• Justin Handlin

How to Plan a Political Intrigue Campaign in Dungeons and Dragons

Noble king at a ball
Art Compliments of Wizards of the Coast

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How to Plan a Political Intrigue Campaign in Dungeons and Dragons

So you want to design and run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign filled with politicking and intrigue huh? Looking for more of a thriller feel than sword and spells? Seeking a story of temptations, blackmail, forgery, and treachery? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ve been playing D&D and a myriad of other games for well over 20 years now. In that time I’ve played every campaign theme and style you can think of. Some good, some bad and some so horrible I refuse to speak on them. In that time I believe I’ve learned some of the best ways to create a fun and engaging campaign, regardless of its theme. I will be honest, a starting outline is a good general rule of thumb for campaign story building, but a good political intrigue game is hard to pull off. One thing I learned early on, it’s much more difficult to build following the more traditional techniques. So let's delve into helping you plan out an unforgettable story of plot twists, alliances built and broken, and emotional turmoil that will leave the characters stressing over decisions that have long-lasting impacts on the world around them.

I learned early on to treat political games from a reverse perspective. Instead of trying to figure out who the characters will battle with, when and where, or even how it will progress, work backward. What I mean by this is to decide what the ultimate endpoint or story conclusion stops. What end goal do you see for the characters? Do you see them becoming advisors to a King? Or perhaps becoming important decision-makers in a kingdom's council? Maybe they are to be the deciding factor on who becomes the next Queen in the kingdom? Then work backward from there.

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For this example, let's go with the fact a Queen has died and her heir is to take the throne. Our end goal is for the characters to become vassals of the Queen’s heir. Now we’ve got a place we want the campaign to end. With the new Queen and her vessels (the characters) there to protect and serve her. Now, working backward from here we can really begin to plot out how we want our politicking to unfold. In this case, the easiest solution is to put a competitor in line for the throne. This puts our heir in trouble. The young heir has a sibling who is much younger. Perhaps the Queen’s advisor sees an opportunity to become the King. Thus begins the plot to assassinate the daughter heir so that the younger, far more easily influenced younger brother can be placed on the throne. This puts the advisor in control until the younger brother is old enough to rule on his own. Of course, the advisor has no plans to let that happen. But that is years away and will be hardly an inconvenience.

For obvious reasons, we aren’t going to introduce this line of thinking or story hook to the characters for quite some time. I mean, if we do, then there isn’t much mystery or plots to uncover. So we will keep these details close to the chest. So, thus we need to take another step backward from there. So how do our characters find out about this plot? This information can likely only be gathered if the characters have access to the palace, or at the very least, close contact. This could work well with backgrounds such as the noble, charlatan, or even criminal. In any case, our characters have to have frequent access to the palace to some capacity.

The first thing that jumps to mind is that someone in the palace is seeking the aid of the characters. This could be a Captain of the Guard or perhaps one of the members of the Queen's Court. In either case, our characters will have to have made a name for themselves. Rarely is someone important enough to spend great amounts of time in a palace going to allow untested adventurers or mercenaries into their circle. Trust will be extremely important here. The best way to earn that trust is by earning the trust of others via great deeds. This means we must now take a step backward and discover how they earn this trust to be requested into the palace?

As the characters grow in renown they are likely to encounter a noble or a local lord who is seeking to hire adventurers who can handle a particularly dangerous mission. Through the grapevine, they learned of our band of adventurers. Upon requesting the characters delve into learning the secret of who or what is causing a plague that is impacting the lord's land. Upon uncovering the secret and aiding in the purification process our characters now have a positive reputation with their first-person of influence. Someone who might recommend them for their service to someone in the palace. But, we still need to go backward a little bit. In order for a lord to hear about the characters, they are going to need to build up some renown.

Our goal now must be to present an opportunity for the characters to grow in strength and reputation. This is easily done by accepting more mundane quests and in general becoming reliable to the NPCs. Here is where you can delve (pun intended) into a variety of smaller short adventures. Here we use this opportunity to allow the players to develop their character's personalities and also renown with the locals. This is a great opportunity to have NPCs start giving nicknames to the characters, learn the name of the adventuring party, etc.

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Now that we have traced the campaign arc backward, we now can plan and weave even more courtly intrigues into the entire story. We can do this in a number of ways. The advisor likely has contacts and this campaign isn’t the first time he’s thought of what it would take to seize power. Perhaps the advisor even tried to court the Queen. Early on, allies of the advisor (that isn’t even aware of the characters who will one day oppose them) might be out causing trouble. Perhaps the advisor swoops in and saves their allies to the chagrin of the characters. Knowing they are despicable and are being rescued from punishment is the first clue that sets the stage for the true nature of the advisor. The advisor might even offer to reward the characters as a thank you for ending the misbehavior (of course this is in a very “not any of your business” kind of way).

When it comes to planning out politics in Dungeons & Dragons, and really any RPG this backward flow of story building works wonders. Start with the climax and work backward from there. The reason I believe this works so well is that the backward process always keeps the end goal at the forefront of your mind. A good campaign has lots of planning. This simple technique makes managing the political aspect and complex connections easier to handle.

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