Many D&D players love the political intrigue of novels like ‘Wheel of Time’ or ‘Game of Thrones’, and would like to include politics into their role-playing games. But playing at politics in RPGs is notoriously difficult. Without a clear system, it’s hard to keep track of everything. That is why I created the Game of Shields:
“The Game of Shields is a complete system for introducing politics into your D&D campaign.”
This article is not a collection of tips and general advice on playing at politics, but a complete system you can use with your role-playing game.
This online version is free for your personal use and explains the rules in a nutshell. The official expanded version of the Game of Shields is available in my web store.
I’ve thoroughly play-tested the Game of Shields with Dungeons & Dragons but it works with any gaming system. It works both with systems that require preparing stories like D&D or Pathfinder, and with game systems that have a ‘play to find out’ type of gameplay, like Fate Core, and Dungeonworld.
Does Dungeons & Dragons Need A Political System?
When players do a dungeon crawl, they have maps to keep an overview. When they play out an epic combat, terrain pieces and miniatures help them keep track of everything. But when playing a political campaign there are no visual aids to keep an overview. In fact, most role-playing games don’t even have a system for doing politics.
In politics, there are a lot of factions, NPCs, relationships and so on to keep track of that having a visual system to manage it all is indispensable. That’s why I use a set of 81 Heraldic Shields that allow you and your players to instantly see what the political landscape looks like. Players will know right away who can make an alliance, and who isn’t even in the same political arena.
This saves a lot of time because the DM doesn’t have to explain the hundreds of possible interactions between political parties. A unified set of rules helps players and DMs know what to expect, which helps with making informed decisions. The visual system also makes it much easier for the DM to track events.
Just by placing a set of shields on the gaming table, DMs can create a complex political landscape in seconds. No two political arenas will be the same and players can encounter an endless variety of political factions to align with, manipulate, bribe, blackmail, or anything else they set their minds to.
Keeping track of complex scenario’s is easy. Simply take pictures of the political landscape with your phone, as things change. This drastically reduces the need to make notes and allows you to focus on the action.
In short, introducing politics into your D&D campaign is easy with the Game of Shields. It’s a simple system that allows for a lot of variety.
The Political Landscape of RPGs
Let’s first look at Heraldic Shields and their meaning. Next, we’ll look at tying shields to political factions. And we’ll discuss using multiple shields to create a political arena.
Factions and Aspects
The Game of Shields uses Heraldic Shields to represent different political factions. Any group or person who gains enough power to matter in politics is called a faction. Be it a thieves guild, a village council, a lone dragon, or a religious order. Every faction gets one Heraldic Shield that represents their four most important aspects.
These aspects tell players something about the type of leadership, source of income, outlook on life, and temperament of its bearer. So, just by looking at a single shield, players can instantly learn much about where any faction stands politically. The aspects also tell players if alliances are possible between factions and who would not work together.
The Four Aspects
Each Heraldic Shield has four aspects: shape, type of symbol, number of symbols, and colour. For each aspect, there are three options to choose from that each have a different meaning. The four aspects represented on any Heraldic Shield are:
The number of symbols on a Heraldic Shield represents a faction’s leadership.
- A single symbol represents a single person who has climbed to a position of power or a single leader of a group.
- Double symbols represent a couple or counsel that rules a larger group of followers or members.
- Triple symbols represent a democracy where the group holds the power. A democracy may have a chosen leader but the leader serves the group and can be replaced easily.
2. Source of Income
The colour of a Heraldic Shield represents a faction’s source of income or primary activities.
- Blue is the colour of scholars, magicians, religious factions, entertainers, and any who primarily produce non-physical services.
- Green is the colour of farmers, traders, miners, blacksmiths, bankers, and any who primarily produce or trade physical products.
- Red is the colour of warriors, guards, bandits, the city watch, and any who use combat as a means to gain an income.
3. Outlook on Life
The shape of a Heraldic Shield represents a faction’s outlook on life.
- An arrow-shaped shield represents an action-oriented person or group.
- A heart-shaped shield represents a passionate person or group.
- A circle-shaped shield represents a harmonious person or group.
The type of symbol on a Heraldic Shield represents a faction’s temperament.
- A wolf represents a chaotic person or group; acting according to their conscience or impulses.
- A Unicorn represents a neutral person or group; acting with pragmatism.
- A Griffon represents a lawful person or group; acting according to a moral code.
As a DM you can customize aspect choices to better fit your campaign. If you play a campaign that has only orcs, elves, and humans in it, you might choose to symbolize them with the wolf, unicorn, and griffon symbols respectively. Create aspect choices that make the most sense in your campaign world, or pick the default ones above. The same goes for symbols, colours, and so on. You can create your own deck or purchase the official Game of Shields deck here.
Naming Heraldic Shields
Make sure each different faction in your game has a different Heraldic Shield. If factions are totally similar consider making minor changes to create more variety. It is the differences between factions that cause the political tension which drives the story forward. With 81 shields to choose from, creating variety shouldn’t be difficult.
Heraldic shields are named in a specific way:
[ Number of symbols ] [ Colour & shape] [ Type of symbol]
Double BlueHeart Wolves
The acronym for this shield would be 2BHW. Using acronyms in your notes allows you to jot down different factions quickly.
Of course, you can still give factions a cool in-game name like ‘the nightwatchers’ or ‘the order of the Sun’. Just pick whatever name you like and assign them a shield.
Creating a Faction
If you have already created a faction or person of political influence, you can choose a Heraldic Shield that most represents the faction’s aspects. Of course, some factions will have multiple aspect options that would fit their description. For instance, a mayor of a small town may represent all three sources of income. In that case, choose one aspect that most closely fits the faction.
You can also use the Heraldic Shields as a source of inspiration for quickly creating new factions. Just pick a random shield and explain why the different aspects go together. Let’s say you pick Double BlueHeart Wolves. The four aspects of this shield are: A couple, non-physical services, passionate, and chaotic. You could spin the following faction:
Double BlueHeart Wolves
“Astrid and Tobias are a passionate couple that have won the hearts of their people. They believe in free love and worship the goddess of freedom and youth. Their people travel the lands in caravans; never planning where their travels may take them. They excel in performing weddings, creating love potions, and providing relationship advice and entertainment of all kind. To help out one of their people is considered good luck.”
Let’s review two more examples:
The RedArrow Unicorn
“The town of Bellhaven sits at the cross point of two trading routes. It is run by the Mayor: Master Bell, a stout halfling with a fair face. Master Bell leads the town guard, which also patrols part of the surrounding trade routes. Caravan travellers pay premium for a safe place to stop and rest without having to worry about bandits or thieves stealing their merchandise. Master Bell can often be found patrolling the roads around Bellhaven trying to root out criminals. Some call him just but those closest to him know he’s in it for the money.”
Triple GreenCircle Griffons
“Appealing to a great number of farmers’ communities, the triple greencircle griffons are a highly regulated self-governing faction. Every year farmers choose new representatives among their people to serve the greater good. Considering the needs of the community above any personal ambitions is very important to its members. Any display of wealth or personal gain is frowned upon. Members must lead a simple life of service and even when invited to political functions representatives wear simple farmers’ clothes.”
The aspects help you create different factions fast and immediately give players a general idea of what a faction is about. You can give factions other names, but they do respond to their shield names.
The Political Arena
Politics really becomes interesting when different factions start to interact with each other, forming and breaking alliances, bribing, blackmailing, and positioning themselves to gain more power.
All the different factions that interact with each other in a certain area are represented in the political arena. An arena might consist of all the factions in the small town of Bellhaven, or it could represent the major factions of a kingdom.
Not all political arenas are created equal. What goes on in the small arena of Bellhaven, might not be of much consequence for the arena of its Kingdom. To keep track of things it is best to select an arena first, and then use between 8 and 12 factions to represent the political maneuvering in that arena.
A group of factions smaller than 8 usually doesn’t create enough political intrigue, and a group larger then 12 is hard to keep track of. Choosing the right number of factions for your arena really helps players keep track of things. But you can have multiple political arena’s for different regions and so on.
A cluster of shields forms a political arena.
Playing at the Game of Shields in D&D
Players always start out with a given political landscape. The powers that be will have already found some kind of balance with deals struck and alliances made. More often than not, this landscape is not to the players’ liking. But how do you change things?
There are three ways to change the political landscape:
- Forming an alliance
- Breaking an alliance
- Forming or inviting factions
In politics forming and breaking alliances in order to gain a position of power, is what it is all about. The Game of Shields has a system for forming an breaking alliances. First, we’ll take a look at how you can form an alliance.
1. Forming an Alliance
Any two factions can form an alliance in theory. But alliances that just consist of two factions are insignificant in power compared to alliances that consist of three factions. Within the rule system of a Game of Shields an alliance always consists of three factions. Of course, a faction can be part of multiple alliances, but the standard unit of a single alliance is always three.
But what if you want seven factions to come together in one large alliance? When so many factions come together, there will always be political maneuvering between factions. In terms of the Game of Shield system, such a group would really be a new political arena. (Even if they call themselves an alliance in character). So in character you might speak of the ‘Great Alliance of the Seven Kingdoms’, but in technical terms those factions form a political arena in which the real three-faction alliances are made.
Having just three factions to work with helps players keep the overview of a political situation. It also supports a logical rules system for forming alliances.
Alliances can only be formed between three factions if there is a fair balance between aspects. This means that in order to form an alliance, each faction must either:
1. All have the SAME aspect.
2. All have a DIFFERENT aspect.
Never can an alliance have two aspects that are the same and one that is different. In order to maintain balance either all factions agree on an aspect, or they must all disagree.
The RedArrow Unicorn, Double BlueHeart Wolves, and Triple GreenCircle Griffons are all a part of the same political arena. Each of their aspects are different from each other.
The RedArrow Unicorn is action-oriented, Double BlueHeart Wolves represent passion and Triple GreenCircle Griffons stands for harmony. Because they all differ a balance is maintained so no one looses political power.
But if two factions were to represent harmony and one would represent action, the action-oriented faction would lose ground. Votes within the alliance would be skewed too much in the direction of harmony over action. And no faction will enter an alliance where it loses ground.
With all different aspects these three factions can form an alliance.
Alliance Strength Score
Alliances can be formed between three factions when each aspect is either all the same or all different. But differences are not as powerful as commonalities.
For instance, the previously mentioned alliance is based on all differences. The factions have found a balance, but only because they almost agree on nothing. Such an alliance isn’t very strong and can be broken more easily.
Conversely, an alliance that has more aspects that are all the same, will be much stronger. Factions that agree on most things gain more power because everyone is moving in the same direction.
Alliance strength is measured as follows:
An alliance gains 1 point for making the alliance in the first place plus 1 point for each aspect that is all the same.
|Nr. of Aspects that are all the same||Alliance Strength|
|0 aspects all the same.||1 point|
|1 aspect all the same||2 points|
|2 aspects all the same||3 points|
|3 aspects all the same||4 points|
There are no factions that have all 4 aspects the same. It is better to maintain at least some differences between factions to create political tension. (You won’t have much to work with story wise if factions agree on everything.)
With 2 aspects all the same (symbol & shield shape)
this alliance has an Alliance Strength of 3.
Political Power Score
Alliance strength only applies in the political arena in which the alliance is made. Factions can be represented in multiple arenas but they have to form alliances in each of those arenas in order to gain political power.
To calculate the political power of a faction in an arena, add the alliance strength of all the alliances that faction has made. For instance, Master Bell has made two alliances. The first alliance has strength 1 and the second alliance has strength 3. His political power score is 4.
Alliance strength 1
Alliance strength 3
Master Bell (The RedArrow Unicorn) is a
member of two alliances of strength 1 and 3,
and his Political Power score is 4.
The faction that holds the most political power in an arena becomes the leader. For instance, a King would probably be the leader of a country. But he might lose that position if he doesn’t tend to his alliances carefully.
By looking at the alliances players can calculate the strength of each alliance and find out who the leader is in an arena. But not all alliances are common knowledge, and alliances made in secret could shift the power balance drastically. A king might only be a king in name, while the real power resides behind the throne.
2. Breaking an Alliance
Forming alliances is all good and well, but the real fun starts when players get to break alliances and claw their way to power. There are countless ways players can break an alliance. The only limit is their imagination. Here are some tried and tested ways to break an alliance.
Offer a stronger alliance
Any faction can voluntarily break an alliance they are a part of. When negotiating a new possible alliance, players can demand another faction breaks with a previously formed alliance. Of course, other factions will only be inclined to do so if the newly offered alliance is stronger. For instance:
“Players have discovered that the alliance between Master Bell, Astrid and Tobias, and the farmers’ community is very weak. They agree on nothing and the alliance has an alliance strength of 1. The players also have found that they can create an alliance with a strength of 3 with the farmers’ community and one other faction. They set out to negotiate and convince the farmers’ community that they should abandon their old alliance in favor of a more powerful one.”
Factions won’t automatically abandon old alliances in favor of stronger ones. It’s up to the DM how they want to roleplay the faction. But factions never abandon an alliance in favor of a weaker one willingly.
Players can assassinate the leader of a faction. Often, a new leader will be chosen, but the faction aspects might change because of it. If an aspect does change, old alliances are broken. Killing all members of a faction in an all-out war eliminates the faction completely.
Alliances are built on trust and common interests. If players can frame a faction and make other factions in the alliance believe they don’t truly represent their aspects, an alliance can be broken.
Some factions can be bought for the right price. But it is often very steep.
Finding some dirt on a faction and threatening to expose them if they don’t either leave an alliance, or secretly act against an alliance technically counts as breaking an alliance.
A faction must gain some power on their own to matter in politics. If the farmers’ community can no longer produce goods, they lose power and their faction is dissolved. And if Master Bell can’t keep his town safe, he can no longer be considered a faction.
Life experiences can cause factions to change one or more of their aspects, thereby breaking old alliances. If the farmers’ community choose to stop growing food and become a militia instead, an aspect and their Heraldic Shield changes. Clever players can manipulate events to create experiences that change a faction.
How easily an alliance breaks and whether players are successful is up to the DM. But the alliance strength should give some indication of how easily alliances break.
3. Forming or Inviting Factions
Besides creating and breaking alliances in the D&D political realm, players can shift the power balance by forming a new faction or inviting a faction into the arena.
“We cannot form an alliance with any faction in the current political arena. If only there were a faction bearing the shield of the Triple BlueArrow Wolf. Several mad warlocks have been terrorizing the countryside. They certainly possess the blue, arrow and wolf aspects. But they are loners and do not wield enough power on their own. If they could somehow be shaped into a cabal, they might become just the faction we need.”
– Naveem Thundercloud –
Other factions can be invited with the promise of power, and sometimes step into the arena uninvited disrupting the players carefully laid plans. After all, the political landscape is dynamic and players are not the only ones who plot.
We’ve discussed how to set up a political arena, and how players can gain political power within an arena. But there are many arena’s – big and small – throughout your campaign. Some will be easily accessible, like the town of Bellhaven, while others require players to gain more political power to even be considered as a noteworthy faction, like the Kings Court.
The official Game of Shields Manual contains extra rules for setting up multiple political arenas to create a Political Landscape that spans nations or even worlds. You can also find extra guidelines on introducing the Game of Shields to players through Political Puzzles and the Game of Shields Card Game.
The Art of Playing a Political D&D Campaign
Until now we’ve focused on the technical side of running a political campaign. But the system is only there to help you craft a better story. Let’s look at some general tips and things to consider when playing a political D&D campaign.
Before we get into details, let’s consider the case of Master Bell. He has made two alliances with an alliance strength of 1 and 3. But what do these mean story wise? What is he really up to? An example:
“Under the pale moonlight Master Bell carefully steered his pony between the gaps in the derelict south road. Among the maple trees to his left, a hooded figure led a gray gelding by the reigns, stooped in baggy clothes to hide his real height. But with those great strides and low dangling stirrups, the southlander wasn’t fooling anyone. Or perhaps working in the mines had bent his back. Bell couldn’t imagine there would be many places to stand up straight for a tall miner; not even for one who was on the miners’ council of the double green-arrow unicorns.
The next figure to appear, stepped out of a hallow of blue light, seeming completely unaware that this was supposed to be a secret meeting. But then again, who knew what Magicks a Wizard of Ell would employ to keep them from prying eyes? Bell knew better than to insult the triple blue-arrow unicorns. Still, he could not completely keep annoyance from his voice when he greeted the wizard. Not after all he had done to keep this alliance a secret. Plans years in the making.
It was four years ago when Master Bell was elected mayor of Bellhaven. With such a name one might think he’d lived there all his life, but those commoners had named that fleapit after him and thought it an honour, the fools.
Bellhaven sat on the northern trade route that hardly saw any traffic, which wasn’t surprising since most of the traffic came across the well maintained south road. So Bell sought out some bandits and promised them a new life as town guards with money in their pocket and the respect of the people. It’s amazing what desperate men will do when you promise them the semblance of self-respect.
The greencircle griffons farmers’ community living around Bellhaven was harder to convince. They simply would not believe Bell could bring more traders over their north road. And they certainly weren’t about to pay him taxes before they saw proof. So Bell turned to a most unlikely of allies.
Astrid and Tobias had little means of an income and no protection. But – being a peaceful people – they were welcome everywhere. For a little coin in their pocket and the promise of a safe place to lie their heads, they were more than willing to spread false rumors about the dangers traders would face while traveling the south road. One would think caravan-devouring dragons and trader-murdering giants were a common sight to hear them tell the tale. And Bell’s bandits made sure some of those rumors rang true.
It wasn’t long before the south road was no longer thought safe to travel and traffic among the north road picked up. A cautious alliance was struck between the farmer’s community who would sell their produce to traders, Astrid and Tobias to keep the fear mongering going, and Master Bell and his ‘town guards’ to keep the bandits and monsters at bay. With trade picking up, there was money to be made on all sides.
Bell’s pony stepped into a pothole in the south road and nearly swung the halfling from his saddle. As much angry with himself for not watching the road as for letting his mind drift, he focused on his secret allies, but the stooping miner and the Wizard did not seem to notice his near tumble.
All that work, directing every bit of traffic to the north road, just to keep the south road clear from prying eyes. And to keep curious ears from hearing the miners work as they blasted ever deeper into the bedrock alongside the road. It had worked. No one used the ‘accursed’ south road anymore. And the digging had gone unnoticed.
The Wizards of Ell had assured Bell the crystal was there, hidden under miles of earth. And they left no doubt as to the power their secret alliance would possess once they unleashed the crystal’s powers. For a moment Bell stared at the cracked paving stones covered with weeds and creepers in grim satisfaction. The first thing he would do with that power was level Bellhaven to the ground. His name was meant for bigger things and surely the King would not be able to refuse him once he possessed that kind of power.”
In this example, Master Bell’s weaker alliance only serves to aid his second secret alliance. Players encountering such a situation could discover Bells plans and oppose or aid him, depending on what their goals are.
As a DM, you can use shields to come up with plots. But it’s also possible to use the system to describe alliances in general terms and fill out the backstory when it becomes relevant. There could be hundreds of alliances across a nation, and you only explore what they mean when players encounter them. How much you want to work out before you play a game depends on your style of play.
Putting Players at the Heart of your D&D Story
There are unlimited plots and alliances a DM can play off. But how do the players fit in? One of the biggest pitfalls of political campaigns is making players feel like they are spectators. This is especially true when the DM prepares complex plotlines that don’t include the players. So how do you put players at the heart of the story?
Players can all be members of the same faction, follow different faction, lead factions of their own, or be free agents who have no political ties. Whatever their choices and factions they encounter, the game should always be about the players and their characters.
The Game of Shields system provides the DM with a basis to create their own stories of political intrigue. But the system is only there to facilitate role-playing. Playing a political game shouldn’t mean characters no longer get to act. Combat, infiltration, exploration, and so on, are still very much a part of a campaign centered around politics. For instance:
“Bart is the DM of a D&D campaign. The characters enter the town of Bellhaven. They talk to the locals and get some idea of the political situation in town. The alliance between Master Bell, Astrid and Tobias, and the farmers’ community is well known.
The characters belong to their own faction and seek to gain a political foothold in Bellhaven by creating their own alliances. After analyzing the shields in the arena, they find there is one alliance possible.
The DM decides that in order to form a new alliance players must gain the trust of the other two factions. Players think that helping out another faction might be the quickest way to gaining their trust.
Of course, actions have consequences. If players break up Master Bell’s alliance, he might retaliate, which could lead to the players discovering his secret alliance.”
Helping out the first faction to gain their trust can be an action-packed adventure in itself. Perhaps the faction is being harassed by goblins and our heroes help them out. Perhaps the characters secretly create a problem for the other faction by hiring the goblins, and then chase them of looking like heroes.
Whatever the players choose to do should be handled with all the action and drama of any good RPG. The Game of Shields system helps players make political choices. But those choices should always be tied to adventures where the players are at the heart of the story. Don’t let them become spectators, but let politics be the tool for creating new and exciting adventures.
Reactive and Pro-active Plots
When playing political campaigns it’s good to distinguish between reactive and pro-active plots.
In a reactive plot, players follow a predetermined storyline. The DM makes the plans and players must react to prevent disaster. For instance, a dungeon crawl usually contains a reactive plot where the DM has already laid out all the rooms, monsters, traps, and other challenges ahead of time.
In a pro-active plot, players make the plans and the DM must create challenging obstacles. For instance, players might want to expand their political power and discuss amongst themselves how to create or break alliances.
Political campaigns can contain reactive plots. Players might work for a leader who orders them to undertake several adventures the DM has prepared. This can work fine and lots of players like having clear goals to accomplish.
But other players are drawn to political campaigns so they can come up with their own plans and plots. For them, the utter freedom of discussing ideas with their party is half the fun.
Both reactive and pro-active plots work well in a political campaign, but it is important for DMs to know what players prefer before you start a campaign. Otherwise pro-active players might feel railroaded, and reactive players might feel like the DM isn’t offering a story.
Using Pro-active plots
Most DMs are very familiar with creating reactive plots. But pro-active plots are less common. So here are some tips for using pro-active plots:
1. Ask players about their GOALS, personally and as a party.
In pro-active plots, players have goals and aspirations. Maybe they want to found a new religion that should lead all political arena’s. Or they might want to destroy a faction that has somehow wronged them. Whatever the goal is, it should be something the players come up with that also fits their backstory.
2. Ask player HOW they PLAN to achieve their goals.
Even though players make their plans, the DM controls the world and gives players information on what plans are possible. Whatever their plans are, they should be challenging.
3. Get into the habit of saying YES, BUT…
“Yes, your plan might be possible, but it is going to be difficult.” Then make a list of challenges players must face in order to achieve their goals. If you are comfortable improvising, you can go right ahead and play out these challenges. If you like to prepare challenges, ask players to come up with their plan before the end of the gaming session. And then have your prepared adventure ready the next session.
4. Create challenges and obstacles
A good challenge provides opportunities for characters to use their abilities or powers. This is where the action is. If players succeed they are one step closer to achieving their goal.
Party goal: Overthrow the King.
How: Destroy his finances. The King earns most of his wealth through trade and taxes. Hit those and he won’t have the finances to pay his army.
- Create an avalanche to cut off trade on the south road.
- Provide commoners with illusionary gold to pay their taxes.
- Destroy alliances with the Kings business partners.
- Each challenge can be a separate adventure.
Player characters having too much money can be really disruptive in role-playing games. That is why the currency of politics should be more about favors, than about money.
When players become members of a faction, give them certain perks and tasks that reflect the faction. For instance:
“Issandre is a member of the local thieves’ guild. She gets free boarding, a safe house, and apparel, but is expected to hand over 50 percent of everything she steals and to act as the guild’s eyes and ears.”
When players form a faction they must generate an income through offering services, creating or trading goods, or providing combat. Players can have followers of their faction work for them to generate an income. But there are also costs to being a faction and instead of making money, they might run into debt. The DM can let the story circumstances reflect if players are successful. In general, when not actively attending their faction, it only makes a minor amount of money. Players can focus on trading favors as part of creating alliances.
If players do want to exclusively focus on making money, let them. But while they focus on gaining finances, other factions are building alliances and soon the players are in danger of losing their foothold in the arena. You can have them spend some of that money just to keep their faction from being destroyed.
That’s the Game of Shields system for politics in D&D and other RPGs in a nutshell. If you want to build multiple political arenas, please check out the official Game of Shields system in my web store. It also comes with:
- A deck of 81 Heraldic shields.
- An instruction manual with 4 chapters on setting up, managing a political campaign, and running multiple political arenas.
- Playing the Game of Shields card game as a separate game.
- A set of 20 Political Puzzles (and their solutions) for players to solve.
- Both in printable format for table tops and in digital format for virtual tabletops.
The card game and puzzles also help players get a better grasp of the system and makes the Game of Shields easier to implement.
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As always, Have Fun!
– Paul Camp –