Politics in D&D are one of the hardest things to get right. Many DMs try to run a political game and fail due to inexperience or players being normal players.
Politics in D&D require chaos, uncertainty, adaptability, loyalty, and an understanding of how different political factions function.
I have failed and heard many other DMs fail in running politics in D&D. That is why after my 18 years of experience I would like to share what works.
Running a political game
Politics in D&D can be broken into two separate categories.
- A political campaign.
- A political arc/encounter.
If you are running a political arc/encounter you will still need to know how politics function in your world. Factions, opinions, reasons, etc. Aside from this article, there are a few articles to help with the basics before we get to politics.
I have also found a more popular and useful way to create political worlds, stations, factions and more, but I will talk about that later.
I will also later talk about some typical adventures that you can run in your games, but first, we must get into the more important parts of running politics in D&D.
When you run politics in D&D, DMs generally fall into two reasons for failure.
The biggest reason for failure is that they do not consider the player’s actions. The DM gets too focused on the world, factions, and how things are run. The players are just another cog in the wheel that is put into the system to these DMs, but that does not work! Your players are more likely to destroy the political system you have created than any other force.
Keep this in mind when considering how to run politics in D&D. If you ever lose sight of this, your political escapade will have dire consequences. It might even destroy your game’s world, and I am sadly not exaggerating.
The second reason is that DMs do not understand how to run a political system in the game of D&D. D&D is a tabletop game that simulates combat experiences. Sure, roleplay happens but it isn’t the core of the system that we play. Combat is.
With this in mind, most games that run politics are so far removed from normal D&D that DMs do not understand how to run a good political game or encounter. That is why we have 5 key aspects to consider when running the game.
The 5 aspects
There are 5 aspects to run politics in D&D and they are as followes.
These 5 aspects are critical to run any sort of politics in your games. We will go over them more in depth but in short, here are the 5 aspects summarized.
Chaos- Players will always add chaos into the political system when they start interacting with the higher echelons of society, but there should be some other sort of chaos. You have to adapt to player chaos and create it.
Uncertainty– There has to be a part of your game where players will not know what is going on. At some point the players should think that they understand the political system and then realize that things are constantly going on behind the scene. Nothing is sane, safe, or even rational. A new piece of information can change everything.
Adaptability– If your players are murder hobos like this article describes, then you will need to work on making your players adapt to different situations. Contrarily, you will also need to be ready to adapt to whatever your players do.
Loyalty– All noble houses will have loyal servants. Vassals, alliances, and more aspects of politics will tout that loyalty is important. It is also important that your players are somewhat loyal in political games or there will be repercussions.
Knowledge– You need to understand how politics work and how your world works. Short concept, but it requires a much heavier analysis in order to gain knowledge about political systems.
These are the 5 aspects summarized, but summarize points only do so much. Let’s just jump into it and really learn how to run politics in D&D!
Your players will be the embodiment of chaos in every game that you run. Players are strange creatures after all, and they do not understand simple concepts like ‘logic’ or ‘reason.’ While it might be best to think and learn about the situation before a person acts, players don’t always do this. But players should not be the focus of chaos.
Chaos is an element that has to be introduced to the setting before players are even conceptualized.
If there is not an element of chaos, your players will not be welcomed into higher political engagements. Players might be allowed to get a reward for doing a quest, but that isn’t really politics. This is just a monarch rewarding subjects for great deeds.
In order to get your players involved personally with royalty and nobility, there has to be an upset in the system.
If there is not an upset, why would the royals and nobles even consider conversing with your pathetic peasant players? Something has to force their hand and there are a lot of options available to you. Here are some options to get you started.
- A war has broken out and desperation for victory arises.
- The balance of power is upset.
- New nobles have been introduced into the system.
- The nobles are weak.
- A plot has unfolded that threatens the politician’s safety.
- An economic disaster unfolds.
These are just a few ideas to get you started, but you need to incorporate some form of chaos into your game. There has to be a reason why your players are introduced by a political figure into the political scene, and there has to be a reason why it is warranted to do so.
DO NOT MAKE THE CHAOS TOO CONVOLUTED!
This is a mistake that many DMs make when they first try to tackle politics. Their chaos becomes not just a political mess, but a mess of their notes. If you have 7 subplots going all at once it might be too much for the players.
Politics can be thought of as a game of chess. You need to use your pieces appropriately. If you add too many pieces, no one can figure out what to do. If you ever think that your master plan is so perfect and grand that the players will be impressed, you might have fallen into making the chaos too convoluted.
That is why we need to add some uncertainty to the game.
Uncertainty is where your players have all the pieces, but they need to work to put them together. Do not confuse uncertainty with convolutedness. A convoluted game will involve the players getting all the pieces as the DM has an ‘ah ha! moment and surprises them time after time again. 1 surprise is fine, just do not keep doing it.
Uncertainty makes the game more tense. The players know that the duke is trying to assassinate their lord, but they don’t know the reason, method, or time when the assassin will make an attempt. This is fine and creates a mystery that players will have to solve.
The game can turn into a spy game, backroom deals, and powerful villains that oppose the players. Politics can be messy, and in trying to sort out these uncertainties the game will get even messier. Just make sure that the plot doesn’t turn into something messy. Here is an example of a good plot.
An assassin is coming after the lord. – Players stop assassin and get information. – The players know who hired the assassin. – Players get information on person who hired the assassin. – Players know the motive and must figure out how to oppose the powerful lord.
An assassin is coming after the lord. – Players stop assassin and get information. – The players know who hired the assassin. – Players get information on person who hired the assassin. – The person that the players go after is a decoy. – The decoy leads the players to the real culprit. -The real culprit is being manipulated. -Players find out the lord that protected them put up the assassination to throw the players off the noble’s tracks as the noble finalizes their secret plan.
The second part is convoluted and I have seen many DMs do this. They think that this is a brilliant twist, but it ends up having too many holes or makes the players less inspired to play the game.
Make the game uncertain and unfold as you run politics in D&D. Just don’t cross the line and make the game convoluted.
You have a plan to keep your players on edge. If we use the first example from the uncertainty section, your players have a path to follow. But what if your players adapt to the situation? Instead of following the line of thought that you had, the players adapt by hiring the assassin with more money to kill the noble who had originally hired the assassin.
The enemy noble is dead, and the whole plot ruined!
This is why you need to be adaptable when you run politics in D&D. Players are always adapting and making new ideas come into being. So should you as a DM.
Think about what your world already has. Do not make things up if you can avoid it. Instead, think about this noble. Do they have magic, guards, or they themselves powerful? If any of these 3 traits exist with the villain, you can use them to adapt.
Have the noble create wards so that they cannot be simply assassinated. Have the guards catch the assassin or at least drive them off. If the noble is powerful, the assassin can just die.
In any case, the players now have something that can be traced back to them. Time is now against the players, and an arms race has commenced. The game is more interesting due to your ability to adapt by using what is already there.
If your players are tired of running back to back political schemes, then give them a normal job or quest to keep the feeling that they are adventurers. If there was no respite in a story the players will feel taxed and the same goes for too much of anything. Saving a piece of land that belongs to an ally is a great reason for a normal quest, and loyalty is what makes this possible.
Politics is messy. There are backroom deals, spying, backstabbing, etc but there are still loyalties that keep people together. If your players were not loyal to their political lords, then why would the players want to stay? Why would the players even care without some shred of loyalty?
In order to run politics in D&D you need to have loyalty. This can extend further than just the players and their lord. Factions are a great way to have a sense of loyalty.
Factions let people do more than they could by themselves and that also gives an easy in for your players to get involved in politics. A group will always have to deal with politics, so loyalty to a group is a great way to rope the players into politics and make them care.
It is very hard to make factions work. Most of the time a single person is easiest to keep the players, but 1 person only has so much clout. When making a faction you need to consider the reason for the faction, their ideals, and more. I have personally found that this popular game of shields from our affiliate helps make factions easier than coming up with everything by myself.
Loyalty adds an extra bond to keep your players invested into the game. This is essential since many players will just bail if things get too hard or inconvenient. Use player backstory, constant jobs, and other means to form a bond of loyalty to either a faction or at the very least 1 person. This will make your political games have a chance of lasting until the end. Especially if the events that happen become personal due to that loyalty.
If your players are loyal and will actually play the game, then you, the DM, needs to actually know a little bit about politics.
Knowledge of political systems
The average person doesn’t know too much about politics. That is understandable, but you need to know something in order to run politics in D&D.
You need to have a social system with levels of aristocracy. This will include social distinctions like old money vs new money, social power, and rivalries.
Making all of these systems alone is a pain, but can be done.
If you look at real world historical politics, it is easy to find a tiered hierarchy. Peasants<priests<knights<arch priests<nobles<king. This is the typical system, but what about guilds, magic users, and adventurers? The system gets muddied and you have to find out where everyone fits.
There will also be social distinctions. Dining etiquette is an easy one to pick on, but what about education and mindset? A common person who doesn’t know the value of the written word since they cannot read might not think as large scale as a noble who can read and has learned about the world through books can.
In addition, there are new people coming into power all the time. Are the viewed favorably by the nobles who have been in power for generations? Real world politics says that there would be resentment and dismissiveness towards this ‘new money.’ Does this exist in your world?
We have to take into account real world policies and figure out when they fit into our world. It can be a headache to think of all these things, but you also have to know how every faction interacts, what values they hold, and it can be a headach.
It is a lot of work to construct a political system from the ground up, but our affiliate at dungeon vault has made it easier to come up with a political system. They have their own faction ideas, names, purposes, and more to make life easier. Small issues like we discussed can still be debated to death, but having a nice place to start really helps.
We have covered all the basics in order to run politics in D&D, but there is a popular style of political play. Making a coup.
When you run a coup, it has to be done well. If done too realistically, it will all fall apart. If done poorly, the players will not care.
Using the 5 aspects that we have discussed, you should be able to run a coup well. Chaos is happening, it is uncertain how the coup will go, the players will need to be adaptable and loyal to the coup, and you need to know what the players are overthrowing, why, and how the system currently works and how it will work if the coup succeeds.
This sounds like you have everything you need for a coup, but there are a few problems that DMs run into.
DMs might make the coup start with the players. This is a terrible idea.
Players might not like the idea of being responsible for taking the long, arduous task of setting up a coup. Setting up a coup can take years and your players will not wait around that long. They are there for the action. Not action every few weeks, trying to blend in, etc.
That is why when you run a coup you should have players join an already existing coup. Have the NPC group do all the groundwork and let the players join at the pivotal moment. The coup is going to happen, or the players are powerful enough to make the coup finally be put into play.
If you are too realistic, it will take forever so just skip to the point of interest in the coup. You do not want to make it boring for your players. Too many DMs try to have the players start a coup, so just have them join one to solve all of these problems.
This leads us to discuss what players are okay with when you are using politics in D&D.
We all like to go home, take out the trash, do the dishes, pay our taxes and do other menial chores right? Most of us do not, and I emphasize the most of us part.
If your players gain some status when you use politics in D&D, they might have responsibilities. This is where you have to understand your players. Will they like to micromanage an entire keep, population, or area? Most do not.
If your players do not want to micromanage everything, you can either try and diffuse the responsibility and make them gain political standing from service to a strong lord or give the players vassals who can do everything for the players.
You should not abuse these vassals or the players’ lords. If you do, then the players will lose all standing, their hard work, or at least their trust in people and the game in general. If you do, your game will no longer involve politics for very long.
You can use loyalty to make your players responsible for a group of people, but that is up to you if your players would be okay with it.
But when should you include other countries and ways to increase the partie’s fame?
Fame and caution
When you are incorporating politics in D&D, you will likely have to deal with other countries. This will only happen as your players get much higher level than when they start. Players can start being involved in politics at level 1, but in order to seriously deal with other countries your players will most likely be at least level 9.
When your players interact with nobles or especially interact with other countries, they will be wary. This is to be expected, but you should not fuel this as a DM. Do not make every noble bad! There can be some bad nobles, but most are people. Normally people in general are good, but if you make noble society completely prudish and horrible your players will not want to play in your political world.
Even if you do make the nobles interesting, fun, and varied instead of predictable, evil, and snobbish, your players will want to adventure. They are adventurers after all, so why not produce a situation where your players can use their skills? It would be a great break, and help make the players’ fame rise.
The last cautionary thing that I have for you is to not make your political games satire reality. Even if you know these people and you all are on the same page about politics, do not involve real-world politics. You might go too far, say something that people don’t agree upon, and real-world politics almost always end up dividing people.
We have gone over the 5 main aspects of politics in D&D, how to run a political game in D&D and more.
We have gone over miscellaneous issues that should be considered, coups, and even how to make/start a political world. Along with the information needed to create a political world.
This hopefully covered almost anything that you need to think about when considering politics in D&D, and I hope that I helped you create a fascinating encounter, or campaign for you and your players.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!