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The Fish Tank as an Intrigue

Today’s guest article by Gnome Stew reader Rickard Elimää is a follow-up to his previous piece on the Stew, The Fish Tank as a Mystery [1]. Thanks, Rickard!

Imagine the characters being fishes. Throw them into a fish tank filled with piranhas, lean back and watch what happens when they start swimming around. This article will show you how to create an open-ended intrigue in 20-40 minutes by following five steps. It will also talk about some of the theory behind it and finally how you should use this model during the session.

1. Create Events

Write between one and three events on a piece of paper. The events usually have something to do with the setting. Each event should be at most a short comment!

2. Create Factions

Continue filling out the paper with people, groups, events, and items. Never places! Places are instead areas locations where interaction takes place. Factions can be things you find cool; factions from roleplaying books; factions that the players have made up; elements from movies or books. Between 7-9 factions is enough for a scenario that spans over 1-3 sessions.

3. Create Relations

Draw lines between the factions at random to create relations between them. Describe each line. It’s during this step that the intrigue takes it’s form. Up until this point, all you had were some scribbles on the paper.

4. Think of a Storyline

Possible outcomes, not set in stone. Don’t write them down! Why is the byakhee hunting the watchmaker and what happens if the monster disappears? What happens if the maffia get hold of the relic and how will the cult react to it?

5. Write Key Scenes

These scenes are major situations where you reveal one or more relations to the players. The relations are the scenario, and you should always reveal at least one for each scene.

The Relations Are the Scenario

You can find three types of relations in a fish tank.

Passive relations provide color, and they usually describe things that happened in the past. Co-workers is an example of a passive relation. Two people in the same mob gang have a passive relation to each other. If one thing happens to the first, it’s not certain that it will spawn a reaction from the other.

Reactive relations, on the other hand, are typical when two factions in the scenario care about each other. The two mobsters could be sisters, for example. If something happens to one sister, the other one will certainly react to it.

Active relations are drives, or agendas, that the person or faction follows. The sisters wants the relic. This kind of relation is what the intrigue consists of, and it can come in four forms. A faction with a drive wants to . . .
. . . take over another faction.
. . . create another faction.
. . . change another faction.
. . . destroy another faction.

Why do the sisters want the relic? A passive relation from the sisters to another faction could tell you why. Perhaps the Byakhee made their brother insane? Draw a relation between the sisters and the Byakhee and write what the creature has done on the line.

Playing the Intrigue

It’s important that the players have an agenda of their own, so that they will take initiative in moving through the scenario. This has always occurred in roleplaying games, often in the form of the mysterious man who sits in the tavern just to give the players a quest.

The agenda should have something to do with a faction on the map, so that when the players move to fulfill their goal, they will collide with others who have an active relation with that faction. While the players are taking care of that new faction, even more factions will start to collide with the players’ plans, and so is a chain of consequences born.

Let’s say the watchmaker is an old uncle to one of the characters, who has mysteriously disappeared. The leads will take them to the cult where they will get their hands on the relic. That will in that turn draw the attention of the maffia sisters and, somewhere along the line, the byakhee will show up.

As you can tell, the active relations will be revealed to the players in the form of countermeasures from other factions while they are trying to follow their own drives. Whatever the players do, they will step on someone’s toes, but at least they will learn more and more about the intrigue. In other words: the intrigue will mostly rely on reactive and active relations.

When the players interact with one faction, look at the relationship map in front of you. Think of a proper response from one of the related factions and throw in the consequence in the next scene. That’s when the piranhas will get them.

If you want to read more about the fish tank, be sure to check out my old article The Fish Tank as a Mystery [1]. That article will give more depth to each step, and it also explains why places can never be a good faction.

Afterword: I used CMapTools to create the relationship map, but I normally use pen and paper. I would like to thank Tod Foley for helping me out improving this article.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "The Fish Tank as an Intrigue"

#1 Comment By Rickard Elimää On September 11, 2014 @ 5:08 am

Hey! It’s me who wrote the article. I would like to add the following:

Fish Tanks in TV and Film
Examples of fish tanks from TV are Heroes and most HBO-series like True Blood, Deadwood, Rome, and Game of Thrones. A classic example in film is Akira Kurosawas’s Yojimbo, and the remakes A Fistful of Dollars, and Last Man Standing.

Fish Tanks in Roleplaying Games
You can find several roleplaying games that are already built around fish tanks. In Unknown Armies, you first create a MacGuffin and then different factions that have active relations to it. You can also find the Dynamic Pickup Game in The Spirit of the Century, where you first create a hook (item or person) and then a lot of factions that want that hook.

Some might already used this method, and calls it a sandbox. I myself draw a line between those two by saying that sandboxes are about places, much like an amusement park where the players can take any ride in any order, where fish tanks instead are about the relations between factions.

It’s of course possible to combine these two.

#2 Comment By gmgenie On September 11, 2014 @ 9:03 am

Thanks Rickard!

I really appreciate two things here:

1) the idea of drawing factions, then relations, as separate steps. That idea looks powerful enough to create a story out of any handful of random elements. When I’m writing an adventure, I tend to think up factions, locations, scenes, and relationships all at the same – which certainly makes my story less flexible.

2) Thanks for pointing out that you MUST give away one relationship per scene. That’s a good rule of thumb for GMs (like me) who tend to get so attached to their “secrets” that they’re always afraid of giving away too much too quickly.

#3 Comment By Rickard Elimää On September 16, 2014 @ 12:19 am

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think the writer in Dogs in Vineyard said that he had a hard time doing the same thing, and instead falling back on on tracks and keeping the clues from the players. I had to break myself from doing that as well, and that mantra to always reveal at least one relation is surely helping out.

It’s interesting to instead flood the players with information and see how they have to sort out all the information. Sometimes I even change my scenario when they come up with a better idea of how it all hangs together. 🙂

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 18, 2014 @ 9:36 am

If the players have a better idea, use it! Even if they never know that they thought of it (although I do tell them after the fact), they’ll love the fact that they saw it coming.

#5 Comment By PolakoVoador On September 11, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

This seems perfect for the Mass Effect game I’m planning, lots of factions to work with there.

I was already thinking what each faction would want, how they might react to some events, etc. This method is a very elegant way of doing this, thanks!

#6 Comment By Rickard Elimää On September 16, 2014 @ 12:25 am

I never mentioned it, but you could also try to form triangles to create more tension in your relationship maps. Two of those relations should be (re)active relations.

× Both the mafia and the watchmaker wants the relic. The mob kidnapped the watchmaker.
× The watchmaker wants to stop the star from giving birth while the Byakhee wants to make it happen. The Byakhee haunts the watchmaker.

You can spot a few more triangles in the map. This is the fruit of analysis and discussions in the Swedish roleplaying game community.

#7 Comment By John Fredericks On September 13, 2014 @ 5:35 am

Great article. I am wrapping up a storyline this Wednesday, then one of our players is DMing for a few weeks. So I will definitely be using your “word web” idea to help me think about where we are going next.

In education, they call it a “Concept Map,” especially since you put the links on the lines. This article was a big help to me.

#8 Comment By Rickard Elimää On September 16, 2014 @ 12:30 am

Thanks. I based this off [2] for databases. I will check out Concept Maps.

Another thing that I usually do, that I got from ER diagram, is to add attributes to the factions to describe them. The watchmaker could for example have “one-eyed”, “good vigor”, “meticulous” as attributes.

I write those attributes around the circles on the map.