Any games for political machinations?

Hi everyone,

I’m looking for a game (preferably PbtA) all about political machinations and interpersonal drama, i.e. A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, House of Cards, etc. Bonus points if it’s somewhat setting-agnostic.

I have The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power, and while it seems pretty cool, it also seems (1) to bring in more of a focus on magic and outright physical violence than I’m looking for at the moment, (2) to be one of the closest to AW of all the PbtA games I’ve seen, and we’re already playing that game at the moment, and (3) to be a bit clunky with lots of text.

I love Monsterhearts (it’s my favorite RPG), and that handles interpersonal obligations and drama better than anything I’ve seen, but I don’t want to exclusively play as monsters and/or teens for this campaign.

I also like Urban Shadows, but it’s too spread out and violence-focused for the campaign idea.

I’m thinking of making a hack of Monsterhearts for my purposes, but I’d love to know if there’s anything else already out there. The problem, as I see it, is that political machinations tends to lead towards PvP, secret-keeping, and a sense of “winning”, all of which aren’t typically features of the PbTA scene. Any thoughts?

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Well, you mentioned the three main PbtA games that I would have recommended for politics and interpersonal drama =P

There’s tons of PbtA games out there, so it’s possible there’s something I’m not familiar with, but I think you’re probably on the right track with hacking one of those games to better fit your setting. Could you strip out or reflavor the magic and work with your players to de-emphasize violent playbooks and actions in SCUP, for example? Honestly, I can’t think of any PbtA games that are going to have a focus on PvP, not involve violence, not have some fantasy/sci-fi concept integrated into it, etc.

There are various other games that come to mind that have even a little bit of the stuff you’ve mentioned, but are probably not going to be any more appealing for you either, for other reasons you mentioned:

  1. Undying: diceless PbtA-descendant game where you play as vampires scheming and vying for power, lining up plans in the months and years between big events, and then taking action the night everything boils over. There are no rolls, and conflicts involve betting, raising, and bluffing how many blood points you’re going to spend, which leads to a lot of tension and mind games.
  2. Legacy: you play as different clans or groups in the post-apocalypse, trying to rebuild in your own ways. The focus on factions and long-term plans might create some of that political intrigue, but I get the feeling the different families are usually played more cooperatively than competitively (that’s not backed by a ton of evidence though, just a general impression).
  3. The Veil: cyberpunk, not really inherently about politics or PvP but the main currency is ‘giri’ or obligation, so you get a little bit of that debt web from Urban Shadows or Monsterhearts.
  4. Hearts of Wulin: wuxia martial arts fiction, but character creation involves lining up this super complicated web of how everybody knows each other and has these three way relationships where they’re in love with X but owe something to their enemy Y, and so on. Nobody’s really going to ‘win’, but it has interpersonal drama galore.

Like I said, I doubt any of these are going to be a much better match for you, though. Maybe there are some non-PbtA games that are more specifically designed for this kind of play, if you’re willing to branch out like that?

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I think the FATE system would be a good fit here – the system’s conflict resolution rules aren’t overly indexed on violence or combat so they work well for social or political drama.

(Compels also work great in these types of settings, both GM-Player and Player-Player.)

That said it sounds like you’re interested in a game that brings a lot of the setting as well. I’m not sure if there’s a FATE-based system that does this, although I think it’d be relatively easy to build your own system using the FATE Core rules.

The system itself is a bit sterile for my tastes, but this is what the Dramasystem engine (used by Hillfolk) is built around–specifically, creating characters with needs who want stuff from one another.

I would definitely recommend building something that uses the drives of characters as flashpoints, see also the Belief/Instinct portion of Burning Wheel.

I don’t actually think this is necessarily the case for two of your three points! On the one hand, yes, it leads to PvP, but I think that intrigue doesn’t require player-level secrets or a sense of winning, just like Dungeon World doesn’t require the GM to hold secrets back or attempt to “win” over the players. When you do intrigues in Urban Shadows or Monsterhearts, the players are putting stuff on the table so that their characters can plot and scheme and clash, because the players aren’t trying to win, they’re trying to create stories about powerfully-driven characters.

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It’s not PBTA, but Smallville (Cortex Plus Dramatic) is my go-to for political games because their conflict system is very heavy on Relationships, Values (Why you do something), and stress tracks that are emotional/mental. I did a House of Cards hack with it that went really well.

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Totally not PbtA and probably not what you are looking for but this summer I rediscovered Mars Colony and it follow up game 39 Dark and I really enjoyed playing them for their political themes. The games use a lot of freeform roleplaying, this usually don’t work well with me as I have a hard time when a game tell me to “improv” but this time it worked super well and I had a blast. The characters and the setting felt alive and I was super engaged by their fate. Even if you don’t play them, I think that both games are worth a read.

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I second taking a look at DramaSystem. The rules are setting agnostic, but there are plenty of example settings to draw from.

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Legacy and Hearts of Wulin? Legacy for politics and HoW for interpersonal drama.

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Thinking on it, Inner Conflict is a doozy of an intrigue move.

I really rate Houses of the Blooded for this sort of game. I will never forget the joy on my players’ faces when they realised they could use their “successes” on rolls to screw over their own characters :sweat_smile:

Building on people’s suggestions of Hillfolk/DramaSystem, you could take a page from @Coalhada’s book, and merge the DramaSystem character motivations/dramatic poles with a PbtA system that handles the more “procedural” stuff in a way you like

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I am currently finishing up a game called The Art of Power that does exactly this (Game of Thrones/House of Cards). It comes with a pre-built setting but is adaptable to any setting. It’s in playtest right now.

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Can’t wait to hear more about that - pretty sure I know some folks who’d love to give it a spin when the time comes!!

/me is one of those folks…

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I’d be interested in playtesting this if you have it available! If not, no worries!

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Brennan,

Is the game fairly mechanically involved, and rewards system mastery? (I heard about a game like this in playtest, with fairly positive reviews.)

There is a bit of mechanical involvement, but the basics can be learned very quickly.

I have played Kingdom by Ben Robbins with a focus on intrigue, and it worked really well for that. The premise is essentially that the players are the small council of the kingdom (it’s setting agnostic, so you define your own kingdom here) and their interpersonal dramas have epic consequences.

I’ve also played several Fiasco playsets with a focus on political machination. It does work, but it gives the game a Fiasco-ish tone which might not be what you’re looking for.

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Good old Burning Wheel I think is definitely solid for doing court intrigue type stuff - and if other characters are part of your Beliefs then certainly interpersonal stuff would be there too.

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Comrades: A Revolutionary RPG by W.M. Akers is perhaps what you’re looking for. I just blogged about it, including links to some Actual Plays (article in German, but machine-translation should give you a good idea): http://phexbasar.blogspot.com/2019/09/indieseptember-tag-39-comrades.html

Red Carnations on a Black Grave (when it comes out; Cat says it’s on schedule: http://phexbasar.blogspot.com/2019/09/interview-with-catherine-ramen.html)

Also, I second Mars Colony! A great game that features both the political and the personal in equal measure.

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