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Hot Button: Politics

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On June 5, 2012 @ 1:00 am In Hot Buttons | 15 Comments

From time to time I revisit my Witchcraft universe, which has provided several interrelated campaigns. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s essentially contemporary urban fantasy set in a world recognizably our own. I’ve also been giving it a superheroic spin of late.

Last session we went back to it after a long hiatus. I reintroduced an NPC, an old college friend, that neither the players nor their characters had seen in almost a decade. He’d since become a local congressman and he was meeting one of the PCs to ask if he could use the PC’s restaurant to hold a primary results party.

Since the campaign takes place ostensibly in the real world and America in particular, I knew what question was coming. It did come, albeit a little later than I’d thought. The question, of course, is what political party this NPC belonged to.

My answer would certainly have an impact. Certain members of my group have pretty strong feelings where politics are concerned. This NPC was a well-liked old friend but if I made him a member of a particular party then he’d have been either enthusiastically embraced or dismissed out of hand. I have no desire to debate politics at the gaming table (especially since it’s never really a debate) and I didn’t want this scene to be dragged into it.

I answered the question with a dodge; I told the players that the NPC’s political affiliation isn’t important to the campaign. All that matters is that he genuinely tries to help his constituents and has a pretty clean record. My players seemed satisfied with that and moved on. We’ll see how it goes.

In other campaigns, I borrowed the “Junior Achievement” model of “Federalist” and “Nationalist” parties taking the place of the usual suspects without defining either of them further. I’ve also dipped into the waters of real-life politics now and again, but usually only where I knew the impact would be minimal at the table.

So how about you? If you’re running a game in a more-or-less contemporary setting, do you allow real-world politics to invade? Do you shy away from it? Do you allow it but limit its impact?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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15 Comments To "Hot Button: Politics"

#1 Comment By Riklurt On June 5, 2012 @ 4:08 am

My players are, mostly, the sort of people who like to debate for sport. Many of them were part of debate teams in school, where you’re just given an opinion or stance and told to argue for it, no matter what you actually believe. Because of that, involving real-world politics in my games usually isn’t a problem; my players often play characters whose opinions differ radically from their own anyway.

That said, real-world politics rarely come up in my games, mostly because I don’t find them very interesting (Besides, most of my real-world games also take place in the US, and I’m not that familiar with US politics, being European). The few times it has, players have usually saved their own opinions until after the session is over and stuck to their in-character opinions while the game is on.

Great article, by the way! This is a very interesting subject, I’m looking forward to what other commenters might have to say!

#2 Comment By mcmanlypants On June 5, 2012 @ 7:23 am

My group and I don’t shy away from it at all, but we’re also all of a kind in terms of politics and thus the near-certainty of the group’s reaction to a particular political question makes it easy to employ those questions without offending anyone. It makes it easy to summarize an NPC by saying, for instance, “If this person were alive and politically active in today’s world, they would be Party X,” and that sort of shorthand is very useful. I’ve always used that as a way to frame my character concepts and have often played characters who were politically active – many of whom were active in ways of which I, the player, would never approve or who held positions that I would never hold.

These are roleplaying games, after all. The nearly universal political agreement of our players makes it easy to frame an NPC in a game of Mage as “good” or “bad” by their political affiliation, sure, but we’re all adults and it’s built in that our characters’ views and reactions are not our own, isn’t it? I’m not sure that I, as a player, would be made to feel better about my personal beliefs if I were to find that our Vampire characters agreed with me. I’m not sure that I, as a player, should feel disappointed if the beliefs of my Thri-Kreen Ranger are different from my own. Those moments are part of the point of playing, aren’t they? We don’t always roleplay to reinforce beliefs we already hold (though sometimes I certainly do!) and a player who avoids opportunities to think in a new way, as someone else entirely might think, is missing a major part of the experience.

Every group has to set its own boundaries, naturally, and a group that is very politically mixed and in which the players are perhaps not as capable of observing the distance between their reactions and those of their characters should of course tread very carefully if at all. I think it can be a good exercise to test the waters, though, and see if an opportunity for the player’s politics to intersect with those of their character reveals anything to the player about their characters or themselves.

#3 Comment By Silveressa On June 5, 2012 @ 8:25 am

My first experience with politics in an rpg was when I had the pleasure of running the “Super Tuesday” series of adventures for Shadowrun years ago, (which revolve around political elections/campaigns and the great dragon Dunklezahn running for president.)

That mini campaign helped show my group how fun it can be to throw “modern” politics into a game, and shortly after a lot of my modern day supers/Kult, etc.. games had adventures focused around or dealing with politics, with mostly favorable results.

Then again most of the people in my groups are experienced roleplayers, and often enjoy creating chars with views/personalities radically different then their own. Partly because of this the politics of the game setting often add to the roleplay experience rather then cause any sort of lengthy in game debate. (I’ve seen other groups torn apart by such controversial topics when the after game chat turned to political matters.)

#4 Comment By black campbell On June 5, 2012 @ 8:35 am

Politics, religion, sex — all show up on our campaigns, contemporary or otherwise. They’re part and parcel of a world’s verisimilitude. We have less issue with political partisan nonsense since we’re mostly independents and libertarians…we view the whole endeavor with suspicion.

In this case, finding out the old friend wants to do well by his constituents, but is already starting the nevitable slide toward self-interested ass covering and partisan corruption would be a nice touch. The honest politicianwho is also competent is a hackneyed stereotype.

But that’s us. ..

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 5, 2012 @ 8:39 am

I tend to draw on real-life political figures — but only from history — as NPC archetypes. But I always change the names to deflect the historically-saavy. The same is true the agendas/activities/viewpoints of various groups/political/social movements from history. I use them, but alter them to my purposes.

I think the use of Nationalist and Federalist party model is a smart way to interject politics into a game with offending/promoting current political parties.

#6 Comment By Bookkeeper On June 5, 2012 @ 8:59 am

We’re currently neck deep in Pathfinder’s Kingmaker AP and politics has become a huge part of the campaign. A lot of Feudalism vs. Federalism and guaranteed rights of man. It’s made the experience much richer.

#7 Comment By Trace On June 5, 2012 @ 9:04 am

I’ve run an X-Men “Infinities” type campaign where politics featured heavily into it (with registration and all). But both major parties shared in the fault, and neither was really any better than the other. The players also knew going in that politics would be involved, and they handled it pretty well. That game wouldn’t have been right without it. Registration made a pretty good allegory actually, with part of the act forbidding mutants to marry.

On the other hand, I can see how a group of players unprepared for this type of material could really be derailed by something like this.

#8 Comment By black campbell On June 5, 2012 @ 9:21 am

I had an FDR fan get peeved with the Dear Leader in our Hollow Earth Expediton campaign when he got his big archeological wonder home to sell…and promptly jumped into the 50% tax bracket and saw half his money disappear into the 1930s DC sinkhole.

Politics becomes important once it hits the pocketbook. I wonder why it had never occured until then to use taxation as a means to control player growth. And it adds realism. And a reason to oppose the king/president/galactic emperor…

#9 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 5, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

@Trace – I think you hit on a very interesting point. Since my game isn’t political, I never asked the players to determine their PCs’ political affiliations or leanings.

I probably would have designated a political party for my NPC if we’d established the PCs’ leanings.

#10 Comment By evil On June 5, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

Politics come up in every one of my games. It’s something that my players have come to expect and respect. I rarely, if ever, use the politics of today as a background for an adventure. Instead, I use the world to determine what types of political systems and parties are necessary.

In a far fetched future or sci-fi based world, the major political parties may be one that wants free access to information for all while the other wants to restrict access to information to a small group of need to knows.

Sidestep the can of worms by adding another layer of depth to your world. Even in a current day setting based on our US (or whatever country you set your world in), their political teams (yes, I said teams) might be vastly different because they are dealing with other problems.

#11 Comment By Ben Scerri On June 5, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

I usually use politics in some way or another, but until this current campaign (where I’m playing with a new group), I haven’t used real world politics.

My previous groups were big debaters, but we also had a few members who were more in the “Your point of view makes no sense because I don’t want it to make sense” category. Great friends, just not great when you disagree on something.

My new group, however, is different. For starters, there are 9 players, so we have every political affiliation you can shake a stick at. Secondly, many of them met through me as the organiser, and I made sure I knew all of them well before handling this. Thirdly, they all respect each other pretty well.

As such, I’ve been spreading the seeds of political dissent the whole time! I’ve added 2 revolutionary groups, one of which anarchist/terrorist (who are fighting for the political rights of a minority group that one of the players is apart of), and then other a pre-Winter Palace, Soviet-like group who wish to see the downfall of the nobility. Then I’ve got a figurehead city ruler, a strict but just Queen who wants what’s best for her country (truly) although she’s using heavy-handed tactics to keep unity… And so so much more!

Thus far there have been no problems, and I don’t expect there to be any!

#12 Comment By KnightErrantJR On June 5, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

I think the real danger isn’t so much the debate, although that can eat up precious game time, so much as those people at the table that don’t participate. It’s amazing sometimes how imperceptive others are, and that person being quiet is actually trying not to come unglued and thinks they are being polite, all the while others at the table keep piling on, assuming consensus opinion.

I tend to discourage my players from discussion real world religion and politics at the table for just that reason.

I have had comedic sessions where there were non-specific corrupt politicians, and my DC game where no one in office is from an real place, and thus, all of the politicians the PCs tend to run into are fictitious characters.

#13 Comment By scruffylad On June 5, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

I generally try to stay away from either real-world partisan nonsense, or from analogs that are too close. If you start bringing out the Democrat vs. Republican stuff at the table, it’s just a recipe for real players bringing their real opinions to the game, and getting out of character. (Other players, being fantastic rp-ers, can separate themselves enough to have fun playing someone with opposed views.)

The other thing is, how often will real world politics really be relevant in a game? Even in a modern game, will the finer points of the health care debate or social security reform really matter when your PCs are doing the stuff PCs do? (Shooting bad guys, blowing up vaults, defusing bombs, car chases, whatever. Unless you’re playing a politics campaign, I guess. At which point, this discussion is pointless, because you kind of have to get into all that stuff. :P )

And in a fantasy campaign, or even a future one, will modern politics really come into play? Are Elves Democrats or Republicans? In a future campaign in 2214, are the two parties still around? Are they the same as today? Probably not. (I hope not. If we’re still talking about the same nonsense in two hundred years, we’re doomed.)

Generally, to the extent politics comes into my game, it’s either broad good vs. evil (liches and their undead armies or orc hordes don’t really do standard politics, after all…) or are so gray it doesn’t matter (it doesn’t matter if nation A is good or evil, they’re at war with nation B, and that’s that).

#14 Comment By black campbell On June 6, 2012 @ 8:33 am

@scruffylad

For espionage games, it’s very relevant. Nearly every adventure I run is tied (loosely) to actual events, and the internal politics of the organization often rear their heads. We’ve got a lot of misuse of the asset forfeiture laws by the characters, we’ve got the DHS tryi to slough blame off on them at every step when the higher-ups don’t look at the info they collect because it doesn’t fit the narrative, Fast & Furious is ever present for the current regime which is doubling down on politically-induced direct action missions.

Real world games, real world politics…makes them feel like they can have a hand in influencing their world. If only for a few hours a night.

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 7, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

Great topic. I generally avoid real-world politics at the table. Like bringing real weapons to the table, little is gained, but much is risked.

However, I do have politics in my game. The 1980s were a time of political transition, and politics is part of the backstory. The previous monster hunting agency was shut down in the late ’60s, mainly to keep certain secrets hidden. The new one was restarted by the incoming Reagan administration. Neither side is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but one is definitely more likely to take a confrontational approach to real or perceived threats.

Throughout, I’ve avoided direct association or identity with political parties, although certain politicians have shown up (or will show up), and at least one politically-connected televangelist is present. I have a politically diverse group, but they’re also mature and most of them lived through the 80s, and are familiar with the times.

As I see it, the key is to use really broad strokes and keep politics in the background as much as possible. Another is balance; give equal shares of corruption and sin to both sides of the aisle.


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