Need to run an election in your game and want to make it more compelling or reliable than a single die roll? Read on!
I created this system while running the Hell’s Rebels adventure path for Pathfinder 1st edition. In this adventure, the players had liberated a city from a despotic ruler and wanted to allow the people of the city to choose the new mayor. More than than that, one of the players also wanted to participate in the hopes of becoming mayor of this city. I had trouble finding an election system that satisfied my requirements, so I made one that did. As such, this system has the following features:
- It allows for an involved campaign (pre-election) period, where election candidates have an opportunity to improve their chances of winning
- It allows for a involved election day, where players will make strategic decisions in the moment that affect the outcome of the election
- It gives a lot of tools for the GM to tune to likelihood of the desired outcome to whatever the GM wants without taking away player agency
- All mechanics maintain a strong in-world election flavour
- The mechanics work with elections of whatever size population or whichever amount of candidates
- The mechanics allow the elections to reflect the in-world popularity of the different candidates, while also allowing surprising upsets and some amount of unpredictability
- The election is uses a proportional representation model
I will be explaining the mechanics of the system below, and illustrating the rules via an example election for the mayor of Electionville.
The overall setup
This system consists of two phases. First is the campaign phase. During this phase, candidates (usually players) can campaign to improve their popularity and chances of winning.
The second phase is the actual voting day or election day. This is when hopefully the gains made during the campaign phase pay off as the players perform a number of rolls to determine the election outcome.
Both of these phases are explained below. However, first we need to discuss the core of the system: the election roll.
The election roll
The election roll is the heart of this system. An election roll determines for each candidate their percentage of the votes from a specific electoral region. You can have just one region in your election, but it is recommended to have multiple. We’ll explain why further down. The way an election roll works is as follows:
Each candidate has an election die for each region they are a candidate in (usually all regions in your election). The size of their election die is determined by their popularity in that region:
- Not popular: d3
- Slightly popular: d4
- Moderately popular: d6
- Very popular: d8
A candidate’s popularity is initially set by the GM at the start of the campaign period, based on how popular that candidate would be in that region, based on their previous activities and renown. A candidate’s popularity may change during the campaign phase.
To perform the election roll each candidate rolls their election die. The die roll results are added up to create a total, an each candidate’s result relative to the total gives them their share of the votes. Applying the candidate’s share to the total population of that region gives you the number of votes for the candidate.
Performing the roll this way means that more popular candidates have a higher chance of winning and less popular candidates have a lower ceiling for their maximum success, but there is still plenty of room for chance to create unpredictable outcomes. The more election regions you include, the more the outcomes will trend towards their statistical average.
There are four candidates running for the position of mayor of Electionville: Judge Gold, Overseer Grey, Doctor Blue and Professor Green.
This election roll concerns the outcome of the Scholar’s District in the city, one of three districts. The Scholar’s District has a total population of 200 people who vote. After the campaign period is over, the popularity of each candidate (and thus the size of their election die) is as follows:
- Overseer Grey is not popular and gets a d3
- Judge Gold is slightly popular and gets a d4
- Doctor Blue is moderately popular and gets a d6
- Professor Green is very popular and gets a d8
Each candidate rolls their election die. We’ll see later that modifiers can be added to this as well, but for now we will ignore that:
- Overseer Grey rolls a d3 and gets a 3
- Judge Gold rolls a d4 and gets a 3
- Doctor Blue rolls a d6 and gets a 2
- Professor Green rolls a d8 and gets a 5
We see that even though Overseer Grey and Judge Gold had slightly different levels of popularity, they have the same result. Likewise, while Doctor Blue was significantly more popular, she ended not performing particularly well. This shows that upsets can still happen. These upsets can be mitigated by modifiers which we will discuss later.
The total is 3 + 3 + 2 + 5 = 13. Remember this district has 200 votes. The results for Scholar’s District are:
- Overseer Grey gets 3/13th of the 200 votes: 46
- Judge Gold also gets 3/13th of the 200 votes: 46
- Doctor Blue gets 2/13th of the 200 votes: 31
- Professor Green gets 5/13th of the 200 votes: 77
Now that we understand how Election Rolls work, lets see how we can use these to build an election!
The Campaign Phase
The election is preceded by a campaign phase, which runs for a set amount of time determined by the GM. At the start of the campaign phase, the GM determines the popularity of each candidate for each election region (districts in a city, counties or provinces in a state, states in an empire, chapters in a gang or guild, etc). This information is not immediately available to players, though they should be able to find this out by investigating this during the campaign phase. For example, in Pathfinder 1e a player might use Diplomacy to Gather Information and on a success they find out the popularity levels of the candidates in a specific region.
First of all it is recommended to provide some structure while simultaneously also providing an easy set up for some roleplay: campaign events. A campaign event is an event specifically organised for the elections, where all candidates participate and compete against one another. Doing well at such an event will provide a candidate with a bonus they can use during the election day. Some example campaign events:
- Public speeches. Each candidate has a short amount of time to make a public speech. The best speeches win (determined by character skill) and the candidates receive a bonus. Winners can be determined by Diplomacy (Pathfinder) or Persuasion (DnD) checks, for example. As a GM, you might award players who roleplay a particularly inspired speech a bonus on their check.
- Suggested rewards (see below): a Major Vote Surge for the winner, and a Minor Vote Surge for the runner up.
- Public debate. Debate multiple topics of local politics, making sure that each NPC candidate has their own point of view. Opposed character skill checks determine who wins each debate topic. Award bonuses for each win (and perhaps an extra reward if one candidate won most topics and thus won the debate overall). 3 Topics is a good amount to aim for, though more (or less) is also possible depending on your campaign.
- Suggested rewards: one Minor Vote Surge for the winner of each debate topic, and one Recount for the candidate who wins a majority of the topics (and therefore won the overall debate).
The Campaign Bonuses
There are two types of campaign bonuses: Vote Surges and Recounts.
A Vote Surge comes in two variants: Minor and Major. A Minor Vote Surge gives the candidate a +1 to their election die roll, while a Major Vote Surge gives the candidate a +3 to their election die roll. The candidate can decide to apply this bonus after all dice have been rolled for that election roll. A candidate can only use one Vote Surge per region (though multiple candidates may all use a vote surge in the same region).
A Recount allows the candidate to reroll their election die. They must use the new result. A candidate can only use one Recount per region (though multiple candidates may all use a recount in the same region). A more limited variant of the Recount is the Region Specific Recount, which can only be used in the election roll of the region it belongs to.
Free Form Campaigning
Throughout the campaign phase, candidates (usually players) may free-form campaign to try to improve their chances of winning in addition to the campaign events. Free-form here meaning that they are optional activities that the candidates undertake on their own initiative. For example they might decide to visit all the markets in a district to talk to the people and get their face out there. How to determine the degree of success for this is left up to the GM, and depending on the degree of success and the scope of the campaign activity, a GM might award any of the following:
- Minor or Major Vote Surge
- Recount or a Region-Specific Recount
- Popularity change
- Nothing at all, if the GM wants to limit the campaigning to the Campaign Events only or the candidate’s attempt was not significant
During the campaign for mayor of Electionville, there is one public speech event and one public debate event. It emerges that Judge Gold is the winner of the public speeches and is awarded a Major Vote Surge, and Professor Green is the runner up and receives a Minor Vote Surge. The debate consists of three topics, two of which are won by Doctor Blue, and one by Overseer Grey. Each victory gets them a Minor Vote Surge, while Doctor Blue also receives a Recount for winning the majority of debate topics.
The tally is then as follows:
- Overseer Grey has 1 Minor Vote Surge
- Judge Gold has 1 Major Vote Surge
- Doctor Blue has 2 Minor Vote Surges and 1 Recount
- Professor Green has 1 Minor Vote Surge
The candidates can choose to use these to improve their election rolls. Normally in an election there are multiple regions so candidates must choose carefully when to apply their bonuses. For this example we will apply these bonuses to the election roll of the Scholar’s District example we used above:
- Overseer Grey uses his Minor Vote Surge to add +1 to his roll of 3 for a total of 4
- Judge Gold uses her Major Vote Surge to add +3 to her roll of 3 for a total of 6
- Doctor Blue uses her Recount to reroll her d6 and this time gets a 3, then uses her Minor Vote Surge to add +1 for a total of 4. She cannot use her second Minor Vote Surge on this region too, but can use it for another region
- Professor Green uses his Minor Vote Surge to add +1 to his roll of 5 for a total of 6
Now the total is 4 + 6 + 4 + 6 = 20 and the election results are as follows:
- Overseer Grey gets 4/20th of the 200 votes: 40 (previously 46)
- Judge Gold gets 6/20th of the 200 votes: 60 (previously 46)
- Doctor Blue gets 4/20th of the 200 votes: 40 (previously 31)
- Professor Green gets 6/20th of the 200 votes: 60 (previously 77)
Election Day Phase
After the campaign phase concludes, all candidates’ popularity scores (and the size of their election dice) are frozen. The Election Day Phase also marks the end when candidates can earn election bonuses.
During the Election Day Phase (which narratively can take place at the end of the actual voting day when the results come in), the GM will guide all candidates (including NPC candidates) through the Election Rolls. As explained above, each region will have one Election Roll that all candidates participate in. After tallying the results of all the Election Rolls you will have your election result.
In order to maximise the suspense during this event, we suggest starting with the Election Rolls for regions where the outcome is statistically likely not to favour the players’ desired outcome (like regions where their NPC opponents are strongest).
Designing the Election
As mentioned before, it is strongly recommended to have multiple regions in an election. We would recommend to have at least five (and when I used this system myself I had eight regions in my election). This has several benefits:
- It reduces the effects of random chance. The more regions are in your election, the more the overall outcome will trend towards the statistically average result. Fewer regions will make the outcome less predictable. This is especially important if you want to give your player(s) a good chance of success.
- It increases the opportunities for tactical play for players. Each election roll is a moment where players might decide to use their recounts or vote surges.
- It increases the stakes for a player to obtain bonuses or increase their election dice.
- It allows you to have the results come in over time to increase suspense at the table. For example, start with the regions where the player(s) is behind their NPC opponents, likely giving the NPCs an early lead that the player can make up as the rolls go on.
One other thing to consider is region size (meaning the number of votes). Winning 40% of the votes in a region with a size of 1000 is a lot more votes than winning 40% of the votes in a region with a size of 100. If you want each region to be equally important then give each region the same size (number of votes), though having differently sized regions can introduce extra considerations where a candidate may decide to focus their campaign efforts only on bigger regions. Different sized regions can also be used to either advantage or disadvantage certain candidates by having them start more or less popular in bigger or smaller regions. A candidate who is Very Popular in the biggest region has a significant advantage, while starting off as Not Popular in the biggest region might spur that candidate into a frenzy of campaigning to improve their standing.
Candidate popularity and region size are both tools the GM can use to create the initial election landscape to set up for the intended experience: an underdog story where the player candidate must make up a lot of ground to beat the NPC favourite? A player candidate who is already among the favourites to win, and simply should ensure they gain some Vote Surges or Recounts just in case? A completely even field where anything can happen? All of this is possible.
Finally we will put all of the above in practice to find out who will be the mayor of Electionville. Our town of Electionville has three regions (though as mentioned before we recommend having more regions):
- Scholar’s District, 200 votes
- Merchant’s District, 400 votes
- Castle District, 150 votes
The candidates’ popularity after the campaign phase is over is as follows:
|Overseer Grey||Judge Gold||Doctor Blue||Professor Green|
And the candidates’ bonuses that they earned through campaign events are:
- Overseer Grey has 1 Minor Vote Surge
- Judge Gold has 1 Major Vote Surge
- Doctor Blue has 2 Minor Vote Surges and 1 Recount
- Professor Green has 1 Minor Vote Surge
The outcome of the Scholar’s District (200 votes) is as follows:
- Overseer Grey: 3 on a d3
- Judge Gold: 4 on a d4
- Doctor Blue: 5 on a d6
- Professor Green: 3 on a d8 + 1 = 4 (Professor Green used his Minor Vote Surge)
3 + 4 + 5 + 4 = 16, So Overseer Grey gets 38 votes (3/16 * 200), Judge Gold gets 50 votes (4/16 * 200), Doctor Blue gets 62 votes (5/16 * 200) and Professor Green gets 50 votes (4/16 * 200).
The outcome of the Merchant’s District (400 votes) is as follows:
- Overseer Grey: 1 on a d6 + 1 = 2 (Minor Vote Surge)
- Judge Gold: 4 on a d6 + 3 = 7 (Major Vote Surge)
- Doctor Blue: 4 on a d4 + 1 = 5 (Minor Vote Surge)
- Professor Green: 2 on a d3
2 + 7 + 5 + 2 = 16, So Overseer Grey gets 50 votes (2/16 * 400), Judge Gold gets 175 votes (7/16 * 400), Doctor Blue gets 125 votes (5/16 * 400) and Professor Green gets 50 votes (2/16 * 400).
The outcome of the Castle District (150 votes) is as follows:
- Overseer Grey: 2 on a d4
- Judge Gold: 4 on a d6
- Doctor Blue: 2 on a d4 + 1 = 3 (Minor Vote Surge)
- Professor Green: 3 on a d4
2 + 4 + 3 + 3 = 12, So Overseer Grey gets 25 votes (2/12 * 150), Judge Gold gets 50 votes (4/12 * 150), Doctor Blue gets 38 votes (3/12 * 150) and Professor Green gets 37 votes (3/12 * 150, fractional votes are resolved in favour of the candidate with higher popularity).
And the total votes tally is:
- Overseer Grey: 38 + 50 + 25 = 113
- Judge Gold: 50 + 175 + 50 = 275
- Doctor Blue: 62 + 125 + 38 = 225
- Professor Green: 50 + 50 + 37 = 137
Which makes Judge Gold the overall winner with the most votes, and the new mayor of Electionville!