We've all seen or read a piece of fiction that laid out a complex and fascinating series of political maneuvers and brilliant takeovers. Whether its Petyr Baelish climbing the ladder of chaos or Frank Underwood manipulating the court of public opinion, political drama can be super fun and entertaining. But, when you're the one designing said political drama, it becomes far more daunting. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to design political intrigue for your DnD campaigns.
A few notes before we get going. If you want to take a look at an example, I'm going to build a brief set of information to fill out a political landscape at the bottom of this post. Secondly, and most importantly, if you're interested in developing a politically complex world you must do some prior planning. This is one of the few times that a good knowledge of rules, some ideas for characters and environments and a vague plotline are not enough to carry you through. Write stuff down.
Institutions and their Actors
The most important part of politics are the institutions that hold power. An institution is a body which holds influence of some kind over important or large parts of a region/nation. Some examples are: the dominant religion, the military, the executive of the government, a large guild, etc. There should always be more than one, and if you want your politics to be interesting, there should be minimum three powerful institutions. Having three powerful institutions it means there's always a chance for alliances to shift, the balance of power to depend on two of them to maintain; basically without a third force one institution is always going to be in some way dominant. Then, once you've figured out which institutions will be in play, install a number of actors within each. An actor simply refers to an NPC (or potentially a PC depending on how you want your game to play out) that has influence within the institution. Again, you don't want a single actor, because then they inevitably become an embodiment of the institution as a whole, which eliminates any nuance that you can achieve through internal conflict and shifts in leadership. Actors should have personal goals as well as institutional goals, and should always have distinct personalities. This leads us to the next important part of political intrigue.
To make a political landscape dynamic you need your actors and institutions to want something to change. They don't all need to want change, one or two being invested in maintaining the status quo is compelling, but if everyone wants things to remain the same, it's boring. Secondly, and very similarly to the first point, your institutions goals cannot all be aligned. If every institution is aligned then there is no intrigue, so your powerful forces must want different things. Sometimes these goals are secret, completely hidden in order to better achieve what they want, sometimes its loud and obvious. There are also two types of categories that your institutions should have goals for: internal/external and long/short. Institutions want to change both things within themselves as well as things outside of their own sphere of influence. Institutions also want to change things both in the short term as well as the long term. Even if there's only one in each category, your institutions should have goals in each category. Then, flavour in personal goals for your actors. Here we have established a baselines upon which we can begin to watch the drama unfold as institutions and actors succeed or fail to accomplish their goals. To succeed or fail, there must first be conflict.
Conflict and Alliance
Conflict does not necessitate violence. Some of the most satisfying political victories come without a drop of blood being spilled, but that does not mean that there isn't conflict. A nonviolent monk within a powerful church could very will gain power over a general without physically harming them, but their two belief systems are clearly in conflict. But conflict between every institution constantly is simply chaos. In order to establish factions, you need alliances. Alliances are a beautiful avenue for betrayal, espionage, and quick, drastic shifts in power. When an alliance begins or ends it almost always both creates new conflict and ends old ones, sometimes in reverse order. Remember, two institutions will only enter into an alliance if they both think they can get something out of it. Additionally, conflicts and alliance occur once again both within and without institutions. An actor from the bureaucracy may be allied with a priest despite their institutions being in conflict, because their personal goals align. It is very hard to establish who is allied with who, and who is in conflict with who, without knowing what each actor/institution has as their goals.
Someone has the best strategy, luck, or both. In other words, there's no point in developing a nuanced and interesting political landscape unless someone emerges on top. A victory need not be permanent, especially if you're running a long campaign, but for politics to be interesting it needs to continue to change. Some factions and institutions will be more stable than others, and able to resist significant change more successfully than others, but stability can be a strength or a weakness depending on how you play it. Are they stable because they're playing it safe and therefore not making significant steps towards their goals? Is their stability merely a projection on the face when in reality they are internally in turmoil? Change can come from external sources, like the discovery of powerful magical artifacts or gods descending to the mortal plane. Change can also come from internal sources, decisions that actors make to further one goal or another. The next and final question you have to ask your self is, how are your characters going to be agents of that change?
When it comes to highly political campaigns, there are two roles your PCs can fill. The first is that of pawns, knives in the dark, vessels for dirty deeds. In other words, they work for institutions or actors with little to no say in the greater decision of power. This is a safer way to introduce newer players to political intrigue, or for players that don't want world-defining decisions resting on their shoulders. The second way to insert PCs is as actors, people who have a say in the decisions of institutions and factions. They know their goals, they know who to ally with or against, and they get to deal with the broad consequences of their actions and decisions. They are not necessarily independent of one another either. PCs may begin the campaign as a set of pawns, but work their way into power and prestige as they complete and succeed at tasks for or against certain institutions. Conversely, perhaps the PCs begin the campaign in positions of power, but after a series of betrayals they are forced back to mere pawns, doing the will of others. And just like that, it all comes together. The only thing to do next is see how the players act, where they succeed, and what that means for the grand scale of the world.
So let's do it, let's put it all together.
Grantick, an example of a politically complex world
Grantick is a nation that emerged from the trade that occurred at the mouth of the continent's biggest river. Once part of another nation, Grantick funded its own private military through the taxation it placed on merchants shipping goods up and down the river. It allied itself with a nearby nation in return for cheaper taxation, and fought a brief but ultimately successful war on its parent nation, which had and continues to have financial trouble because of waning resources. This is the canvas upon which we will lay out our politics.
There are three powerful entities operating in Grantick.
Merchant's Guild: A driving force behind Grantick's wealth, being a part of the merchant's guild means financial protection if something happens to your business, a cut of group investments, access to safer and faster shipping vessels, and the ability to network freely with the nation's rich and powerful.
The Grantick Throne: One monarch is elected and serves till death, at which time a new one is voted in. The employees and servants of the throne remain between rulers, operating the tax system and military while the ruler makes big-picture decisions.
The Equal People Movement: Since Grantick is a hub for trade it means the civilians are used to a wide variety of races and cultures mixing in their country. That along with the fact that Grantick needs workers as a growing nation has attracted a large number of immigrants and refugees. These peoples have now begun to organize, unifying as a voice for workers, lower classes and those who are new to the country.
Each institution has two actors that are currently important to politics.
Belvedor Slas: Often considered the wealthiest man in Grantick, Belvedor was among the group that funded the initial rebellion and freed the new nation. He is old now, with a big gut and a bigger hat, but his mind is still razor sharp. Belvedor is the most influential of the Merchant's Guild, prone to well-priced bribes and the hiring of the most expensive and notorious assassins and mercenaries.
Illy Hrentick: Illy is from new money. She was the first to open up trade with the struggling nation that Grantick seceded from, and was able to form strong ties as well as a formidable store of wealth from the relationship. She is often looked down on because of her trade with the so-called enemy, but in person she is charismatic and persuasive. She tends to use warped logic and careful manipulation to get others to do her will without even knowing.
King Checkra: Checkra is the second king of Grantick. He was swept into office on a wave of popularity and with the support of the Merchant's Guild. Ever since he's found ways to undermine their power and seeks to set himself apart from the wealthy merchants, wanting to avoid being a seen as their pawn. He is an idealist who is new to power, but he's a quick learner looking for new ways to use the new country under his control.
Coinmaster Ren: Ren holds the strings of the government's purse. She has occupied the position of coinmaster for the better part of thirty years, and is the Merchant Guild's nightmare. She has a deep understanding of the legislature surrounding taxation and funding of governmental programs, including the military. Those experienced in dealing with the crown consider Ren to be the real power behind the throne.
H'rung Trredsd: Head organizer of the Equal People Movement, H'rung is in the process of setting the group's charter down in writing. H'rung struggles with decision making and action, but he is a brilliant scholar and a surprisingly good public speaker. H'rung is an immigrant himself, running from a war-torn region to the north, and is adamant about his nonviolent principles.
Vioo Cioo: The decisive, angry second half of the Equal People Movement's organizational structure. Vioo believes that change only comes through making people uncomfortable, and is constantly setting up protests and demonstrations in an attempt to keep the movement in the forefront of people's mind. She is responsible for the increasing interest from the younger demographic of Grantickians.
In the name of brevity, this section is going to be compounded down into a summation of what each institution wants with only a brief mention of some of the larger wishes of actors within institutions. When it comes to designing your own world, this is going to be the section that takes the most time and will inevitably lead to the conflicts, alliances and changes that will occur.
Merchant's Guild: The guild is expansionist. They seek to increase their influence along with the size and sway of Grantick, and use prices to influence the power of other nations. The more the guild wants to take over a nearby nation or region, the higher the prices they'll set. In order to achieve actual occupation they need the help of the military, so the short term goal is to gain enough influence over enough high ranking military officials to wrest control of the military entirely away from the throne. Belvedor has let his most trusted few friends in on who he has successfully bribed and cajoled so far, one of which is Illy. Illy is happy with the expansionist policy, but she's planning on betraying Grantick once they've accumulated enough territory, and deliver the military and merchant's guild back to the nation they seceded from so that her own influence goes up. She's waiting until Belvedor dies so she can take control of the Merchant's Guild, but she's not against hurrying his demise along.
The Grantick Throne: The government recognizes that their nation is still too new to be anywhere near stable. They're seeking to consolidate power and expand the executive powers of the throne. Primarily that means increasing taxation, which has proved to be a difficult barrier with the merchant's being strongly anti-tax, and writing a great deal of power into law so that the ruler can make unilateral decisions when they need to. King Checkra has gotten it into his head that Illy not only has a relationship with their ex-motherland, but is actually feeding them information. He plans to have her assassinated as soon as possible. Coinmaster Ren, meanwhile, has begun establishing legislative funding for the Equal People Movement because she's hoping to foment a rebellion against the wealthy in Grantick so that she can implement her sweeping tax policies.
The Equal People Movement: The movement has two sides which cause it a lot of internal strife, and is a big reason why they have failed so far to be considered as a powerful force, despite holding sway over the majority of the working class. The biggest problem is that H'rung and Vioo disagree about how to go about enacting their wishes. Both agree that the lower classes of Grantick need more of a say, but H'rung believes that needs to come in the form of legislated rights while Vioo thinks it simply means they need to be better paid and have a representative in the Merchant's Guild. H'rung is actively working to keep the amount of support the movement has under wraps so that it can't be disbanded prematurely. Vioo is tired of waiting for the king to recognize legislation and has distributed propaganda undermining most of H'rung's ideas so that the movement listens primarily to her. She's also been stockpiling weapons to use in an open rebellion against both the Merchant's Guild and the throne in order to implement a republic.
Well this one was a doozy, so if you're still here thanks for sticking around. This is not the only way to build out political intrique, and this are of course just suggestions, but hopefully something in here was helpful. And, if by some miracle you liked Grantick our example nation, feel free to steal it in its entirety! It's not that fleshed out but I'm sure there's something in there that's usable. Hope your games are going well, and don't forget to buy dice!