So in a recent edition of Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice, Roger and Michael suggested the need for a Random Political Shenanigans Table (roughly 36:00). I was intrigued by this idea, and I think you could actually probably do it.
There's probably two very broad categories of approaches to something like this.
In the first approach, you have a table of specific shenanigans that occur. I think for this one to work, you need to have things quite well pinned-down. That's to say, I think you could probably do something like this for Ankh-Morpork, or for The Eight Queendoms, or for the governments of the various Outer Stars, where you have a very specific setting and tone in mind.
You'd probably also need either a broad-minded approach to the events that happen, or quite a lot of interpretation to make them better fit the context.
The second approach, and the one I'm going to actually dabble in, is something more like (to borrow from Shamus Young) procedurally-generated politics. That is to say, rather than a table of specific events to roll on, this would be a set of rules for generating events.
The thing here is that you'd be tracking various variables of the situation, and then deriving shenanigans based on those variables.
Note: I spent quite a while working on this and then lost all my work due to a computer malfunction, so I hope the reconstructed version will still make a degree of sense.
Okay, so I think we need three elements as the starting point for our system.
- Some factions
- A set of properties that fluctuate in a self-contained way
- Rules for what happens as the properties of factions fluctuate
Let's take an example of the sort of shenanigans I'm envisioning here.
As Michael mentioned, factions are often wildly different in size and influence from one another. This means the kinds of shenanigans they get up to can vary considerably. Some things are simply unnecessary to a powerful faction, and others are virtually impossible for a minor faction.
So for example, it's extremely rare that a small faction makes a short-term assault on a larger one, unless in a relatively safe context (e.g. modern politics, where a special interest group can publically attack major powers with minimal comeback). A small faction may well work against a larger faction over the long term, often covertly or indirectly, and this might eventually end with a reversal of their positions.
In more game-friendly terms, in a set of noble houses, a weak house is very unlikely to take the risk of directly threatening a more powerful rival. A powerful house may well openly move again a rival of similar power, if it judges its chances of gaining ground are good or at least that the risks of fallout are low. However, a very weak house that's also unstable or desperate might be driven to extremes. They have less to lose, and their weakness may make them less conservative and more vulnerable to turbulent internal politics. This is particularly true if the weak house seems to have gained a sudden advantage, such as blackmail material, or a promise of aid from some outside source.
How would this work?
I think what you'd want to do here is start with a system for tracking the properties of your factions. Properties would be a mixture of statistics and keywords.
Statistics might be entirely unnecessary, or they might just be basic things like "contains 14 lord and their retinues" or "$500m funds". These are more GMing notes than game stats.
Keywords would describe properties of the faction which influence the ways they behave. There are three broad types of keywords:
- Fixed keywords, which are intrinsic properties of the faction. For example, a Church faction is inherently Religious unless some seriously radical transformation occurs; it's more likely that the faction collapses and some of its adherents for a new faction, than that the whole faction undergoes such a transformation.
- Variable keywords, which are current properties of the faction. For example, the House of Smith might be Hawkish while Lady Basilia Smith is its matriarch, but when her niece takes on the leadership and chooses new advisors, it might lose that trait.
- Titles. These are where I think a lot of the mechanical action will be. Titles are basically unique keywords that transfer between factions based on their current status and on events.
Crucially, the rules for determining shenanigans will rely heavily on titles to determine who does what (or at least, who might do what).
For example, a Conqueror title might pass between factions depending on which is currently militarily strongest, or the Kingmaker title might apply, when there are two similarly-sized rivals for the commanding spot, to the next-largest faction which is not actively antagonistic towards both.
Putting things together
We're going to need both some attributes and some terminology. Here's the essentials, I think.
Power: a general measure of the political power of factions. In some cases this may be very specific (seats in a parliament, pledged acolytes) but in many cases this is a complex mixture of popularity, trust, finances, influence over other organisations, military strength, media image and so on.
Factions' relationships are summarised as Friend (actively supports), Ally (inclined to work together, and reluctant to take steps to the ally's detriment), Rival (not inclined to work together unless they expect to benefit more, and happy to benefit at the rival's expense), Enemy (actively hostile)
So here's some suggested keywords. Obviously I'm a bit hampered here because I don't have a very specific idea of exactly what kind of setting, or factions, I might be dealing with. These are just suggestions.
- Strongest - Faction with highest Power
- Weakest - Faction with lowest Power
- Kingmaker - Next most Powerful faction that is non-hostile to one or both most Powerful
- Scapegoat - Faction last successfully blamed for a disaster or scandal
- Conqueror - Faction with strongest military or equivalent
- Chancellor - Faction with strongest finances
- Victim - Last faction to suffer a disaster.
- Blackguard - Last faction known to have attacked a much weaker faction or betrayed an ally or friend
- Populist - Faction most popular with the public
- Ascendant - Faction with highest Rising rating
- Declining - Faction with highest Falling rating
- Autocratic - Faction has highly centralised authority
- Meritocratic - Faction's leadership is open to all and amenable to change
- Hereditary - Faction is shaped by families or lines of succession; authority is also likely to be hereditary
- Ideological - Faction is united by beliefs
- Factious - Faction is internally divided into rival schools of thought or political groups
- Desperate - Faction fears for its survival or integrity and is more liable to take extreme measures
- Paranoid - Faction is riven by mistrust and fear
- Soul-Searching - Faction is debating its ideology and place in the modern context
- Rising (X) - Faction has been gaining Power for X phases
- Falling (X) - Faction has been losing Power for X phases
- Confident - Faction is confident it can succeed and resistant to morale problems
- Hawkish - Faction is inclined to actively move against other factions
- Subversive - Faction is inclined to undermine other factions, even allies
I see basically three ways of doing this. The first is to randomly pick an event, and then determine who it happens to. The second is to randomly pick a faction, then determine what event may (or may not) occur. The third is to roll for every faction, but that could easily get very slow.
I think the best option is to have one major event that targets a faction based on its keywords, and possibly some lesser events per faction?
So I'm not sure what kind of things IRDT would consider to be "shenanigans", but I'm going to throw together a few ideas.
I had loads of potential ideas for events and lost almost all of them in the crash. I'll see what I can put back together but am struggling to regain inspiration.
I've grouped these into roughly similar types of shenanigan. For example, Hostility represents an aggressive move against another faction; Strife represents internal problems; Subterfuge is indirect moves to improve position; and Events are just general events.
In some cases there's exactly one thing that happens, but in other cases I've listed a preference order for which factions are affected.
This here is an initial list of ideas. I think what I'd actually like to see is a system where there was more of an If-Then checklist going on. Maybe even a flowchart! That would be more in keeping with the "procedural" idea. Another interesting thing would be to have a probability-weighted events generator. However, I think that'd take me a lot of thought and right now I'd just like to get these ideas out there.
Also, sometimes I've put "tends to" or "is liable to". This stuff is (more than usually) up to the GM to decide. For example, the Groundswell event indicates the Victim faction is boosted by public and political sympathy, but it's not always appropriate for them to become the Populist.
- Hostility: Seize the Day. A faction attacks someone they have a secret or short-term advantage against. If the Weakest faction is Desperate, they attack. Otherwise, if the Strongest faction is Paranoid, they attack. Otherwise, the most Powerful Confident faction attacks.
- Hostility: Crush the Upstart. The Ascendant faction is targeted by a more Powerful Rival or Enemy. If the Ascendant faction is Strongest, the next most Powerful Rival or Enemy faction becomes Factious, as some elements argue for an aggressive policy.
- Hostility: Jockeying for Position. The two Rival or Enemy factions with most similar Power find grounds for argument.
- Hostility: Trapped Rats. The two least Powerful factions face losing Power as the factions above them expand downwards. They're forced to re-examine their position and relationship.
- Hostility: Isolated. A Hawkish faction attacks the Scapegoat.
- Hostility: While They're Down. The Declining faction is targeted by a non-Falling Rival or Enemy with slightly higher Power.
- Hostility: Clash of the Titans. The two most Powerful Rival or Enemy factions move against each other.
- Hostility: Coronation. The Kingmaker is blamed for current problems and attacked. The attacker is the strongest Hawkish Ideological faction. If that faction is an Ally or Friend, it instead launches accusations that prompt the Kingmaker to become Soul-Searching.
- Strife: Purge. A faction acts against a subfaction claimed to be subversive, dangerous or responsible for its current plight. The faction affected is the one with the most keywords from Factious, Paranoid, Desperate, Soul-Searching, Autocratic and Ideological. If the Purge is bloody, the faction becomes the Blackguard. If the Purge is successful, the faction becomes Confident; otherwise it loses Confidence and becomes Paranoid.
- Strife: Coup. Someone attempts to seize the leadership of a faction. If the Declining faction is Desperate or Factious, they are affected. Otherwise, unless the Scapegoat is Strongest, they are affected. Otherwise, unless the Victim is Populist, they are affected. If the faction is Paranoid, there is a high likelihood of the Coup being detected. Also, a faction that undergoes a Coup is liable to become Paranoid. In extreme cases it becomes Autocratic.
- Strife: Betrayal. A faction believes elements within it are selling its secrets to another faction, or otherwise undermining it. It becomes Paranoid. If already Paranoid, it conducts a Purge.
- Strife: Schism. A faction is riven by internal strife and becomes Factious. If already Factious, it will suffer Coup or Betrayal, unless the GM feels it is ready to actually split into smaller factions.
- Strife: Conspiracy. Elements within a faction are secretly working with a rival. The target is the Declining faction. The aggressor is a rival or Enemy Subversive faction. The target begins Soul-Searching as the conspirators question their leadership. If the faction is Autocratic, it undergoes a Betrayal.
- Subterfuge: Proxy. A faction secretly provides a weaker faction with the means to move against a mutual Rival or Enemy. The puppet gains an advantage over the target. The puppet is the Victim or the Scapegoat, whichever is least hostile to the puppeteer. The puppeteer is the most Powerful Subversive faction
- Subterfuge: Whipping Boy. A faction secretly urges a weaker puppet to move against a more Powerful faction. The puppeteer is a random Subversive faction. The puppet is a weaker Ally or Rival (Desperate or Hawkish if possible). The target is a random stronger Rival or Enemy of the puppet. If the target faction is Allied or Friendly to the puppeteer, the plan is to weaken the puppet or expose them to counterattack. If the target is a Rival or Enemy, the plan is to make the target look bad. The puppet gains an Advantage over the target but is not forced to use it.
- Subterfuge: Cosying Up. The Victim is targeted by another faction claiming to offer support, but secretly looking to improve its own position or gain a pliable puppet. If possible, the other faction is the Blackguard (aiming to improve its image). Otherwise, it is a more Powerful Subversive faction. Otherwise, it is the most Powerful Desperate faction.
- Subterfuge: Entryism. A faction tries to engineer discord within a rival. The target is the Ascendant faction if it is Factious or Desperate. Otherwise the target is the Populist faction unless it is Confident. Otherwise the target is a random Factious faction. The attacker is the non-Friend Subversive faction with the most similar Power.
- Subterfuge: Buttonhole. the Kingmaker is approached by the most Powerful non-Enemy faction that is a Rival or Enemy to the Strongest. This may instead be a group of allied factions. They seek to manipulate or improve relations with the Kingmaker.
- Subterfuge: Vox Populi. the Populist faction claims legitimacy or pulls social strings to undermine the next strongest Rival or Enemy faction.
- Subterfuge: Purse Strings. The Chancellor offers financial support to the weakest Desperate faction. They may be seeking to publically humiliate them, strike a deal, or privately create dependency.
- Subterfuge: Pork Barrel. The Chancellor offers financial support to a weaker non-Enemy faction to support the Chancellor in a political or ideological position.
- Subterfuge: Extortion. The Chancellor is targeted by another faction seeking funds. This is the Populist Conquerer if possible, otherwise Populist or Conqueror, otherwise a more Powerful Hawkish faction.
- Subterfuge: Burden of Power. Elements within the Conqueror want to use its military power to intervene in an external matter. If Hawkish or Desperate, they succeed. If Soul-Searching, they become Factious. If it is not Hawkish, the faction is liable to become Soul-Searching.
- Events: New Ties. A random faction negotiates a significant bond with another random faction, such as a marriage, substantial deal, pact or ideological compromise. Their relationship may change as a consequence.
- Events: Economics. A Desperate or Confident faction takes economic risks. All factions suffer unexpected fluctuations in their financial situation.
- Events: Headless. A random faction loses an influential member and must restructure. The uncertainty delays plans and reduces takings. If Autocratic or Factious, there may be a Coup. An Autocratic faction may become Hereditary or Meritocratic if its leader is lost.
- Events: Disaster. A random faction's interests are badly affected by events outside their control. They become the Victim.
- Events: Stroke of Luck. A random faction gains a significant benefit that strengthens its position. They become Confident.
- Events: Disdain. The Scapegoat's infamy causes the public to disdain them, weakening their position. They may lose Power or money.
- Events: Fear. The Blackguard's ruthless reputation causes a random weaker Ally to switch affiliation to one of the Blackguard's stronger Rivals or Enemies.
- Events: Hypocrisy. A random faction (not the Blackguard) is said to be acting against its supposed principles. If Fractious, Soul-Searching may occur. Otherwise, if Autocratic, a Rebellion may occur; if Religious or Ideological, a Purge may occur. Unless they can convincingly reject the claim, they are liable to become the Blackguard.
- Events: Triumph. Some elements within a faction achieve something impressive, such as a discovery, victory, invention, artistic masterwork or addressing a social problem. Their popular appeal increases. They can immediately transfer Scapegoat status to a less-popular faction. If not the Scapegoat, they are approached by a Rival of similar power hoping to become Allies. They become Confident and stop Soul-Searching.
- Events: Lambs and Lions. An ideological, political or personal shift within factions causes two Rival factions to become unexpected Allies. However, not everyone in either faction is happy with the change.
- Events: New Resolve. The fastest-Rising faction that is Paranoid, Soul-Searching or Desperate loses that keyword as the faction restructures its leadership and consolidates its ideology.
- Events: Groundswell The Victim receives support from the public and from other sympathetic factions. Their popularity increases (they are liable to become the Populist) and one Rival approaches them to become Allies.
So there you go, a few initial ideas thrown around while they're still fairly fresh. It's not really a table so much as a few ideas. I might come back to this - I'd like to have something mechanically useable, but I think you'd need a pretty firm idea of a) what sort of events you might want; b) how mechanical or inspirational you want the table to be; and c) how many factions you'll have, what sort of factions they are, how many things you want to track, and so on.