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Reviews: Dynasties and Demagogues
 
by Merwin


Dynasties and Demagogues coverDynasties and Demagogues: the Sourcebook of Political Intrigue
Author: Chris Aylott
Publisher: Atlas Games
160 b&w pages
$28.95

Meet the Contender
Why should you buy this book?
1) Atlas Games is a great company. John Nephew rocks!
2) Chris Aylott's a pretty nice guy (on the net, in any case, as I don't know him personally).
3) The book does what it advertises: it provides d20 game mechanisms for political actions.
4) It critically and competently deconstructs adventures, and presents an innovative method for creating them as well.

Yes, yes, I'm walking into this review with a bit of bias. But consider -- I'm not enamored of any of the Penumbra line offerings to date. I figure that balances things out a little bit.

A Little History
Wizards of the Coast published The Primal Order in the early 90's as the first in the Capsystem line: a series of books intended to graft mechanics for a given subject on to any roleplaying system. TPO covered religion, and three supplements (Knights, Pawns, and Chessboards) were published for it, with one supplement stillborn (Bishops). The other three core books in the line were to cover economics, the military, and politics. But then Magic: the Gathering came along and things took a radical turn away from the Capsystem. I'm led to believe that Adkison bought back the rights to the Capsystem from WotC, but whether anything will be done with it is another matter entirely.

Whew, that's the long way of saying that I've been waiting for a book on mechanisms for politics in gaming for some time.

So how does Dynasties and Demagogues do, with respect to an introduction to political systems? While effective and straightforward (and even illuminating in some cases), the end result was unavoidably pedantic. I would have profited more from reading a decent text book -- and I'll be the first to admit those are few and far between. The saving grace in the section on political systems was that numerous examples, both factual and fictional, are provided; in many cases, they're also statted out. Also, every political system includes an itemization of its potential strengths, weaknesses, member motivations/means to gaining power, and copious campaign ideas. Here's a list of those systems, for those who don't want to be troubled with flipping through the book: anarchy, peaceful anarchy, revolutionary anarchy, democracy, Viking democracy, Athenian democracy, modern democracy, dictatorship, feudalism, mageocracy, theocracy, bureacracy, and empires.

Here's the other big plus in the political systems section of the book: the standard D&D3e races' natural tendencies towards particular political systems are covered. Many examples of individuals, locals, and organizations are provided. The geopolitical map of an entire continent (and perhaps a world) could be built solely on the information in this book, without any additional significant GM effort. A lot of work went into this part of the book; while I recognized that, it wasn't directly useful to me.

The Shiny Smile
There are a number of remarkable components of this book. I'm only going to highlight a few.

First, there's a Bureaucracy generator sidebar on pages 43-44. In fact, a Bureaucracy is classified as a Trap -- very creative! Essentially, it provides a few lists of terms, which you select either deliberately or randomly. You put the terms together to figure out what the actual name of a given bureaucratic institution is, and then refer to tables to see how to get through each agency, how long it takes to do so, and what the result is upon accomplishing the task. While largely frivolous, it's amusing, and I can actually see using it occasionally for more games than just D&D3e. Using this table to create a path through the bureaucracy in Al Amarja (Over the Edge RPG) is an obvious choice.

The second engaging item in this book is the presentation and deconstruction of a politically-charged adventure. The book actually opens with "Deception at Villa Zarios," in which a prestigious vineyard employing a corrupt official suffers political, magical, and physical attacks from a conspiratorial competitor who desires it. Both players and GMs are encouraged to read this adventure. I'll recommend it highly as well, for two reasons. First, it provides an excellent breakdown of the adventure components. Second, if you ever wanted to know how to competently review (the quality and potential of) an adventure, this is your starting point. Every segment of the adventure is deconstructed to explore possible paths players might take, as well as contingency plans a GM might use in response. The adventure itself is quite entertaining. Though it can easily devolve into a slugfest, the repercussions of following that path make it an undesirable one.

The final, and perhaps most impressive portion of this book, are the last two chapters on creating adventures and campaigns focused on political plots, complete with six detailed, but open-ended examples.

Adventures, as laid out in Dynasties and Demagogues, can focus on
- advancing a campaign
- encouraging an activity
- using a skill group (the book divides skills into five key categories)

To turn these basic ideas into adventure seeds, the author presents two plug-and-play story sentences (Mad-Lib style). Using these basic building blocks, you develop your Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis, and then flesh out the ideas with Teasers, Pitches, Twists, Encounter Selections, and the addition of extras such as Comedy, Action, Personal Connections, and a variety of Narrative Techniques. The following chapter expounds on how to build and develop Power, Action, and Advanced campaigns.

Wow. I was, and continue to be, suitably impressed. There's a lot of easily accessible content to absorb here.

Just One of the Crowd
Dynasties and Demagogues carries the usual collection of feats and Prestige Classes focused on the subject matter, the so-called crunchy bits. Many are quite enjoyable, and all are relevant, but I'm concerned about the Secret Feat. If you only gain feats every three levels or so, and you choose Secret as one of them, it shouldn't be quite so easy to lose. As written, you permanently lose your Secret if someone spills the beans, or if you choose to "burn" it for a single automatic success at a Diplomacy or Intimidation check. Perhaps, with a little in-game work, your character should be able to dig up a little dirt to fill each available slot per session of play. That seems more reasonable than losing a feat permanently.

Many of the new feats are +2 to two or more skills, situationally. E.g., Dangerous Insinuations grants +2 to Bluff, Diplomacy and Perform checks that incite distrust and paranoia. This is fine, but when you drop to augmenting only two skills with a situational feat, I think its value is severely stunted. E.g., Rabble Rouser grants +2 to Bluff and Perform (oratory) when inciting a crowd to action.

The new Personality Feats include an added layer of complexity which I find undesirable. Personality Feats are similar to normal feats, in that they provide binary abilities -- you either have the ability or you don't. You gain them in place of normal feats; i.e., instead of taking a standard feat to which you are entitled, you may choose a Personality Feat instead. Personality Feats add Restrictions, Conditions, and Action Points to your d20 vocabulary. Restrictions place limits on the number, types, or circumstances of characters who want to possess or use a Feat. Conditions state a function the character must perform to gain Action Points. Action Points can be spent to either gain extra experience at the end of a session, or to augment a variety of d20 rolls once (pretty much anything except damage rolls). I guess this is the equivalent of good things come to those who are true to their natures, but I didn't like it that much. It's actually reminiscent of White Wolf's Nature/Demeanor-Willpower mechanic from Adventure. I have trouble figuring out how being a Samaritan (restriction = help any who ask; condition = refuse rewards for helping) helps you make a saving throw against poison. I thought that Personality Feats could have been dropped entirely, with more focus on PrCs and Feats that didn't rely on the Action Point subsystem.

Speaking of Prestige Classes, the book had a few creative ones, and many expected ones.

I didn't really imagine Bodyguard or Information Mage as necessary in a book on politics, but there they were. The Information Mage, incidentally, gains the ability to cast six different divination spells at will at 10th level. You be the judge of whether that's too powerful.

The Chieftain, Politician, Diplomat, and Religious Leader are long overdue, and both the Conspiracy Leader and the Discreet Companion (mistress/geisha equivalent) are extraordinarily creative. It's important to note that many of the abilities gained by the Demagogue and Diplomat classes are Charm effects. Consequently, elves will be resistant to them. I'd guess that this means that elves take longer to resolve political interactions since it takes longer to break down their defenses. This concern is covered only briefly in the chapter on racial tendencies towards particular political structures, but never really directly addressed in the chapter on classes.

Even with these concerns, these are some of the best and most useful Prestige Classes I've seen to date. Their abilities are pefectly matched to their themes. Religious Leaders, for example, gain the gift of Tongues, Divine Power, Divine Armor and Divine Luck as well as the ability to enthrall a flock and deliver a "fire and brimstone" speech.

But What's It Really Saying?
There is a scary part to the crunchy bits. This book, unlike many others, takes mechanics somewhere where they may never have been meant to go. What AEG's Spycraft did for chases, Atlas' Dynasties and Demagogues has accomplished for political interactions.

You'll have to read the chapter for yourself to get the full effect of the rules. I can't do it justice. Indeed, I only tolerably understand the voting system after two read-throughs, but that's not really what grabbed my attention.

The real peach of this chapter is the debate rules. It includes approximately two dozen political maneuvers (e.g., Distracting Patter, Humorous Jab, Reality Check, Tantrum). You use these maneuvers to make political attacks on your opponent, and do political damage to a political point pool. The effect of an attack round is resolved by cross-referencing the maneuver you're currently using with the maneuver your opponent used in the prior round. You each determine attack results, and if you exceed your opponent's Political Defense, he/she must make a WIL save, which potentially results in damage to his/her political point pool. If your political hit points are reduced to zero, you capitulate your stance, and your opponent wins the argument.

It's elegant, enticing, overwhelming, and daunting, all at once. I liked it, but I think many people won't. It tends to mechanize personality effects to a significant degree. That's a good thing for players who play characters with personalities that greatly differ from theirs, but a bad thing for players who like their style of play and their own personality and ingenuity to to affect the game, regardless of their character's stats and die rolls.

The Dark Side
The book has surprisingly few errors, and nothing that will ruin your enjoyment of it -- unless you're up against elves, who are resistant to many of the Charm-type effects of demagoguery and politicking. Outside of those concerns mentioned earlier, I found the spells section to be the weakest part of the book. Tactics for creatively using standard spells for advancing political agendas receives only a half column of attention; the bulk of the chapter covers new spells (and items), which seem redundant -- their effects, in many cases (particularly Illusion spells), can be replicated using standard spells.

- In particular, Scryjack gives me pause. The spell enables the target of a scry effect to subvert the scryer's observations. My first question, of course, is, "What happens if someone Scryjacks a Scryjacker?" The possibility is not explicitly covered in the spell description.

- Garble, a 3rd level spell, renders the target's speech unintelligible to any but him/herself for one hour/caster level. The intended use is to deflate a politician's ability to sway others. I found myself considering nonsocial, tactical uses for the spell, which aren't covered in the spell description. I envision many a magic user casting this spell on themselves before entering battle with other mages to befuddle Spellcraft and counterspell attempts.

- The Fly on the Wall magic item functions as a, uh, bug. It's listed Absorb Information improperly as a spell prerequisite. The correct prerequisites should be Clairvoyance and Clairaudience. The Fly doesn't read books; it sees and hears things in a room as if the caster was in its position.

Of course, there's always a silver lining -- the Whisper Geas spell is simply marvelous. Essentially, it's a spell to promote rumor-mongering. You start a rumor with the spell, and if the target fails their save, they must pass it on to others who must also make a save, etc. The spell's actual duration is one day per caster level. It may be a little too powerful as a fourth level spell. Consider: even if the saving throw fails, the rumor may be enticing enough that a target would pass it along anyway. Regardless, everyone around them may be discussing the spell's rumor -- what else is there to talk about? What fun!

Time to Vote
Just in case you think that my review is mostly negative, I had to really mine the book for these "flaws." I kept reading and rereading to see how the book could be so good, before I picked the bones I did in this review.

The bottom line, though, is: are you going to actually use all of this book? Well, honestly, probably not. But it's still absolutely worth purchasing. The knowledge you walk away with, and what portions of the book you do use may be well worth the cover price. Plus, what other game book gives you a picture of Mick Jagger (page 122)? Priceless.

Dynasties and Demagogues has a permanent home on my gaming shelf, right next to Wade Guthrie's Gamemastering Secrets, Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, the Complete Book of Villains, and Kenneth Hite's Nightmares of Mine.

It belongs on yours as well.


 

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