|Did you know Machiavelli looked like this goof?|
Getting political has been the main way to keep higher-level play from becoming too easy or repetitive since basically forever in D&D. There isn’t much about it on the character sheet, though, so it’s not always clear how to do it. I’m going to try to break it down into straightforward steps that I’ve learned through trial and error.
Politics involve goals, power, and opportunity.
You can have politics in one hex, town, or even dungeon if there are individuals or groups with differing goals. However, completely incompatible goals like, “The ogre wants to eat livestock,” and, “the farmers want to keep their livestock,” won't usually result in politics, unless the PCs are interested in negotiating some sort of livestock-sharing agreement. Partially incompatible goals will allow for negotiations, diplomacy, and betrayal. If some actors actually have the same goals but for conflicting reasons, things will become even more complex.
What to do: When you write notes about the inhabitants of an area (including monsters), make sure you add, “and they want...” Make some goals incompatible, but others partially compatible, and still others the same but for different reasons.
Power is the ability to accomplish goals. It is rare for an individual to be able to accomplish all its goals alone. Politics, therefore, is, “the art of the possible:” that is, combining power until it is possible to accomplish a goal.
Power can come from different sources. They tend to boil down to belief, force, knowledge, and wealth (these mirror the four core classes of cleric, fighter, magic user, and thief nicely).
- Belief can be religious, but it doesn’t have to be. Any ideal, ethic, or opinion is a belief, and the more widely they are shared, the more power they have. “The emperor rules by the Mandate of Heaven,” and, “a democratically elected government represents the will of the people,” are both beliefs that confer power.
- Force can be overt, like armies, or covert, like assassinations. Fear of force can often be enough to accomplish goals.
- Knowledge is the stretchiest category, but it often involves technical skill, secrets (i.e. blackmail), or (in D&D) magic or the occult.
- Wealth means resources, either physical or monetary. In D&D, money isn’t different from any other resource. There is usually only one currency (gold pieces), and everyone values it, including monsters. In real life, money is a belief masquerading as a resource, but you don't need to get into that unless you have a very specific set of players.
Individuals will often pool power into organizations to pursue a shared goal. However, only the smallest organizations have truly uniform goals. There will always be differences of opinion, rivalries, and even those using the power of the organization for their own selfish ends. All organizations are essentially the same, be they clubs, churches, mafias, or kingdoms. The more powerful the organization, the more likely it is for individuals to join purely to advance themselves, with no regard for the organization’s stated project.
What to do: In any organization you make, build in a few factions and rivalries. If it is powerful, include members who are purely selfish.