View Full Version : DM Help Story pacing and tips for espionage campaigns

2017-06-08, 12:02 PM
I'm working on the story for a campaign that deals heavily with horror themes but ideally should play more like a spy thriller. The issue I'm having is I know nothing about writing this kind of story.

I'm having issues figuring out pacing. I have a middle and end but can't seem to figure out how to kickstart it. From DM's/Players who have recently played a campaign like this, what did you enjoy (players), find helpful (DM) and what tips do you have (both).

Lvl 2 Expert
2017-06-08, 02:18 PM
So... what is the middle?

James Bond came from somewhere else than the cast of Casablanca, or any version of Sherlock Holmes, or Jason Bourne, or any Lovecraftian protagonist.

It would be nice to have just a little more info.

2017-06-08, 03:18 PM
So... what is the middle?

James Bond came from somewhere else than the cast of Casablanca, or any version of Sherlock Holmes, or Jason Bourne, or any Lovecraftian protagonist.

It would be nice to have just a little more info.

I can't say anything about the characters, cause we have no players yet.

The broad strokes involve a cult slowly taking control of a city's government, police force, newspapers, etc. The cult leader is pulling power from beyond some form of rift to grant himself and his followers power. He's kind of fumbling with forces beyond his power and the PC may end up reaping the benefits.

To the general public, the cult has a squeaky clean reputation. They offer drug councseling and social outreach programs. There are, of course, alterior motives.

What I'm having trouble with is getting the ball rolling with the PC's vs the cult. I need to instigate in a fashion that I'd like to be natural. I don't want it to feel forced.

There are also issues with designing questions around infiltration and gathering information piece by piece that Im having trouble measuring out. How much evidence is enough, too much, etc.

Lvl 2 Expert
2017-06-09, 11:19 AM
Okay in that case...

I think it might be good to start somewhere other than at the cult itself, some marginally related business or society. Say at an orphanage where the PC's were hired to investigate the large number of runaways. Some kind of minor sounding quest that's only tolerable because they're at the beginning of a campaign, they hope to quickly solve it and move on to something bigger. Let them have that illusion. They're private investigators hired because the cops say they don't have time for orphans running away. Orphans always run away.

From there on have multiple plot hooks that get them a step deeper. Either they notice that the police is being very unhelpful. Not just in their case, but in several of them. A store nearby was robbed, they pretty much ignore it. They threatened the owner to stop bringing it up or else. Or they could find out from the kids still staying at the orphanage, after earning their trust, that the kids are actually just running away. They're scared, because of weird noises in the attic at night, and the owner doesn't want to hear about it. The attic, when they investigate, is clean, a little too clean. Looks like someone mopped and dusted here no later than last week. But their is one weird amulet laying around. After some fidgeting it clicks open and reveals the picture of an old house. Turns out there are complaints of noise in the area, some kind of underground parties, financed by a mysterious shady benefactor. Or maybe they try to track one of the children down. After speaking with several people they find out the kid got hungry and homesick and was going to return to the orphanage, but somehow never made it. An alley nearby has signs of a struggle and there are cart tracks toward a farm outside town where... Or maybe they think of using a sniffer dog, and no matter what they make it smell for it goes completely off trail at some point and runs toward a grate or something to bark at it. Try to have as little dead ends as possible (you're allowed to merge lines of investigation or loop them back onto other lines) and when you do make sure your players get it's a dead end. You don't want them wasting two sessions questioning people about that completely uninteresting piece of charcoal they found in the fireplace. Preferably give them some info they could use later as well.

If you're really good you can plant just one thing wrong with the picture and make them stumble upon that in a natural fashion. But I'm not sure I even know somebody who's that good. In general it's good advice to have at least three ways to further the plot, with at least three good hints pointing in the direction of each way. They're not going to find them all, and they're not going to jump to the conclusions you figure are obvious. They should still have some idea for where to go next even if they find only one hint. Even if they're going to the wrong place, that's better than them going nowhere at all. And if you do that well the setting will really start feeling alive.

Now here's the hard part: all of this has to make sense in hindsight. This means you should have an idea of what this cult is doing, what kind of operations it's running, first. Dues the cult sacrifice people? Okay, a disappearing people plot could work. The above mentioned orphans, hookers, beggars and vagabonds, the kind of people that aren't reported. (Depending on the setting, I'm imagining this as a mildly historical adventure for some reason.) Do the cults rituals have some sort of visual or audible effects, something that would stand out as supernatural? Like maybe the ritual leaves behind a perfectly round burn mark the size of the circle the cult members were standing in, with their footprints cut out of it? They can find that. What is their goal in taking over the police and newspapers? Making money? Getting the authorities to ignore something? You could take them on nice detour through crime and corruption before they ever figure out something mystical is going on. And just as they're about to arrest the head of police he goes insane and is taken up in an asylum, run by the cult of course.

If all else fails, have a backup plan. Maybe the cult takes the fight to them, because they're getting too close. They wake up in the middle of the night because their house is on fire. It's sloppy work, whoever did it left their stuff behind, or maybe even died in the attempt, electrocuted himself trying to climb the roof with a can of gasoline and an open flame too close to the power line or something. Whatever they find leads them back to a person hiring homeless folks for all sorts of dirty jobs. He pays them in some weird currency, incense, copper and strange black gemstones. He's also not too hard to track down, just post someone in the alley for when he comes back. Either pick him up for questioning, or pretend to be homeless and hear him out. Have a way to shove leads in their face. That way you have a little more room to try and not make things too obvious.

You don't have to have the whole sprawling web of clues ready, that would be way to much work, but have an idea of where your clues could lead and where they could go from there.

I hope that helps a bit.

EDIT: Oh boy, and I haven't even gotten to any part where they would really need to go undercover to sip martinis. This is why there are so many hack and slash campaigns and so few good mysteries. Every scene is plot.

2017-06-12, 10:44 AM
It's funny, because much of what you just mentioned is bits and pieces of what I have had in mind for the cult from the beginning. They run a perfectly legitimate business on the surface and it helps the community, so they have the support of the local law enforcement. They won a lawsuit against a local newspaper that they now own, allowing them to slander or create cover ups.

I was thinking of starting with a missing persons, but I'm not sure how to build momentum from it thereafter. The easiest way I could think of was to attack the PC's connections: friends, family, contacts, etc. The issue is I've played with many players in the past who kept themselves very disconnected from their characters, which makes appeals to emotion and morals like that difficult. For example, they could get a hint that something isn't quite right because of a family member who joins the cult and fails to escape afterwards, but that require the players to be interested int he fate of that character.

I'm also struggling with whether or not I should have the cultists be easily recognizable (they all wear the same lapel pins, or some such) or if they should be innocuous and difficult to spot. If they are easy to spot but society at large doesn't mind them, it could lead to situations of dramatic irony, but it could also telegraph to much.

The setting is intended to be before cellphones and digital cameras, to make it harder for the PCs to necessarily prove the negative implications of the cult and its members. I'm hoping it will help to isolate them and build some tension/frustration. The issue I have is I still feel stuck between the beginning and the end.

Do you know of any pre-crafted horror or spy adventures I could look over and retool?