Party cohesion in a high-powered political environment

I’m running a Dune campaign centered on political intrigues and military rivalries arising from the potential discovery of prohibited technology.

So we’re talking way-high numbers of lifepaths from Burning Sands: Jihad, incredible stats and skills. Each character is a beast, though centered around different areas: a Bene Gesserit, a Swordmaster-Assassin, and a Mentat.

They also all have inner-ear commlinks. As such, they’ve usually found the best course of action to be splitting up, wheeling and dealing with up to three separate important people at a time to gather intel. They’re starting to be tired of being split up all the time, but that’s not going to change next session, given their Beliefs and the pickle they find themselves in.

They’re jumping through the legal hoops of launching a government-approved invasion while trying to subvert all the other side’s leaders. A Duel of Wits going on over here, a Fight! over there, someone else desperately trying to reach the long-range communications room in time.

Going forward, if they successfully invade, pacification will likely take them in different directions, too, possibly even to different continents.

How can I make the party more cohesive without losing the epic political struggle we’ve created? I have one idea that may come into play down the road, but I’d like to get ideas from burners more experienced than I.

Or should I simply embrace the separation?

Make them write beliefs about it?

You mean about getting the band back together or only acting as one? Interesting idea, though I believe they’ll think they have bigger fish to fry.

Use the beliefs they already have to put them in the same places at the same times.

  1. Make it so that both Alice’s “I must seize the MacGuffin” belief and Bob’s “I must punish my sister’s unfaithful husband” belief lead them to the same NPC (maybe the unfaithful husband has the MacGuffin, but it could be more complicated as well)
  2. Make it so Alice needs Bob’s help to get the MacGuffin. This might not even put them in the same room (depending on how you arrange it), but it means they’re working together, on the same project.

That is my ultimate goal, but at the moment, things are playing out like Ocean’s 11: everyone’s playing to their expertise simultaneously in different arenas so that one shining moment of awesome may be achieved to the surprise of all enemies.

This is partly selfish. I find it easier to run people being in one place, though I love that Burning Wheel doesn’t suffer when we do split the party. It may be that as I get more used to switching actively between players’ scenes, the issue disappears.

I recall Burning Empires encourages this sort of splitting in play, as nearly all the PCs are top-level military, politicians or big-players. Beliefs about the same goal is the only way to keep the party cohesive and acting together, even if they are in different locations. A person on one side of the planet may offer a Helping Die to another on the other side in this way.

You’ve given a great example. Ocean’s 11. Everyone has their own expertise, but they’re all focused on one action. If everyone is after the same ultimate goal, it’s much easier to cut back and forth between characters and actions. This means that you must start the game off with an extremely tight situation. They’re all going to have lofty goals, but you need to put the screws to them and give them something that they all need to deal with right now. If anyone backs off, they get singled out and carved up by the enemy—whether martial or political.

Are their enemies standing still? Is no one trying to infiltrate their communications network? Nothing will start getting them to meet in person faster than tapping their lines.

Also, does the enemy not have highly skilled personnel at their disposal? A brush with a Mentat-Assassin or Tlielaxu Assassin might convince them there’s better safety in numbers.

Yeah, the level of play that’s going on may, in retrospect, have been better suited to Burning Empires, but it’s working out. That is a good point about being able to Help at a distance.

This is the situation you guys helped me with for a few weeks last fall, and it’s pretty damn tight. Lots of intricacies, and they’re all closing in on the players like a web. Of course, the players are weaving their own plots that are encompassing their foes, too. It’s like a race of wheels within wheels. The players are just as excited for the third session this Saturday as I had hoped.

I’ll have to think about the next Big Challenge to keep them focused. The primary objective was discovering if there’s forbidden tech and invading whether there is or not. Well, there is, and they are invading, and they’re trying to keep the tech a secret so they could benefit from it. Not bad for two sessions.

My temptation, left over from prior “don’t split the party” D&D 4E, is to present multiple dire circumstances, so they have to choose. With Burning Wheel, if the characters are epic enough - and these are - their only necessary choice is who handles what! If I present a military emergency and a diplomatic emergency simultaneously, they might simply dispatch the Swordmaster to handle the first and the Bene Gesserit to handle the second.

I need a really, really big Bang. Perhaps I’ll talk with the players about their next big goal once all this pans out. I don’t want to lose our razor-edge focus.

Edited to respond to Thor: Tapping their lines is brilliant. To my shame, that really hadn’t occurred to me, even as they go about tapping their enemies’ communications.

The game has been devoid of physical violence so far. But on Saturday, there will be a reckoning as they go toe-to-toe with nobles just as highly-skilled as they are.

Ben, I think you need to let your inner vicious, evil bastard out of his box. You need to be even more devious than your players and find a way to hit the characters where it hurts.

In one of the best Jihad campaigns I ever ran, the players took on the role of Jihadis. They were taken off guard when they discovered that the Noble family that held the world they were invading was building a vast and magnificent temple to the Mahdi, sparing no expense. I helped them come to the conclusion that the Nobles were seeking to parlay with the Jihad, essentially hoping their lives and holdings would be spared if they collaborated. I managed this by having a baron, a distaff member of the family, approach the Jihadis with an offer to collaborate against his family in exchange for preferential treatment in the new regime. He fed them all manner of disinformation.

Convinced they had their enemy on the ropes, the players proceeded with their plans as usual, while also prepping a massive propaganda push to coincide with the grand opening of the temple. They managed to put the Syndicate under their thumb using blackmail, and laid plans for assassinating the Duke using a dance troupe to get their assassins in under the Duke’s guard. This went on for several sessions.

Finally, the day of the grand opening of the temple came. The players gathered the faithful from around the planet for the ceremony. One of the PCs, a Pir, arranged for his son, a Dahi to lead the ceremony–with the aim of establishing him as a leader among the Jihadis on-world.

In a cutaway scene, as the faithful filed into the temple, a lone Fidahi broke into the baron’s offices because he was convinced something wasn’t quite as it seemed. In the baron’s paperwork, he discovered that the temple was a massive trap, just as all the entrances to the temple barred and locked themselves, sealing the faithful within. The Fidahi was able to warn the others just in time to allow them and a small handful of the faithful to escape the trap before the munitions buried in the foundation destroyed the temple and killed everyone inside live on the propaganda nets. The Pir’s son, his pride and joy, was killed in the blast.

The Jihad recovered of course, but it suffered a severe blow that day.

That’s excellent. I may destroy some buildings with people inside in Saturday’s game myself. You’ve inspired me.

Copy that. :wink:

  1. Find out if the players want more cohesion. In session 26 of Grunweld, at the start of the session I asked the players OOC what they wanted out of the session. The consensus was they wanted to be together more. Having that out in the open made it easy to achieve, even without beliefs. If they were pulled in different directions it was easy to say, “Wait - you wanted to be together, how about a DoW between you on which of these two things to do first?”

  2. If they do want to adventure together more, have them write beliefs about it as Praion suggested. That doesn’t mean lame beliefs like, “I must cooperate with otherPC at all times,” you can do it with a belief structure like this:

a. I must achieve the shared goal.
b. I must achieve a secondary goal specific to my character.
c. I will help otherPC with her secondary goal.

  1. It may take some time for the individualistic threads to play out satisfactorily, even if you’re pulling the most cohesion-building moves in the book.

  2. Their opposition can take advantage of outnumbering the PCs, keeping advisors and lackeys on hand to offer helping dice.

  3. Be mindful of how you’re challenging them. Focused challenges pressure from the central problem (situation) will tend to bring them together; forcing them to prioritize between their secondary goals will tend to split them.

In Grunweld, over a dozen sessions I allowed the central situation (the threat of the lich Bedarkon dominating the Vale) to lose all immediacy; the characters responded by investing heavily in a number of secondary threads and intermediate steps toward defeating him, all of which were more immediate. These were all interesting in their own right, and the campaign broadened and enriched significantly - at the expense of focus.

On Monday I addressed this very neatly: a chance Faith failure gave me the perfect window for an Awful Revelation, and I showed Dallin (PC) that the lich was about to complete a second Tower of Silence, making the entire war effort they’ve been gearing up for pointless as every dead soldier would enrich him, making him vastly powerful. For about ten minutes, they were prepared to drop everything, leave the army behind and charge out to the lich’s mountain fortress to put a stop to this - until I inadvertently pulled a Divide and Conquer. Siggar (PC) has been trying to impress Princess Medel, and I had Medel ask him to support her in a completely tangential area. Why?! The PCs immediately separated, all my doing. Duh!

Very good advice from our resident insightful Canadian!

Yeah, I completely understand the unanticipated consequences thing!

I’ll see if they want to get back in one place after all the hijinks play out Saturday.