Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Orphans of the Stars: Meditations on Politics

The first thing we chose to focus on, and what this series will devote all of its attention to, is politics.  I wrote the following post as a way of explaining the directions we could go, and how I saw politics. Eventually, it should be noted, that my client chose for extreme political systems, which means politics-as-wargame, which is what the final document looks at.

Matters of State: Roleplaying and Politics

For the first part of Orphans of the Stars, I was asked to take a look at politics, because of course we want politics. I often find that many GURPS fans find themselves inexorably drawn to the drama represented by politics, whether its from an interest of history paired with the uniquely simulative aspects of GURPS, or it’s the desire for a more intense drama brought about by the high stakes games played in politics (and, of course, the sense of importance gained by having all that power in your hands). I, myself, am not immune to the siren call, as I’ve run quite some political games myself over the years, so this is a topic I can happily say I have some experience with.

But before we go further, we need to define what we mean by politics, and what we want out of our politics. When we add a new element of gameplay to a game, we must demand justification for it and we must have a sense of how it will play out. Ideally, we should have a vision of what a game looks like, how it plays with our new mechanics, and why the players care about them.

So, first, I want to look at what we want out of our politics, and then I want to look at what pieces I intend to put into place for politics.

The Purpose of Politics

Definition of politics

1a : the art or science of government b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government

5a : the total complex of relations between people living in society

For some people “Politics” means a careful analysis of how governments function and how one gains power over a governmental institution (or, more broadly, any powerful organization). For others, though, politics means drama, as when someone uses the term “politics” to describe the complex interactions between, for example, an extended group of fractious friends in high school.

Almost certainly, most fans of political gameplay will dismiss the latter, but I would suggest giving it a second look. First, both gameplay and drama turn on giving your players interesting choices and seeing what consequences arise from those choices. Second, all but the driest political games mix heavy doses of personal drama into them, and for good reason, because high power politics often turn on personal failings. Consider the potentially great politician laid low by a marital affair, or how an Emperor’s paternal love might blind him to the failings of his heir.

So, what do we intend for our political play? Let me offer a few scenarios?

Politics as Drama Engine: For some people, the purpose of “politics” is nothing other than driving personal drama. This was certainly the case in my own Cherry Blossom Rain, where I had a thin veneer of politics meant only to drive characters into intense moments of choice between duty and passion. This also arises in the typical “Vampire: the Tea Party” sort of LARP, where the GM might inject suddenly political changes just to stir the pot and get people back to infighting.

This sort of game tends to emphasize duty to a larger group (such as a house or family) and uses the backdrop of politics to bring greater pressure on the characters to make their personal interactions more intense. Do you want to marry the prince or the knight? What if your kingdom is under attack and you desperately need the Knight’s assistance? But what if your father already promised your hand to the Prince? And the King is on the verge of death and you’d inherit the kingdom as queen? Politics, if you will, turns the screws.

Politics as Wargame: Roleplaying games descend from wargames and board games, and few board games better capture the spirit of political gameplay than Diplomacy. Why not make a political game a deep simulation of how politics actually works? Let the players hassle over money, over constituents that they need to keep happy, over shifting popular opinion, over sudden rumors of ill-health and the panic of key members of your cabinet as other power-brokers, sensing blood on the wind, move in for the kill?

If D&D can be a deep, board-game-like simulation of killing monsters and taking their stuff, why can’t a political RPG turn into Axis and Allies, Diplomacy or Civilization? Such a game presents challenges, but it actually presents politic as politics. The difficult choices the players face naturally flow out of their political situation. The power they wield is not a farce or an illusion meant to drum up personal drama, but something built directly into the fabric of gameplay.

Personal is Political: Ultimately, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. A pure wargame threatens to become tedious, and if we wanted a wargame, why not just play a wargame? But at the same time, while a drama better fits the personal nature of a roleplaying game, a political roleplaying game is a different beast from a soap opera. After all, if our primary focus was players fussing over love interests, we could as easily set our game in a high school or a hospital. We set it in a political setting because we’re interested in politic.

The two can play off of one another, as is often the case in role-playing games. Dramatic, personal choice can interfere with “optimal wargame play,” but the wargame itself can feed drama. Perhaps forging an alliance is vital to your success and the obvious way to forge an alliance is to marry, but you’re in love with someone else! Oh no, drama! And also, political gameplay! Perhaps you’re better off making a political deal with someone else so that you can preserve your chances of marrying your love. Oh no! Political play driven by drama!

I think one can overstate how much one needs deep and intense political rules to get decent political gameplay. After all, I got plenty of “deep” roleplaying and interesting political choices with only the thinnest sketch of politic in Cherry Blossom Rain, but I also have a feel for how these things flow. A well-designed political system can provide natural hooks as its engine churns, forcing heroes into undesired situations as they struggle to balance their personal lives with their political ambitions. Furthermore, it’s much easier to subtract from a detailed system than it is to add to a simple one, provided the places to cut and trim are made obvious.

Thus, I propose for our first outing to dive deep in and see what we come up with. We can trim and simplify later down the line. I will almost certainly produce “more than you need,” but better to have mechanics you can skip than to lack mechanics when you really need them.

The Riddle of Politics

Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and the rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?

-Varys, A Game of Thrones

So, what sorts of systems do we need for politics? Well, to understand that, we need to break politics down into pieces. For that, I believe I have three sources that all say the same thing: A Game of Thrones, Conan, and Dune itself.

In Conan, the titular hero claims he must know the answer to the Riddle of Steel. Where does real power come from? The first answer is steel itself, that ones tools matter. The second, deeper answer is that power comes from flesh, that without bone and sinew, one cannot wield the sword. But the deepest answer is that will exceeds both, for without the willingness to kill, the strongest flesh and sharpest steel come to naught.

The first and most obvious source of power are the tools of power, or Capital. This is the power of the rich man and the power of steel. We see this sort of power often in video games, where we spend industry and money to build great buildings and factories and engines of war to defeat our enemies with. We marvel at this sort of power when we see skyscrapers, monuments and great tanks passing by. Dune has this too, as Dune ultimately boils down to access to resources, with Dune thirsting for water, and the galaxy hungering for spice, with the Sarduakar having access to the greatest weapons, and the Fremen having nothing but drive.

For Capital, the best tool we have is GURPS City Stats and City Management from Pyramid #3-54. While a planet in Orphans of the Stars isn’t, perse, a city, we can treat them as such (and treating a city as the center of one’s planetary power isn’t far off the mark. A surprising amount of American politics is driven by Chicago, New York and Los Angeles). For individual characters, this amounts to Wealth, and we’ll largely deal with it in those terms.

But as the ruins of great civilizations show, all of this comes to naught without people to build, maintain and wield them. For this, we need not just people, but organized people, and thus Organizations. We need armies, we need bureaus, we need workers, we need soldiers. This represents the King, and it represents Flesh, and in Dune, it represents the way in which Atreides fought and built vs the way Harkonnen fought and built.

For Organization, I suggest GURPS Boardroom and Curia paired with Social Engineering. Pulling Rank may well be useful, but what matters here is less “What does my organization do for me,” and more “How do I shape, master and control my organization.” This is about sitting atop an organization and directing it, while possibly subverting other organizations. For individual characters, this amounts to Rank.

The last comes from a more ephemeral truth, one which might be hard for us to quantify, and that is Vision. In the end, power is not about the engines that back it, but the vision of the world that drives it. People fight wars with almost religious fervor, or work in the mines to support their family, to impress their friends, or to lift up their state. People must offer their blood, sweat and tears up to something, they must have will, and this represents the Priest in Varys’ riddle. Dune ultimately boils down to this, a great struggle between philosophies and cultures, about what is right and what is wrong.

To represent Vision will be difficult, but again, GURPS Social Engineering will probably be our best choice, paired with some ideas that have been bubbling around in Psi-Wars for awhile. We’ll tackle it more clearly when we get there. For characters, this will likely amount to Philosophy and perhaps Code of Honor and maybe even Will, but it will be expressed to the people via Propaganda and Leadership.

Both Conan and Game of Thrones largely ignore an element that features strongly in modern thrillers and in Dune itself (albeit in such a complete way that it almost overrides the narrative completely), and that is the power of Information. Even with the best equipment, the most organized minions, and the greatest drive to achieve great things, we must know where to apply our strength, and what to avoid, if we want to achieve greatness. Given the extreme costs of information at low tech levels, I hardly find it surprising that Varys leaves it out of his riddle, but in Dune, the knowledge of precisely what he must do and when represents the prime source of Paul Atreides’ power. This is the domain of the spy and likely its own complex gameplay.

The Roadmap to Power

So what next? I’d like to tackle each step in turn, starting with Capital and physical power. I don’t want to dive too deeply into the actual technology of infrastructure, so much as note it in general terms, discuss what niches need to be filled, and create a loose design for how one builds, maintains and exploits capital.

With that in place, the next step is to dive into what sorts of groups use what sorts of infrastructure, and how politics plays out in those particular arenas, as well as what sorts of organizations we need.

The third step will be to look at how ideology shapes the loyalty of people and organizations, and how heroes can draw strength from their ideologies while defeating their opponents with their own ideas.

Finally, if we have time, we might delve into conspiracies and what they represent.

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