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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.