Assemblies as a Setting for Roleplaying Games

SenateAstute readers will note that I've been absent for the last several weeks. This is due to my role as what Bryan calls "High Lord of Hellmonth." Every June, my job consists of overseeing the legislative governance assembly of the organization I work for, and between insane prep and a week of meetings that start at 6:30 AM and end around 11 PM, life as I know it just kind of ceases.

Sitting through the assembly, however, I couldn't remove my gamer lenses. Many genres of game would fit quite nicely into the intrigue and drudgery of such an event. Before I examine such genres, let's cover some of their key elements. When walking through these examples with me, keep a large assembly in mind--something like the US congress' 435 members (rather than a 12 person town hall meeting).

Elements of Assemblies

Pomp and Circumstance

For whatever reason, these sorts of governance assemblies attract the powdered wig set. From addressing people in the third person ("As Madame President said…" or "What the delegate from Des Moines fails to realize is…") to the arcane adherence to Robert's Rules, these sorts of gatherings contain more nerds than that one time someone accidentally scheduled GenCon and E3 at the same venue.

This can be a fun element to introduce to parties who usually solve problems with force, because only those who adhere to the formalities of the assembly have any sway over the assembly. This is an opportunity for bards and other nerds to shine.

Key points:

  • Limits of the House: Assemblies recognize a very specific area as the place where business may be conducted, and treat this space as sacred ground. In games, these areas should be heavily monitored, and weapons should not be allowed within the limits of the house.
  • Quorum: Depending on the rules of order, there will likely be a number of delegates who must be present to do business. Waiting for a quorum is a great time for last minute political conniving; preventing a quorum is a fantastic way to paralyze an assembly.
  • Privilege of Voice and Vote: Assemblies divide constituents into classes: delegates who may speak and vote, (sometimes) delegates who may only speak but not vote, and non-delegates. This last class is the untouchable caste--they may not even be permitted on the floor. Depending on how an assembly enters your game, consider making only one of your PCs a voting delegate
  • Assigned Seating: Whether delegates are seated by name, class, region, or what have you, seating order is strict. Separating the party with assigned seating is a great way to make sure the barbarian can't just ride on the bard's coattails.
  • Address the Chair: When things are being debated on the floor, delegates don't get to speak to one another--they may only speak to the chair/moderator/president/dude in charge. This lends itself well to dehumanizing insults and feelings of enraged impotence.
  • Reports and Recommendations: Almost all the business in these events is conducted through prepared reports that contain recommendations or resolutions to be voted upon. The person delivering the report has a totally captive audience when their report is on the floor, so they often draw it out and cover the most painful minutia in excruciating detail so they can extend their diplomatic power just a few moments longer.
  • One thing on the floor: Business in assemblies is processed like combat in initiative rounds--only one thing happens at a time. There might be a key issue (negotiating a peace treaty, banning necromancy, etc…) that needs to be discussed, but if it isn't on the agenda until later, it is out of order. Furthermore, if an amendment is offered to an item of business, only the amendment may be discussed until it is voted on--which can bring interminable delays to actually doing important stuff.

Subcommittees

Because the whole assembly is usually too large to make effective decisions, these groups generally break out into subcommittees that focus on specific tasks. The rules of order generally don't matter as much in these committees; however, the power of the subcommittee extends only as far as delivering a report to full body.

Such subcommittee work is an ideal time for the "adventure" to happen within the assembly. Perhaps a critical issue is raised in the full assembly in the morning, and the subcommittee meets through the afternoon to develop a report and bring recommendations on that issue. The PCs then have a limited window of time to take action (recover a relic, assassinate a delegate, brainwash a presenter) before the whole committee meets again.

Meals

Much of the real work of these groups happens outside the assembly, since the work of the assembly paralyzes logic and efficiency. This means that mealtimes are the perfect time for shadowy caucuses to gather, plot, and perhaps plot assassination of character or person.

Don't give PCs a moment's rest. Even as they are gathering together to plot how to carry the adventure forward, have representatives of groups the PCs are involved with constantly harassing them to vote this way or that on an issue, or support this candidate, or take out that one.

Using Assemblies in Various Genres

Fantasy

In the typical pseudo-feudal fantasy setting, these sorts of assemblies are generally councils of privileged folk: dukes, mage councils, or warlords. Still, they're not totally out of place. Recall the morass in Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring and multiply that by a couple dozen to imagine how it comes together.

A great evil has entered the world, and the civilized races have called for a forum to address it. The myriad of cultures and customs dictates that strict rules and decorum are required for civil interaction. Little do the organizers know that every moment of propriety-fueled delay builds the power of the evil one.

The rarity of such an assembly means that many interest groups have a number of issues to discuss, and all of these must be worked through. In order. Consider:

  • Elves decrying runoff from Dwarven mines
  • Gnomes protesting the expansion of human cities
  • Border disputes between hostile kingdoms
  • Negotiations of the release of decades worth of prisoners
  • Disputes from ancient races over the "found" artifacts of so-called heroes (probably your PCs)
  • Taxes and exchange rates

Amidst all of this, some solution to confronting evil must be realized. Consider how the evil forces have infiltrated the assembly, and what competing solutions are being considered to confront the evil.

Horror

Cthulhu-esque games actually lend themselves quite will to legislative madness. An academic assembly is the ideal way to introduce these elements to your games. Make a list of the most inane debates you've encountered on internet message boards: that's what is on the agenda for this assembly.

Perhaps the focus of this assembly is a trial of a professor who refuses to release certain research. The PCs know that this research is dangerous to the world, but it is currently in the hands of the administration. If the professor is found to be in the wrong in denying public access to the research, it will be made public.

Imagine that the subcommittee evaluating this is exposed to the madness. What happens to your quorum when a whole delegation goes mad?

The drudgery of assemblies can be a great counterpoint to the excitement of adventure. Have you used such a setting in your games? Tell us about it in the comments!

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