First off, allow me to apologize for having disappeared from the web for so long. I know I have at least one dedicated reader out there (hi Mom!), and having this blog go almost four months without an update is something I won’t let happen again.
While I don’t like to go into personal details about why I wasn’t able to maintain the blogging schedule I wanted (simply because it sounds like making excuses), I’ll say that real life was kicking my butt all over the place, but I’ve finally managed to turn things around and start delivering some kicks of my own. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way for a while, and I’ll keep turning out the articles. Speaking of which, let’s turn our attention to today’s.
Spare the Rod, but keep the Rulership
It seems like lately there’s been a lot of buzz about what makes for good high-level and epic-level gaming in D&D/Pathfinder. Now, to be fair, much of this is buzz that’s been around quite a bit before and I’m just noticing it now, but there are some interesting points here. I’ll talk more about epic-level gaming another time, but in this case I wanted (since I’m a bit rusty) to aim a little lower and talk about a part of the game that typically only comes into play at the higher levels.
More specifically, I wanted to go over the idea of high-level gameplay as the vessel for introducing rulership and politics into the game.
Now, by itself, this sounds like an idea that’s worthy of groaning and eye-rolling. “It’s a game about killing things and taking their stuff,” gamers say, “why muddy that up with things the game wasn’t meant to handle?”
Well, I could mention that the game used to handle those pretty well, insofar as older editions had built-in assumptions about fighters getting keeps, clerics getting temples, wizards getting towers, and thieves getting guilds (see the article on Grognardia, linked to above, for more on this), but that’d be something of a bait-and-switch on my part – after all, this is a Pathfinder blog, not an OSR one.
So why introduce those things into your Pathfinder game? Well, largely the same reason you’d introduce anything else: because it’s fun, specifically by introducing new dimensions to your characters and the game world, and in doing so opening up new ways to interact with them. This won’t be for everyone, of course, and people who prefer to keep raiding dungeons and slaying monsters should have no problem doing so. But what should you do if you want to start branching out into a more political sort of gameplay?
Making a King
Canny fans of Pathfinder will, by now, be saying that this problem is one that already has a solution. After all, less than a year ago Paizo released the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which has your PCs founding and growing their own nation, dealing with everything from rabble-rousers in the public to international war. Isn’t that political enough?
Well, yes…and no.
The major aspects of the political dimension that Kingmaker introduces into Pathfinder are threefold: exploring and claiming land, growing the rural and urban elements of a kingdom, and leading armies. Now, by themselves these are very fun additions to the game. Having GMed the first half of a Kingmaker campaign (before we decided to put it on hiatus because one of my players was very eager to run his homebrew world), I saw firsthand how into it my players got when it came to nurturing and sustaining their fledgling kingdom.
However, people who are familiar with these rules will know that none of them replace the core elements of the game: the aforementioned killing things and taking their stuff. The political aspects form a compelling backdrop, and are interwoven into the adventure very nicely, but ultimately the PCs still set out in their own little band and go slay wicked monsters.
By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. The Kingmaker rules function as an adjunct that allows for the PCs to have goals beyond simply earning personal treasure and leveling up. In fact, I’ll go one further and say that if you’re looking for a Pathfinder game that has multiple aspects to it, then the Kingmaker rules are great, since they let you shift the focus from action/adventure to political resource management very well.
So what’s the problem then? Well, the problem is that, if you want to de-emphasize the combat portions of the game in favor of rulership and politics – whether because you don’t think that the king going off placing himself in mortal peril with his buddies is logical for a budding kingdom, or for some other reason – the Kingmaker rules don’t help very much. Your character still advances by earning experience points, and it’s hard to do that using just the Kingmaker rules.
Now, to be fair, it is possible to earn XP using just Kingmaker. You get XP awards for hitting various size thresholds in your kingdom (both in land claimed and cities developed), it’s easy to assign story-award XP for meeting various goals, and of course you gain XP for when your army vanquishes another army. But these are still relatively small awards that more often than not are one-time affairs, so they’re not a reliable go-to (unless your kingdom is constantly going to war, which it may very well be…just look at the United States *rimshot*).
Worse than this, though, is that fact that leveling up (as well as most magical gear) is an individualized process, with a strong focus on tactical combat. You gain a level of fighter, and it by-and-large makes you better at killing things. You gain a new level of spells, and most of them are either for killing things or preventing things from being killed, etc. Yes, you get skill points, which are usually non-combative in nature, and some spells and feats are like that also, but for the most part a leveled-up character is simply a better killer.
I Have the (Political) Power!
So if the reward system in Pathfinder/D&D is based around increasing personal martial power, and the personal acquisition of treasure, what’s the solution if you want to run a more politically-focused game? By changing the nature of how the players earn their rewards. Try some of the following suggestions:
Alternate Experience Awards – Give the players a new rubric for earning experience points. Having a new source of XP – one that can be anticipated and quantified ahead of time by the players – will quickly point them in a new direction.
A good idea is to make each BP spent on improving their kingdom worth 100 XP per PC (that is, if you have four PCs, 1 BP is worth 400 XP, etc.). You may need to rework this value depending on how low- or high-level your game is, but it gives the PCs much more incentive to build up their kingdom. Since the in-game nature of experience points (the “experience” part of them) is highly abstract, it’s easy to rationalize this as being the experience gained from managing and growing a country of their own.
Bear in mind that this doesn’t invalidate any of the existing methods for gaining experience points (mentioned above). They should still gain XP for having their kingdom reaching certain sizes, for completing certain story points, and of course for killing things. But since spending BP occurs in monthly increments of time, this method helps to reinforce the fact that PCs can train, learn, and grow during “downtime.”
Don’t forget, also, that PCs that donate 4,000 gp to their kingdom’s treasury gain another BP to spend, which grants them all XP. Another idea, one that I’ve blogged about previously, is that PCs can spend personal wealth to gain XP directly, so long as they’re spending it on things with no usefulness in regards to the game’s mechanics.
Public Treasure – The Kingmaker rules lay down a great method whereby characters can acquire a large degree of the treasure they want without having to adventure. It’s possible to withdraw BPs for gold pieces at a ratio of 1:2,000, though using the above system of XP for BPs will most likely discourage these sorts of withdrawals.
If you’re worried about the “Christmas Tree” effect, the above idea isn’t a bad thing, as it forces characters to choose between gaining treasure or XP per BP spent. On the other hand, if you want them to have an additional source of material wealth, consider revisiting the Profession skill. After all, government workers perform a service and so should earn a salary, right?
Ordinarily, the Profession skill earns a character half the check result in gold pieces for a week of work, which under the Kingmaker rules (wherein units of time take place across one month increments) allows for four checks per unit of time, or make a single check and have them earn double the check result in gold pieces – representing a month’s worth of time – if you want to cut down on rolls. Consider allowing characters to add a bonus to their check equal to their kingdom’s Economy value (since, as government officials, their fortunes are directly tied to the health of their government). Alternately, simply have them draw a stipend equal to some value multiplied by their kingdom’s Economy score (e.g. 10 gp x Economy bonus) per month. Be careful not to set this too high though, as the PCs may be tempted to save up for something big and then spend it all at once.
Similarly, don’t worry about magic items that the PCs may want. The Kingmaker rules already allow for certain types of buildings in a city to put various magic items on the market, so the PCs will have ample opportunities to spend their money. They may take it upon themselves to try and directly commission locals to build specific items for them. That’s fine, but you may want to have special orders cost more (anywhere from costing 1.2 to twice the market price, with half paid up front to cover creation costs) – this discourages the players from simply going magic item shopping, and the in-game rationale is that special orders simply cost more since they’re putting all other business on hold.
None of these will make the PCs rich, of course, but they’re not supposed to. They’re just supposed to make sure the PCs aren’t destitute, and have some method for gaining wealth without killing monsters for treasure.
Make Politics the Adventure – This is should be self-evident if you’re running a campaign with political concerns front and center, but it bears repeating. The above suggestions will help bring the rules inline with the type of game you want to run, but rules alone do not make a campaign. Good planning and smart design do that.
In order to make sure that a political campaign is fun, develop a large cast of NPCs, both in the PC’s nation and in surrounding nations. Come up with intriguing plot lines that allow for a developing story, one which reacts and grows with the PCs decisions. What do your PCs do when people from a neighboring country flee into theirs and ask for asylum even as officials demand them back (possibly with threats if the PCs don’t comply)? How will they handle having several powerful noble families vying for political influence and clout, all of whom are strongly influential among the kingdom’s people? What happens when the head of a major church puts pressure on the PCs to declare their church the state religion and push other religions out?
And of course, as mentioned above, don’t be afraid to let things come to fisticuffs every so often. Even with alternate ways of leveling up – and even though smart players will have found ways to turn even the most martial classes towards non-martial developments (ideally through skill and feat selection, traits, spells learned/known, alternate class abilities, etc.) – it can be fun to change pace from time to time, just to keep things feeling fresh and exciting.
A Game of Thrones
A political Pathfinder game has a different focus than most Pathfinder games, simply because it’s not where the system is designed to go. But changing that around isn’t nearly as hard as most people think it is. Even without diving into the plethora of third-party sourcebooks out there for alternate materials, it’s simply a matter of changing the rewards and tweaking character builds; manage those, and you can quickly make Pathfinder into any kind of game you want.
And, as a final note, there are several third-party supplements that are perfect for this sort of thing. In particular, I recommend checking out Dynasties & Demagogues, and its sister supplement Crime and Punishment, for some great mechanics specific to political d20 games. Likewise, if you’re a fan of Kingmaker, check out the Book of the River Nations series of products from Jon Brazer Enterprises – Exploration and Kingdom Building, Mass Combat, and Feats, Spells and Secret Societies, all of which will soon be compiled and have new material added in the forthcoming Book of the River Nations: Complete – which reprint and add new material to the original Kingmaker rules from Paizo Publishing.
Until next time, dear readers, may you enjoy running a game for your political party of PCs!