Friday, January 4, 2019

Generalized Politics - Domain Management

Quite some time ago, I released a commissioned GURPS work: the Orphans of the Stars (If you’re a patron, check it out. If you’re not, feel free to join us! Of course, this post should tackle most things without you needing that document to follow along, but it's a handy worked-example). The intent behind the design was to create a space opera political system in a rather specific, Dune-inspired setting, with extensive bio-tech and where genetically engineered nobles ruled planets.

Since then, I’ve had several people ask me for a more generalized version of the political system, especially in regards to lower-tech settings, such as fantasy worlds, so I offered it as a General Topic Patreon Poll option for January, and it won quite handily!

Before I dive too deeply into this post, I want to highlight what it is and what it isn’t. First, “politics” can have many meanings. People sometimes use it to mean the manipulation of mass populations to persuade them to your course (covered by the GURPS skill of Propaganda); some people use it to mean drama and the accumulation or destruction of influence in a courtly/governmental setting (covered by the GURPS skill of Politics); and sometimes, we mean the management of a population or a domain (covered by the GURPS skill of Administration). This post is primarily about the last, about administrating a domain. Politics as manipulation of courtly settings is mostly handled by GURPS SocialEngineering, and perhaps I’ll go into it more at a later date. It’s also more of a “player vs player,” social-combat sort of situation, which is fine, but Orphans of the Star was designed for cooperative play, where characters controlled different aspects of the government, sort of like playing Civilization except you each control one arm of the domain, instead of the whole of the domain yourself.

How to Write GURPS 101

Before I dive into the topic, I want to clarify how I write GURPS articles and how I think all GURPS authors write (or, frankly, most RPG authors). I want to do this to peel back a bit of the mystique and show you that you too can write GURPS material. I want to do this because, at the end of the day, I can’t give you a complete Politics system for your specific setting, all I can do is give you the tools to build your own and discuss generalities. In the end, you need to make it yours, and I think it helps to understand how I made it mine.

In my opinion, GURPS writers always do some mixture of three things when writing:
  • Construct pre-made material by the rules
  • Compile existing rules
  • Make stuff up
The first, constructing pre-made material, is the most obvious of the three, and you regularly see GURPS fans doing this sort of thing. In this case, the author puts something together “by the rules,” such as building his own templates, building his own powers or abilities, or building his own spaceships. Anyone can do this because GURPS provides such clear guidelines. This is not to say that authors who do this are “bad” or operating on “easy mode,” because they often bring a great deal of creativity to their work. A good example of this is Christopher Rice: much of his work is doing things like compiling together interesting or innovative powers “by the book.”

The second is a little more obscure and not everyone seems to realize it’s going on. A lot of rules are just restatements of existing rules for your convenience. This is more of an academic exercise and requires knowledge of numerous works across the whole spectrum of GURPS material. The best examples of this are the frameworks of GURPS, such as Dungeon Fantasy or GURPS Action. These books don’t generally introduce new rules so much as pare down the existing rules. For example, GURPS Pulling Rank is "just" an expansion of the Pulling Rank system from GURPS Action which is, itself, an expansion on concepts from GURPS Social Engineering, which are themselves musings on how Rank and the Patron trait interact.

The last is where the writer simply assigns statistics as he sees fit. This often follows guidelines, but at the end of the day, the writer has to make his own judgment calls. Most of your tech catalogs are built this way, so the works of Dan Howard, Hans-Christian Vortisch and David Pulver all fit here. Most of these systems have some sort of underlying guidelines, such as HP/ST of a vehicle being derived from its mass, or the damage of a gun coming down to how many inches of solid steel it can penetrate, but many stats have no clear and precise rules determining their value. Handling and stability are good example of that, as bonuses just come down to “it handles well” and penalties come down to “it handles badly.” What these mean and how they should be expressed is ultimately subjective. Similarly, the exact DR values of low-tech armor is likely a very fuzzy thing (especially since there aren’t standards for armor: real-world plate armor varies very much from era to era, and from armor-smith to armor-smith). When we get into completely fanciful things like force swords or mana-engines, there are no guidelines at all, no real-world research you can do to tell yourself what they should actually be. In the end, I think most such writers have an intuitive sense of the game, from years of experience, and rely on that and the demands of the game itself. They try to make their arbitrary rules fun and game-able, so they feel like they fit seamlessly into the game. I will note that when you really dive into these sorts of rules, you sometimes find places where the author has fudged or ignored a guideline to make something more gameable. That’s fine too!

I think the greatest tension for the average GURPS would-be writer is knowing where the second approach ends and the third begins. If you're actually writing a supplement, you should be careful about rewriting existing rules because those are the foundation upon which other books are written and you risk creating inconsistencies. It’s only when no hard rules exist that you can safely make an arbitrary decision. When creating home-rules for your own campaigns (which is GURPS writing as much as creating a publishable supplement!), your hands are tied less and you're free to write away existing rules and introduce your own arbitrary decisions, though you should be aware that you can still create inconsistencies, but they're easier to hand-wave away with your smaller group and your greater authority over the rules.

I bring this up because if you want to bring the political rules into your game, you’re going to have to make stuff up. For Orphans of the Stars, especially when it came to task difficulty or the cost of political actions, I definitely “made things up” primarily with an eye towards interesting gaming choices (Propaganda is often very cheap, wealth investment is often very expensive, so I did some balancing of costs and effects there to make them more compatible with one another). I’m going to do the “research” part for the compilation of rules for you, here, in this post. Once you’ve gone through them, you should have a good sense for how they work, and where things become unclear, just insert your own subjective opinions or insights. Especially if you’re just doing this for your own campaign, it’s not going to matter if, according to the GURPS “Rules as Written” you’re wrong, because it’s your campaign, and it needs to work for you and your group.

GURPS Domain Management: Existing Rules

It should come as no surprise to you, then, that most of my political material ultimately derived from existing rules. What’s especially interesting is that they’re especially well-suited to fantasy-level play: I actually had to do a lot of work to scale them up to planetary scales.

The core book you’ll want to handle domain management is GURPS City Stats and the core book for organizational management is GURPS Boardroom and Curia. Which you’ll want will depend on what you’re managing. If it’s a physical place, City Stats is probably better for you, while an organization, such as a church, corporation or criminal enterprise, you’ll want Boardroom and Curia. Both have some insights to offer to the other, however.

Shared traits

Tech Level: Both books want to know what TL your domain is at, which is generally pretty straight forward and generally a setting constraint (though perhaps some cities or organizations have access to radically different technologies).

Population/Members: Both books want to know how many people are under your domain.

Wealth: Both books want to know how wealthy the organization is. This value, multiplied by the population/membership of the domain determines how much total wealth is available in the domain.

Control Rating: This determines how oppressive the domain is. This applies to both organization and city, and use the same values.

City Traits

Search Bonuses: Derived from population, it might be an interesting value to add to an organization, though typically in an organization, you just ask for a particular asset or sort of person: if you need an assassin, you just pull rank and if your organization has an assassin, you’ve got it.

Terrain: The sort of land your city is built on; not terribly pertinent to organizations.

Appearance: How attractive your city is. Not especially pertinent to organizations though organizations do have “notable resources” and reputation. The latter serves a similar role, and the former might matter for attractiveness (a church might have “beautiful” temples).

Hygiene: Covers how clean the city is. Only really useful if you want to track disease, certain forms of magic, or bio-tech attack vectors.

Magical Environment: Like terrain, but focuses on the magical side of it. Not pertinent to organizations, though again, they might have notable resources (“The Wizard’s Guild has access to secret Very High Mana enclaves where they cast their most powerful spells.”)

Culture: This is more descriptive, and while organizations don’t explicitly get into culture, this affects them too. In Orphans of the Stars, I melded this with Member Traits to create ethnic minorities. For example, if you have a human city (who are literate and speak Common), there might also be Elves (who are literate and speak Elvish) and Orcs (who are not literate and speak the Black Tongue). A good way to handle these for a city is to alter the search modifiers based on the population of each: if 10,000 out of a 100,000 city are elves, then finding a human doctor is at +3, while an elven doctor is +1.

Status: This covers the range of statuses available in the city and is more descriptive of the state of the city, taking a similar role to rank in organizations. In principle, status might matter to organizations too (rank and status have a synergistic relationship).

Political Environment: This is mostly descriptive, again, and sets base constraints on your domain management (managing a democracy will be different than managing a monarchy, at least if you need to persuade someone to get your agenda agreed to). This is roughly analogous to organization type.

Corruption: An interesting trait that primarily measures how easily one can get past the rules, it might also cover how much crime a city has, or how dangerous the population is to the authorities. This might be an interesting trait to pull over to organizations, and the closest analogous trait here is Loyalty.

Military Budget: This is your hard-and-fast governmental income. They call it a military budget, but I think that’s because if you call it a booze-and-hookers budget, the people would rebel. More accurately, I think we could call it a discretionary budget that tackles things that fall beyond the scope of the game to worry about. Presumably the king has taxes that handle the maintenance of his roads or the basic bureaucracy he maintains, but if we care about things like throwing a grand parade to impress the people, building a great engineering project, or raising more troops, all of it comes out of this budget. Organizations do not have a corresponding trait because they deal with wealth differently.

Defense Bonus: How defensible the city is. Organizations don’t have this, but Notable Resources might.

Organizational Resources

Contacts and Member Traits: These represent the sorts of people one might find in an organization and a rubber-meets-the-road sort of interaction with an organization (“I know what the Thief’s Guild is like, but what is a single thief from the Thief’s Guild like?”). The closest analogous trait here is the Search Modifier from City Stats (that is, what are your chances of finding a particular sort of person in a city) and Culture (the sorts of people in your city). It may well be worth using this sort of trait in a city, but primarily to represent ethnic minorities found therein.

Notable Resources: Organizations are abstractions of a pooling of individual talent and goals, and thus are more of a collection of people than a physical place. But organizations can have physical places associated with them, like the sacred mountain of a nature-worshipping cult, or the skyscraper HQ of a major corporation. These notable resources might have many city-like traits, such as an Appearance, a physical environment, a magical environment and a defense bonus.

Reaction Time Modifier: This is a fairly interesting trait. It mostly exists to determine how long from when a player character starts interacting with an organization (making a Pulling Rank request, or making attacks against their resources) that the organization acts (fulfills the pulling rank request, or sending kill squads to deal with this pest). A city won’t have this, but the government running it might, but it’s also an open question if it matters to your political game. If you’re playing in “slowed down” political time, reaction time just doesn’t matter.

Startup Cost and Resource Value: This is an abstraction of what it takes to start up such a group, and how much of a budget they have to throw at things. Resource Value is roughly analogous to Military Budget, and in practice, if discussing a city’s government as an organization, these two values should match.

Patron, Enemy, Ally and Dependent Value: These are concerns for player characters, and aren’t especially important to determining political gameplay rules.

Type: Descriptive of the organization, and roughly analogous to the political environment of a city.

Loyalty: A very interesting trait and one I highly recommend borrowing for City Stats. It discusses how well the members of an organization will work together, and how committed they are to the cause. A city might also have loyalty to its government, with a rebellious city having a low value, and a zealous city with a high value. This can be useful if trying to sway a population or undermine loyalty to create rebellions.

Rank and Income Range: More a description of the sort of people in the organization and how they organize themselves; similar to Status and Wealth ranges in a city.

Reputation: This is to an organization what appearance is to a city: how well liked it is.

It’s a City! It’s an Organization! No, it’s...

Sometimes, you need to merge your domain together, depending on what you’re looking for. For example, street gangs are probably best considered organizations, but they’re organizations who definitely have “turf” and a strong connection to it. A gang that allows its neighborhood to be beautified or to improve the overall wealth of the area also profit, as they can charge more for their “services,” but at the same time, they have to be careful of the sort of activities they do (an uptown gang can certainly handle escorts, illicit gambling casinos hidden away in a mansion basement and make sure the rich college kids get their drugs, but the moment firefights start breaking out, property values will plummet and people start moving away…). So, they operate similarly to how a city government does, in that they “tax” the locals, and thus care about the state of the locals (at least, they do if they’re wise).

When it comes to being tied to a geographical location that’s not a city, we have a few options. GURPS Space discusses planetary scale economics in the “Social Parameters” section starting on page 84. This includes (see if any of this sounds familiar): Tech Level, Population, Society Type, Control Rating and Economics (Wealth). You can bring in a few additional traits from cities and organizations (hygiene, loyalty) which is exactly what I did for Orphans of the Stars. The primary difference here is a matter of scale, as planets don’t generally get smaller than 100,000 people, and search modifiers don’t care about things larger than 100,000, so you might have to make up some numbers of your own.

GURPS Space also includes bases and installations. Personally, I find these more interesting than base stats. For example, if you try to improve a city by improving its hygiene, what precisely are you doing? Improved sewer lines? Better hospitals? Harsh laws that demand hand-washing? 4X games like Civilization, from which you’ll probably draw inspiration, certainly use concrete assets to define abstract demographic improvements (How do you improve the literacy of a population? You build a library!). This has several benefits, as it makes it easier for the player to understand, and it also presents a concrete location for players to visit (“We need to research Cthulhu. Wait, didn’t you build a library in your city?”) or defend.

For more rural areas, especially in fantasy settings, I direct you to Lord of the Manner in Pyramid#3/52 by Matt Rigsby (you’ll note that I often cite Matt; he wrote Boardroom and Curia as well; Bill Stoddard is your other author of choice, having written Social Engineering and City Stats). This tackles income from primarily agricultural sources from TL 1-4; if you combine this with GURPS Fantasy (Bill Stoddard, again), in Chapter 5 “Localities” which discusses how rural domains tend to be constructed, you can get a pretty good sense as to how various subdomains build up into a greater domain.

Taking Action!

It’s not enough to have a domain, your actions need to affect your domain. Specifically, we’d want to spend some money and time and roll against our skill to improve some aspect of our domain. For organizations, see “Running an Organization” starting on page 19 of Boardroom and Curia. For cities, see Pyramid #3/54 Social Engineering article “City Management” (by Matt Rigsby, again).

Really, between these two, you’ve got everything you need for whatever sort of domain, or combined domain, that you want to run. You have the base stats, you have actions you can take to improve them, and you even have time-scales, budget levels, required skills, and consequences.

If you want to handle something bigger, like a planet, just scale time and budget up. If you want to handle something small, like a village, just scale the time and budget down. If you want to see the effects of magic, I direct you to the previously mentioned Lord of the Manner article.

Taking Mass Action!

Mass Combat is the crunchy peanut-butter to the smooth chocolate of domain administration: they go very well together. While there’s more to politics than war and administration, it’s a very good start. A well-run domain can supply the logistical needs of a well-run military, and a well-run campaign can defeat an enemy and perhaps even provide the resources necessary to improve your own domain. But at the same time, focusing too much on war means your domain will suffer, and focusing too much on domain can leave you undefended if another, more militaristic power declares war. The budgets and time-scales involved tend to be similar to one another, by design. Thus, mass combat creates interesting choices for anyone running a domain, offers both a strategic and tactical layer to the game, and gives players much needed action, as well as integrating well.

Spicing it Up

Oprhans of the Stars used all of the above as its base framework, but I worked at “spicing things up” to keep it as interesting as possible. So, let me offer some suggestions and ideas to keep fun. A good working example of all of these can be found in Orphans of the Stars, so I won’t repeat them here (I’m also double my allotted word-count...)


Chances are, you’ll find interesting bits and baubles in the various systems I outlined above. Feel free to bring them in together. Some examples from Orphans includes adding population Loyalty to “cities” and corruption to organizations. I’ve already mentioned how well Mass Combat goes with Boardroom and Curia or City Stats, and nothing prevents you from bringing concepts like Loyalty and Hygiene into military forces. Perhaps a reward for massive propaganda efforts is undermining the loyalty (creating “Disloyal” units) of your enemy or improving the loyalty of your own forces (creating “Fanatical” units). Perhaps plague is a major concern, and whenever a military force enters an area, they need to make an HT roll with a bonus or penalty equal to the area’s hygiene to keep from catching plague.

Note that you don't need everything. If health is not an issue, don't include Hygiene.  If we're talking management of robots that will never betray their organization, don't bother with Loyalty.  If you don't have magic, obviously you don't have a magical environment.  Pick the things that matter to your game, and focus your attention on those, and leave out or simplify everything that doesn't matter.

I generally suggest doing a quick sketch of all the bits you’d like to cobble together and see how you might make them compatible, which tends to be fairly obvious once you have them all side by side.


Once you have all your pieces assembled, smooth them out and make the mechanics more approachable. In general, you want your various actions to be as self-same as possible. You want to avoid a load of little exceptions that requires players (and GM!) to have their book open to look up something every step of the game. If actions take a particular amount of time, try to adjust them so they’re generally the same (“About a month” or “About a year”) is good, depending on the scale of the game. Similarly, try to keep price values about the same, so you can’t do one action for $10 and another for a $million. The ideal is actually the same, so players begin to see their budgets in chunks (“Huh, I have $3,000,000. That’s three upgrades, which ones do I want?”). You may have to fudge to get values to match, but making stuff up is fine, fudging is fine, as long as it gives you the gameplay you’re looking for.

Crisis! And Failing Forward

I find few things as frustrating in a slow-motion game like domain management to build up to my once-a-month roll, and then blow the roll, so “nothing happens.” I prefer to have some means to let my players ensure that their agenda is successful, even if it comes at a cost.

One such cost I introduced in Orphans of the Stars was the concept of a crisis, which came in values (1, 3 and 5-point crises). Players could “buy” success by accepting crises. This, incidentally, does a good job of illustrating how real-world policies actually work. When someone tries to implement a program to improve literacy, a “failure” doesn’t look like nothing happened. Instead, it might be that people gain literacy, but parents begin rioting over their kids being taken away to re-education camps, or the increased literacy results in less adherence to traditional ideals and perhaps more crime, or perhaps, rather than push for the extreme changes the project turns out to demand, the politician just lets it drop, but that’s a choice. And that choice, makes it critical. If a player rolls badly, rather than suffer the disappointment, they’re faced with a choice between a deeply flawed success, or a straight-forward failure, and that makes the game more interesting, in my opinion.

You can also just chuck these crises at your players. Plagues just happen, crime just happens, the domain slowly falls apart and the players will need to be the ones that fix it. This can keep the game from being a stale set of steady improvements on a domain over time.


One of the appeals of magic in fantasy systems is that they offer alternative ways to achieve success, with alternative costs. For example, rather than carefully manage the land to improve its fertility, you can have wizards cast spells to keep the land fertile. This comes at the cost of critical failures summoning demons, and the land becoming dependent on mana levels, which means a crisis like a mana storm or something might really cause problems for the world. With its addition, players have another layer of choices as to how they solve their problems, with a new layer of consequences and requirements.

“Magic” is a common, default example of this sort of alternative problem solving. We could add divine favor (Pray to (the) God(s) for fertile lands, at the cost that God will abandon your domain if you sin), technology (use radiomutagenic bio-tech to improve crop-fertility. I’m sure it’ll be fine. We tested it, right?) or psychic powers.

Exactly how to implement this varies. Some obvious utility will leap out at you if you look over available powers or effects. The Lord of the Manor article explicitly covers magic and land fertility. As a good rule of thumb, you can also use powers and abilities as “complimentary rolls” typically offering +2 instead of +1, or +4 if it offers “miraculous” utility (such as precognition and strategy rolls).

Bring it to the Players

The actions and stats in the systems I describe are abstract and nebulous. If you improve the city’s Hygiene, what does that mean? What does the player character, walking the streets, see? What about a sudden increase in corruption? What does that look like? How does it affect their adventures? I’m sure you can already think of some answers, but you should think of those answers.

Consider replacing generic stat-improvement actions with specific asset construction. Improving the beauty of the city requires building gardens or monuments or temples. Instead of improving or reducing control rating, consider passing specific laws with specific consequences. Low control ratings might look like bills of rights, explicitly protecting some freedom “for the people/members” while high control ratings might look like increasingly tyrannical laws.

We can use these concrete examples to create new interesting choices. We could have a list of laws that the domain can pass with additional, associated consequences. Building gardens might improve local mana, monuments might make the city more martial, and temples might introduce new gods. Likewise, passing oppressive laws might also improve hygiene, alienate certain populations (“The Elven Purity Act”), or drive out religions (“The State Theocracy Act”) while liberties might make the population harder to control in specific ways.

Furthermore, try to find ways to bring this to the players. Ask yourself how a person on the street might interact with these. For your crises, if you have them, introduce some obvious element that the players can interact with or affect directly to gain a bonus to dealing with the problem. For example, a rise of corruption might be tied to the introduction of organized crime, which means that you see more thefts, more murder, the bribing of officials, and there may be a specific face to the corruption, a mafia boss that the players could assassinate or arrest to reduce crime in the city again. When improving a stat through some construction, make at least one aspect of that construction something players can interact with. For example, beautifying the city with religion likely means multiple shrines, temples and even traditions or holidays throughout the city, but perhaps there is a main, central temple which, in addition to boosting the city’s beauty, offers specific miracles and benefits on a player-character scale, such as blessed weapons or a specific blessing depending on the nature of the God.

The key thing to remember here is that you’re not running a domain management game. You are not playing civilization or Masters of Orion. You are running an RPG where each player controls a single character, and that character needs to interact with his world. If you keep this perspective, all sorts of interesting options starts to open up and, frankly, you begin to understand history better. One reason kings and politicians make the choices that they do is to benefit themselves personally, not to maximize some abstract stats that their domain has. For example, the Corruption Action in City Management rules makes no sense if you’re trying to make the best city you can, but it makes a ton of sense if you really need an expensive enchanted sword to rescue your girlfriend from a dragon, or you need to pay off a mafia boss so he doesn’t blackmail you and cost you your cushy position.

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