Intrigue, Part 1

One of the hardest things I've had to deal with so far in plotting out American Auror is in keeping the individual adventures intriguing. I've got plenty of story ideas at the campaign level, but I realized quickly that my normal adventure style of starting a bad event in motion and then letting the party investigate and deal with the event as they see fit wouldn't work here. I have to keep the pace moving, keep things tense, and most importantly make the party feel like they were constantly behind the bad guys. I have to provide a constant stream of villains and plots operating outside of the "normal" world's view - to quote Tommy Lee Jones in MIB - "There's always an Aquillian battle cruiser. Or a Corillian death ray. Or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet. And the only way these people can got on with their happy lives is that they. do not. know about it." In short, if I want to keep the party from charging in guns blazing and confronting problems in public, head on the way they normally do, then I need to ramp up the intrigue and make each adventure a guessing game.

But how to do that? I've read a lot of writer's articles on intrigue stories, but those are mostly about pacing for fiction in a way that doesn't translate well to RPGs. There are a hell of a lot of articles on running political (ie. fantasy courtly) intrigue on the net, and some of them are very good; but, again, they don't apply to this case. There are also games like Spycraft that do a great job on helping you set campaign tone, but outside of pre-written adventures there's not much help for creating intrigue missions beyond "find the villain, beat them." And there are a bazillion tips on creating character charts and conflict diagrams, etc - but all of the recurring character conflict in American Auror happens at the campaign level, not at the adventure level where the villains will be, for the most part, disposable (think X-Files' monster-of-the-week as the adventure villain and the Smoking Man as the campaign level intrigue).


So I've been watching a lot of Spooks this last year; it's been a huge inspiration on the direction I've wanted to take American Auror. Since I'm the kind of guy who likes to break genre stories down to their individual beats, I realized that I could use the Spooks formula as a basis for American Auror adventures.

The Spy Intrigue Formula, beta

It didn't quite work out that way because Spooks actually relies an awful lot (especially after series 3) on stories that exploit character flaws. Fortunately, there was an adventure formula there for the actual spying they did, even if it wasn't always the main focus.

Each Spooks intrigue plot starts with the team uncovering something that's about to happen. They then backtrack and discover something the villains have done in the recent past. And they end up with learning why the villains did what they did and then discovering the key to stop them. It's a pretty flimsy framework, but it's one that I think will work well with adventures that are an even mix of action and investigation.

I also realized that all three points of the framework can be one of a number of spy cliches, and the same cliches can float between the three points. You could even have an adventure that's the same cliche three times.

So what I did was make a list of spy cliches -

1 Murder / assassination
2 Conspiracy
3 Coverup
4 Act of Terrorism
5 Stolen document
6 Defector
7 Courier
8 Countdown
9 Blackmail
10 Rogue agent
11 Bad history returns
12 Blown cover
13 WMD
14 Anonymous messaging
15 Religious war
16 Double cross
17 Secret location
18 Betrayal
19 Innocents in harm's way
20 Missing Person
21 Political change
22 Money
23 Mystery box
24 Exotic location
25 Drugs
26 Secret organization
27 Hostage situation
28 Agent in harm's way
29 Power grab / coup
30 Treaty / trade agreement

Then I made up a three sentence structure to represent the formula -

1. The team discovers [].
2. The villains have used [].
3. The villains' actions are because of [].

Now, with three d30 rolls, I get a combination of the above cliches that can be placed into the three sentence structure, and I get a pretty decent skeleton for an adventure that pretty closely mimics a Spooks episode.

Here are a few examples, both the skeletons and how I've fleshed them out.

Skeleton: The team discovers a power grab. The villains have used betrayal. The villains' actions are because of murder / assassination.
Adventure: The team learns that the President will be meeting with a group of business leaders at a private resort, and one of them has acquired a spell that will kill the President in a horrible, agonizing way. The team does a background check and finds that everyone in attendance has been a friend and/or close supporter of the President in the past, so why kill him? Well, as it turns out, the President, as a young prosecuting attorney, sent someone's brother to the chair and it's taken them this long to get close enough to take revenge.

Skeleton: The team discovers a double cross. The villains have used money. The villains' actions are because of secret location.
Adventure: On a mission, the team are lead into an ambush. The contact who lead them there was paid off by an anonymous contact. Tracking down that contact uncovers a UFO conspiracy group that want the government to reveal a mythologized secret base.

Skeleton: The team discovers mystery box. The villains have used drugs. The villains' actions are because of a stolen document.
Adventure: A cargo container is stolen by armed gunmen at a London warehouse and disappears. The team get involved because MI5 identifies one of the gunmen as a US citizen wanted on drugs charges. The team soon learn that a Miami drug cartel was paid to make the theft and use their shipping contacts to smuggle the container into the US. The CIA gets involved and almost blows the investigation. The team finally learn that the cargo container is carrying a hard drive with sensitive documents on it that the CIA was trying to move covertly.

Skeleton: The team discovers a rogue agent. The villains have used a rogue agent. The villains' actions are because of a rogue agent.
Adventure: On an operation, an NSA contact who was working with the team vanishes, taking something important with him. A short while later, a former MRA agent, now on the agency's wanted list for going rogue, reappears. It seems the two agents are arranging a meeting. The team arrive just in time to see the meeting turn into a shoot-out and both agents vanish again. Both agents make contact and claim to be working deep undercover and claim the other is a mole. The team must pick apart the stories to learn the truth before things get out of hand.

Admittedly, these are all weak. What they're missing to make them interesting for the players is the flavor the game will acquire after the campaign runs for a while. Overall, however, I'm pretty happy with how the structure system has shaped up so far.

I'm going to live with it for a while and see what updates I can make to it to make it work even better for me.

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