Politics and Roleplaying
The Xanadu Report
Politics…you can’t avoid it. It’s an evil monster that turns reasonable men into monsters, molehills into mountains, and pretty much controls every facet of our daily lives. You can’t avoid politics no matter how hard you try, even when roleplaying.
Now, I’m not saying that having politics in a roleplaying game is necessarily a bad thing, it actually makes the game world interesting and lively (not to mention realistic). The thing is, though, politics aren’t just restricted to political/military games….they can be in any game. That game about the war between feuding empires in a fantastical fantasy realm? Politics. The game about the werewolves and vampires living in the modern world in their own special society? Politics. The game about sentient food that plots against the world order. Maybe not….but I’m gonna say politics just for consistency.
What you may not know is that, no matter your game, you’ve had politics involved in it once or twice…or maybe your game is completely centered around it and you don’t know it! The thing is, though, politics are surprisingly hard to pull off in a roleplaying game. Wait, really Xan? You’re yanking my proverbial chain. No, I’m not, hypothetical italics person. The reason why politics is so freaking hard to perfect (I’ll go out on a limb and say perfecting politics, be it your own personal strategy as a politician or nailing down the political system in your game, is downright impossible) in both real life and the fictional world is because it’s ever changing and incredibly diverse (we’ll get to what I mean by “diverse” in a bit). Now, I feel I’ve confused you enough. There’s many different facets to politics in the game world that I’ll break down for you, in the grand attempt to make this somewhat easier and streamlined.
The Wide World of Politics
There are many different types of politics. First, there’s the one we all know and love, y’know the one, voting for leaders, deciding on policies, debating stuff that may or may not matter anymore. Then there’s foreign politics, which is basically countries trying their best to be friends (I’ll use anthropomorphism to make this less tedious…and because it’s fun to write. If my Political Science professor is reading this…please don’t consider any of this in my final grade), I’ll go more into that in a bit. Then there’s military politics, which sort of goes along with foreign politics, but is a little more tricky because it involves bombs and tanks. Finally, there’s corporate politics…which is how corporations act around one another (and is the most hilarious of all).
But there’s more than just the real-world stuff, there’s also politics between clans, kingdoms, etc. Why are the clans fighting over stupid mountain? Maybe because one is dumping trash on it and the other thinks that their god was born there, after arguing and failed negotiations one side screw it and forcefully enforced their claims. When the other asked them to go away, they refused, and left war as the only viable option.
To sum all of that confusingness up, the wide world of politics is almost never-ending. But I can only cover a few without putting myself in a political coma…so we’ll cover those that I think best pertain to roleplaying.
Woo! Who doesn’t love a good war? Except, typically, the guys actually fighting it. The thing about war is that it just doesn’t happen…it’s not like a bar fight where someone who’s had a few too many just decides to sock the guy next to him in the face just because it’d make the ladies laugh. There’s always something behind the conflict, typically a series of political debates, failed negotiations, broke promises, etc.
Let’s take the Gulf War for example. The Gulf War was caused by years of political unease. For starters, Iraq downright hated Kuwait for a number of reasons. For one, they claimed that Kuwait was actually part of Iraq, because they had originally been part of the Ottoman Empire and that it was part of the Basra province, which covered both Iraq and Kuwait, and that Kuwait rightfully belonged to Iraq. Another reason is because Kuwait (a member of OPEC, Iraq being a fellow member) was overproducing oil and driving the price of oil down, causing financial losses to Iraq. Iraq eventually ended up warning Kuwait to stop with the excess oil production and moved troops to the border. Peace talks began, with Iraq demanding 10 billion (in american dollars) to cover the losses from the oil price drop, to which Kuwait only offered 9 billion. Iraq instead decided to launch their invasion. The invasion was successful and Iraq had control of Kuwait. Western nations were not happy with this, and were worried that Iraq would turn its attention to the nearby Saudi oil fields now that they had control of Kuwait. The UN Security Council gave Iraq a withdrawal deadline, and approved the use of force if they didn’t leave. When Iraq didn’t obliege, a coalition of countries against Iraq’s violence intervened, and what followed was the Gulf War.
Now that our history lesson has concluded, what did you learn? For one, the world may not get along all the time, but other countries getting violent will always bring other nations together for a good old fashion butt-whoopin’. Why? Because things like an invasion of an oil-producing country can cause havoc. Not just death and destruction, but economic ripples and political fallout (though stopping death and destruction always plays a part in bigger nations stepping in to help other nations, nobody will tolerate that crap for long), war can ruin the world economy, especially since Kuwait was an oil-producing and exporting country, and the political fallout (as in, the consequences of nobody doing anything) could have been dire, other nations might have followed Iraq’s lead and decided that the land their neighbor had would be a great place to build a nice water park or some missile silos. Another thing to consider is that while the coalition did end up sending combat forces, they tried to end the crisis diplomatically at first. Cooperation is crucial, and has stopped many conflicts (including those that could have ended the world, see Cuban Missile Crisis) from occurring. Even if it fails, you can at least say that you tried to negotiate before sending in the troops. In addition, it’s always good to have backup. The cooperation between North America, Europe, and the Arab states surrounding the crisis-area made the intervention that much more successful (different countries have different tactics and weaponry to employ during war, having that much diversity in your intervention force makes it exponentially more effective).
Now how do we put this into roleplaying? Easy! Consider everything I said above but put it into your setting. Let’s say that your game follows a great empire that covers a vast land, and has many different countries within the support the empire. A neighboring country decides that one of the nations in your empire should totally leave the empire and join it in an alliance, which is something you as the emperor/empress will not tolerate. When you demand that the territory knocks it off, the factions supporting the alliance take up arms. Your army could kick the snot out of the rebels, so they’re not much of a threat, and they already said no to your diplomatic option….but there’s a few things to consider. For one, war is costly. Even if you have the advantage, it still costs money to feed and equip the troops (you also kind of have to pay them for their service, so add that to the expenses of waging war). It also costs money to lose men. No battle goes without losing some of your own troops, and it costs money to train replacements, there’s also the matter of compensating the families of the fallen and replacing the gear that might or might not have been lost when they died. In addition to the heavy cost of war, your neighbors might not take too kindly to you slaying your own people because they voice their opinion and said “well, maybe empire ain’t as great as it seems”. As I said earlier, you can easily crush the rebellion and their supporters to keep the country in the empire. Your advisors and your loyalists are crying out for blood and want the secessionists dead! But there’s a problem with that….you can only do something like that once.
Let’s take another gander into the past, this time in ancient Greece. The city of Mytilene was part of the Athenian empire, and a revolt was underway against Athenian rule. However, Athens was debating what to do about it. Cleon, a popular statesman, wanted to slaughter the entire city to serve as an example to all other members of the empire. Cleon almost had his way, with Athenian forces being deployed to carry out the genocide. However, Diodotus, who opposed genocide, came forward and warned Athens of the consequences they would face. His point was that it wasn’t about the revolt or whether Athens should seek vengeance, but rather what the best interests of the Athenians would be. In the end, you could only commit genocide once. If they slaughtered the city of Mytilene, no-other city would allow it to happen again. The assembly was swayed and the Athenians sent a boat to meet the assault force and withdrew their original orders, instead having them kill the leaders of the revolt.
What’s the lesson from this? Violence has consequences. Of courses there’s death and financial costs…but you have to consider the political consequences. If your empire slaughters all of those people, nobody (and I do mean nobody) will allow that to happen again. Your people will stand up to your army next time they go to put down a revolt to keep a similar thing from happening, there might even be a mass uprising. Additionally, your neighbors might decide that you’re not such a good leader for slaughtering everyone who hates you and team up to take you down. Even though you tried diplomacy first