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.
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.