Tron, Mirror’s Edge, Star Wars, Final Fantasy 6’s Returners, Final Fantasy 7’s Avalanche, V For Vendetta. This is a theme that I haven’t seen much in RPGs. Rebels and Uprising, a small force fighting the good fight against the oppressive regime, without a huge army versus army war. Occasionally, I’ve seen stories where the players will fight against a ruler in a physical style fight. Attack the armies, destroy the kingdom, etc. What I want to talk about here is instead resistance, freedom fighters, rebels, taking a stand against a government they oppose and seriously outnumbers them. It is the next step when thinking about things at an empire/kingdom/planet style of level.
First thing is I would generally assume that the resistance movement is a smaller group than the government, because if not, they could wage an open fight and make it army against army. Look at the movie Dragonheart as an example of this. The villagers had the numbers, just not the abilities and direction until they were able to be spurred into action by Bowen. The examples I am talking about is more Robin Hood and his merry band. Maybe it is just the players and their associate NPCs, or maybe it is a large network with agents in a lot of places, like the Global Frequency. I would use Star Wars Rebel Alliance as an example but they were somewhat matched in numbers with the Empire.
With the size established you can look at options for what they can do. For example, in the movie Enemy of the State, one character says, “In guerrilla warfare, you try to use your weaknesses as strengths….. if they’re big and you’re small, then you’re mobile and they’re slow. You’re hidden and they’re exposed. You only fight battles you know you can win. That’s the way the Vietcong did it. You capture their weapons and you use them against them the next time.” Some examples of this warfare can be seen in numerous examples, but let’s start with An Introduction to the Art of Revolution, Grunt Survival Guide (from a Shadowrun forum, but some good ideas in general), and Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Hit and Run, boobytraps, small operational groups only knowing their parts, sleeper agents, there’s a whole ton of stuff that you can use both for and against the players.
Stepping away from combat, which a lot of people associate directly with the urban guerrilla style of combat, there are other tactics. Propaganda is one that is a big thorn in the side of the larger opposition. Sowing the seeds of unrest in the opposition or causing chaos by showing an opposing viewpoint that could be seen as truth. 1984 had thought control as they would essentially be telling people how to think by coloring the input of world events. Equilibrium had people so believing that feeling was evil that they chemically prevented themselves from feeling anything. Wag the Dog used social engineering to spin perception away from one political issue to a made up war with the Albanians. Starship Troopers news clips in the movies. A lot of times, the bigger groups will use it to discredit a person, making them seem a liar or crazy or something else so no one will believe what they have to say. On the side of the smaller groups, Beyond Good and Evil had IRIS, an underground network of agents set to show the truth that was being hidden, web series Amanda Hades had Network Predatech doing the same in a cyberpunk future world. Dark Angel had Eyes Only Streaming Cable hacks, which served as quick expositions. You could use a medieval example of this with minstrels and simple word of mouth as people talk about how so and so showed up someone again. Just look at how Robin Hood became such a champion of the people, or Tron in Tron Uprising, so much so that other people took up the fight.
GURPS Social Engineering book has a lot of possible ideas for a social style adventure you could go with, different sorts of focuses with the character’s abilities on dealing with people either on the one to one or one to many, as well as other things like social status and blackmail and influence. Iwould reccomend reading the book as it is chop full of ideas you can use in any game system. Other things you may want to look at are some of the ‘social’ board and video games, like Battlestar Galactica board game and The Resistance board game. these things show ways to have a small group working against a larger group while dealing with possible double agents or manipulation, while games like The Guild 2 video game are more about working from inside the system with your friends to gain as much power as you can and The Last Federation is a game where you are trying to rebuild the Federation but rather than running your own empire you are influencing other groups into joining you in one way or another. Young Justice animated series season 1 had a great overarcing storyline about a traitor in the unit and the characters trying to find out who it is. How it was done is very epic and you’ll even see different reasons that people may ‘sell out’ that you can try in game. The big problems I usually run into when using this hook is getting players to accept help from someone who can later use them and if they do, choosing to keep it secret from the group. Especially with a min/max style group who will metagame and use the fact that so and so cannot be trusted. Me, I instead used to love those storylines as a player because it made things more than just how much damage I give or take.
These various examples show some ways that you can drive an entire plot based on the actions of people in roleplay interactions as opposed to whether they win in a fight or not. You can still have an adventure with a lot of various combat encounters, such as the two Final Fantasy examples at the start of the article, where Avalance and the Returners both had a lot of different ‘Go here, fight these guys for great justice’, such as the two Mako reactors attack and the attack on the pillar in 7, versus in 6 where you have different missions for the characters to go on such as where the paths diverge with Doma Castle, South Figaro and Narshe. However, both also have a lot of exposition on the characters and story that can also be taken and expanded in a more player interactive environment like a tabletop RPG.