Running a Political” Game - Campaign Retrospective

Is your RPG adventure political?”

As in, are there different factions and stakeholders, with different interests, at odds with each other? Do the players have to make tough choices about who to trust, who to align with, and who to stab in the back?

If not… Do you want it to be?

REPAIR STATION 73 by Pascal Blanché
(Artstation) Artwork by Pascal Blanché

From February to July, I ran a short campaign set on a remote space station gripped by a labor strike. The PCs were newcomers, caught up in events when their crewmate was murdered in the middle of the night. Through eight sessions spanning five in-game days, the PCs contended with company bosses, union workers, corrupt rent-a-cops, mafia enforcers, militia fighters, hardened terrorists, and people just trying to get by. They got into three firefights, and their actions put the whole station on a course toward all-out-war.

Along the way, I’ve learned quite a bit on how to run this sort of game. I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what comes to mind — with input from my players, because they were kind enough to humor me and fill out a post-campaign feedback form.

Outgun the player characters

The biggest key to establishing tension in a political intrigue game is to take away the PCs’ ability to solve all their problems with violence. That doesn’t mean they have to be left defenseless, but they should quickly run into people who can bring way more firepower to the table than they can.

Most RPG characters are built to get into — and win — fights, so system does matter here (I’ve been using Violence by Luke Gearing). This kind of game probably won’t work very well with, say, 4e or 5e D&D. The PCs need to know that they can easily be killed in a standup fight.

And most NPCs won’t fight fair.

Played right, this high lethality should encourage the PCs to choose their battles wisely, to take care when confronting powerful interests, and to stack the deck in their favor using the extent of their wits and cunning. NPCs, of course, will do the same.

Early in the campaign, two PCs dug up clues pointing to a union-controlled warehouse across town. To get access, they were told to do the union a favor and ransack the space traffic controller’s office. It was supposed to be a bloodless job, but they failed to bluff their way past the night patrol, and things went south from there. Thanks to cover and a heavy dose of luck, they managed to down three cops, giving them enough time to call for help and flee to the maintenance tunnels. They both took injuries, but thanks to quick medical attention from the union doctors, they lived to see another day.

This was a moment that stuck with all of us through the rest of the campaign. It raised the stakes dramatically — the station was put under martial law, with no ships allowed in or out. Furthermore, a detachment of marines was dispatched to the station to restore control. The PCs would have to complete their investigation and find a way to escape Nylund Station before the marines arrived.

It was also my players’ first brush with death, their introduction to this system’s extremely high lethality. Here’s one player’s description of events:

Honestly I’ve done a few DnD campaigns, I’ve had my character killed more than once, but the absolute shitshow that was the terrorist attack on the STC tower was one of the wildest things I’ve seen in DnD. Rarely does post-combat make you feel tense, but because I was actively dying in the tunnels I was like on the edge of my seat praying I’d make it out. I get attached to my characters!!!

Conflicts, not enemies

This all sounds quite punishing, but with danger comes opportunity. Don’t create too many dedicated antagonists — instead, weave a web of tension between different factions, and drop the PCs into the middle. They’ll have to step carefully in order to avoid blowing up the powder keg, but so will everyone else. Give the players room to exploit these conflicts in their favor, negotiating with different factions as it suits them. Depending on the situation, an adversary today can become a partner tomorrow, and former friends can easily turn on each other. Let the players take risks and drip-feed them the consequences.

The players in my game had a complicated relationship with the Outer Planets Liberation Army, the left-wing militia active on Nylund Station. It was OPLA fighters who helped them escape from the space traffic controller’s office, and they relied on the militia’s help to navigate the station and get around the barricades put up by union and police. But the union and OPLA, while aligned against the authorities, were not terribly friendly themselves. The OPLA wanted a free hand to do as they liked, whereas the union wanted the OPLA to answer to them. And as the PCs uncovered more and more clues, they came to realize that the murderer was a member of the OPLA.

They needed to learn more, but they struggled to land on anything they could offer to the major factions in return. The plan they landed on was simple: go to the union boss and offer to independently frame the OPLA for the space traffic controller’s attack. Hopefully, this would marginalize and contain the OPLA, at least a little bit, while keeping the union’s hands clean and keeping the door open for a continued union-OPLA relationship — one where a weakened OPLA was subservient to the union.

At this point, the campaign had become more than a murder mystery. The players were now debating how to avoid the marines, how to exploit the major factions to their advantage, and how to escape Nylund Station. Here’s one of my players on the union boss and the way the campaign developed:

Mehmet also seemed like a very interesting figure, being just ideological enough to defy the solar government but just pragmatic enough to lead a substantive opposition. Finally unraveling the circumstances of Mendoza’s murder, and how it was practically a minor point by the end of the campaign despite it being our initial cause for action, was great.

Know the world

This sort of game necessarily involves a lot of prep. As the game master, you’re responsible for playing the world, seeing how different characters and factions respond to the PCs’ actions. To do this correctly, you’ve got to understand the situation in your game very well.

This is hard. I kept a lot of notes, including lists of major characters, a map of the station, session notes, and a timeline of events. Still, I often found myself having to slow down and flip back through my notes mid-session. Here’s what one player had to say about it:

There were some times where the story would grind to a halt as [GM] tried to find out certain details he couldn’t remember.

I’ve never GM’d, I don’t know what his prep looked like or what kinda notes he had, but maybe there’s a way to streamline notes? Maybe not, again, this is something that [GM] would have to review (though if he sent me his notes I could give some advice!) Not memorizing every detail of your campaign is human, so we obv don’t expect perfection here and this didn’t like sour the campaign or anything.

Let the players outsmart you

One of the reasons I love GMing is because I enjoy seeing my players come up with their own solutions to their problems. Wild ideas, brilliant schemes, doomed plots — it’s the bread and butter of my gaming. If my players come up with a well-reasoned plan, I usually bend toward saying yes. And then I love showing them the consequences.

Toward the end of the campaign, the PCs found themselves in an OPLA safe house. They feigned that they were OPLA sent from leadership to get some answers about the space traffic controller’s office incident. The agents there were skeptical, but eventually relented and gave their alibi (they were at work at their day jobs). The PCs, in a gambit to force their hand too early, impressed upon them the necessity of swift defensive action ahead of the marines’ arrival. One thing led to another, and the militia fighters agreed to disperse the safe haven’s firearms to the station’s OPLA cells, and to carry out some unspecified operation” — the bombing of Nylund Station General Hospital.

With the clock ticking, the PCs pressed for more information and a way out of the safe house. They learned some final details about the murder — the killer was an OPLA agent whose gambling debts led her to turn coat and become a police informant. When her comrades found out, they kidnapped her and told her to make a high-profile assassination in three days, or else. She aimed for a senior police captain staying at a hotel by passenger arrivals, but broke into the wrong room, killing an innocent person — the PCs’ crewmate. The murder was a complete accident.

It took a firefight to escape the safe house, firmly severing the PCs from the OPLA. One player was injured so badly he had to go to the hospital… the very hospital in danger of being bombed. When they got there, they called their contact at the Bureau of Intelligence, and she had police sweep the hospital for OPLA agents. The bomb plot was foiled, but now the players were defenseless at the hands of the police.

The intelligence officer offered to let the PCs leave Nylund Station… but only if they gave up the location of the union boss and other important union members. It was heavily implied that things would get complicated if the PCs refused. They mulled the offer over, decided that they didn’t have much of a choice, and agreed to turn coat.

The players’ scheme — get some information about the murder out of an OPLA safe house — set off a chain of events that led them to betray the union and the militia to secure a ticket off the station. Not very heroic, but it got them what they wanted.

Say yes to their plans, then drip-feed them the consequences.

…But don’t be afraid to say no sometimes

My tendency to be permissive with the PCs’ schemes led to some great moments, but multiple players mentioned that they felt like the non-player characters were pretty gullible.

Many of the characters were too trusting at times. In the end we brought down the union mostly because they trusted us with a domestic terroristic attack, a couple goobers they’d never met with unclear loyalties.

For the most part the characterization was solid, but I do feel there were times that some reasonable doubts/concerns a character may have had. Particularly surrounding the union and the deals they made with us. It didn’t break my immersion and it wasn’t unbelievable, hell real life people make rash decisions, but there were a couple occasions where I felt like we succeeded more to move the plot along than cause we succeeded.

And… yeah, that’s probably true. That they even got into the OPLA safe house was a product of some extreme gullibility from the NPCs. And the union did trust the PCs with a high-profile operation right from the get-go. Worth thinking about for next time.

In conclusion

The finale of the campaign was the outbreak of all-out war between the police and the combined forces of the union and OPLA. As the PCs attempted to make their way to their ship, a detachment of OPLA agents ambushed them in a warehouse, looking for revenge.

It was a jumbled, chaotic affair, with bullets whizzing around with abandon. By the end of it, one player character and multiple named NPCs were dead. The other militia members had either surrendered or fled. The remaining two PCs had little time to grieve before hauling ass toward passenger arrivals.

This final firefight, as dramatic as it was, did expose some issues my players had with the ruleset we were using. Here’s one player’s opinion:

Characters rolling to die after combat is a little weird. It’s not done in most other DnD systems and generally I think you could tell if someone is at least dead by gunshot.

Only reason I bring this up is I felt it was a little anti-climactic that Brat didn’t die in the fight, but rather in a kinda mundane dice roll after the action had settled. It sorta took away from the action I think; if it had happened in real time we’d be like NOOO, but cause it was so delayed it just kinda happened.

The lack of any kind of system for modeling things that aren’t violence also caused some hangups. Here’s another player’s thoughts:

I think it would be nice if we had a system for our competencies too, as it could have been interesting to have mechanical use for our careers and backstories. This didn’t come up much in a campaign of mostly politics, but it could in future if we have to solve other kinds of problems, and it might bring more focus to our characters’ personalities and interests.

But! I think Violence proved an ideal system for an adventure of high intrigue. With no character stats to speak of, the only thing my players and I could fall back on was our knowledge of the characters and the situation on Nylund Station.

With no charisma stat or social skills, every interaction with an NPC was defined by uncertainty. My players could never tell if their threats and bluffs were landing, or if an NPC had something to hide. They had to make decisions based off their best guesses about an NPCs personality or a faction’s goals.

Combat, on the other hand, was quick, tense, and bloody. My players knew that the consequneces of misstepping could be fatal, and that if they picked up the dice, they were taking a huge risk. They were incentivized to avoid a fight when possible, and to stack the deck in their favor if not.

Another thing I liked about Violence was that the drama was firmly set on getting hit rather than taking damage. Characters didn’t have hit points — even one bullet could kill, forcing my players to duck for cover, find places to hide, and use the environment to their advantage.

What’s next?

I’d like to continue this story, following the player characters as they explore a Solar System inching closer to revolution. The tone is probably going to change quite a bit, becoming an open-world sandbox with more of a system behind it. I want to refine and flesh out my spaceship combat rules to make them suitable for a real campaign. As much as I enjoyed using Violence for this arc of the campaign, I probably won’t use it for a campaign that isn’t primarily about intrigue. Maybe Mothership?


The Three Clue Rule is essential. There really is no better advice for designing a mystery.

I think it’s good to have some player-facing notes. For my players, I kept a timeline of events, a list of unsolved mysteries, and a list of important characters.

I made sure to write down a summary of events after every session, so I wouldn’t forget anything as I prepped the next session.

I found that while there was a lot of work up-front before the campaign started, it wasn’t a huge amount of work to prep sessions once the campaign already started. I had already done the work to create factions and NPCs and establish their motivations — after that, it was easier to come up with their next move.

July 24, 2023