"Oh hey look, it's an rpg based upon a wargame. Let's all make combat characters, I'll make a tank, you be the party rogue, you can heal, and you with the dual pistols can be the DPS. Remember lets kill everything in sight, grab their gear, sell it and then get some cool mechanika!"
And so begins another lame - yeah you heard it right, LAME! - game of Iron Kingdoms where the aim is to just move from combat encounter to combat encounter, trying to press the 'b' button to skip past the GM perhaps trying to portray a story beyond the whole sale slaughter of a tribe of Gatormen, or a gang, or people who while having done something wrong have their own complex moral reasons for doing so.
What ever happened to diplomacy?
In the Iron Kingdoms we have a number of races that are spread across a number of kingdoms, and there are some very difficult political dealings between them all.
Ord is a major player in intrigue, trying to position itself between Cygnar and Khador so that politically and financially it has the upper hand.
Llael, at least as of 604 AR, is divided into the remaining part of the free kingdom, that which the Khador control, and a part controlled by the Protectorate of Menoth. Of course the politics there is complex, as the free Llaelese try to win more support from Cygnar, Ord, mercenary armies, the Protectorate, and even those Khadorans who wish to see the kingdom of Umbrey reinstated. Some Llaelese nobles have already fled the kingdom, some have made deals with the Khadorans, hoping to rule their lands as vassal lords, and some have turned to Menoth, since they could have their kingdom back at the cost of being religious converts.
Khador of course must be careful with their enemies, while extending favour to pirates and mercenaries in order to have the Cygnaran southern coastline attacked. But they need to seem threatening to keep up the offensive and fear in the Cygnarans and Llaelese.
Then of course we have the further complexities of other races at the borders and within kingdoms, the competing religions, and the competition between mystical orders, heretics, companies and ancient bloodlines.
Politics is a mess!
So say you wanted to run a political game in the Iron Kingdoms, what do you need to do first?
Pitch the game, and make sure you can incorporate most options while still having the advantage of getting to pick the location of the setting.
So first pick a location. Your choice should be motivated by the kingdom the players really like and you like (so compromise), and which caters for the plot you are thinking about. You want pirates and privateers? Then choose a coastal town. Want to deal with trade contracts? Then maybe one of the places in the Wyrmwall mountains. Want to deal with lots of people and kingdoms, then look at Corvis, it's a hub of activity with dwarves, Ord, Cygnar, Llael, Khador, and more.
Maybe you have the idea first. You want intrigue between the the nobles of Cygnar as they try to keep in command of their resources and influence over the King, while also trying to prevent the incursions of Khador. If that is the case then you need to pick a city to set it in.
The Iron Kingdoms is of course already filled with NPCs, Dukes, Kings, Princes, master Alchemists and Arcanists, Captain and Pirates, all of who could be the seed of an idea.
Lets take an example - Ord. Why? Ord is filled with spies working for nobles and King Baird. Plus there is the danger of Cryxian agents and with Khadoran pirates, and members of the Llaelese resistance, and the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service. Ord is also has age old rivalries between nobles of Thurian and Todaran descent, in particular the Mateu and Cathors vying for the throne.
Lets now select a city - Berck, in the Cosetio Grav, and which is on the coastline, making is an important port, and one that is not run by pirates. House Mateu is a major influence here, plus there are many other merchant families. We also have the main base for the Ordic Navy, meaning nobles here will have roles within the fleet.
So now what we need is an intrigue. Let's not target the Mateu since they are a big player in the entire setting and so have a certain inertia to events. Lets create a smaller noble house, that has important holdings. Perhaps they control the wine trade from Llael. But this wine trade is assumed to be how they are sending help to the Llaelese resistance, using the wine barrels to transport messages. But that is the decoy. The real root of messages comes in fine Llaelese lace.
Now of course this noble family may have rivals to trade wine. Their conflict is purely centred on business - which of course gets murky as trade has to flow through the kingdom, and be brought over land or else go through Five Fingers.
So of course there are a number of players in all of this. There are those in it for the money and business, but there is another noble family that is looking to weaken their rivals, and part of this involves having a conspiracy with agents of the Khadoran Section 3. Then add to this mix the agents of the King, and how they must act, but in a manner that shows no preference to any family.
Once we have the start of a intrigue we can being to flesh out the main NPCs of the story, who hates whom, who are allied, who is spying on who, what secrets are known and to whom.
And with that we can drop the player group into the game. Lets assume we have a Aristocrat in the group who is attached to the noble family trading in wine. They have a group of PCs with them. They are an entourage/friends. So perhaps another noble, a friend from the Navy, a friend from the university, a well known play-write etc etc.You can have quite some flexibility on characters types even when they need to fit into high society.
Now the campaign begins. Ease them in, let them get a feel for the noble family they are part of first. Perhaps they have to go out and deal with a consignment of goods that have gone missing, and find that there is a issue with the workers, and they are wanting better pay. Or perhaps the consignment was attacked and stolen by trolls.
The next story then is something along the lines of a ghost story, triggered when a family tomb is raided, that unleashes the dead ancestor in the form of a pistol wraith.
After a few stories like this to establish the main thematic elements of the city, and how the noble family operates, what their concerns are, and how the court of the city works, then you can move on to the story that engages the main plot, the intrigue.
The trick to the intrigue is to layer it. You want to have multiple lines of investigation that get built up episode after episode. Each episode either extends or branches the investigation, or resolves some lines. So lets assume the first story you start involves an attack on numerous caravans of wine. This begins the threat that someone suspects the family and their connection to Llael. The story should lead to an end - for now - of these attacks, and the perpetrator is stopped, but it should only reveal the tiniest bit of information about who that culprits are. Perhaps it is even a decoy.
A few stories like this should ramp up the intrigue and the investigations should reveal people to suspect, there should be misdirection and the reasons unclear. Of course break up the plot with episodes that focus on other matters. These episodes could have far smaller plots as you give the players room to tackle the intrigue and take proactive action.
So tools that can help in this?
Index cards of NPCs. Each card lists their goals, their secrets, who they hate and who they love and care for, and what their power base relies on.
In addition to these you should have a web of connections planned out, which details the intrigue and the conspiracies and who are working together.
Also with planning out the campaign and how the story will progress, assume a null hypothesis. This means, if the players do nothing, how would the plot play out as the parties involved in the intrigue act and react. With this plot in your head you can then have some sort of idea what the route of least resistance is - what would happen if the players act, and only react, to events. Then with that in your head you may have more of an idea how the NPCs will respond to the PCs as they interact with the plot and perturb their plans. If the PCs act in a proactive manner then the NPCs can respond. This then means you have the basis of a plot that allows for an organic evolution of the story to incorporate these more interactive elements.
Of course this means that you should not plan things in too much detail beyond the current part of the story being run. Have more general plans, but nothing too set in stone. This also means for individual parts of the story plan using scenes, not just series of combats.
Political games are hard, that is for sure. But with some good planning, flexibility, and some time to set up the basics of the setting for the story, then you will have enough elements in place to draw into the story as the game continues. In that regard it is more like having a structured sandbox. Of course look to fiction, movies and TV for inspiration for political games. Things like Game of Thrones, The West Wing, House of Cards. All of these are filled with ideas. Even look to other games that cater to this sort of gameplay, such as World of Darkness games.
Finally everything written here can be applied at any level of society in the Iron Kingdoms, be in the criminal underworld, the academic world of universities, business, small towns, large cities, entire kingdoms.
Politics is everywhere and is full of stories.