Content of the article: "Games of Political Intrigue: Information sharing and Metacharacters, or how I stopped writing mystery novels and started facilitating gameplay"
TL;DR: Be open and free with all the information your players' characters would know, then help them understand at least a basic web of factions and motivations for them to poke at. Through this, empower them to make detailed, considered decisions to meaningfully affect the game world around them.
How information behaves in a TTRPG
I began my TTRPG days in Cyberpunk 2020, first as a boilerplate Solo, then as a fledgling GM, then as an experienced GM after a decade of practice. Corporate intrigue (and political intrigue in general) is my bread and butter. I wasn't always very good at setting it up, though. Especially in my early years of GMing, I often fell victim to the notion of withholding information being a good thing. While this habit of information rationing comes from the authorial view of storytelling (how much information do you, the author, let slip to the audience), TTRPG storytelling is subtly different in that it is interactive and not predetermined, and that trait makes information matter in a far different way:
In fiction, especially adventure stories and mystery novels, gathering details and learning what's really going on is the juice. We as the reader passively trust that the author will make everything fit together in the end, and gathering information brings us closer to the satisfaction of understanding how the entire story works as an arc, moving from beginning to middle to end. Suspense comes from an information vacuum, from not knowing what is around the figurative corner.
In TTRPGs, making decisions and seeing their consequences is the juice. We as players actively poke the world to see what ripples we can cause, and gathering information in and of itself doesn't get us closer to anything, it just gives us more context in which to decide what to poke. Suspense comes from the opportunity cost of making decisions, from knowing that you can't quickload your way back to a prior save if you don't like the outcome of your choices.
Given this difference, the way I set up complex political webs with which my players can interact is in two steps:
1. Be absolutely free with all the information that a character would know.
Does this seem worrisomely transparent? Again, we're not writing a mystery novel. The more information we give the players from their characters' perspectives, the more interesting and complex decisions they can make to affect the world. Remember when a video game forced us to make a choice and the result was completely counter-intuitive or the choice didn't matter to us, because the game devs
pulled The Catalyst straight outta their ass didn't give us any meaningful information about that choice? Don't make that happen to our players.
Be liberal with character interactions and history / investigation / perception / insight rolls. Let the players see all sorts of things happening that they can potentially piece together into solid understandings of What's Going On. Sure, don't spoonfeed them, but spoonfeeding is preferable to intentionally withholding information that their characters should be able to suss out by talking to the right person or pulling the right thread. Get creative and use your players' character hooks to feed them information from a bunch of different perspectives, use coincidences and atmospheric fluff to convey even more context and information. Information is king in a political game, so afford your characters plenty of opportunities to earn a bunch of it for their own use.
2. Map the Metacharacters
Metacharacters are important to understand. Basically, the body-politic of each major political faction can be represented at the macro level by a "metacharacter," with its own goals, its own assets and resources, and its own plans to use those resources to pursue those goals. Furthermore, each metacharacter is made up of a few key components:
The Head: Whoever is making the ultimate decisions for the metacharacter, be they an individual or a group (e.g. Lord Chivet, the local head of operations for Cambior Mining Corporation).
The Hands: Easily broken down into Right and Left, these are the two or three key personalities who help The Head enact whatever decisions they make. (e.g., Baron Velikhov, manager of the Cambior ore processing plant; Honor, the leader of their internal security; Jebediah Keller, captain of a mercenary company)
The Body: All the various resources at the metacharacter's command, be they as small as the urchin keeping watch outside a crime syndicate's meeting room, or as large as a legion of the Empire's best troops, ready to be deployed as a show of force (e.g., Cambior's mine complexes, their advanced alchemical ore processing plant, the freshly-minted gold at their disposal for bribes and bringing on outsiders, the scrip printing press they use to pay local workers, highly placed connections to Orlesian financiers, and Jeb's Marauders, who have been hired to provide muscle).
Each of those components could easily justify one or more major NPCs, each with their own individual goals and resources and plans. Parts of this metacharacter could turn into smaller metacharacters in and of themselves, all depending on how much detail you have the time to map out.
By imbuing these various factions with personalities and goals and limited resources, you force those factions to start prioritizing goals and make decisions about what courses of action seem most sensible to pursue. Your factions are no longer ephemeral mists in the night that manifest a bunch of goons when the players need a fight – now deploying those goons is a decision, an expenditure of limited resources, and not something to be done lightly. If the players have gathered the right info, they might also realize something like the number of people deployed in front of them doesn't match up with the resources they know the metacharacter has, suggesting some trickery is afoot…
This also makes your factions relatively simple to put on a metaphorical board and connect with allegiances, rivalries, and other organizational interactions. The more that your players understand this potentially complicated web of character and metacharacter interactions (because you are feeding them a steady diet of information-gathering opportunities), the more interesting choices they can make, and the more complex and unexpected consequences can arise from the ripples emerging from those choices.
An Example from a current campaign:
My D&D table is currently embroiled in company-town politics between two mining companies, a nascent miner's guild, and a weak local gendarmerie, all while larger forces are maneuvering in the greater petty kingdom. Virtually everyone's local motives are well-known and well-telegraphed to the players because they've gathered information for the past few in-game days: The guild wants to establish itself, the companies want to rip each other's throats out but also want to reach a tense truce and squash the guild before it can garner any meaningful power, and the gendarmes are a modest wildcard that could give any other metacharacter the edge they need to emerge victorious, alone.
Then there are both larger metacharacters trying to vie for the gold produced by this town (the petty kingdom it's in, the rich Imperial seat financing operations from afar, rebels in the hinterlands that want to tear down the empire, and the crumbling empire itself) and smaller metacharacters trying to accomplish their smaller goals (the local chantry, the local tavern and inn, the previously friendly mercenaries working for one of the companies) all contributing to the web of complex motivations… but it's all up to The Party how they want to influence the various characters and metacharacters involved. It has taken several sessions to set up this web of intrigue, but now I'm at the satisfying stage where it's literally all just dominos and I get to have characters and metacharacters adapt and alter and abandon plans as the PCs act. They've already thrown a major wrench into a Pieter van Eck's plans by revealing them to the head of a metacharacter, which will affect their starting positions both for good and for ill in the politics of van Eck's home city should they ever visit there.
Political Games, In Summation:
Show the players most if not all the levers they can pull, make it clear that they don't have the time to pull all of them, and show them that making some choices will close off others because of how the web of interactions spreads. Then sit back, let them debate for a good half-hour what decisions to make, and narrate consequences once they make a decision, while creating new levers for them to agonize over as they progress.
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