Wednesday, November 27, 2013

RPGBA November Blog Carnival - Treasonous Acts and Plotting

This is my entry for the RPGBA November Blog Carnival, with the topic of treasonous acts and plotting. I'm going to break down the elements that I think make a plot like this work, with a slight slant toward Fate Core (but really it's all usable regardless of system).

Harud grabbed the page by the collar, dragging him into a small alcove. "What are you doing here?" he hissed, the words echoing in the cavernous throne room. A servant glanced up and seeing Harud quickly returning to her duties.

"I..I was told to come here to warn you..." The young man turned ashen, surprised by the elder chancellor's strength.

"Warn me? About what?"

"The Queen's Guard...they..."

The massive doors to the hall opened, each pushed by one of the purple clad Queen's Guard. The Captain of the Guard strode past them purposefully, sword in hand, followed by a dozen Guards in two single-file lines.

"Harud, you traitorous snake!" She called out. "I will see your head on the end of a pike for this!"

Harud let go of the page's shirt, who stumbled back into the alcove. He stood tall in the face of the approaching warrior. "No, it is you who are the traitor, Laydel. I have served this court since before you were born, and served it well." The chancellor made a slight motion and archers emerged from the shadowed galleries above the hall, training bodkin-tipped arrows on each of the members of the Queen's Guard. "Not to worry, I had no intention of telling the Queen of your plot to put a pretender on the throne. I have other plans for you..." 

Anatomy Of A Plot
Whether it's a conspiracy to depose the King, a race to prevent a power-hungry dictator from staging a coup, or staging a mutiny aboard a ship, there are a number of simple elements that go into pretty much every one. Mixing and matching these can lead to a huge variety in possible situations for characters to get themselves in.

In Or Out?
The first thing that needs to be decided is if the player characters are a part of the plot or not. The assumption is that if they are involved then they are working toward seeing the plot come to fruition, and if they aren't then they are working against it.  They don't necessarily need to be aware that they are involved, either - meaning that manipulation or ignorance could enable them to work for or against it.

The Nature of The Treason
The next thing to do is determine what exactly the treason or plot is. By definition, treason is internal, even if the forces behind it are external. They are people that are within the government or organization, often with a position of some authority (historically, treasonous plots by people who don't have a lot of power don't evnd well for the plotters). Some common goals for this sort of treason are:
  • Deposing a leader or government. This is the obvious one. The current leader, administration, whatever is in someone's way. They could be good, bad or just ineffective - but they need to be removed, killed, imprisoned, etc. Either way, taking them down needs to be carefully planned and kept secret - but once it happens, the whole world will know (even if the details remain hidden).
  • Secretly taking control. Like the type of treason above, this one can be for good or bad reasons. Maybe the King is in poor health, and different factions are jockeying to control the realm. Maybe the goal is to effectively cut off the parliament from any ability to implement their decisions - or just muck things up so badly that nothing can get done. Regardless, the end result shouldn't appear to be much different than the current status quo.
  • Only change one thing (or very few). Perhaps the treason isn't all that wide-reaching. Maybe it's specifically to cause or keep a certain event from happening. The goal could be kidnapping or assassinating a particular individual, or to deliver (or stop the delivery of) specific information. Regardless, the plot isn't to enact a sweeping change. These events might be part of the build up for a much larger plot.
  • Personal reasons. Maybe the plot is hatched out of a personal vendetta, with the only purpose to ruin the target. Conversely, the plotters might be committing treason to cover up the malfeasance of an otherwise popular or well-liked leader.
The People Behind The Plot
The next thing to do is decide who is behind and/or against the plot - not necessarily the actual characters (yet) but what roles they fulfill. If it is primarily the PCs, it's still a good idea to figure out what some of the possible roles they might play in the overall scheme. Sifting through TVTropes yields quite a number of archetypes, but these are good general roles to start with.
  • The Mastermind: Any plot is going to have someone behind it, or at most a very small group of people. Whether or not the mastermind is
  • The Advisor: Many times an advisor, chancellor, councilor, etc. will be somehow involved in the plot. They are often in trusted positions within the upper levels of the government, and have the means and connections to get things done on their own. This doesn't just go for an advisor that is plotting treachery - an advisor can just as easily be aware of the plot and is trying to stop it, or is trying to avoid exposure to the traitors. It's not unusual for the advisor to be the mastermind.
  • The Mole or Double Agent: This character isn't necessary, but when there is a renegade or splinter group that is either trying to stop the plot or bring it to fruition then there's a chance of a traitor among the traitors or the patriots. If the character is a mole, they will only work on funneling information or planting it - a double agent might actually take action to derail things.
  • The Collaborators: While there is likely going to be only a small circle of people who are aware of the entire plot, depending on its scope there may more people involved in the periphery. A plot to assassinate or kidnap someone might not require too many more (if any at all), but a larger, complex coup might need dozens, scores, or even hundreds. A large number of them may know that they are part of some larger plan, but may not have any inkling as to exactly what that plan is.
  • The Sympathizers: These are typically only brought about if the plot comes to pass, but they are the ones who are happy that things have changed. However, since they may be sympathetic with one side or the other they can act as red herrings for the people who actively trying to move the plot forward or stop it. One twist is that a character seems like a sympathizer, but in reality when they are brought into the fold they are nothing of the sort.
  • The Starscream. This name was so good I had to lift straight from TVTropes. Essentially, they are an ambitious underling who has their own plans. They are likely to try to betray the leadership of the plot at the first opportunity, so they can grab the reigns themselves.
How Does The Plot Go Down?
I'm not going to try to outline a specific approach to actually structuring the treasonous plot, because there are a lot of possibilities. In general, though, the plot should have a Goal, Current Problem and a Price For Failure. All three of them are aspects, and can be summed up using a Mad Libs-style approach:

"We are committing treason because we want to __________________________, but first we must __________________________. If we fail, __________________________ will happen."
Once you've established these aspects, and have a measure of the characters involved and their motivations, the rest will likely fall into place pretty easily. One thing that can't be overlooked is the aftermath, or at least what various actors perceive of it. It's a fairly common trope in treasonous plots for co-conspirators or others who know too much to be disposed of by the people running the show. This is especially true of plots where the truth behind it isn't supposed to be known or can't get out. On top of that, there's always the belief that if someone was willing to betray their countrymen, king, loyalties, etc. that they are likely to do it again. Even in cases where the conspirators are relatively in the right, they may come to the conclusion that one of their own needs to be a sacrificial lamb in order to further cement their position (which is seen in Dishonoured). This kind of plot would probably be pretty boring without at least one reversal by a character. The "disposal" doesn't necessarily have to be killing people off either - discrediting them, imprisonment, exile, there are a lot of opportunities to be had.

Regardless, a treasonous plot is going to have repercussions within the campaign or the setting. I don't think they could work very well as a "crisis of the week" kind of thing (although patterning it after something like Scandal where there are constant crises of the week might work). The plot arc can be a welcome distraction (and possible twist) for a group that is used to more physical dangers.