Social Science and Fiction Part 3: Politics at the Gaming Table

Many Americans consider it boorish to bring up politics or religion outside of sanctioned times and places. One simply does not talk politics at the dinner table. It won’t do.

But the gaming table is not the dinner table. Ideally, you play games with friends. Or if your close friends don’t share your hobbies, then at least your regular group is acquainted well enough that political differences of opinion are unimportant enough to keep you from playing together. Or if that isn’t the case, then at the very least you all retain enough courtesy to stow your partisan inclinations while the game is underway.

That’s real-world politics though. That morass is ignored easily enough. In-game politics are another kettle of fish.

There are a few ways to look at politics. One of the most helpful that I’ve found is that politics is the study of how people choose in groups. How do groups of people (or almost-people, or sentient polyvalent cross-dimensional hive minds, or what have you) make choices that will affect everyone?

As you might imagine, the answer to this beguilingly simple question can be challenging. Even in our own world, there is a dazzling array of organizing diverse interests, from the humble elementary school PTA clear up to globe-spanning imperial sovereignties.

The questions you need to ask as world creator are:

1) To what extent does the society I’m writing and its members seek dominion?

2) What are the technological constraints on the boundaries of the authority?

3) How does this sovereignty interact with its neighbors and peers?

The first question is easily overlooked. Fictional rulers fill a few trope slots. There’s the benevolent Wenceslas-type featured in hagiographies of Charlemagne or Alexander if you squint hard enough. Pure fiction would include the true kings of Gondor, the United Federation of Planets (but only when Roddenberry didn’t have his knickers in a twist over Paramount executive meddling), or maybe Paul Atreides.

Then you have the caretakers, the filler crowns, the regents who await the awakening of Arthur from under his hill. Mediocre monarchs may still play at court intrigue, so don’t discount them entirely from your campaigns. Assassination whodunnits can be a lot of fun, especially if it was one of the party members who dunnit.

There are the power-mad, including Thayvian liches, Lear, the Cylons’ Imperious Leader, the potted history version of Oda Nobunaga, or the real history version of Nero or George III (allegedly). These are the types often deployed during mid to high level campaigns, where the players must thwart (or aid, if you’re into that sort of thing) the lord in his bid to ascend to yet greater excesses of vainglory. However, don’t discard this type for low-level campaigns either. Imagine what it must be like for a common citizen to live under the rule of an ambitious thumbsucker.

Just imagine.

Please bear in mind that smaller-tier politicians are far from immune to the depredations of ambition. The corpulent city council member could well be bargaining with a demonic patron in exchange for earthly authority. The liaison to the head of the Ministry of Education might be in league with the hostile AI seeking to infiltrate and subvert the power structure in the refugee fleet. So on, so forth, suchlike.

The second question encourages you to think about barriers to expansion. Most sovereignties will be limited by the taxes they can collect (or expect to collect in the future). One fun way to think about the growth of the state (“fun” here is a subjective term) is to consider boilerplate accounting developments like double-entry bookkeeping and invention of the adding machine as the foundations upon which armies and navies are launched. Or if you prefer, what happens to a state once the frontier is closed? Will the sovereign endeavor to swell his dominions by intruding ever more forcefully upon the citizenry?

This question is easily overlooked when creating societies with shared minds. The mental capacity of even a modest Illithid colony should be beyond human measure. An elder brain has both an incredibly long time horizon and enough linked agents to indulge wildly profitable schemes that could easily result in the enslavement of whole planets. The same is true of the Geth from the Mass Effect series, though to Bioware’s credit, they did at least try to explain the downfall of the species, implausible though it may have been.

The third question, one of foreign relations should be mostly straightforward. I find it easy to address using ordinary economic logic. If the marginal benefit of an alliance is greater than the marginal cost, then neighbors will ally. The same is largely true for hostility, but I urge you to include a nod to the sunk cost fallacy: people hold grudges. Not just people, either. Mammals de minimis hoard spite, and you can probably hand-wave that any sufficiently sapient creature would do the same. Blood feuds are durable, and there’s no reason to exclude national-scale politics from this unsavory tendency.

Next time, I’d like to discuss the organizational forms of a polity in greater detail. It’s easy enough to lift monarchy, manorialism, dictatorships, or what-have-you from our own history, but there’s no reason to limit yourself to stuff that’s already been done. Think about how citizens might place constraints on the heads of state to preserve the blessings of liberty or whatever. Delve deeply into the implications of having mind-reading enchantments available when courtiers plot.

Also, I will have to get back to your comments next week. Unfortunately, it has been a rather hectic week here, and I’m just barely getting this out before my deadline. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

24 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 3: Politics at the Gaming Table

  1. Thinking about politics during game design is a big part of what separates merely competent DMs from great ones. It’s also how you can tell your players have grown, when the DM feels that instead of the next adventure just being a higher level dungeon crawl, it’s a political story that requires more than just ‘Thag SMASH!’.

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  2. Imagine a society with, like, 15th level Clerics.

    That gives you 8th level spells.

    Control Weather. There you go. You’ve got a governor who can make it rain. Or make it stop raining. Forget resurrection, why wouldn’t you want to be ruled by a guy who can ensure that your harvest will be sufficient to make it through the winter?

    Hell, why wouldn’t you worship the deity who this guy worships? You get good crops!

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    • Why wouldn’t you move to the city with the 17th level Cleric who also gets Resurrection?

      And your other point is good too… one of the discordant notes (for me anyhow) is how GoT is so thoroughly skeptical (not merely agnostic, but really atheistically skeptical)… if we experienced a fraction of what I’ve witnessed on screen, we’d be fanatic believers. The pervasive skepticism makes no sense.

      I fully expect that GRRM has some sort of notion that he’ll reveal to us at the end (ha, ha) that it was all just frisky midichlorians (or the Valerian equivalent), but knowing that as GRRM doesn’t translate into the omniscient skepticism of the characters that have not the perfect understanding of midichlorians.

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        • Talk about death panels…

          There’s probably a PhD out there for someone who wanted to model the relative scarcity of Level 17+ Clerics plus the annual limit of 365 resurrections per year (its a daily, yes?) relative to the projected population of cities in a world where weather is controlled… Imagine the cost of a single resurrection. Now imagine them going to the same few people over, and over, and over again… only to die within a day or two – cause, they might be Rich, but they are still Old.

          Might be easier and more politically acceptable to kill all the level 17 clerics. Of course, all the sane deities would place restrictions on Resurrection… talk about death panels.

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          • Okay, so let’s look at True Resurrection.

            Casting Time 1 hour
            Range Touch
            Components V S M (Holy water, 25000gp diamonds; consumed)
            Duration Instantaneous

            You touch a creature that has been dead for no longer than 200 years and that died for any reason except old age. If the creature’s soul is free and willing, it’s restored to life with all its hit points.

            This spell closes all wounds, neutralizes any poison, cures all diseases, and lifts any curses. The spell replaces damaged or missing organs and limbs. If the creature was undead, it is restored to its non-undead form.

            The spell can provide a new body if the original no longer exists, in which case you must speak the creature’s name. The creature appears in an unoccupied space you choose within 10 feet of you.

            25,000 gp worth of diamonds?!? (sputter)

            Wait, 200 years? Quick! When did Jefferson die? Oooh! 1826! Get on this crap, Francis!

            Edit: oh, crap. The “old age” loophole strikes again.

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            • Strategic Euthanasia? Burn the Body.

              Voila, new body, restored organs, replaced limbs, no disease. No mention there of cellular degeneration… they should have thought of that.

              Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a whole end-of-life-start-of-life custom service we could provide. For 25k gp of diamonds, it starts with soothing music and cucumber water.

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                • Well that sounds capricious… on what grounds do they go to the not-free receptacles? Clearly they are electing this service, so they are willing. Willing but Unable requires some sort of explication of justice, doesn’t it?

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                  • It’s kinda suicide-adjacent. Kinda hiring-an-assassin adjacent.

                    I could see sauntering up to the Seven Heavens (or Arcadia or Twin Paradises) and saying “I’ll only need temporary housing, thanks” and then being surprised that the guy pushes the button that sends you to Gehenna.

                    “Yeah, the last thing you did was hire an assassin and then you died before you could make meaningful restitution.”

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                    • “Yeah, the last thing you did was hire an assassin and then you died before you could make meaningful restitution.”

                      Restitution to whom for what?

                      [we can stop if we’re getting too close to real things]

                      Redirecting slightly, while watching Altered Carbon I kept thinking that a parallel show from the Neo-Catholic view would have been really interesting. If I were a better writer, I’d pitch it.

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                      • Restitution to whom for what?

                        Well, presumably, the deity who is in charge of bringing you back (and accepting the 25,000 gp worth of diamonds) is the one adjacent to the booth that lets you in or lets you out of one of the nice afterlife congregation places.

                        Interestingly, in theory, it’s those places that are most likely to respond well to the whole “hey, we need you to come back… there’s a zombie horde that indicates a powerful necromancer is doing its thing. Come back and fight once again!” with a sense of obligation and duty rather than with something like “I just got here!”

                        And if one of your last acts is hiring an assassin to kill somebody (even if its you), that creates a debt to your deity that needs to be repaid (presumably by cancelling the contract). And there’s a whole theology of suicide that is messy as heck. (But you can’t play off the whole “hoping for new organs” thing as on the same level as Masada.)

                        All that to say, if it were easy to get out of the 9 Hells, more people would do it. And hiring an assassin is a good way to reserve your place in line.

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                      • The themes evolving from Altered Carbon are inspiring. I keep thinking about a prequel exploring the cultural context of stack tech. The Catholic angle is a good one too, and the significance of over-writing the stack’s DNRS* code, which was introduced quite nicely in the show. It’s one of the most thematically rich shows out there. That I’ve seen anyway. {{Crosses fingers that season 2 is as good as the first.}}

                        *Do Not Re-Sleave (??) Can’t remember what it’s actually called….

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      • if we experienced a fraction of what I’ve witnessed on screen, we’d be fanatic believers. The pervasive skepticism makes no sense.

        It takes a generation or so to create a baseline. Maybe less.

        In the same way that we have achieved levels of wealth that the various Louises in France could never have imagined and we find ourselves complaining about how miracle drugs need to be more heavily subsidized as we sit and type on a box containing all of human knowledge in a room that would have held a multi-generational family centuries before… I’m pretty sure that a world filled with mere GRRM levels of magic it’d be easy to come to the conclusion that we’re dealing with some serious deism. Absent watchmakers.

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    • The answer, , is that they aren’t spells, they are prayers. With all that that entails. In other words, this isn’t a given, it is an ask. And it may be that the god in question doesn’t feel that daily mucking with the weather by humans (climate change anyone?) is a general good (after all, you are kinda getting into HIS territory there). More of a “don’t use this unless we are working on deflecting Andrew over there – secretly we are sending him to the Kobold King, which is totes worth any collateral damage, IYKWIMAITYD.”

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      • So now we’re stuck deciding whether a deity would be willing to make it rain for two hours every day at sundown or so (after a long pleasant day of sunshine)?

        And it may be that the god in question doesn’t feel that daily mucking with the weather by humans (climate change anyone?) is a general good (after all, you are kinda getting into HIS territory there).

        I could see the argument that a deity would not want to do such a thing if the people are sinful and turn their back on him… but, hey, if the people make their sacrifices, honor their elders, avoid the tabooed foods, and avoid race-mixing with Orcs, why wouldn’t a deity give out carrots at the request of his devoted followers?

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