Rules Index | GM Screen

Mastering Intrigue

Intrigue Systems

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 98
This chapter consists of new subsystems, new rules, and advice to add robust elements of intrigue to your game.

Influence: This rules system measures how characters gain influence and reputation with various organizations. Rather than boiling a social interaction down to just a skill check or two, influence creates a back-and-forth that plays out over a longer scene. It provides concrete rewards for engaging with such groups, which can be customized to fit your game.

Heists: This sections presents tips on organizing and running heists, such as running a con or penetrating a set of complex defenses to steal an object, rescue a person, or attain some other goal. This section also discusses the similar topic of infiltration.

Leadership: Expanding upon the Leadership feat, this section offers ways to incorporate leadership into the game so the PCs can attract hirelings and other followers. Discover advice on how leadership works in an intriguebased game, and the role that cohorts and followers can take on in such campaigns.

Nemeses: To amp up the dramatic thrusts and parries of an adversarial relationship, the nemesis system adds nasty stratagems an enemy can employ against the party. This section also includes suggestions for how to escalate the animosity, as well as specific strategies and XP rewards.

Pursuit: For long-lasting chases that take several days, these new pursuit rules make the back-and-forth of such engagements fun and strategic, offering opportunities to gain edges over your pursuers or quarries.

Research: Obscure information lies hidden within great libraries and other repositories of knowledge. The research system gives a procedure for digging into the ancient tomes and gleaning those rare pieces of information.

Spells of Intrigue: Many spells cause problems with an intrigue-based game by enabling characters to easily detect lies, charm creatures who have needed knowledge, or otherwise bypass social interactions. This section talks about these spells both in general terms and in specifics for certain prominent spells.

Intrigue Elements

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 98
The following elements are ingredients that can help add intrigue to your game. You can use a single element to introduce complications into an otherwise low-intrigue game or session, or put several of them together to weave a complex web of intrigue throughout your campaign.

Even a group that’s primarily involved in dungeon-delving might get embroiled in a power struggle back in the town where they make their home base, or be stuck between two rivals who attempt to use the PCs as cat’s-paws. In a campaign that uses just one element for a bit of flavor, it’s important to incorporate that element on a regular basis—but not necessarily every session.

Relationships and Loyalty

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 98
In an intrigue-based game, interpersonal relationships are spotlighted, and serve a variety of different roles and purposes. The way that people’s reactions and feelings change with time and interaction is central to the plot in such a game, rather than something to ignore or skip through with a single roll. Relationships and loyalty can make their marks in a campaign in many ways.

Nonmonetary Rewards: Relationships with other characters and the perks and privileges granted by those relationships are fundamental rewards, equally or even more valuable than simple coin. The right friends can grant access to social events, give gifts, provide information, make problems go away, or perform various other favors on a character’s behalf. Sometimes, a friendship can blossom into something more, and that can be its own reward.

Loyalties and Tension: All characters have their own agenda and loyalties, even those allied with the PCs. Characters act and respond to the events in the world around them in ways that serve their interests and match their worldviews. Some of the tension in such games comes from the uncertainty of how others will act, particularly at a decisive moment when conflicting loyalties clash. Can the PC thieves trust their friend in the guard not to crack when her commanding officer puts pressure on her, or will she reveal what she knows? Will the princess the PCs assisted in gaining the throne keep her promise to the PCs to grant asylum to witches now that she’s queen, or will she backpedal to the more popular stance when the dukes threaten to secede? Will a PC’s steward cave to the crime boss’s threats against his kidnapped family and secretly embezzle from the PCs, or will he inform them and risk his family?

How NPCs react in these high-pressure situations also serves to characterize and humanize them. If an NPC sides with the PCs in any of these example situations, that NPC has made a powerful demonstration of loyalty to the PCs. If the PCs have been earning that loyalty as a reward, it will serve as reinforcement of the PCs’ accomplishments. Either way, it’s likely to impress the PCs and bring them closer to the NPC. Even if the NPC buckles, it doesn’t make her a villain, and it could catapult her role into that of a reluctant adversary to the PCs with significant pathos.

Betrayal: In contrast to a former ally being forced by circumstances and conflicting loyalties to act against the PCs’ interests, nothing inspires hatred for an NPC quite like a good old-fashioned betrayal. Whether it’s an NPC who hires the PCs under false pretenses as a means of setting them up or a seeming ally who is providing information to the enemy, a traitor ups the stakes and provides a powerful emotional response.

Of course, betrayal is much more interesting if it’s the exception, rather than the rule. If NPCs betray the PCs too often, you undermine the campaign’s focus on relationships by making the PCs regret the efforts they took to build up alliances with NPCs and earn their loyalty. The exception to this guideline is in a grittier, more cynical game where alliances are necessary to even survive but betrayal is the status quo. When you’re running such a game, it is critical that the players know this in advance, or at least shortly after the first time they deal with the cynical and treacherous aspects of society. Even in such games, though the possibility of betrayal is ubiquitous and constantly on both the players’ and characters’ minds, not every relationship should end in betrayal, or it quickly loses its impact.

Hierarchies: Hierarchies are a structured system of loyalties, whether political, social, military, or another sort entirely. Progression up a hierarchy is a great way to track the nonmonetary rewards in an intriguebased game. Hierarchies are also an excellent source of interesting plotlines and conflicting loyalties, from either direction on the hierarchy. Becoming a member of a hierarchy gives PCs a strong sense of belonging and reason to take actions and pursue an intrigue adventure. Enemies operating within a hierarchy make great opponents, as their membership in the hierarchy can be alternately a source of strength and a vulnerability. If the enemy and a PC are both members of the same hierarchy, things can become particularly interesting, as both characters are empowered and constrained by their places in the system.

Measure and Countermeasure

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 99
In intrigue-themed games, adversaries engage in clandestine activities and seek to prevent each other’s actions. Just like in the real world, the invention of new measures and countermeasures leads to secretive and escalating clashes that roil under the surface, as each side seeks to exploit the other’s vulnerabilities or shore up its own. In a fantasy world, these advancements can be both magical and mundane, from a new way of encoding information to a spell that bypasses the enemy’s security. In this regard, it can be fun to include new spells, perhaps from an obscure spellbook, or even invented by a PC. After the PCs’ adversaries catch on, though, they eventually devise a counter for it, and the cycle continues.

Be careful when using this element. Ideally, you want to have the PCs’ adversaries participate in this intrigue arms race at about the same pace as the PCs do so that they seem like credible rivals, rather than incompetent pushovers. If the PCs aren’t interested in this aspect at all, though, don’t have the NPCs keep escalating. This advice is even true for the basic spells from the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook. The PCs and the precautions they take and expect are a bellwether of the approximate precautions the NPCs should be taking.

The exception is when trying to introduce the notion of measures and countermeasures to a play group that doesn’t typically use them or that consists of new players who aren’t familiar with all the spells and tools at their disposal. For such a group, the first time they learn about using basic countermeasures might be when an NPC has used them. For example, say the PCs begin an investigation of a crime at the request of an NPC; the NPC could start by telling the PCs what investigative measures he has already taken—and thus what countermeasures he suspects the perpetrator might have used. This introduces the PCs to those measures and countermeasures seamlessly as an established element of the game world, rather than an obstacle that comes out of the blue during play. With this sort of introduction planned, you can design a plot revolving around bypassing or exploiting those countermeasures from the outset.

The Importance of Appearances

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 99
In some games, success and failure are measured in the court of public opinion, and appearing to be a certain way is often more important than being that way. This leads to plenty of deception and betrayal, and can also lead to wars of popular belief, wherein both sides seek to paint the other as evil and subjective opinions hold sway over the truth of the matter. In these situations, it is important to be able to keep up appearances, which is a key skill set in an intrigue-focused adventuring party. The necessity of appearances often restricts certain actions a group can take, resulting in indirect, discreet, and unusual tactics, rather than rushing into an adversary’s home and annihilating everyone with steel and spells. Using social pressure to restrict the actions under consideration is a great way to highlight the varied skills and abilities of each party member, as long as these restrictions make sense and fit into the way the situation is structured. For instance, if the PCs want to help the evil duke’s younger sister stir up dissent against the duke by proving that the duke was guilty of murdering his majordomo, murdering the duke’s loyal retainers and new majordomo would make the PCs look hypocritical (as well as like desperate maniacs), and so isn’t a wise tactic. Similarly, if a certain type of magic, such as necromancy or compulsions, is illegal in a society, then it makes sense that the PCs must use those tactics sparingly to avoid their deeds being overshadowed by their unlawful uses of magic.

Bargains and Compromise

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 100
In a campaign revolving around physical combat between good and evil, there’s little room for compromise. But in an intrigue-based game, where each character acts according to her interests and loyalties, there comes a point where the writing is on the wall, at which a reasonable opponent offers a bargain rather than follow the struggle all the way through to destruction. These compromises might even offer the PCs more than they would get for destroying their foe, while allowing the foe to keep what’s most important to her. In most campaigns, the PCs are going to win, but this sort of offer is a great opportunity for the PCs to establish their priorities and make a real decision about how they win. For example, suppose the PCs have a main goal of emancipating enslaved halflings, and during this conflict, the proslavery faction bribes an influential magistrate to make life difficult for the PCs. The PCs are able to turn the tables and discover damning evidence that could destroy the magistrate’s career forever, so the magistrate offers the PCs a deal: if they withhold the evidence and allow her to keep her job, she’ll use her influence to assist in halfling emancipation and give the PCs a strong advantage. Can the PCs trust her? Which is stronger, their desire to help the halflings, or their desire to see the magistrate get her just desserts?

The Power of Secrets

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 100
Secrets are powerful in any Pathfinder game, even ones entirely focused on combat, since discovering secrets enables characters to learn an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly. However, when you’re using intrigue in your game, secrets are even more significant. In fact, a truly powerful secret can be a far greater reward than even a dragon’s hoard. Secrets are tied into all the other elements of an intrigue-based game. They can destroy relationships and change loyalties, often to the advantage of the one who holds or releases the secret. Disclosing a secret can shatter someone’s false appearance. For instance, no matter how high the PCs roll on Diplomacy, their words alone can’t persuade the kind and faithful queen to help assassinate or oust her husband, an evil king who has convinced everyone—even his wife, whom he truly loves—that he is a good man. But if the PCs expose the king’s dark secrets in a convincing way, then pull off a skilled effort to influence the queen, they just might succeed. Secrets are also part and parcel of blackmail plots, which can lead to fascinating bargains and backroom deals. Of course, though using extortion might earn you an ally of sorts, such alliances are built on ill will. Because of the dangers of leaked secrets, protecting secrets is a main impetus of the arms race of measures and countermeasures mentioned earlier. And, of course, sometimes the most dangerous thing a character can do is discover a secret that someone powerful doesn’t want anyone to know.

Intrigue Themes

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 100
If intrigue elements are ingredients, then the following intrigue themes are sample recipes that combine those components in various specific ways, opening the door to adventures and campaigns that delve deeper into the world of intrigue than ones that contain a mere sprinkling of elements here and there.

A Game of Nobles

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 100
Adventuring among the double-dealing and self-serving schemes of the nobility combines the Relationships and Loyalty, The Importance of Appearances, Bargains and Compromise, and The Power of Secrets elements. Whether the PCs start off as members of the nobility, guards and servants seeking to improve their status and fortune, illegitimate children hoping to claim their noble parents’ titles, or simply adventurers hired by the wrong noble house, they quickly become tangled up in a tapestry of power and betrayal. In this theme, since the major players exercise great influence, the stakes are extremely high, allowing even lower-level PCs to become big movers and shakers as long as they are experts at playing along. When using this theme, it is understood that everyone has their own agendas and attempts to increase their personal standing, so self-serving actions are the status quo, whereas moments of true sacrifice and loyalty are rare and touching. With the shifting tides of politics, an enemy today can be a friend tomorrow, and it’s likely that many characters will be neutral on the good/evil axis, or at least only mildly good or evil, muddying the waters and making the choice of whom to support less obvious.

The Criminal Underworld

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 100
Though it can benefit from the use of other elements, a campaign set in the criminal underworld is fundamentally built around the tensions from the Relationships and Loyalty, Measures and Countermeasures, and Bargains and Compromise elements. The importance of maintaining a positive public appearance keeps a noble from engaging in too many illicit activities, but a crime boss isn’t limited in this way. In the criminal underworld, the relationships a character builds and her loyalties and reputations are the main things keeping her alive. Adventures exploring the criminal underworld tend to involve nongood PCs with a central goal of acquiring money and power. However, it is certainly possible to have a group of well-intentioned outlaws in the vein of Robin Hood fighting against a corrupt government or trying to aid the oppressed. In this case, navigating the criminal underworld is even more challenging and dangerous, as the PCs might find that their moral qualms make bargaining and building trust and reputations among other criminals more difficult.

An engaging criminal campaign often involves heists, cons, and other underhanded antics. In these cases, the Measures and Countermeasures element rises to the forefront, and the PCs must scout adversaries’ defenses and come up with a plan to circumvent them or exploit their flaws and weaknesses.

In a campaign with this theme, the hidden world of criminals lurks under the surface of even the most harmless places and people. A benevolent group of healers who cross national borders to help cure disease outbreaks might contain an element that smuggles in illegal alchemical substances. A sheriff renowned for eliminating most of the gangs in a city might have been working under the patronage and assistance of the gang that stood to gain by taking over its rivals’ territory and operations. The PCs, as people in the know, experience this secret underbelly wherever they go and live in this shadowy realm of murky morals. Even if they start with good intentions, it is easy for them to become cynical about the world around them.

War of Propaganda

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 101
A campaign that features wars of propaganda and public opinion centers on The Importance of Appearance, flavored with the Bargains and Compromise and The Power of Secrets elements. In a game using this theme, the PCs seek to influence public opinion in a particular way. They might be political fixers who seek to improve their clients’ image, or they might be lobbyists for a particular political movement attempting to build and garner support for that movement. Either way, the PCs become involved in managing information (particularly damaging secrets) and forging temporary bargains and alliances in order to further their cause. Unlike many other types of adventures that involve PCs discovering a secret and nefarious plot, in a propaganda war, the PCs must uncover and decide how to use damaging secrets about the opposite side. They must also bury their own secrets and those of their allies. Despite being politically damaging, these secrets usually arise from humanizing flaws or lapses in judgment in an otherwise respectable ally, rather than from the ally being actively nefarious. However, the PCs might have to make a hard choice if a legitimately despicable character offers them the support they need or retains their services. In a war of propaganda, social conflict is nearly a given, and since the battlefield is in the court of public opinion, influence and verbal duels are likely to play a part as well.

Law and Order

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 101
In a campaign where characters serve as part of the criminal justice system, such as detectives or lawyers, Measures and Countermeasures and The Power of Secrets are the two most important intrigue elements. Much like investigative or courtroom TV shows, games using this theme tend to be somewhat episodic in nature, with a “mystery of the week” or “case of the week,” though they still likely carry a significant plotline that keeps popping up over the course of the campaign.

For a group of detectives, mysteries involve unraveling the holes in the criminals’ countermeasures against detection, mirroring the way criminals seek to defeat the countermeasures defending their targets. Each mystery might draw the detectives deeper into a web of intrigue and connected plots, and they might be forced to make a hard decision when their investigations unearth disturbing truths about those around them.

Lawyer characters often also dip into investigation as well, but they focus on finding the vulnerabilities in their opposition’s case. A court proceeding before a magistrate or jury might involve one or more verbal duels between the attorneys, interspersed with investigation and interactions between the characters involved, with the case itself being a larger social conflict.

Ultimate Intrigue

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 101
In a campaign that fully embraces all the diverse elements of intrigue, all of the above themes come together. On the one side, there are scheming nobles seeking to gain advantage, and on the other side, the underbelly of the criminal underworld, with people like political fixers, lobbyists, and law enforcement all caught in between—supporting, using, and being used in turn by both sides. The PCs must navigate these treacherous worlds, facing difficult decisions about how to deal with their divided loyalties or putting aside their differences to deal with a common threat. For instance, suppose that an evil duchess, eager to usurp the throne from her older brother, enlists the aid of a major crime family, offering magical assistance to the malefactors so that they can murder a series of nobles without leaving evidence. The party might consist of the unlikely alliance of the detective assigned to investigate the murders, the son of one of the murdered nobles, and the daughter of a rival crime boss. All three of them would be determined to traverse the web of intrigue for their own reasons, but each comes from such a different world that there’s bound to be tension and conflict when those worlds collide. Each would have a different set of resources and contacts, all of which would be necessary to unearth the duchess’s involvement and then cut through her lies and propaganda to prove what she did to the people and to her brother, the king.