Saturday, 9 July 2022

At the Hour of Death

The lost tomb of Sierk the Carver may have passed from memory, but it's nearer than anyone suspected. But be warned, wizards don't die peacefully. Great danger awaits anyone who arrives at the hour of death.

At the Hour of Death is Trilemma Adventure #55. It's a pocket dungeon that you can locate almost anywhere underground. If an ogre misses a player and bashes a wall, a secret door in a castle hallway, a crumbling brickwork. Anywhere there's enough room for the circular tomb, below.

For ages I've wanted to do something with scheduled patrols, moving guards whose routes and schedule the players could learn and then anticipate. What better way to do this than let the players actually manipulate the schedule?

A few notes:

There's more treasure in this adventure than most of what I do. It's meant to be suitable for classic dungeon crawling: low-level adventurers avoiding threats to get what treasure they can before they run into trouble they can't handle.

The skeletal infantry are meant to be both hostile and very dangerous. They're there as a lethal "minute hand" that sweeps around the perimeter of the tomb. Make this clear with their coordinated movements, the shouting of the lamp-bearers to direct them. For gritty power levels, at least, it should be obvious that to attack them frontally means getting stabbed by a forest of spears.

Other than the skeletons, however, this adventure is meant to work with a reaction table (of the sort you get in early editions of D&D). If you don't have one handy, use this one from ALM:

Roll d6Initial NPC Reaction
Assume the worst: The NPC assumes the party is here for violence or exploitation. If weaker, the NPCs avoid, posture and prepare defenses. If they have the advantage, maybe they think it's best to deal you a blow while they can.
Wary: Set boundaries (socially or physically)
Mistaken Assumption: The group makes a confident, incorrect assumption about the party's purpose or identity. They've heard rumours, and your presence confirms them.
Uninterested: Dour and sullen, self-absorbed, or perhaps more interested in their own problems or private discussions. Either way, they aren't making time for the party.
Curiosity: You're the entertainment. Maybe that's good, maybe that's really bad, depending on their nature.
Common Cause: So glad you turned up, now we can help each other!

Magical Compulsion

This adventure holds the possibility of an NPC gaining a measure of control over a PC. The inhabitants of the dungeon have been compelled to follow the magic of the game board and don't realize their decisions have been influenced. Imposing this same fate on a PC, however, would effectively sideline the player. No fun! There are a few options that you might try:

Wrong Trousers: The player remains in control of their character, but whatever they choose to do, they also walk a half move in the direction the game board pulls them. They can resist and take other actions, but it's like being in a swiftly moving stream. A variant of this is the "drunk walk"; the only effect of the compulsion is that when they try to walk, they just happen to step where the game board wants them to.

Kicking and Screaming: Instead of affecting a PC's will, they're seized by an unseen force that drags them. This will quickly become the focus of play as the party tries to stop a fellow adventurer being dragged away.

Lights on, Lights Off
: The compulsion comes in waves, only taking effect for one minute of every ten. This lowers the stakes of the compulsion. This is a decent option for a single PC party, also.

In on the Joke: Some players might be happy to portray someone under the game board's influence. For this to work, they need to have worked out the effect of the game board, and the specific player needs to be down to portray someone acting against their own interests. They (of course) must also know what the game board is compelling them to do so they can run with it. Here, the fun is their interactions with the rest of the party.

Update: Finding the Panopticon

Brent Ellison asked me to clarify, is there really no stated way for players to figure out the mirrors? That's true! It's not at all guaranteed that a determined party would ever reach the Panopticon, especially since neither Sierk nor the Physician seems likely to tell them. Some ways it might happen:
  1. The party develops a friendly relationship with the Physician (e.g. 'Common Cause' from the table, above) and he simply tells them to help them out of a scrape. This depends on whether you think the Physician knows this will kill Sierk (as that would violate his oath).
  2. The party moves the Beetle piece to the study, and the Physician arrives through the mirror.
  3. The Physician flees combat by taking on mantis form and fleeing through a mirror.

* * *

As always, thanks to my patrons on Patreon who have graciously donated to support this little project!

Monday, 4 July 2022

The Athabasca Fold Network

Memorize this, but for god's sake don't act like you know it. Play dumb and ask for directions like everyone else or you'll get flagged and dumped out an airlock.

In the post-planet setting of Coming Apart, the few remaining human communities survive through secrecy. When any nickel-hulled pirate can fold in with a world-ending asteroid, the only defences are to be too small to extort, or to jealously guard your true location.

The Athabasca Fold Network is one one of the largest civilian fold networks, home to three space stations: Serengeti, Pitcairn, and Athabasca itself (a true class V).

Few visitors stay long, as berths on the stations are eye-wateringly expensive, but thousands make the trek every month to buy services from the many skilled specialists in Athabasca and Pitcairn.

The network is rich in primary resources like water, atmo, nickel and fission elements drawn from Bussard, Octavia and Youssef. Pitcairn station is known for its high quality ship modules, and exports them in large quantities. The network is not self sufficient, however, and imports huge quantities of food and biologicals from its trading partners. Relics of planetary life also fetch a premium here, in great demand among the wealthiest tier of network citizens.

Trade occurs through the public interchange, the lowest-security set of fold coordinates in the network. Here, most any ship is free to dock with the hub ships (commonly Wakatobi class), slow-folding trading posts that make a lazy loop through low-security space. Visitors swap news, sex, and services, or book passage deeper into higher-security parts of the network to broker larger trades on the stations.

While the topology of the network is not considered sensitive, the specific locations in space of the clearance fold points are highly classified. While visitors are welcome to travel through the loops between the stations and the public interchange as passengers, the only ships permitted to fold there known and trusted by the network. Gaining enough trust and goodwill to obtain a navigational security clearance can take years, and the number of high-security clearances is strictly limited by the civil administration.

Athabasca authorities waver between welcoming and wary. Trade visitors are essential, but spies or saboteurs are always probing for information or weaknesses. Agents of pirate gangs or rival networks have standing bounties for information that could compromise locations.

Exterior viewports are rare, as taking astronomical measurements that could be used to locate a high security fold is punishable by death. The larger stations are located in inky black, intergalactic space to make triangulation especially difficult. Visitors are carefully searched for instruments of sabotage, and only specifically licensed citizens may carry anything resembling maintenance tools.

Despite the caution, the network is a vibrant and joyful place, home to a great diversity of people.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Saving Throw for Evey Lockhart

Fans of Trilemma Adventures: one of our own needs our help. Evey Lockhart is the writer and designer of weird, sad, queer old-school stuff that you’re probably familiar with. She was celebrated in 2015 as winner of the One Page Dungeon Contest, then took ENnie silver for her contributions to Trilemma Adventures. She’s gone on to make books like Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals and the disturbing “Wet Grandpa” with the Melsonian Arts Council.

You probably don’t know that most of her writing happens on an old laptop in a van: Evey and her family are homeless, and have been for a couple of years.

The pandemic has sucked for everyone, to put it mildly—but being trans, homeless, and disabled in the southern US with all this going on is an unrelenting stress. Evey’s been scraping from day to day this whole time, getting it done for her kids as best she can.

To help out Evey with a donation, please click here:

Nobody deserves to live under this kind of pressure. If, like me, you’ve been sheltered from the worst of the pandemic, you can make a huge difference in her life with a couple of clicks. If you can only spare a few bucks, even that provides immediate relief from stressing where the money for the next meal or place to stay is coming from. If all you can do is help spread the word before the algorithm eats this, that’s awesome too.

To show my gratitude for your help, I’ve been authorized to offer limited time only protection from level drain. Just show the DM your GoFundMe receipt and they’ll know what to do.

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Dead Steps

To some, walking is a sacred act. One foot placed in front of the other, a rhythmic homage to the first steps the gods took upon the cooling earth.

Most people just don't think about it that much, but even so: there is an undeniable exchange between land and traveller. A resistance, a partnership. Step upon the soil and it presses back—alive, tangible.

That is, except for a dead step.

* * *

"Why are we stopping?" Aram asked, but his voice trailed off. Before he had even finished the sentence, he felt it. A drop in his stomach, the prickle of anxious sweat.

Behind him, one of the mules groaned as the feeling passed down the line. Someone closer to the front let out a cry.

What's happening? Aram looked up and down the line. The feeling of loss was palpable. Have we forgotten someone? He counted the party.. twelve.. thirteen forms bundled against the blowing snow. The mules. All here. He jostled his canteen. Still full.

He tried to rally himself against the feeling of dread. "All is well, all is well," but no. There, at the front, others had started to back away from Salia.

Aram's eyes darted across their faces. All were staring, mouths in silent motion: dismay, disappointment, disgust. Salia herself was motionless, staring at her right boot.

The last step she had taken had started like any other. But somehow seeing it there, planted on the ground just so, grief filled him.

If it's going to be like this, why did we even come?

* * *

d6The dead step portends..
A ley line eddy. Everywhere the subtle energies flow to and fro, but here they are caught.. not still but oscillating, trapped. Frantic. Cast it from your mind and leave this place! To contemplate the errors of the gods brings only doom.
A border between the Powers. Every place is ruled by something, but here you stand upon a boundary. Anathema, the lands on either side do not touch, and here is a seam that descends to the very roots of the earth.
An end. Below the ground are the remains of a hero. They set out on a quest that was the last hope of many people, and yet here they died. No great duel or mighty task laid them low, merely an accident. A wineskin left uncorked; an infected cut; a map carelessly left at camp. So great is the shame that chance could end the lives of so many, the wind itself has tried to cover their bones.
A sacrifice. The gods walked the young earth, completing it and setting in motion its destiny. But here, no god has ever stood. This inch of the earth is still new. You could complete it and send it on its way! A great pattern of your choosing could begin here, but at what cost? 
A door. The joy of the land is seeping out of a crack. With the right tool it could be forced open.
The end of all things. One day, Sorg's hunger will have claimed all of creation. The last of the luminous void will close as crags and seething forests fill all seven ways of the sky, an ocean of stone leaving no place for life. When it does, Sorg will turn upon itself. A decay will begin, an eternity of lightness, crumbling caverns until all that' left is dust and darkness. You have found the place where it begins.

Monday, 17 January 2022

After the Lords of Memory v0.23

After a very long hiatus, here's a new version of my home system, After the Lords of Memory.

After the Lords of Memory v0.23

If you haven't followed along:

Like many games, probably, the impetus for writing it lies somewhere between an elaborate preparation for a specific campaign and a laborious expression of my preferences.

This version is massively cut down from the previous version (which was nearly 80 pages). I work in expand/contract phases, and what I'd left myself was a core system smothered in a big, bloated pile of half-written subsystems.

Inspired by the wave of chopped-down, very short systems like World of Dungeons, Knave, and so on, this is me clearing the decks, keeping only what is definitely the solid core. Something small enough to share (possibly even right on game night) and clearly communicate expectations.

This is not a "complete" game. There's nothing on creatures, buying things, treasure, or moving around in the wilderness. (All that is left to the GM.) Nor is the text edited!

This version still doesn't meet all of my original design goals. As I summarized in 2019:

The core works, it's been playtested in a home game over a period of years--you can make characters, take them places, adventure, fight, advance, get injured and so on.

However, the whole point of writing this game was to enable a particular campaign style, and that hasn't emerged organically from my playtest campaign. If you read the design goals post, essentially what you get is a fairly simple, theatre-of-the-mind game where grubby villagers go forth and either die or become heroes. You don't get geographic advancement.

However, this does feel like a chassis to heading towards them once more.

First up, Rituals. One of the (aspirational) sources of geographic advancement are the secret demands that players. These were just buried by complexity. In this version, hopefully, they'll operate a little more like the player-facing quest generator they were meant to.

Anyways, here we are for now!

Friday, 24 December 2021

The Gig

Week 1, not so bad. Freezing my ass off in this van, putting up microphones. Weirdest job ever, hanging microphones in suburbia, but it pays.

Week 2, fuck this job, the heater died. The prof said the mics have to go up, though, something about holes in time series data. This JOB is a hole in time.

Week 3, apparently I'm recording dog barks. People leaving their dogs out in the cold, some SPCA thing? Ugh night shift, say hi to the gang for me.

Week 4, not SPCA. So, like, dogs bark and it makes other dogs bark, and the prof thinks it's some kind of dog internet. That's why we need so many mics, they need to see the patterns.

Week 5, kids stole the mic on Dane street, now there's "a hole". I'm going to be doing this until March. No dice with the heater, but I now have a coffee card. Bought long johns.

Week 6, got to see the map. It's pretty cool, the dogs set each other off. Everyone seemed really bummed though, something about missing resonance. There were supposed to be 'ripples'. Heater is working again!

Week 7, no resonance, but there are "rays". Dogs start barking after each other, but only in long lines, then a bit later, back again. Looks neat on the map, like tree branches. Prof still bummed.

Week 8, I fucking HATE Dane St.

Week 9, Juan's in town, came with me on the run bc "No holes!" Out all night, froze our asses off. Rav has taken over at the lab, he wants more data about the "rays".

Week 10. Juan saw the map, noticed the rays all start at different parts of the ravine. Prof was PISSED. (She's back now.) Apparently dogs barking at raccoons doesn't get funding? No more map time for us, just mic dropoffs. Coffee card ran out.

Week 11. Juan said 'ray 4' ends near that house on Groen where that guy got murdered, the same night it happened. Creepy! He got a picture of the map on his phone, he's working on the others. Can we talk abt something else? Ffs

Week 12, Juan's lost it, he's obsessed. They ALL end in murders. Thinks it's not dogs barking at each other, but something going past and freaking them out. Smth they can hear, but we can't. What the hell is "something"? Wants to stake out the ravine. Idgaf, 2 weeks and I'm done.

Week 13. DO NOT go in the ravine. I'll text later. Just stay the fuck away from it

Monday, 13 December 2021

Some Thoughts on Intrigue

This is me thinking out loud about intrigue in role-playing games, and a bit of scaffolding to make it happen. For the moment I'm thinking about this like a world builder, a would-be GM setting up a situation suitable for political intrigue.

What I've got is:

  • overt violence is impractical (or extremely costly)
  • several (or many) factions competing for dominance in a cooperative endeavour
  • power is divided among the factions
  • factions want more than one thing
  • strengths and weaknesses tie the factions together

Costly Violence

For intrigue to happen, you need multiple factions in a context where overt violence is impractical (disastrous, strongly discouraged, or incredibly expensive).

This could be the fact that escalation is bad for everyone. In the cold war, any direct military conflict between the superpowers could have escalated into a world-destroying nuclear exchange, so conflict had to be indirect, covert, deniable, or all three.

There may be a faction that has a monopoly on violence or overwhelming military power, but deploying it might be incredibly expensive. Crushing enemies might just make more enemies; troops must be paid; debts must be cashed in; the obligations of vassals might only be usable once. There may be no way to carry out violence without overwhelming retribution.

Another possible brake on escalation is when there are many factions that are competing for dominance over a cooperative endeavour. The realm is more prosperous when the barons are trading instead of warring. They are unequal in power and one of them will be king, but no one baron is strong enough to take the crown by force without the support of many others.

In this kind of situation, there may be rules that govern the transfer or power: heredity, etiquette, oaths, contracts, traditions, or rituals. The rules protect the factions from the disastrous costs of conflict. Even if there's no open violence, a winning coalition might decide that everyone who supported the losing side needs to be punished, stripped of its assets, or stamped out completely.

Therefore, anyone who opposes a strong coalition publicly must resist in legitimate ways. Their opposition is merely part of a system of time honoured checks and balances, challenges which are rightfully protected by tradition. Anyone who resists the eventual winner in illegitimate ways risks being branded a traitor, a rebel, a conspirator who opposes not just a contender but society itself. Anyone who does this can be legitimately stripped of their freedom, power, and wealth. Any non-legitimate actions must either be indirect, covert, or deniable.

Competition Within a Cooperative Endeavour

I mentioned this above, but the cooperative endeavour could be any context that none of the factions are willing to destroy. It could be the functioning of a city, the belief in the rule of law, a planetary ecosystem that won't support them fighting.

It needs to be constricting enough that they can't simply go their own ways. They're stuck together in the same planet, realm, city, or lifeboat and they share its fate.

Power is Divided

At the same time, no one faction can be so powerful that it dominates the others outright. Each faction's power is incomplete. Each must have only a few pieces of the puzzle, however outwardly strong they seem. If any one faction is so strong that it holds all the cards in any negotiation, this limits the options for intrigue.

Factions Want More Than One Thing

Years ago I was listening to some tips on negotiation; it made the point that once you pin down your negotiation to everything but the price, you're fucked. Now it's just a straight tug of war, and any change in terms will have a clear winner and a clear loser.

The answer was to find a meaningful trade-off, two dimensions where the parties have different preferences. In contract negotiation this could be around payment terms (a higher price is fine, but I want 90 days to pay; a lower price is fine if you pay in cash, etc.), but it could be anything.

You can run around town intimidating people, or doing covert actions to undermine another faction's power, but for there to be political negotiation (not just flexing and cowering), factions need to want more than one thing.

A nice way of illustrating this is the indivisible prize. You want the crown, so do all the other barons. There's no way you can get it without their support, but crowns can't be shared. Obviously you'll need to find something they want that isn't the crown to exchange for their support.

Splitting Up Power: Internal Cracks

I can think of a few simple ways to pull off two of these things at once, making a faction's power incomplete while making it want multiple things.

One is to make its leadership divided. Sure, the ruling family of the East Barony is all in it together, but that headstrong uncle is hoping for a martial victory, while the cruel baroness mostly cares about sticking it to the Gellish. Clever negotiators might find ways to play on the power dynamic between the two.

Similarly, you can always break a faction into multiple sub-factions. The baron wants the crown; the advisors think the baron's son has the best chance and the baron might be overplaying his hand to try for it himself. The baron's financiers want their loans repaid, and want to discourage the baron from hiring  expensive mercenaries if there are soft power approaches to be taken instead.

Divisions can be found at any scale. The baron's court has a doorman who resents the regular visitors; the kitchen staff are looking forward to cooking for a king and don't mind who knows it, and so on.

The other mine for internal cracks is how a faction maintains its material conditions. Just surviving, growing food, the clanking and sloshing of industry is a lot of work and takes numerous people with different needs and opinions. A barony that has grown rich on wool exports might be full of internal divisions between land owners, tenant farmers, bandits, wealthy and poor.

What compromises have been made to achieve the focus the leaders want? What's running out or not working well? What resentments or disagreements are starting to build up?

(EDIT: At the risk of stating the obvious, you never 'negotiate with a faction', and factions don't want things, they're made of people who want things. Personifying the faction as an NPC is much more characterful than a completely unified front of interchangeable negotiators. The point of this business about finding internal cracks is not so you wind up negotiating with ever more microscopic factions, but that there is always a way to find some leverage.)

Splitting Up Power: Different Strengths

Another way to make faction power incomplete and give yourself some surface area to invent multiple goals is to divide up different kinds of power between the factions.

  • Who has society's material wealth?
  • Who makes society's decisions?
  • Who controls society's ceremonies and proceedings?
  • Who has society's cultural biases or ideas of legitimacy in their favour?
  • Who is well regarded and influential?
  • Who knows more than the others?
  • Who is able to conspire and coordinate most freely?
  • Who is organized and able to act decisively in cohesion with their supporters?
  • Who has strong ties of loyalty?
  • Who benefits from the biases inherent in the institutions?

Each faction might have strengths in one or more of these areas, but weaknesses in others. For example, imagine a general with a reputation as a war hero, made rich by foreign spoils and plunder. Unfortunately, she is viewed as a commoner with the least legitimate claim to the crown, and by virtue of her military rank is forbidden from even entering the Rotunda.

To play to her strengths, she wants to exaggerate external threats to the capital to give herself more latitude to operate politically. Even better, forcing other houses to have to pony up money for costly troops would stretch them thin. However, she's desperate for some kind of cultural legitimacy—perhaps by marriage or false historical record. She also sorely needs eyes and ears within the Rotunda so she can stay ahead of the senators' plans.

Don't overlook the challenges and advantages involved just in communication and alignment. Some English king or other apparently tried to ban jousting tournaments, because these gave his barons opportunities to get together and plot against him. Sending one-to-one messages back and forth takes time, and in politics, an advantage over the means to coordinate is a huge advantage.

Similarly, having a responsibility for administering the ceremonies and proceedings may not give you any official power. You're just supposed to bless the marriages. But that gives you all sorts of ways to control the amount of friction everyone experiences. You can speed things along or drag things out on technicalities. You may have complete access to venues that might otherwise be secured against intrusion. Being the only faction able to find a quiet side chamber away from prying eyes during a tense summit might make all the difference.

Random Faction Strengths

To keep things surprising, let's use that strength/weakness list as a random table. Each major faction gets one strength and (to make sure their power is incomplete) two weaknesses.

Roll d10Strength/Weakness
Material wealth
Decision-making power
Control over ceremonies, proceedings, venues
Cultural biases and legitimacy
Influence and reputation
Knows more than the others
Freedom to conspire and coordinate
Organization, cohesion
Ties of loyalty
Institutional biases

Trying this out with a very small sub-faction, the court doorman I mentioned earlier. A strength and two weaknesses:

  • Strength: (2) Decision-making power. Curlis, master of the door, can choose who to admit and who is refused.
  • Weakness: (7) Freedom to conspire and coordinate. Curlis is always observed, and despite his strong opinions and his position of influence, has limited ability to benefit from this power (e.g. via bribes).
  • Weakness: (6) Knowledge. Despite directly seeing the comings and goings to the court chamber, Curlis stands outside it and has only conjecture to go on about what dealings are taking place.
(That's pretty funny, an NPC with power who is dying to abuse it but can't find an opportunity that would benefit him.)

Tying Factions Together

Each of these strengths and weaknesses can be used to tie the factions to one another. Pick one, and pick another faction, then roll to see how the power imbalance plays out in their relationship:

Roll d6Strength/weakness tie
A brutal choke hold
A coercive power imbalance
A sense of duty
A delicate alliance
Repaying a debt
Benefits shared freely out of love or loyalty

  • Curlis's decision-making power ties him to, um, the baron out of (6) love or loyalty. He's glad to serve the baron faithfully and keep out those he thinks are bad for the court.
  • Curlis's inability to conspire or coordinate ties him to the court advisors, out of (3) a sense of duty. All his communications with the outside world flow through them, and he abides by this out of a solemn duty to remain impartial.
  • Curlis's lack of knowledge of the political landscape ties him to the baron's financiers in (1) a brutal choke hold. He is completely suborned by them, and keeps out anyone that the financiers think might influence the baron to spend any further before repaying his debts.
This is just me experimenting; for a tiny "faction" like Curlis (or perhaps the entire palace guard) probably one is plenty. A more potent faction (like the baron's noble house) could have three or more.

In Play

So far I've been talking from a world building perspective, as if you were going to plan out all these factions ahead of time. I don't think that's necessary, and probably not even a good idea. Tim Groth put it aptly, "World building is a misnomer, it is really just set building."

The key thing players need in order to engage politically is to understand the landscape to be able to make informed choices. Where do they apply pressure? What asymmetry can they exploit?

To avoid the info dump problem, I'd recommend rolling all of this as late as you possibly can. If you can roll and brainstorm on the fly, great. You can also get your players to declare their goals to telegraph what they're up to, so that you can do a bit of thinking between sessions.

Achieving Political Goals

Here's a super simplistic theory of political action, just truthy enough to structure a campaign:

To achieve a political goal, you must negotiate (or conduct covert action) to achieve all ten strengths.

Everyone wants something; you want the crown. By negotiating with everyone, you help them achieve their different, disparate goals in return for their help with your singular, focused goal.

The easiest way to put this into practice is to create a patron with a political goal, and to have the PCs be fixers/ambassadors/negotiators. The patron knows the 'campaign structure', and can simply present a handful of relevant facts as the starting context.

  1. (Wealth) The baron is struggling with debt. A bid for the throne is expensive, who will fund this?
  2. (Decision-making) House Otherhouse controls the council of barons, which by tradition chooses the king in times of the line being disrupted. We have no sway with Otherhouse right now.
  3. The church conducts the coronations and must bless the transfer. Will they? 
  4. (Coordination) The barony is large, but on the periphery of the realm. Who can be trusted to host the necessary meetings to mobilize support?
  5. (Knowledge) What other schemes are afoot that might derail this? Who else is mobilizing supporters?
And so on. Every weakness is an opportunity to negotiate with a potential supporter to shore it up. Every strength is a temporary advantage that may require defending.

What Do Players Do?

If the players have an ambitious patron with a political goal, what should they tell the PCs to do? If it's a more player-directed campaign (e.g. perhaps the players are running a faction themselves), what are some constructive ways to start doing stuff?

When you're just starting:
  • Scope out the political landscape. Who wants what? What are the factions being public about?
  • Scope out a faction's strengths and weaknesses
  • Reinforce a strength. Can they take the status quo for granted, or are there new threats?
  • Figure out who might be in a position to shore up one of your weaknesses
  • Assess a rival's base of power
  • Scope out one faction's hold over another
When you're digging in a little more:
  • Scope out a faction's internal cracks, the sub-factions and what they might want.
  • Apply pressure on allies to commit
  • Negotiate, make blunt offers
  • Act to weaken, undermine, or delegitimize a rival's strength
  • Undo or undermine a relationship between your rivals
  • Take covert actions to learn or change what you can't reach openly
  • Test boundaries to learn the real limits of your influence
When it gets to the finish line:
  • Offer last chances to rivals
  • Take bold covert actions
  • Make your schemes overt, bring on the final showdown and find out who really stands with you
This is just a list of starters, and it's necessarily a bit abstract. "How to intrigue" is a big topic, this list completely ignores all the betrayals, feints, and "plans within plans" that you might get up to.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to Tim Groth and Sean Winslow for giving all this a once over and providing useful feedback.

Tim makes the great point that it matters a lot whether the PCs are the ones doing the legwork or the ones pulling the strings. My gut tells me that if you're using a game that has some supports for intrigue, it's a lot easier to put the players in charge to start with.

Burning Wheel has useful mechanics like Duel of Wits and (especially) Circles and Wises, which give the players lots of latitude in coming up with cool approaches to take without having mainlined a setting bible. Games like The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power have strong archetypal characters, and work almost like a pre-built play set so a group can just step into the roles of very powerful people.

For games that aren't using anything like that, my sense is it might be easiest to set up the PCs as key functionaries first, until the campaign has enough miles under its belt that the players have enough information to form their own goals and strategies.