An intrigue campaign revolves around a web of relationships within a council (which can be a king’s court, or a senate, or a college of cardinals, or any other group of a relatively small number of very powerful people). This council has de facto (if not de jure) control over an organization much too powerful for the party to influence directly, the generic example being a king and his council having control over a kingdom that commands armies and resources much greater than the party could possibly contend with. The king technically has final say over everything, but he doesn’t want to upset his powerful dukes or alienate his vital ministers, or he might find himself the target of a coup or even just commanding a lame duck court that performs all tasks ineptly because they despise the person they work for and cannot be fired. As such, even though the king has de jure power to do anything he wants, he is de facto more like the head of an aristocratic legislature than an undisputed monarch. He probably has veto and tie-breaking authority, but he isn’t all-powerful.
In order to control the kingdom (whether there are specific policies they want implemented or they just want to force the king to abdicate the throne to them or what) the party must control the council, and to do that, they must master both the favor economy and the relationships the councillors have to one another and their courtiers.
The Favor Economy
The favor economy is a concept of medieval aristocracy that tends to crop up quite a bit in all societies where the most important status symbols cannot be purchased for any amount of money (in medieval aristocracy, this status symbol is land, which was almost never for sale precisely because it was considered so much more valuable than anything else by the aristocrats who controlled it). The idea is that if you do someone a favor, then they owe you a favor in return, and it’s exactly as vague and open to interpretation as it sounds. Helping someone win a battle against invaders might be repaid by their vouching for your honesty when you’re accused of being responsible for an assassination. Helping someone pay a debt to a guild of banker/knights might be repaid by their voting in the king’s council to launch a pre-emptive strike on the Underdark. There is no exchange rate, there is no act that’s worth two favors, and if two people disagree over whether a favor has been repaid, they either take it to their lord (in the case of people as powerful as councillors, this is probably their king) or else they take up arms and resolve the matter by force (this latter one is very rare, since the cost of war usually drastically outweighs the benefit of whatever favor the aggrieved party feels they are owed). Much of an intrigue campaign will come down to the party putting councillors in their debt in order to demand political favors as repayment.
It’s very rare for someone to declare a blood feud because another noble refused to pay them back for a specific favor. For example, if Duke Albert saves Duke Barry from invading orcs, and then later Duke Albert asks Duke Barry to repay the favor by voting Albert as ruler over the conquered lands of Orctopia after the retaliatory invasion, Duke Barry is under no obligation to say yes to that specific favor. He can turn Duke Albert down and simply remain in Duke Albert’s debt. Duke Albert might not like it, but the rest of the council would likely be unsympathetic to the suggestion that Duke Barry has done something wrong and that Duke Albert therefore has the right to exact vengeance. If Duke Albert tried to exact vengeance anyway, the council would probably side with Duke Barry. So Duke Barry can avoid repaying Duke Albert pretty much indefinitely, but the thing is, if Duke Barry ever needs a favor from Duke Albert, he has no credit. He is already indebted to Duke Albert, and it is practically unheard of to do a favor for someone who already owes you a favor. This is the main check on exploiting the favor system by asking for favors and never repaying them.
A related check is that if Duke Barry indebts himself to several different councillors and refuses to repay any of them, they might all collectively decide to take their debt out of his hide (and probably his lands) because he’s jeopardizing the health of the favor economy. If nobles can’t count on one another to repay favors, then the fabric of aristocratic society will dissolve, and the premise of an intrigue campaign is that the council runs on the favor economy. If favors ever become worthless, it will be exactly as disastrous as if paper money became worthless to a modern economy, and as such councillors and courtiers take threats to the favor economy very seriously. Anyone trying to game the system will likely find themselves enemies with everyone who relies on it.
The Wheel of Intrigue
The second important pillar of an intrigue campaign is the web of relationships between councillors and courtiers. A councillor is someone with direct influence over the organization the players are trying to control. How the council is structured may vary. Some decisions may require a vote, others may be under the sole purview of a specific councillor (i.e. Duke Albert might have sole discretion as to what to do in his own lands, the Minister of Infrastructure might be the only person you need to convince in order to have new roads built, the Grand Marshal might be able to fortify the west against an invasion of orcs without needing the approval of anyone else). Each councillor, however, has friends and enemies. Maybe Duke Albert hates you and won’t accept any favors from you, but he owes a favor to Duchess Cathy. If you do a favor for Duchess Cathy, you can ask her to cash in her favor with Duke Albert on your behalf. Duke Albert doesn’t need to know that you were the one who asked Duchess Cathy to ask him to vote to repeal the late King Reginald’s ban on marijuana, thus breaking the deadlock in the council and allowing the current King Robert to repeal the law without risking a coup from his vassals.
There is an incredible amount of variety in potential council setups and history is rife with weird forms of government that might serve as inspiration, but the easiest place to start is with a council of five, and not just because that’s what Crusader Kings 2 does (though the value of that is not to be underestimated – a decent chunk of D&D players also play CK2 and that familiarity means they’ll be that much less likely to spend twenty minutes sitting around wondering what to do next). Five councillors means a circle like the Magic: the Gathering color wheel, but instead it is a wheel of intrigue where each councillor has two friends and two enemies. This means that the council is small enough for the players to get to know all of them as characters and they aren’t split into two deadlocked factions with only a small number of swing votes actually mattering. Each councillor has a pet issue that they are dedicated to, and usually won’t be swayed from their position on that issue even if it would allow them to repay a favor, and then they support two other policies while opposing another two, which corresponds to their two friends (whose pet issues they support) and enemies (whose pet issues they oppose), but they’ll much more readily change their vote on these issues in order to repay a favor.
Add to this the king. Any given issue has three councillors in support and two opposed. If the king votes in favor of the issue, it now has overwhelming 4-2 support. If the king votes against, the issue is tied at 3-3, but the king’s vote breaks the tie. As such, he can do whatever he wants and not be accused by his vassals of tyranny, but only so long as this delicate balance is maintained. In this setup either the king is an antagonist and the players must use favors and blackmail to undermine his control of the court, or else the players (with or without the support of the king) are in favor of a sixth issue, which most or all of the council opposes independent of the rest of the wheel, however by manipulating the wheel of intrigue to make friends and indebt or coerce enemies, players can get the support they need to push it through.
A minor variation on this setup is to add two more councillors and have them share the same position on the wheel of intrigue as the intended antagonist, someone who plans to ban fun or make neckbeards mandatory or whatever. This means the issue the players oppose has three die-hard supporters and two lukewarm supporters. If one of the die-hards is the king, the party will need to peel both the lukewarm supporters off in order to have enough votes to circumvent the king’s tie-breaking power. The king can always break with tradition and declare in favor of the antagonists anyway (he is the king, after all), but then the players can start gathering up favors from the other councillors for a coup. They might not have been willing to consider a rebellion before, but with the king completely disregarding his council’s advice, they might be more open to it (which is, in turn, why kings do not normally disregard their council’s advice).
Another variation is to add one or two councillors who are wild cards. They ordinarily abstain from votes, but if they owe the party a favor, they’ll repay that favor by voting their way on the council.
All of this certainly makes the campaign very political, but to make it intrigue we also need secrecy and conspiracy. What this means is that the party should not be alone in trying to obtain favors on the council. Indeed, straightforward political alliance-building should be doomed to failure. As an example, assume that the five council positions are represented by the five colors from Magic: the Gathering (I’d use the five factions from the 5e Adventurer’s League, but then I’d have to make my own wheel) with two wildcard councillors plus the king. If the players want the kingdom to set up some hospitals, it should be a simple matter of convincing the king. This is a shiny mana policy, so Lord Shiny votes yes along with Lord Trees and Lord Droplet, his friends. Lord Campfire and Lord Spooky will vote against, and the wildcard councillors will abstain. If the players have convinced the king to vote for Lord Shiny, they win!
So the players do some quest for the king and convince him to vote their way, and then the day of the vote comes and not only do both wildcard councillors vote against the hospitals, Lord Trees votes against, too. The king is in favor, but it’s still 5-3 against, which means he’d have to risk an uprising by overriding the council to pass the hospitals law, and he’s not going to do that. While the party was busy saving the princess from a dragon to get a favor from the king, Lord Spooky called in some favors from the wildcard councillors and promised Lord Trees he’d help him pass a tree mana policy through if Lord Trees helped Lord Spooky kill the hospitals decree. Lord Spooky normally votes against tree mana policies, so this is a pretty big favor, and Lord Trees agrees. Now Lord Shiny’s hospital plan has been killed, and not only that, no one will tell the party why. The wildcard councillors don’t want to own up to having been bribed by Lord Spooky and Lord Trees definitely doesn’t want Lord Shiny to know that he was promised a favor by Lord Spooky, because then Lord Shiny might vote down the upcoming tree mana policy out of spite, cancelling out the benefit from Lord Spooky’s vote. The party will ask each of these councillors what the Hell they’re doing, and all three of them will make some excuse, and if the party doesn’t try to find some answers on their own, now is a great time to nudge them into snooping around for clues.
The players might do any number of things from here, and the example has served its purpose without exploring all of them, however one thing the players cannot do is get a favor from Lord Trees and call it in to ask him to renege on his favor to Lord Spooky. Lord Trees doesn’t own the debt, Lord Spooky does, and if the players want that debt cancelled, they need to put Lord Spooky in their debt, not Lord Trees, even though their ultimate goal is to get Lord Trees to vote yes on the shiny mana decree. Lord Trees has no right to just call off his debt to Lord Spooky, but Lord Spooky is entirely within his rights to forgive Lord Trees’ debt to him, and if it means getting out of debt with the party, he’ll do it. He probably won’t allow the party to do him a favor, but if it’s something out of his control, like if the party save his life in battle, then his options are either to accept that he is in fact indebted to them or else undermine the favor economy, which isn’t going to go any better for him than it would for the players.
Once again, exactly what counts as a favor is subject to interpretation, and Lord Spooky is going to try his hardest to claim he is not in his enemies’ debt, so if the party goes and clears a dungeon in Lord Spooky’s land, he might argue that trespassing on his territory and undermining the peasants’ faith in Spooky’s own ability to keep the peace isn’t any kind of favor. Saving Lord Spooky’s life in a battle that both of them were required by feudal obligation to participate in is something Lord Spooky will have a much harder time getting out of, but it’s also not an opportunity that comes up often.
Councillors and Courtiers
So far we’ve talked exclusively about councillors, people who have direct de facto influence on council decisions. Courtiers are people who have no direct influence on the council votes, but who are apart of the social circle of the council, which means they have some amount of influence over the councillors. This can get several steps removed. Maybe Sir Wallace doesn’t know any councillors personally, but he’s great friends with Sir Jacob, who is the personal bodyguard of Lord Campfire, so if you know Sir Wallace, he can introduce you to Sir Jacob, and then you can persuade Sir Jacob to your point of view regarding Lord Spooky’s trustworthiness (or lack thereof), and then maybe Sir Jacob can convince Lord Campfire to break off his alliance with Lord Spooky. Some councillors may be expected to represent the interests of a council of their own, a duke at risk of revolution from his counts for example, which makes them like a sub-council. If you convince four out of the six members of Lord Droplet’s council to complain about a spooky mana policy, Lord Droplet may feel compelled to vote against the policy even though he’s normally friends with Lord Spooky, for fear that an uprising might put his half-brother on the ducal throne instead.
On the other hand, you could also just talk to Lord Droplet’s wife and oldest daughter and convince them to convince him to cut ties with Lord Spooky. Lord Droplet might not listen to you, but he’ll listen to his family, and his family will listen to you. Maybe they won’t even listen to your arguments, but they will allow you to do them a favor and promise that Lord Droplet’s vote will be altered in return.
Each councillor should have a small network of about 3-7 courtiers attached to them. Then, to make things more complex, give the courtiers relationships with one another, and make those relationships regardless of the political schisms between the councillors. Unless the political situation has reached Capulet vs Montague levels of enmity where there’s intermittent violence between different political factions (and that’s usually not good for an intrigue game, although as with all rules, there are exceptions to this), it’s typical for Lord Shiny’s heir to be friends with Lord Spooky’s bodyguard, even though Shiny and Spooky are bitter enemies.
All of these tricks can be used by the opposition, as well. Lord Spooky might be friends with Lord Trees’ favorite bird watching companion, and using this relationship to convince the bird watcher to convince Lord Trees to act out of character. Severing that relationship might be key to preventing Lord Spooky from mucking with Lord Shiny’s coalition.
Courtiers put more pieces on the board for players to play with, and can allow for councillors who are intransigent by normal means to be put into play through complicated chains of persuasion.