Skip to main content

Storylines of Succession

Even if you’ve been keeping your nose in dusty tomes of RPG lore, word has probably made its way to you that Queen Elizabeth II has died. As heathen Americans, we’re more used to the idea of Kings and Queens (and Czars and Emperors and Kaisers and…)  from history and works of fiction than in our day-to-day lives. But those works of fiction, even the ones we make ourselves, are inspired by history and the world around us, so this week we thought we’d talk about the way that shifts in leadership (monarchical or otherwise) can affect the worlds we create for stories and games. - B

B: The more you think about it, the more you see things that are affected by these kinds of changes. Whose face is on the money? Who even declares the value of said money? Even if your setting is based around bartering systems (something of an inevitability when much of the wealth the Player Characters encounter is in the form of plundered discovered treasure and artifacts) the availability of goods and services will be greatly affected by leaders’ choices. And speaking of ancient treasure, these changes need not be taking place in the present - shifts in the leadership of long-gone civilizations may affect the material makeup of the loot the PCs find, or even the layout of the dungeons and terrain they’re exploring.

When these changes are happening around the characters, though, the storytelling possibilities are limitless, particularly those characters enjoy special access to those in power. Are the PCs getting quests from the King, possibly through an intermediary? What happens if that King dies and the succession is disputed? Even if it isn’t, maybe the intermediary sees an opportunity for advancement and claims to speak for the new ruler, but is actually sending the party off on missions for their own advancement.

Because these factors are a reality of human society, they run across all genres and tones. Are the players PCs spies who suddenly find themselves with new and conflicting orders as their chain of command sorts itself out? Colonists on a distant world where the priorities a leader selects means life or death? A band of thieves in an early industrial city-state where the nobles had to flee, leaving their valuables to be fought over by rapscallions like themselves? Change is story, and story is our business.

Andy, how do shifts in politics and leadership appear in your games? Do the PCs interact with powerful people directly, through quests given by royalty, for instance, or do they mostly see trickle-down effects in diverse ways such as bar fights, pub brawls, and tavern stabbings?

A: Shifts in politics and leadership in game settings can have major and minor consequences. The most minor of these in my games tends to arguments of Pitt the Elder vs. Lord Palmerston. Simpsons quotes aside, those major consequences in a setting can change the entire course of a campaign story. Not being too much of a political aficionado, I tend to leave the politics in the background without the players noticing much. However, in the campaign I started over the pandemic, the players have gotten themselves involved in local politics on a number of occasions. Before running off on their latest adventure, the members of the group have already: made themselves silent junior partners in a mining concern, run off a local town master and installed a town council, negotiated a protection deal between this town and a group of orcs, increased their standing with local organized crime and thwarted a different organized crime syndicate. While they have not yet returned to see the fallout of any of these actions, in the meantime, they’ve managed to decimate a minor cult. 

What changes will those actions force in this campaign? I dare not share too much on this blog in case any of the players are reading... but one can imagine the consequences. From subtle shifts of power and rising costs, to changing allegiances and war, anything is certainly possible with these players involved. As long as they are interested, of course. It would be wasteful both as a collaborative storyteller and just a DM trying to prepare, to spend too much time on something that won't be meaningful for the players. If you’re all interested in lines of succession and the fallout, changing power balances, negotiations, and wars, then devote all the time you like to it. Otherwise, you might wear the patience of your players a bit thin talking about trade disputes... beware that phantom menace.

B: It's funny that you mention that in particular, as I've heard a number of people say how much they enjoyed Terry Brooks's novelization of Episode I simply because it went into detail about the trade disputes that George Lucas glossed over in the film. But Brooks had already been a successful fantasy author for decades, with plenty of experience at making the gritty details of an imaginary setting interesting even to audiences who were there for swashbuckling adventures. And that sums it up, doesn't it? Knowing what your audience and players expect, and satisfying those expectations, while (hopefully) getting them interested in new and different storytelling possibilities.

If the game is something based specifically around enforcing societal laws, cultural norms, and/or the edicts of those in power, changes in leadership can have an immediate and visceral impact on the characters' lives. I've recently been fulfilling a New Year's Resolution to read more indie RPGs by delving into Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, given its significant influence on modern narrative game design. The game hinges on the players' moral choices, as it tasks them with enforcing a religious doctrine ("the Faith") that is, without saying so directly, fundamentally unjust and often at odds with the secular civilian government (the "Territorial Authorities.") The "right thing to do" is left entirely up to the players to decide, and leadership changes among the Faithful or the Territorial Authorities can make things all the murkier. But again, the players' expectations are paramount, and people played Dogs in the Vineyard (and its descendants) to have an opportunity to consider complex moral choices. Some people play games to kill monsters and live as overpowered badasses for a few hours. But even then, little reminders that the world exist outside of their own limited experiences can help your game world feel vivid and complex, cutting down on the artificiality of stasis. And if the players are there to play out the power struggles and complexities of leadership themselves... have at!

Until next time... long live the game!

Send comments and questions to or Tweet them @neversaydice2.

Popular posts from this blog

An Introduction to Risus

While roaming the internet in the late nineties/early noughties, I came across a TTRPG that was rules-lite and called itself “the anything RPG.” Want to play a high school cheerleader/samurai-in-training part-time goth enthusiast fast food cashier? The hot pink stick figure art glared back at me. Nah, not interested. But I was wrong. The stick figures were actually purple, and Risus is a surprisingly versatile, handy and down right fun TTRPG. I wouldn’t figure that out though till I discovered it again several years later. Even though it was written as a comedy system (and somewhat lighthearted response to GURPS) you really can use it for just about anything: space opera, high fantasy, pulp, vampires,western, any movie setting you could think of...seriously anything. You can read a far more detailed and interesting history in a number of other places should it strike your fancy. It is time for your Risus indoctrination introduction. Risus really is versatile and fairly easy to learn

[Backstory Redacted] - Getting Ready to Run Paranoia

Greetings, Citizens! For scheduling reasons Due to Commie sabotage, the benevolent and exceptionally well-prepared individuals in charge of Never Say Dice have chosen to follow up the recent Paranoia post with another, this time about what you need to do before the game. Readers unfamiliar with Paranoia should take this opportunity to educate themselves before their ignorance is discovered and punished, and any readers uninterested in Paranoia should join the line for the nearest Termination Booth forming here . Please fill out the Citizen Satisfaction Survey before stepping into the booth. Have a pleasant daycycle! When we last spoke, I had covered the setting and talked a little about my first (successful) Paranoia session, but closed without sharing the lessons I had learned from my years of running the game. Players: Welcome to Alpha Complex, Six Death Minimum I must admit to having a certain advantage in my pool of available players that other Gamemasters might not: I live in

Be a Grinch! (in a Tabletop RPG)

The Holidays may be almost over (for a while), and we hope you’ve all enjoyed your seasonal music and movies/specials. We here at Never Say Dice have covered the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special and the new LEGO edition a few posts ago. A common thing many of us into tabletop RPGS like to do is incorporate media into our games. After all, many of us have grown up with the blending of media and the holidays as a given. It provides us a framework to build on and a common touchpoint to the people at our tables, virtual or otherwise. One classic character featured in holiday specials and commemorated in his own song is the Grinch, the avocado-green villain with strange cardiac growth problems apparently linked to his personality. The Grinch, villain though he may be, has a slew of characteristics that would make the character an excellent one at the gaming table. Those of you not familiar with Suess-lore may really only know the Grinch from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas animated

The Mission Will Be Very Safe and Fun for Everyone: Some Thoughtcrimes on Running Paranoia

  I'm sorry citizen, but the question "why hasn't there been a Paranoia post in over fifteen months" cannot be processed. Records indicate that the previous post, " [Backstory Redacted] - Getting Ready to Run Paranoia " was activated in the Year 214 of the Computer, and, as this is currently Year 214 of the Computer, your internal chronometer must be malfunctioning. Rumors that is has always been Year 214 of the Computer are treason. Please report to Internal Security for cerebral re-adjustment. Have a nice daycycle. So, why hasn't there been a post about Paranoia in fifteen months, anyway? The previous two have been quite popular , and, as I'm fond of saying, I've put more thought into this game than nearly anything else in my life, formal education included. As time went on, I found myself procrastinating on the follow-up. I didn't have enough time to work out everything I'd want to cover, I'd tell myself, or that some other top