So, I return from vacation and start to catch up on the other blogs I follow, and I find, among other things, a thought-provoking series at B/X Blackrazor on the three stages of exploration. The first is the classic dungeon crawl. The second is the expansion into the wilderness. The third is exploration of the campaign's social and political landscape, and becoming a mover and shaker therein.
One of the main thrusts of JB's essays is that D&D as written is poorly designed for the later stages, especially Stage 3, because Stages 2 and 3 grew organically within a game that was originally designed to support Stage 1.
That got me thinking about what sort of rules you'd need to fully integrate Stage 3 into the system, and what existing rules might be maladapted to it. The tentative conclusion that I've come to is that the existing rules, with the right interpretations, work pretty well for low level adventures in politics, but quickly prove wanting as characters gain in power and influence. I don't know that the thoughts below really address any of JB's concerns about the game; they're strictly my own very preliminary thoughts on the subject.
First, there needs to be a way to represent a character's political power and influence and apply it to actions in the game. A character's level of experience is a good place to start. Level is a fairly decent proxy for fame and wealth in the game world. Another element that might be helpful is some measure of the character's favor or disfavor among various groups on a positive-to-negative continuum. This would probably have to be tracked separately for different groups; i.e. the peasantry, the merchants' guild, the crown, the church, and so on. The scale might start at a default of 0, and gain or lose points according to whether the PC's actions benefit or oppose a particular organization. Perhaps a modifier might be applied to reaction rolls when dealing with faction members, equal to the character's Favor Rating with that faction, but limited in absolute value to half the character's level. For example, a 4th level character would be limited to a maximum of +2 or -2. The closest thing basic D&D has to anything of this nature is the dominion confidence system of Mentzer's Companion Set, but of course that's really applicable only to dominion rulership, and is simultaneously more complicated and less versatile than one might like.
Secondly, a robust but easy to implement system for resolving mass combat, including sieges and naval warfare. This is less of an issue at low levels, but when the PCs become rulers in their own right, if not before, they're going to need it. Unfortunately, the War Machine rules from the Companion Set are confusing and unwieldy at best, and I haven't yet seen an alternative that's much better. A consistent and objective rule for awarding XP for mass combat actions is needed also.
Third, a system for economics for dominions and organizations that isn't broken. This would ideally include not only the rules needed to manage a dominion as ruler, but also entities such as thieves' guilds, secret societies, merchant houses, churches, and any other organization that requires manpower and generates both income and expenses. Mentzer's dominion rules from the Companion Set are geared entirely toward dominion rule, and moreover are difficult to disentangle, and his understanding of economics is iffy at best. I might see if I can put my interest in economics to good use and take a crack at a more coherent system at some point. There also needs to be a rule for awarding XP for running a barony or a guild.
Probably the most useful mechanic from the standard rules, and the core mechanic of social interaction in D&D, is the good old 2d6 reaction roll. Obviously, some of the results appropriate for dungeon and wilderness adventuring are entirely inappropriate for civilized areas (or even those with only an outward veneer of civilization.) Farmers and townsfolk, and even guards and soldiers, are unlikely to spontaneously attack an adventurer or party of adventurers simply because of a bad reaction roll. More likely, hostility will be expressed with jeers and insults, surly behavior, or fear and disgust, and a general tendency to be as unhelpful as they can get away with. If there's a substantial disparity in power (either physical/magical or political) weaker NPCs might need to pass a morale check before showing defiance. Failure means being intimidated into compliance, though still only as helpful as absolutely necessary. Another difference between these "social" reactions and the reactions in a typical dungeon or wilderness crawl is that the NPCs encountered in the course of social and political adventures are likely to take on recurring roles in the campaign, so you'll probably want to take note of their initial reactions. It would make little sense for the master of the merchant's guild to meet the PCs with open loathing at their first meeting, and enthusiastic friendship at the second for no reason other than a fresh reaction roll. Note also that a strong initial reaction to the PCs by a Very Important Person, whether positive or negative, might also spill over into their dealings with other members of his organization.
While the XP paradigms of D&D as written - XP awarded for defeating enemies in combat and recovering loot - don't obviously lend themselves to exploration of the political realm, it's not hard to reinterpret them for the purpose. Characters trying to shake up the social order of their world may not be delving into ruins in search of treasure, but everybody knows that money is vitally important to achieving political aims. I know some DMs award XP only for treasure recovered, and not for rewards paid to the characters, but for a game including a strong political element, XP for reward money makes sense. If you want to encourage PC involvement in political intrigues, it's a good idea to award XP for it, and reward money is a sensible metric for the value of their actions. I'd even venture to say it makes sense to award the XP even if the PCs decline the reward money itself, because they've still gained in reputation and influence.
XP for defeating enemies also makes sense, if we take a broader interpretation of "defeat" than simply besting them in combat. Perhaps each faction and each VIP in the setting has an XP value, similar to that of monsters, but based upon its political power and importance, which can be earned by defeating them in the arena of ideology and influence rather than in physical combat.
The idea of XP awards for personal character goals also fits nicely into the idea of adventurers participating in game-world politics. If a character declares his intention to blackmail the captain of the guard, or get himself appointed to some minor post, then achieving that goal ought to be worth some XP.
Forming alliances, gaining titles, executing masterful plans that increase the prestige and influence of a favored organization are other actions that might be worthy of XP awards.
That's all for now. Next up: Some thoughts on adventures in society and politics specifically geared toward low level characters.