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D&D General Ideas to flesh out a web of intrigue

Effinjay

Villager
I need some ideas to flesh out a web of intrigue aspect of a semi dungeon crawl scenario. I'll try and keep all the context minimal but theres a lot of it which makes it difficult to keep this short.

The players are trying to foil cultists seeking 4 elemental relics. The PCs have retrieved the air relic and arrive at the earth temple to find an 'expedition' is already there. They arent obviously cultists though but a noble who has a scholar and his team and also the merchant thats is financing it, all with assorted lackeys. They are pretty sure either the noble, head scholar or merchant are probably not there for the reasons they pretend to be.

I need situations and events that could have the players suspecting one or other of the three factions to throw in while the PCs are exploring the complex and helping the expedition. (Ive already come up with a few but wont pad this even more adding them here)

The merchant is the cultist and some of his lackeys are in on it. Others are just hires. The merchant has also been forewarned about the PCs and he doesnt want to confront the air bearer yet. He needs to make sure they stick around. So he will suggest they are hired, as it so happens they do have relevant skills. (Perhaps that in itself is suspicious, maybe he coerces the noble to suggest it)

The merchant engineered everything including the noble learning where his father was buried. This was something planted in a sale he made to the scholar. If the players think he's just there out of greed then he's been successful in misleading them.

The noble wants an item in his father's tomb (not the earth relic) that will let him claim this region.Currently a no mans land between two nations. This area has been deliberately abandoned as it is known to some how dangerous these relics and other locations associated with them are. His lust for political power may seem like lust for another sort of power in the eyes of the PCs.

The scholar is just after the lore that lies here. Partly its about prestige, partly about a thirst for knowledge, partly about future funding from the noble. The merchant will try and deflect suspicions away from the noble and towards the scholar. The scholar knows something isn't quite right, isnt sure who to trust and definitely wont trust the PCs initialy. The hires dont all seem to be up to snuff, some of the gear is shoddy and not what he asked for, amongst other things. (such as???)

The noble is key to unlocking the shrine. The merchant knows his father's spirit is the tomb guardian. He's certain something the noble knows will help unlock the various shrines in the temple and activate the sequence to get at the heart of the temple. (It is and the PCs are the key to that due to an NPC they met previously) He also knows that being near the noble will protect him from harm as the spirit wont do anything to harm his son.

As far as the plot goes it'll get a bit derailed if the noble and PCs end up at odds. If anything occurs that might implicate the noble there needs to be a twist where blame can be shifted to the scholar.

I think that covers more or less everything that's relevant.

thanks :)
 

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EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
My best advice for structuring an intrigue-heavy scenario is to give every participant three things:
  1. a public motive and a secret motive that, while maybe not totally opposed, are not pointing in the same direction. I can see that the Merchant has both (pretense of merchant interests/greed, actually a cultist). The Noble's situation is almost there, but a bit weak--I'd work on expanding his reasons for wanting to claim the title of the region. E.g. he's already a noble so he has lands of his own. Is he intending to use this new land to start a war? To pressure an erstwhile ally into a favorable trade agreement? To avenge his house against those who wronged them? To persuade another powerful noble, whom he is madly in love with, to marry him? Etc. Finally, the Scholar seems to be a bit too straightforward. Even if both his public and secret motives are totally benign, it would behoove you to provide him a secret motive deeper than "I want to keep getting funding," which is....kinda banal. Maybe there's some ancient magical secret buried here? Maybe he's old, and has heard rumors that the people of this place knew how to reverse some of the effects of aging. Maybe a fragment of a god's power is thought to be here, which could give him a form of lesser immortality while he looks for a way to live forever that isn't a lich transformation. (This last one is particularly juicy, because the party could come across notes of his that ambiguously reference becoming a lich, thus potentially casting HUGE doubts on his sincerity and goodness unless they're careful enough to read through and realize he's rejected that option.)
  2. Personality quirks and features which point both toward and away from them in terms of suspicion. So, perhaps the Merchant is gregarious to the PCs (since they're useful to him) but rude to his hired help (because he sees them as beneath him). Perhaps the Noble is foppish and foolish, but consistently stands up for even his lowest servants out of a sincere noblesse oblige. Perhaps the Scholar isn't so much "suspicious" of the party as outright paranoid that they're spies trying to steal his research, but he is also kind to children and animals. Things like this, consistently inconsistent portrayal, help to keep the players confused and jumping at any signal that might confirm their prejudices, whether or not those prejudices are founded.
  3. Leave LOTS of clues, but have plenty of them be red herrings. An abundance of information is an excellent way to keep the players from quickly coming to the correct conclusion, but also (paradoxically) a good way to help them eventually solve the puzzle, too. Don't underestimate the power of a subtle clue, either. I've had a murder mystery solved by the critical clue that the actual murderer (not the framed one) received a blue dress in the mail, but wore a red dress at the party which followed.
As part of the above, it would probably help to think about the cultural, social, and economic backgrounds of these three individuals. If the Noble is looking for his father's grave, I assume that means his house is probably on hard times, as a noble would normally inherit his father's titles upon said father's death, and generally would know where said father is buried. The Merchant is a cultist--how, and why? Was it like the Wheel of Time, where the Dark One is always recruiting new Darkfriends to act as eyes and ears, and he just happens to have been put on the spot? Was it more like Harry Potter, where being a Death Eater was almost a political faction for a time before the Wizarding War started, and now ex-DEs try to disclaim all connection while secretly still wishing Voldemort had won? Etc. Likewise, the Scholar seems hungry for recognition and prestige--has he led a relatively dull, ordinary career, with no stand-out achievements? Is he in a Walter White kind of situation, where he's been pushed by exploitative former friends and other such things to pursue risky ventures in order to secure what he believes is his by right? Or perhaps he had great glory days as a young wizard, but struggles to match them, like Richard Daystrom from Star Trek?

There's a hell of a lot you can get out of mining the psychology, family history, socioeconomic background, and cultural trappins of the characters involved in this.

And that's not even touching on, y'know, the cult itself and why it's doing what it's doing. Perhaps even the Merchant is an unknowing patsy, with the cult playing all sides against the middle. That's another great way to add even further layers of intrigue--if the subversive cult is wiling to sacrifice even its own members in order to set up a Xanatos gambit, they'll come across as ruthelss and driven, while if they're deploying him with more care and have multiple prepared escape options, they'll come across as more patient and cunning.
 

Effinjay

Villager
I appreciate the effort youve put in to try and help me here unfortunately a lot of it is focused on the context I didnt include.

There is a lot more to the noble's story, these lands should be his and he's being denied them and not being told why, he still has wealth but he wants his birthright. There was a war, involving the relics, the father chose to become the guardian, the nation chose to bury all knowledge so the relics stayed lost. His wife wasnt happy kept petitioning but never got anywhere. Then the son got wind due to things the scholar dicovered. Nows his chance to get his family lands back.

The scholar is deliberately banal and there's knowledge plenty here that his information promises (yes his desire for that is a red flag) and tbh I'm quite happy with his additional motives of prestige and funding being very valid. Though ome of his interests being little unsavory could cast a bit of a shadow on him. He's basicaly a good guy and well meaning and he's been duped. In the aftermath of the scenatio (for reasons I havent added and Im not going to as this is convulted enough) he needs to be an an ally and will help calm down a tense situation.

I'm not going to go too much into context of what's driving the merchant/cultist. Other than hes someone that craved political power, used his position and on the way got offered metaphysical power. Over time he joined up with others of a like mind and they have hatched a huge plot to get their hands all four relics and use them to summon a demigod. He is just one medium sized cog in a bigger machine. He has zero plot armour as far as this scenario is concerned and is destined to cop it in the finale and be a footnote by the time they get to the grand ending of everything. None of what is happening in the bigger picture has much relevance to the immediate events of the scenario. Other than the fact he wants the earth relic and the air relic and once he gets the earth relic plans to use it to get the air relic off the PCs.

Your second point I'd considered but it does help me see that angle in a little more detail.

Point three was what I was hoping to get ideas about by posting here. Including lackeys of one faction grumbling about lackeys of the other. About one faction member being in disguise and clearly not 'one of us', such as a half orc wearing a wig, body paint and had been filing their teeth down and is now clearly a tattoed cultist. He's one of X, well I only hired him because X said so etc. Someone having an accident when they were with someone else at a 'convenient' moment.

The ideas I'm looking for are situations occuring during the expedition. Some further context may help but I'm trying to avoid slipping down a rabbit hole of overloading the context.

Maybe there's a published scenario with some vague similarities I can crib from. There must be something involving a) an expedition to a ruin/temple/site b) someone secretly up to no good and c) events happening during the expedition. Whaetever they are I can maybe tweak them a little to fit with the cast and situation.
 
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