Thursday, June 8, 2017

Orphans of the Stars: Political Conflict

This will be my last "design notes" post for Orphans of the Stars.  I'm going to post the actual draft next week at this time and place, giving me a little extra time to work on Psi-Wars (the Alliance is coming along nicely, though it'll be a very different beast than what we see in Star Wars.  Stay tuned, my Psi-Wars faithful!).  It'll be available on Patreon for $5, as stated before.

Today, I look into the most important element of political gameplay, conflict, which allows you to defeat your opponents through war, espionage, subversion and economic sanction, which is just what everyone seems to really want when they talk about "political gameplay."  Most of this made it into the final cut, and more!  And even if you don't want sweeping, interstellar political contests, the ideas presented herein might still prove useful inspiration for your own political games.

Political Conflict

All the material I’ve created thus far has focused exclusively on management of domain. That, in and of itself, is potentially interesting. For many empires, the most consistent threats were internal, and in response to proposed reforms instigated by the master of that domain. The system I’ve designed could certainly keep players busy and entertained for an entire campaign. However, it plays a bit like Sim City and other city builders: all problems come from the players’ own decisions, rather than external pressure. If we want an opponent to directly impact the players, or to represent an outlet for player aggression, then we need political conflict.

Political conflict also represents the heart of why civilizations have armies and spies. To some extent, it’s also why they have law enforcement, but law enforcement is more for dealing with crises, which I’d like to get into a little deeper. Political conflict allows us to exploit our enemies’ weaknesses, or to defend ourselves from their depredations.

Political conflict also gives us a new approach and a new set of tactics for building our empire. The advantage of focusing internally on your empire is that your stuff gets better. The advantage of focusing outwards would seem to be that your opponents get weaker, but I would argue that attacking enemies can also make you stronger. Spies can steal secrets from your rivals and deliver them to you; soldiers can raid the enemy and recover valuable booty and slaves.

Just how much political conflict can hurt someone, though, is a point worth carefully considering. In reality, war can destroy an empire that took centuries to build. War can also result in a change of leadership almost instantly. But how will players feel if their hard work is undone by a few bad rolls made against a bully who picked on them? We’ll need to strike a balance between the speed of war, and the rewards players have carefully built up, and what they can expect to gain if they win. We’ll also need to decide if offense beats defense, all things being equal, or the other way around, and to what extent.

It behooves a wise warmonger to choose his targets carefully, because he doesn’t want to make enemies of the wrong people. No matter how powerful we are, enough opponents can gather together to kick our butt. If diplomacy is war by other means, then we’ll need to understand alliances, treaties, casus belli and how those interact with loyalty and ideology (ie, what do you risk if you break an agreement?). Success in political conflict goes beyond just winning battles; it goes into picking your battles, and successfully avoiding conflicts that you know you cannot win.

Agendas for a Political Conflict

First, I must highlight the difference between a war and a battle. In our previous discussions of political gameplay, I noted the difference between a large-scale agenda, and organizational agendas meant to support that action. A war can be fought in the same way: the lord declares war against an opponent, and the players support this action by fighting and winning smaller battles. These grant the lord a bonus when we finally look at how the war played out, and who, ultimately, won.

But what sorts of political conflicts can a lord instigate. Well, previously we defined 6 major institutions, though I would argue that we can boil their actions down to four forms of conflict:

Military conflict

Economic conflict

Political (Legitimacy) conflict

Espionage and subversion

Military Conflict

This seems the most straight forward of the political conflicts. The lord instigates a war, and then the players fight battles to support it, using Mass Combat. But what should a war do? If you win, what do you get?

The first answer would be a reverse of what a political agenda grants you, which is instead of gaining a bonus, you apply a penalty to your opponent. However, this makes wars tediously slow (You’d need years to deplete a population!) and runs against how wars work: We attack our enemies holdings because we want them. The ultimate goal of a war is always to force your opponent to give you terms or, possibly, to claim his entire planet.

Thus, I propose that at the end of a political conflict, both opposing lords roll a quick contest of Strategy, using bonuses gained from respective battle wins. The winner “wins the war” and can negotiate for a benefit (see below). This works similar to bonuses and crises from the standard model, in that the players can almost always get what they want, but at a price, either something they have to give up, or a damaged public image. Part of what players can gain, just like with a political agenda, can benefit their organizations (thus, players might push for war not because they think it’s in the benefit of their domain, but because it will benefit them personally).


Players, naturally, fight battles over strategically important points using their military organizations, and players can support their organizations by playing out personal fights, acquiring vital intelligence, or slipping behind enemy lines to sabotage the enemy.

Battles grant a direct bonus to the overall war effort (typically a +2). All battles are fought over strategic points, and those points can either be natural terrain or over a key improvement. If the player wins, he may opt to take or destroy the key improvement. Taking the improvement adds half of its benefits to the lord that now rules it and denies its benefits to the lord who previously ruled it, until such time that it is returned to the lord; destroying the improvement grants the organization that committed the destruction some bonus to improve their own traits (typically wealth) and denies it to the lord until he can repair it. This typically requires a single month action with a Construction organization and an expenditure of 1/10th of the original cost (all improvements represent much more than a single building. Thus, you can raid a planet and destroy their signature hospital and that will temporarily disrupt health all across the planet, but it won’t destroy all hygiene improvements associated with that improvement, as those are extensive and all across the planet; the repair of the symbolic building that stood at the center of that improvement will restore the full use of that improvement). Any loss at this scale also triggers a political crisis: a fraction of the population dies, or there’s morale is lost, or there’s a riot, disease sets in, etc.

Espionage in War

Spies can also assist with the war effort, assassinating or turning key personnel, sabotaging structures, or simply gathering useful intel. These might be a mass combat against law enforcement organizations, or straight up mass combat like the above, or it can simply be a quick contest of skills like Intelligence Analysis, Poison or Intimidation. The players can directly assist with infiltration, investigation or combat scenes, or all of the above. Victory here grants +1 to the overall war effort, and +2 to a single battle (granting a +2 to all Strategy rolls for the commander of that battle for the duration of that battle): you can win a war with nothing but spies and assassins, but it’s much more difficult to do than with an army, and both together can be more effective than an army alone); it can also add additional benefits, but never triggers a political crisis (espionage is more precisely targeted than overall war).

Assassination: Remove one organizational subordinate

Betrayal: Turn an organizational subordinate to your side (provided he fails his Loyalty roll)

Sabotage: the destruction of a key improvement

Bio-Terror: Inflict a political crisis based on plague (provided hygiene fails to protect the populace)

Intel-Gathering: the players learn some key information about the overall plans of the enemy, or gain critical blackmail material

Non-Military Conflict: Economic and Political Conflict and Subversion

Unlike military conflict, waging economic or political war are very slow. One should expect to see very little from year to year. Each targets some specific aspect of the opposing planets stats

Economic conflict targets Wealth

Political Conflict targets Loyalty

Subversion targets Corruption

Each impacts the planets statistics at a negative rate equal to twice the rate of improving the trait. However, just as with warfare, this requires a quick contest. Success inflicts the intended penalty and triggers a political crisis appropriate to the conflict. Thus, successful economic sanctions and trade war upon your opponent damages the economy twice as fast as his rival can improve it and can trigger riots, food shortages or mass exodus of the people.

As usual, organizations can assist. Administrative and finance organizations can both attack and defend in an Economic conflict. They can create propaganda campaigns (“Support Caladan! Buy Caladan!”), negotiate new trade agreements or trim budgetary fight, while their opponent also wage propaganda campaigns (“Do you want to support child labor of Caladan? Demand better! For the children!”), woo trading partners away and find ways to reroute their own shipping lanes.

Propaganda organizations can damage the legitimacy of a regime. They can investigate to find scandals, broadcast damaging stories and news (whether true or fabricated), and simply find ways to make the opposing party look bad (“Can you believe his wife wore that to the imperial ball? Scandalous!”)

A subversion campaign offers interesting possibilities. Espionage organizations can support such an effort directly, via smuggling and generally supporting criminal enterprise, or it can use more aggressive methods to destabilize the regime, using the same actions it would during a war. They allow for very damaging actions, like destroying improvements or unleashing disease. This sort of subversion is sometimes called a “Shadow war” or a “War of Assassins.” Espionage organizations can also oppose espionage organizations, by assassinating opposing spies or finding vital intel, etc. Law Enforcement, however, is your prime candidate. They’ll root out criminal gangs, seditious activity, arrest traitors and uncover conspiracies.

In general, a conflict like this doesn’t allow the player to accept a crisis to ensure victory, as both sides pursue victory; the defender would presumably happily trade a political crisis for a political crisis and a loss of a stat, and the attacker gaining a political crisis to inflict a political crisis seems counter intuitive. Instead, organizations that act to support the war gain, in addition to granting a +1 to the general effort, grant some small benefit to the organization: an administrative organization that succeeds at a hostile takeover during a trade war grants +1 to the overall trade war, but might also gain a +1 to improve their wealth.

Political Crises, in Depth

A political crisis can occur in one of three ways. First, the lord and his organizations can so mismanage their improvements of their world that they trigger such a crisis, which usually occurs via a failed or (worse) a critically failed roll when trying to improve a planetary stat. Second, an opponent can trigger a political crisis through a successful battle or a successful waging of a long-term subversive campaign. Finally, the GM can declare a political crisis by fiat.

In all cases, we need to understand some basic things about a crisis.


Effect (both short term and long term)

What a player might do to resolve it.

Severity has a scale of 1, 3 or 5. For a crisis created by management, this represents the bonus granted to a roll to turn a success to a failure. The GM can construct any combination necessary to achieve the value desired by the player (that is, if a player fails by 3 and wants to succeed by two, the GM can choose a 5-point crisis, or a 3-point crisis and two 1-point crises, or five 1-point crises). The GM can choose to offer some choices to the player, but that’s strictly optional. For a political crisis caused by enemy action, the GM may choose a political crisis up to the margin of success. That is, if a player succeeds by 4, the GM may choose a 1-point crisis or a 3-point crisis, but not a 5-point crisis. Again, the GM can offer the player choices, but this is strictly optional.

All crises offer penalties typical to a daily administration failure (Pyramid #3-54, page 33). They also trigger crises for the player’s organizations (see below).

Severity 1 crises inflict an appropriate penalty from the chart found in the City Management article, but it’s temporary and will naturally resolve itself if unresolved at the end of the year. It also inflicts organizational crises which, when combined, inflict no more than (the number of PC organizations) x 1 in severity.

Severity 3 crises inflict an appropriate penalty from the chart found in the City Management article, but if not resolved by the end of the year, becomes permanently reflected in the stats of the planetary society. Furthermore, it also inflicts organizational crises which, when combined, inflict no more than (the number of PC organizations) x 3.

Severity 5 crises inflict two appropriate penalties from the chart found in the City Management article, but if not resolved by the end of the year, both become permanent, but even if it is resolve, one will always remain permanently. Furthermore, it also inflicts organizational crises which, when combined, inflict no more than (the number of PC organizations) x 5.

Organizational Crises

Organizational crises work just as political crises, but tend to be more immediate; they affect the organization, and typically the player himself. In general, an organizational crisis can affect the group’s reputation (how the world perceives them), their loyalty (how the perceive the organization or your leadership), the membership (who might desert or even betray the organization), resources or their contact skill (in the sense of a penalty that applies to their attempts to act as an organization). They might also affect the player’s reputation, his personal wealth, or the loyalty of his personal subordinates. In any crisis where membership might leave or betray the organization, or any crisis where the player faces a personal loss, the organization makes a loyalty roll (as per “the Limits of Power”). Success means the group closes ranks around their leader and any penalty is either diminished or removed entirely.

As with political crises, they come in a severity of 1, 3 and 5, with 1-point crises representing temporary irritation, 3-point crises representing something potentially permanent, and a 5-point crisis as something that is automatically permanent, but can be mitigated.

Dealing with Crises

Any crisis can be “resolved” by some means: damage can be repaired, riots can be tamped down, political enemies can be dealt with, and so on. These require action at one step “removed” from the level of the crisis: a political crisis requires an organizational action to resolve, and an organizational crisis requires personal action to resolve. The nature of a political crisis (in that it tends to impact organizations as well) means that when a crisis hits, most organizations will need some time to recover, or some heroic action from their leaders, before they can really respond to the larger political crisis. Furthermore, because these require organizational action, that costs the organizations actions they could be using for self-improvement or advancing a lordly agenda. Players will have to choose how they act.

The precise nature of how the crisis can be resolved varies, but as a rule, Construction and Law Enforcement organizations either resolve a crisis, or they prevent them from getting worse.

Rivalry, Diplomacy, Surrender, Alliances and Casus Belli

The existence of a political conflict necessitates additional political figures in the game, usually a variety. Dune features not just Baron Harkonnen, but the Padishah Emperor and house Corrino, not to mention the interests of the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. Part of creating a political game involves creating the “political board” in which the players play, including the varied powers they face. Note that these powers do not have to be rivals, or even from other houses: a noble might have other nobles he serves with, beneath a greater noble. Arguably, all that holds a feudal society, like Dune, together is a series of agreements and alliances: a baron of one world beneath the duke of another only remains that duke’s vassal so long as he doesn’t betray the duke.

An agreement between two parties is called an Accord (though in the game they might refer to it by any number of terms). The substance of the Accord is what the precise agreement is. This can be:

An agreement not to go to war with one another, while maintaining open trade agreements (thus, no military or economic conflict).

An agreement to come to the aid of the other if he’s in a time of crisis

An agreement to accept the commands of another and to offer up yearly tribute

An agreement to allow free passage of an organizations agents into your territory, to freely cooperate them, and to never defy them.

An Accord also has legitimacy. This describes how people see the the agreement. Legitimacy has a value between -4 and +4, with a +1 or +2 as the most common values. This value represents how the general population sees the agreement, but there might be additional values for specific demographics (Everyone but the Fremen might like the peace forged between Atreides and Harkonen). When the agreement is maintained, any loyalty checks generated by the acts necessary to maintain the agreement gain a modifier equal to the legitimacy rating, and any extreme actions taken by the character in pursuit of the accord can generate a modifier equal to the legitimacy rating on reaction rolls (that is, if the legitimacy rating is -2, maintaining the accord applies a -2 to Loyalty rolls and reaction rolls if they should come up in the context of maintaining the accord). If the character undertakes actions that undermine or violate the accord, he applies the reverse of the modifier (that is, -1x the modifier) of the legitimacy value to his loyalty values and reaction modifiers.

(The legitimacy of the accord might be based on a reaction roll, based on how well it benefits or harms the parties involved. Legitimacy should depend on the group. For example, the French really liked the Treaty of Versailles, but the Germans weren’t so keen on it; the Americans didn’t really care one way or the other).

Any time the player violates an accord in a way that generates a reaction modifier of any kind, the GM can declare that the accord is effectively dissolved (this is especially appropriate if the character gains a positive reaction from violating the accords), though this is ultimately up to the GM. A dissolved accord generates a political crisis. The severity of the crisis is up to the GM, but I suggest that the GM notify the player that he’s in danger of violating an accord, and what the severity of the political crisis will be if he continues. As a general rule, the more parties that are involved in accord, the greater the severity. Players (or organizations) may roll Law to determine what, precisely, would violate an accord.

Negotiating an Accord is a political agenda that requires a quick contest of Politics vs the opponent’s Will. It can be supported by both Administrative and Propagana organizational actions (and, with some creativity, Military and Espionage actions!). Success means the terms are agreed to (the opposing party can waive their Will roll if the terms are particularly agreeable).

Organizations can undermine or support an existing accord. Increasing or Decreasing the legitimacy of an Accord is an organizational Propaganda agenda. Characters may attempt to find or close “loopholes” within an accord is an Administrative organizational agenda and requires a quick contest of Law against the other parties involved in the accord. Success means that the player can add an minor amendment to the Accord that was “always there,” or is a careful reinterpretation or clarification of language to the faction’s benefit. This can diminish or undermine an accord, but it can also quietly cause “accord creep” where one faction finds his obligations becoming more and more onerous...

Casus Belli

Characters who wish to go to war must have a casus belli, a right to engage in open warfare. This is only necessary for military conflicts, given their extremely destructive nature. A casus belli is a form of one-sided Accord: It takes a year to generate one, and it can be supported by Administrative or Propaganda organizational agendas. It represents the justifications for war, and has a legitimacy and terms that can be supported or undermined, just like a normal accord. The legitimacy of a casus belli determines how others will react to that war, and how loyal your troops will be throughout the war (that is, how motivated they are to fight their enemy).

Any violated accord can be turned into a casus belli. Usually, such an accord contains a clause noting that violation is casus belli (for example, violating a treaty is almost always casus belli, but violating a trade agreeement might not be). “Accord Creep” can create casus belli where none was originally agreed upon!

If a faction goes to war with no casus belli, they gain a casus belli “Unjust War” with a legitimacy of -4. They may attempt to amend the casus belli or improve support for it, just like any accord, representing rewriting the narrative, drumming up support by spinning the truth, and hunting up legal justifications after the fact.

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