether it’s a simply as a local election or a brewing revolution.
Fiercely divided political factions can make life interesting for PCs. If the PCs say the wrong thing or wear the wrong color in the wrong part of town they may find themselves harassed or ostracized without knowing why. Things will often only get worse if the PCs attempt to reason out the issues. Political differences often have very little to do with reason: the violently opposed Blues and Greens of Constantinople were ultimately based on rival chariot racing teams! Political factions need not only be parties, either. In a monarchy, the populace could be spit between king’s ministers, or rival priests could vie for political sway in a strongly religious state. A sudden split or defection in a ruling faction could set a society on edge. Debates, demonstrations, speeches, and riots could all sweep up the characters, with enflamed townsfolk demanding to know if the PCs support the Free Walker Act. Even more severely, the PCs could find themselves in a society teetering on the brink of collapse or civil war. If a king dies without a clear heir or an heated election is called into question, then the heroes may find their adventurous plan irrelevant as they become embroiled in violent unrest.
But upheaval is not the only kind of politics that can plague the PCs. Our heroes, whether they arrive by starship or horseback, may find themselves in all sorts of interesting and uncomfortable situations. Mild fascism may annoy or amuse the PCs with its flags, uniforms, and slogans, while hardcore fascism may threaten them with imprisonment or death. Characters may stumble into a society with a severe hatred of some minority, perhaps one to which one of the party belongs. Characters may become entangled in governmental red tape and regulations or find themselves completely at the mercy of robber barons while bribed policemen look the other way. Societies in the throes of economic crisis will be rife with crime, while wild inflation will raise the price of goods two-, three-, even ten-times above normal. Local attitudes and laws regarding immigrations and personal weapons will certainly affect your average adventurer (“May I see your papers, please?” “I’m sorry, guns aren’t allowed on the station.”).
Even wilder political situations can be dreamt up in a game. Like extreme democracy, where even the news of the day and tenets of science are subject to majority vote (an idea I first ran across in The Sunless Countries: Book Four of Virga) or rule by the almighty tallest (ala Invader ZIM – Complete Invasion). Other extreme forms of government include magocracy (rule by mages), uniocracy (rule by a “hive mind” of all citizens), bankocracy (rule by banks), or kakistocracy, (rule by the stupid – no comments from the peanut gallery, please). And of course theocracy is always rife with possibilities. A society could be run by a particular fantasy race (elves, gnomes, etc.), or by augury, with diviners (either sincere or corrupt) casting forecasts for every political decision. Or perhaps children in their “innocent wisdom” are allowed to rule. The PCs could stumble into an “Alpha Complex” run by a computer despot. Maybe ancient law dictates that the PCs themselves are the foretold rulers of the kingdom. Of course, the local Herod will not be pleased. Hilarity ensues.
One note of warning: you should probably resist the temptation to insert your real political views into your games. Diatribes, straw-man arguments, sermons, or satires can annoy players who don’t share your political views, and even if you’re sure that the whole table agrees with you the issues may be too serious to be much fun. And of course, if corruption, mob-rule, and constitutional crises aren’t fun, what good are they?