Creating Intrigue in a Campaign

One of the things I love in a campaign is intrigue.  Don’t get me wrong, I can still enjoy more straightforward games, but I love it when everyone has their own agendas and when those agendas conflict between people.  It can be difficult to create it well though.  It is very easy to end up with, instead of intrigue, a frustrating machination of plot or characters so transparent that the party never has to wonder about them.  So how do I try to create good intrigue?

One of the first things I do is I look at people in real life.  I know that we’re just playing a game and casting spells isn’t terribly realistic, but I’ve found that though players will suspend disbelief for quite a bit when it comes to the actual human interaction they are generally fairly tough critics.  How the world works depends on you view.  To me, I see our world as full of many conflicting views.  I think it’s rare to have a truly evil or truly good person and even rarer for that person to end up with a lot of power.  So whenever I go to make an evil or a good NPC I try to figure out why they act that way.  If they have any power I am careful to figure out how that came about also.

The vast majority of people, though, are in the middle.  They range from generally trying to do good to generally just trying to look out for themselves and oftentimes they have unreasonable prejudices or rivalries with other groups of people different from them.  Take the main political parties in any country, nine times out of ten most of the people in both parties aren’t colluding against the public.  They may be corrupt, but usually they still think they’re doing more good then bad.  They have just, somewhat arbitrarily, decided to take up certain causes…sometimes to fanatic extents.  Some questions I usually ask myself when making characters is what their job is, why they got that job, and what affects their job and their socio-economic status would have on their views of the other characters (and classes) within the game.  A noble probably either has no empathy for the poor or out of guilt has too much of it and city guard investigating a crime family might be quick to blame them for anything else wrong in the city, sometimes just because they need more funding for their investigation.

Oftentimes the party can end up dealing with 20-30 conflicting interests.  Many can be grouped together, but each is unique.  The mayor may want to take down the crime family but worry more about image and means then the city guard.  Someone hired by a crime family might have the same intentions as the family, to get more power and money through whatever means necessary, but possibly this guy is a bit more chaotic whereas the crime family, in general, believes in stricter rules of engagement.  In both of these instances these groups are on the same side, but different parts of the same side.  This can add a lot to game play experience.  I know my party recently had to investigate some local crimes in a city and ended up being told everything from the major crime family in town did it to the local sheriff must be behind it.  The party had to have in their minds what they’ve learned about the various characters to figure out how colored their assumptions would be with their prejudices.  They quickly learned to take with a grain of salt some characters testimonies if they related to a certain grouping that character hated or loved too much.

Of course, though intrigue is fun it can also be frustrating.  At some points in my campaigns I’ve accidentally left my party in a position where there is too much doubt.  They want to act, but just can’t figure out who to trust.  I have to be really careful to make sure there’s at least a few people the party can trust and it’s good to have a few people who are obviously evil.  It varies the campaign up a bit and can help in frustrating situations.  If I feel my party is completely stuck and they are getting to the point where they aren’t having fun anymore it’s easy to drop hints through the more purely good or evil characters whose interests are clear.  I have to remember that as a GM oftentimes I have a lot of context on situations that the party may not.  I may think a puzzle is easy only because I know all the NPC’s absolutely, the party doesn’t.  It’s hard to get around this, over time you begin to learn what your party knows and does not know, but it’s good to always have little hints planned to help your party if they can’t figure something out.  I know in my campaigns it has not usually been my party being dumb about puzzle, but rather poor communication on my part.

All in all intrigue can add a lot of depth to a campaign.  It’s a bit more work on the GM’s part, but it makes the world feel a bit more alive and real.  It encourages immersion in the campaign and it can, intentionally or not, build some pretty interesting dynamics into a world.

[tags]Dungeons and Dragons, Geek, Role Playing Games, World Building[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Creating Intrigue in a Campaign

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  1. Interesting article! It is fascinating to me to set up factions with various interests and watch which ones create the most sympathy with the players.

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  2. Ha! I’d laugh at you Jared but . . . I’m in the same boat. The good GM’s I do know are either way out of reach or don’t have the time to be a GM anymore.

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