How to build intrigue

All the credit for these suggestions go to Chris Perkins, senior producer of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and experienced Dungeon Master. He publishes a column in about his experience as DM, and it is usually worth a read.

In one of his columns this month he talked about Ulterior Motives. You can go read his words, but as many will be discouraged by the length of the text (you lazy readers 😉 ), I want to highlight some parts of it. They are basic ideas, but sometimes it is hard to realize how important they are when  you build a campaign or just a story. I loved his column, so I will try to add some examples and give you what most impressed me.

DM’s secrets

When a DM thinks a plot, or an interesting story for a campaign, we all love to add surprising twists and terrible secrets. We write our mischievous plans, well hidden from the characters, and see if any player can outwit us. We know we should build adventure and entertainment for the group, but there is an irresistible force which makes us enjoy the fun of secret threats and plots they will never uncover.

Secrets may be revealed in dramatic scene, or never, but they don’t build intrigue. The players are not expecting anything, or making guesses about NPCs because they probably don’t even know there is a secret to be revealed. The key question is…

What should be secret in order to build intrigue? Ulterior motives!

Intriguing character
It is obvious some NPCs have secrets…


These are just what other people see, or infere from the NPC actions. They are not usually kept secret for very long, because when we talk about intrigue, aparent motives are not the real motives.

Perkins recommends to put on the plot several NPCs who want the same, and give them different motives. For example, the jewels of Queen Ervigia have been stolen. The characters are to find them, and after some investigation it seems there are three suspects…

  • Mirthas, the wizard, has been looking for a strange kind of gem to try his own version of a ioun stone. No merchant in the city trades with those gems, but the jewels of Queen Ervigia have some.
  • Lord Brum has being recently rejected as Commander of the Royal Guard, what publicly embarrased him.
  • Dinnera, the merchant, has debts that no honest man can pay. She is in desperate need of money to pay the criminal organization known as The Hooded Wolves.

It will take some time to find and investigate these motives, and they will not lead to the solution, as the three of them have alibis for these motives. When the characters are looking for information, the DM should use a big success or an interesting approach to suggest there is something beyond… ulterior motives.

Ulterior Motives

These are the real motives of each character. These are secret, and the NPCs don’t have good alibis for them because they think nobody knows about them.

  • Mirthas, the wizard, wants to summon a demon to help him take over the kingdom. For the ritual he needs the gems in the jewels, but as he couldn’t get them he is working in a substitute. It will take longer than desired, but he will the get the ritual done one way or another.
  • Lord Brum feels rejected by the king, but he has many other things to worry about being an important noble of the kingdom. One of those other important things is to hide that he has lost all his wealth. Stealing the queen’s jewels is not hard for someone with access to the palace, and he would get the money he needs in the black market.
  • Dinnera, the merchant, is the secret leader of The Hooded Wolves. The rumours of her debts were spreaded by other merchants to get her out of the business. However, her criminal organization has been hired by some other kingdom to steal the jewels of the queen.

The Best Part of It

And now I must quote Chris Perkins…

Once players begin to realize there’s more to your NPCs than superficial motives, they begin to see mysteries and conspiracies and ulterior motives everywhere (sometimes where none exist), and in that exhilarating and terrifying moment, you see the intrigue begin to take on a life of its own, and you realize how readily it feeds on itself and grows, and how little effort it takes to keep it alive.

It sounds great! Have you tried it? Do you think it may work?


4 thoughts on “How to build intrigue”

  1. No, I have not. What I would really like to try is to give these apparent and ulterior motives to playing characters. It is like a primary objective and a secondary objective. The primary objective could be something related with the group adventure (partially or totally). Primary objective can be the same for all the PC, or not for all. Maybe the primary objective for most of the characters is the secondary for another one and is not an objective at all for a third character. The secondary (ulterior) motive is only personal. It does not need to confront with the rest of the group, but it can. Besides success, conditions of more or less experience points / booty would depend not only in the achievement of the objectives but in how they have been achieved.

    I guess my inexperience as DM blinds me from realizing that this can be a horrible mess around the table. However, with mature players and well defined characters, it could be worth trying.

    1. If you use Aspects, like we discussed in another post (, I think those work very well as motives. Hidden or secret ulterior motives seem like something for the NPCs, because you can play your character as you like: deceitful or totally open and sincere. But I see your point, you want deeper than usual characters 😉 .

      In general, most role playing games which use Aspects (or something similar) implement mechanisms to reward the adherence of the character to them. It is true that I stole them for D&D Next without the rewards 🙂 but I’m sure we can work something out. In many of those games the rewards are “points” you spend to bend the world at your will (player’s will), but in others they are XP based rewards.

    1. Thanks! Chris Perkins is a great DM, check his original article if you liked this one.

      And don’t forget to come back if you try this ideas in your campaign, I would like to hear how did it go 🙂 .

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