RPT#201 – Political Campaign Tip: Create A Social Ladder
A Brief Word From Johnn
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This is one of the reasons last week’s issue was delayed; however, I’ve finally got the archive plain text zip download updated to Issue #200 and it’s available free for download!
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Bawdy Songs Tip Posted
In Issue #200 I removed the Bawdy Songs tip because, just before sending out the issue, I discovered the link was bad. However, Gavin was able to retrieve an updated link for me and that tip appears in this issue. Thanks Gavin! And sorry everyone for the mix-up.
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By Johnn Four
The social ladder is a core GMing and planning tool that helps you build and manage political campaigns. It represents the hierarchy of power and politics in your world or campaign region. It will inspire you with wonderful plot ideas and campaign conflicts, help you organize and track NPCs, and assist you in running compelling political game sessions.
Social structure is the food chain of politics. People high up on the ladder have much political and social power; people at the bottom have none. People in higher positions generally have power over those below them in some way. Your task is to create a social ladder for your campaign area and determine how it affects your plots, the PCs, and game play.
- What Is A Ladder?
A ladder is simply a list of PC and NPC names ordered by levels of wealth, power, and influence. Much like a chess ladder or the division standings in a sports league, you can see at a glance who’s on top, who’s at the bottom, and who’s in between.
- King Amran
- Queen Ezelle
- Counsellor Garius the Blue
- Mogrun, Minister of Arms
- Mayor Theobald
- Merchant Nillrond
- Regnar, Master of Arms
- Billious, Guildmaster of the Sewers
- Ormal, Ambassador of the Green Marches
- Worphan, humble cutler, leader of the Passive Way
Unlike a common NPC list however, a political ladder is a game within the game where positions on the ladder change based on story and background events. By ranking ambitious people, supplying in-game means for them to climb upwards or fall in disgrace, and rewarding and punishing positional changes, you create a highly charged, compelling atmosphere perfect for political campaigns.
While a ladder isn’t a perfect simulation or measurement of power, it does create a GMing tool that’s simple to build and maintain that will aid and enhance political gaming.
- Who’s On The Ladder?
In any society, there are different groups, categories, and social classes of people. Membership in a class confers or denies rights, privileges, and benefits according to how the culture values that class.
For example, one kingdom might honour its painters, sculptors, and musicians; so, successful artists enjoy popularity, wealth, and political alliances. However, a neighboring kingdom might value heavy industry, so miners and factory workers are shown more respect than artists.
It would probably be a tough and time consuming task to line up all your NPCs individually and rank them on a social ladder. A much easier approach is to identify and rank the major social, political, and economic groups that make up your campaign’s society. Then you assign the bulk of your NPCs to these groups and let the group rankings act as default NPC ladder positions.
Step 1: Scope. What will the scope of your ladder be? A town, city, kingdom, realm, planet, plane? You are encouraged to make separate ladders for each distinct culture or society where heavy political gaming will take place because, if a ladder’s scope is too large compared to your campaign’s scope, then the rankings will be meaningless.
For example, if your campaign currently revolves around political infighting in a large village, no villager is going to rank even close to a king, emperor, galactic overlord, or god in the grand scheme of things. Instead, you’d make a ladder for just the village and surrounding area. If need be, you could rank the village ladder as a whole unit on a larger scope ladder that would include kings and such.
Step 2: Social classes. Define the layers or strata of your society. There’s no need to rank them just yet. For this step, we just want a complete list so we know what we’re working with.
You can use a generic structure, such as:
- Upper Upper Class
- Middle Upper Class
- Lower Upper Class
- Upper Middle Class
- Middle Middle Class
- Lower Middle Class
- Upper Lower Class
- Middle Lower Class
- Lower Lower Class
The advantage of this structure is that it’s already sorted and vanilla enough to work for any society.
You can also use an archetype structure based on birth, vocation, and/or wealth:
- The Wealthy
- Merchant Class
- Artisan Class
- Artist Class
- Labourer Class
- Cleric/Religious Class
- Arcane Class
- Professional Class
- Academic Class
- Warrior Class
- Underworld Class
- Transient Class
- Slave Class
Another option is to structure a society based on your game’s rules. For example, for D&D 3E, I might make this list, in no particular order:
- Prestige Classes
- NPC Only Classes
- Player & NPC Classes
- Monsters with Player Classes (ranked by individual monster type and class)
- Monsters with NPC Classes (ranked by monster/class)
- Monsters with Prestige Classes (ranked by monster/class)
There are lots of permutations, alternatives, and possibilities. Feel free to be imaginative and have fun–you don’t have to aim for realistic or historically accurate society structures. You’re aiming for a good gaming environment.
For example, perhaps the PCs have just been accepted into a primitive monster society and need to raise their status in order to have enough credibility for when they approach the chieftain with their special request. The social groups to place on your ladder might be as follows:
- The one who fights the best
- Those who fight well
- Those who fight poorly
- Those who don’t fight but are clever
- Those who don’t fight and aren’t clever
Step 3: Ruling elite. As our goal is to create a political GMing tool, we should pay some extra attention to the ruling class when building our ladder. What government positions are available? Are there offices, ministries, bureaus, or special congressional or parliamentary positions? Do political opponents hold any power or sway? These kinds of positions are the grist of many political campaigns, plots, and encounters–especially if they change often due to public opinion, elections, or changes of fortune and reputation. So, it’s a good idea to spell them out for inclusion on your ladder.
Step 4: Gather your NPCs for enumeration. Collect your notes, NPC sheets, and other documentation and get ready to put them on the ladder. NPCs you should think about including are:
- Movers and shakers–NPCs who can affect regional events
- Employers, potential and current
- Villains, minions, flunkies
- Group leaders, politicians, important bureaucrats
- NPCs who are the most powerful within their social class
- Popular figures, such as performers and artists
- NPCs involved in your plot
- Notable allies, friends, and relatives of the PCs
Even if you don’t have the stats for an NPC, or if you’ve merely mentioned them in passing in your notes, you’ll want to include them on your ladder if they have any potential for being a player or pawn in your political plots.
- Order The Ladder
Now that you know who’s going to be rated on your ladder, it’s time to make an ordered list.
Step 1: Start with your social classes. Rate them from highest to lowest in terms of power, prestige, privilege, and influence.
If you’re still fleshing out your culture, here’s a great opportunity to use the ladder to make the society different and interesting. Instead of ordering the classes like you might normally would, see if you can turn the list on its head or reorganize it significantly enough so that the players will encounter a new and unusual culture.
For example, perhaps dock workers have the highest status, next to the ruler, in a busy port town. Or, perhaps a city was founded by druids, so wealth and power go hand in hand with agriculture. Perhaps the area is governed by monks and only the old and wise enjoy prestige.
Step 2: Put the ruler(s) at the top. Depending on your political structure, a ruler’s kin might also rate highly, so consider them next.
Step 3: Start placing NPC names on the list in the position you think best suits them. Don’t get too focused on ordering a specific NPC, there’ll be time for tweaks soon. Place their name and note a one or two word reason for why they’re rated as they are on the list.
If you’re pressed for time, just rank NPCs key to your upcoming adventure and NPCs involved in any background events you have planned. You can always add more NPCs to your ladder as time goes on.
You’ll find there are two types of NPCs:
- Unexceptional in terms of power and influence. For these, lump the NPC in with others of the same social class, as per your class rankings.
- NPCs of note and importance. These you’ll rank outside and in between the social classes based on if they are better or worse than their vocational or genetic peers, or if they’re at the top of your list with the Power Players.
For example (#1-10 are Power Players; #13-15 and #23 are notables):
- King Amran (ruler)
- Queen Ezelle (ruler’s wife and legal heir)
- Counsellor Garius the Blue (influences King)
- Worphan, leader of the Passive Way (cult leader)
- Guild Leaders
- Barrak, Hero of the Realm (popular, wealthy)
- Singlar the Sorcerer (powerful magic)
- Bertrand Ramathor (blackmailing the council)
- Halfnee the Fallen (exiled)
Step 4: Reflect and tweak. Scan your ladder and move any names around that you feel were initially mis-queued. You’ll have lots of time in the future to further shuffle things as well.
- Determine How Positions Can Change
How can people climb to power or drop in disgrace? The possibility of change is at the heart of this tool. If the ladder was just a static list of NPCs, it wouldn’t be as useful nor as fun. If NPCs couldn’t change their political fortunes then there would be no drama or compelling stories.
It’s the conflicts that arise from ambition and circumstance that drive political campaigns. It’s the social and political consequences of PC actions and background events you wield that make power games fun for your players. And, most importantly, it’s the ability for your players to learn, understand, and use the principles of the ladder to gain their own victories so they feel like they have control over their social and political destinies.
A big drawback of political games is that players don’t have something tangible to struggle against. Political situations are often contained solely in the mind of the GM, and GMs who are unable to transfer what’s in their heads over to their players’ will have a tough time of it.
A ladder is a wonderful tool that provides players with something tangible to analyze, strategize, and act upon. They can see the NPCs involved. They can see the rankings. They can watch as NPCs rise or fall because of their PCs’ actions. And they can see their own PC’s fortunes rise and fall if you choose to reveal that information.
The ladder is just a simple way to measure, view, and understand the political struggles that take place in your campaigns.
So, how can positions change on your ladder? You don’t need to create a complex body of rules that covers all circumstances and describes dice rolling in great detail. That will only add more overhead to your games. Instead, note down ways and methods that rankings can change, possibly also noting difficulty levels in general terms. Use this list to spawn plot hooks, encounters, and story ideas. As the players come up with ideas of their own, write those down too.
Keep the list up to date so that you can GM consistently. You want consequences, rewards, and punishments of political activity to be consistent from session to session so that the players will trust their newfound options.
Step 1: Power measurement. What did you base your initial ladder positions on? Use the same process of judgement calls to decide on ongoing ladder positions. There’s no need to create a mathematical formula and supporting body of rules here. Instead, create a short list of criteria and use your judgment.
- Legal empowerment (i.e. elected official, vocational privileges such as powers of arrest)
- Tradition (i.e. hereditary status)
- Monetary wealth
- Friends, alliances, associations, memberships
- Land ownership
- Character class level/points/abilities
- Magical power
- Physical and martial prowess
Step 2: Agents of change. How can the power and influence of NPCs change? These methods become the new weapons of your political campaign!
- A key employee, henchman, vassal, or servant
- Benefactor, employer, or patron
- A gain/loss of reputation
- Hired/fired and by whom
- Illegitimate child
- True/false rumours
- Unusual background (i.e. father was an elf)
- An award
- Accused/convicted of a crime
- Family reputation gain/loss
- Spouse’s reputation gain/loss
- Win/lose/avoid a duel
- Enter/leave political office
- A gain/loss of wealth
- Commit a social gaffe at a public or private event
- Make a great speech, win a public debate
- Deliver a telling insult
- Respond poorly to a public insult
- Win/lose a battle as commander
- Lose/gain an informant or access to an information network
- Be on the right/wrong end of a new law or bylaw
- Gain/lose popularity
You are free to design, borrow, or buy game rules to run your ladder. You can create a Reputation statistic, or track Honor Points, and so on. Whatever suits your style. In general though, it’s hard to quantify social interactions and situations and adding more game rules sometimes creates a burden.
The end goal is to create a set of guidelines or possibilities that will allow positions on your ladder to change.
- For Epic Politics: The Shuffle Button
When the stakes are high, the fates of many are in the balance, and there’s great risk, the struggle becomes epic. As an epic option for your ladder, determine a few ways in which all positions could be suddenly shuffled. A complete re-shuffle signifies major social and political upheaval– great stuff for epic campaigns!
- Natural disaster
- God war
- Foreign invasion
- Famine and plague
- Magical disaster (i.e. all gold turns to lead)
Anything that results in a sudden change of leadership could be on your list. Note that, the whole upper portion of the ladder will seek to prevent such a shuffle to maintain the status quo, while groups and individuals from the lower portion might support and look for ways enable such a circumstance.
This is a great source of powerful conflicts that you can weave as a background thread in your campaign or make it a featured part of your main story arc.
- Identify Interesting Conflicts
Once your ladder is complete and you have a good feel for why NPCs are rated as they are, take a step back and look for potential interesting conflicts. You can then turn these conflicts into actions, encounters, side-plots, background events, hooks, and full fledged plots.
A natural conflict should arise between almost any NPC and those who are below him on the ladder. The conflict doesn’t have to be evil or sinister in nature. However, if one depends on their ladder position then there’s going to be a desire to improve it, and friction can result even between old friends and allies. Such is the nature of politics.
Great conflicts should also arise from NPCs in back-to-back positions on the ladder. It’s one thing for a peasant to wish he was King, but it’s another for two nobles to vie for a widow’s favour, or for two merchants to covet each other’s contracts.
Also look for NPCs close to each other on the ladder with diametrically opposed morals and ethics. Lots of good hatred and ill will there!
- Economic and trade
- Intra-family, clan based
- Compelling NPC combos (what would make for an entertaining match-up? Use your promoter skills here 🙂
- Empty spots on the ladder you haven’t filled yet
- Recent vacancies
- A need you identify after the ladder has been created (in other words, don’t fill it in just yet–game for it!)
- Building The Ladder
You can build your ladder any way you like as long as it identifies the general social hierarchy of the world or region’s society and it allows you to adjust the ranking of NPCs and PCs as your campaign unfolds.
Here are some options:
- Pencil and paper. A classic!
- Word processor. Cut and paste is heavenly.
- Organization software, such as MyInfo. The tree structure allows for drag & drop and easy groupings.
- RPG software, such as Roleplaying Master, with good organization and database features.
- Index cards. I built an awesome index card ladder years ago. It consisted of a series of cardboard pouches, each wide enough to fit a card. The pockets were a little too deep though and cards would slip down out of sight. If I had to make it again I’d measure it out so that about an inch of card top or more would stick out.
The ladder was designed for one specific society, and each pocket was numbered and labelled. The numbers helped me quickly identify the exact position in society an NPC or group of NPCs had (as I had a stat score based on that at the time). The labels represented political titles so that I knew who was what at a glance. For example, the top pouch was labelled King, the next was Ministers and Advisors, then Dukes, and so on.
When an NPC’s power waxed and waned, I’d move his card up and down the ladder accordingly.
- Binder. Page order represents ladder ranking. This method lets you use full character sheets for NPCs as well.
A political ladder is intended to be a simple, useful GMing tool to help you design and run compelling political campaigns. It’s not highly realistic, but it certainly is fun. Avoid letting the ladder dictate game play or take up too much of your valuable planning time. It should be something that you can set-up in short order and then build on as your campaign progresses. If you decide to give a ladder a shot, drop me a note and let me know how it goes!
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- Bawdy Tavern Songs
From: Gavin Hoffman
I’ve often looked for ways to make the gaming experience better, and one of the obvious is through music. Whenever music and role playing come up, the inevitable suggestions are for movie soundtracks, or other exciting music that can set the mood. But, what about when the players are in a tavern?
I have just the thing: “The Art of the Bawdy Song” on the Dorian Recordings label.
It was performed by The Baltimore Consort and The Merry Companions. It’s a compilation of tavern songs frequently heard throughout England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of them ARE somewhat bawdy (including themes about offensive bodily functions and not-so-subtle sexual innuendos) but are quite tuneful and fit the bill perfectly for inn/tavern settings.
Keep in mind, however, that the content is considered explicit and is best reviewed by an adult before allowing the kids to use it in a game session.
- Media File Organization
From: Chris Knudson
Keep all of you image, sound, and other media files located centrally (all Jpgs in one folder, each monster’s file in the monster folder) and make aliases of the files and place them in the most appropriate place. Aliases take up less space and can be removed, duplicated, or moved as the current game requires.
- Naval Links For Swashbuckling Games
From: Jonathan Hicks
I’m changing the timeline in my Warhammer campaign to a Napoleonic setting, and I found this website which I found most helpful. There’s plenty of details on the time period, but what interested me most was the Naval aspect of the wars. This link gives all kinds of details and would help define any swashbuckling adventure game:
- Online GMing Tips
From: DM Meechum (AKA Jeff M)
I’d like to say that I read the e-zine about Online GMing and it couldn’t be closer to the mark. I have a couple of additional tips you may be interested in putting in at some point, as I have quite a bit of experience with online gaming.
- Set and use common Macros. If you are using OpenRPG or WebRPG, they have several macros that can be stored along with integrated character sheets that can be loaded down with macros.
- Write out scene details before the session starts and then you can cut and paste. Once again, OpenRPG has tools available that will allow you to type it up. Then, just pull up the labeled piece and then send it directly to chat.
- If you use a program that has a map function try to learn it and use it. It will clarify positions of monsters and players quickly.
- Use double parenthesis (()) for Out of Character chat (which should be at a minimum during sessions).
- I suggest, as with face to face sessions, that you take a break about once an hour or so. This gives the players a chance to go get their drinks or smokes or whatever and a chance for the DM to rest his fingers and also maybe touch base with a few of the players that may not be pounding the keys as much.
- Encourage each of your players to use a different text color. It makes it much easier to identify if you know that Knute is always the red print on the screen.
- OpenRPG has an initiative tool that can be downloaded separately, but most platforms don’t have any way to organize initiative. Therefore, it’s been my experience that it’s best to do group initiatives and then get an order together of who’s going to go when each turn. It’s great to mix it up to keep them on their toes but it should be noted before you go into an encounter, I believe.
- I try to let my players describe their hits and misses after their rolls. While they are typing it up I move on to the next player and usually before they can get their action typed up the last player that did something scrolls up with what happened based on their roll. This keeps the game moving but also gives everybody something to cheer about.
Most people tend to try to out do each other on their description so you go from “I hit” to a much more elaborate description of what the character did. Also, many of my players would have different macros typed out for their spells or a battle cry of some sorts. A carefully interjected text macro can really spice it up.
I hope you find some insight in this and I do appreciate your e-zine. I look forward to it each week. Thanks.