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Social Conflicts

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 166
The Pathfinder RPG is often played as a game of high adventure, where heroes brave wildernesses, monsters, dungeons, and other dangers to gain experience and treasure. Often cities and societies simply serve as backdrops—places to rest and go shopping, use workshops or laboratories, and maybe hunt a cruel monster or dangerous cult in the labyrinthine sewers below. However, with a slight change of perspective, Game Masters can introduce social conflicts into their adventures. These unique encounters can spice up your game by presenting players with different kinds of stakes, rewards, and consequences than those found in conflicts involving brute force.

For example, while selling plundered artifacts in a city, the PCs might discover a local tough is extorting tribute from dock-side businesses. After confronting the extortionist and driving him out of the neighborhood, they find he was working for a “businessman” who, aside from his legitimate trade, controls a network of criminals. These practices have made him rich, and given him enough capital to contribute a number of civic works to key areas of the city, which in turn has made him a leading candidate for alderman. While engaging in a campaign of whispers to foil the election, the PCs learn of a society of political reformers that wishes to pressure the mayor into dissolving the current council and holding new elections. While the society seems harmless at first, it’s actually a cover for a group of foreign spies paving the way for a major attack on the city. What are the PCs to do?

Social conflicts like those described above aren’t always devoid of combat—often they erupt into violence. But unlike ordinary combats, which frequently unfold in remote areas beyond the reach of the law, social conflicts take place in settlements where peace is enforced and wanton violence creates instability and threatens ordinary citizens. Social conflicts deal with the subtlety, charm, and ingenuity used to gain commodities, prestige, or power.

The following section offers advice on how to create and run social conflicts in your games, including suggestions on how player characters can become embroiled in such conflicts. You’ll also find a new event-based structure for adventure design, in which the PCs’ actions lead to consequences will either determine the next event in a social conflict or modify future events. The section closes out with advice on designing social conflict events, giving you all the tools necessary to run a social conflict adventure arc, or even an entire campaign.


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 166
Before designing a social conflict for your campaign, you should determine its pace. There are two main types of pacing that can help introduce social conflict into your game: episodic and serialized. Each has its own strengths and challenges outlined below.

Stakes and Contenders

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 167
Once the pacing of the adventure has been chosen, the next step is to determine the stakes and the contenders of the social conflict, or at least those at the opening of the conflict. The stakes are the core of a social conflict— the prize for which the contenders strive. Social conflicts are often struggles for control of economy, prestige, or political power. The contenders are those individuals or groups struggling to win or achieve the stakes.

Consider the extortion example. At least one group of wealthy adventurers is spreading newfound wealth in town, and local businesses are flush with cash. The local thieves’ guild takes notice, and decides to exact a toll in the way it knows best: extortion and larceny. Each side is fighting over its own economic interest. The stakes are economic in nature, and the contenders are the business owners and the extortionist.

In the example of the evil vizier, the stakes are political power. Because the duke holds a hereditary position, and must answer to barons, the vizier’s plan is to dissolve the power of the barons and mesmerize the duke into compliance. The vizier and her agents, the duke (whether he knows it or not), and the barons are all contenders for the stakes.

When the stakes are prestige, that can mean anything from helping an ally gain a political position (and the opportunity to contend for political power), winning a game at the local fair, or being granted the honor of becoming a favored musician at court.

You’ll notice that in the examples above, the PCs are not considered contenders for the stakes. In many social conflicts, the PCs are outside agents who side with one contender or another, typically based on ethical grounds. The PCs may have no control of the stakes by the end of a social conflict arc, but they have made sure that the stakes are in the right hands.

This doesn’t always have to be the case. You could run a campaign focused on politics, presenting a situation in which the PCs work for a merchant or noble family. In a higher-level campaign, the PCs might take over or build a small fortress on the borders of civilization, forcing them to negotiate disputes over logging and mining rights or get in the middle of a group of human landowners and a gnoll tribe, with each party seeking to defend its economic rights, titles, and lands. In most campaigns, the PCs serve as agents for their favored contenders, and often motivate or even control how that faction pursues its goals. As a serialized or even an episodic social conflict matures, the stakes and contenders can expand. Contenders themselves can even become the stakes.

Let’s return to the extortion example. The PCs run off the tough, who—being the head of one of the city’s thieves’ guilds—controls the criminals up and down the docks. He supplements other lucrative trades with so-called protectors—local hoodlums whom neighborhoods must pay for “protection,” supposedly from robbers. When one of his agents is chased away, the tough must find a way for his organization to reclaim its economic and political power, not only to save face with the other guilds, but also to keep other criminals out of the lucrative territory. The little extortion fiefdom becomes one of the stakes itself, and the PCs might fight to keep the racket out while the vexed crime lord ponders the economic feasibility of launching an all-out war on the PCs.

While social conflicts with serialized pacing are a good way to add intrigue to your game, they can quickly become a maze of stakes and contenders. In such cases, it’s helpful to record the various stakes and contenders to keep all the details straight. You won’t need to pick up every dangling thread in your weave of characters and varied agendas, but if you’re able to produce the perfect threat or call-back from multiple sessions ago, it’ll look like you had it planned all the time.


Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 168
Events are the stage for each step of a social conflict. An event is a lot like an encounter, but instead of detailing a location and its inhabitants, it describes a scene that either provides a method of discovering some aspect of a social conflict or frames a social conflict challenge. A social conflict often becomes more complex because of the PCs’ actions, which either cause or affect future events. There are two main types of social conflict events: discovery events, where the PCs have the opportunity to learn more about the nature and particulars of the social conflict, and challenge events, where the PCs must face some challenge related to the social conflict. Even though it’s generally helpful to make the distinction between discovery or challenge events, sometimes a social conflict event has attributes of both types. These mixed events are especially common in more complex social conflicts.

Because events can take on many forms, each of the following sections also present options for using discovery and challenge events with subsystems from this book and other sources.

Event Consequences

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 170
Whether you’re running a discovery or a challenge event, you should strive to make the consequences of both success and failure dependent on how the PCs solved the challenge. While some challenge events or straightforward discovery events may have direct and obvious consequences, more complex challenge can result in degrees of success or failure.

If the PCs overcome a challenge, they may experience either a success or a critical success. Winning the verbal duel that is the focus of a challenge event might be a success, but you can also add contingencies to define what constitutes a critical success. If the PC who engaged in the duel won, and her allies were able to seed all the biases in her favor, that might be a critical success. For instance, if a PC verbally duels one of the politicians fighting against halfling suffrage in a public debate, a critical success might mean the politician not only throws in with the halflings’ cause, but also changes public opinion of the debate in a crucial way, which could lower the DC of challenges made against those the PCs attempt to sway in the future.

On the other hand, failure might mean a temporary setback when it comes to attaining the stakes, whereas a critical failure would signify a dramatic loss that could be a detriment to the PCs well into the future. Taking the same example as above, if the PCs fail to sway the politician and the crowd in a verbal duel about halfling suffrage, that could simply mean heroes must sway another politician to champion the halfling cause. But if the politician soundly defeats the debating PC, that could mean she automatically sways another politician or two away from the PCs’ side, causing the PCs to take a penalty on checks involving other politicians,. This would be a critical failure for the PCs.

Finessing Event Consequences

While most of this section offers tools and suggestions to help GMs create their own social conflict events, the PCs might be able to take an event in a completely unexpected direction, unlike in combat encounters where the actions and consequences are more rigorously determined. Interesting uses of skills, feats, spells, and magic items, not to mention inspired roleplaying, can often create circumstances you never imagined. When this happens, it’s better to reward players for their ingenuity instead of discouraging it.

Freeform Events

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 170
While you could use the Social Combat Deck or many of the existing tools in the Pathfinder RPG to run social conflict events, eventually you’ll want to shape the PCs’ encounters around a story you have created or around some unanticipated consequence of the PCs’ past actions. When planning such encounters, you may want to create freeform events that give players a more active role in developing the ongoing story. Since social conflict events are less predictable than combat encounters, the following tools and guidelines can help you ad-lib when your players do something out of the ordinary.

Social Conflict Events and Advancement

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 172
When do social conflict events grant the PCs experience points and treasure? The short answer is whenever you choose. The typical experience point progression in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has a baseline assumption that heroic experience increases player characters’ personal power and wealth. A combat-driven campaign is balanced with the assumption that the PCs have a set amount of combat resources, and achieving goals slowly whittles down these resources, making success less certain as time goes on. In this baseline mode of advancement, few if any social conflicts grant experience points or wealth; while this style of play can whittle down some of the PCs’ resources, it doesn’t do so with the regularity of combat encounters. Thus, the rewards for success in social conflict events are either ad hoc or based on the few combat encounters that might be peppered into the story arc. But if you’re running a campaign in which social conflict is the main focus, it’s prudent to discard this baseline mode, and instead grant the PCs experience points and treasure on a more regular basis.

Some of the treasure the PCs gain during social conflict events could be looted from enemies or found during exploration of the social landscape. Most, however, should be gifts from allied contenders, the rewards for shifts in economic stakes, or the culminations of capital gained through bribes, tributes, or even taxes.

The following are some suggestions on how to reward PCs based on the scope and pacing of the social conflict.

Discovery Events: For the most part, discovery events rarely grant the PCs experience points or treasure. More often than not, they instead give the PCs opportunities to gain information about the challenges they will face. Occasionally, though, a discovery event might feature a challenge, and in this case you can give the event a CR. If your social challenges are episodic, the event’s CR should be 2 to 4 lower than the average party level (APL) of the PCs, based on how crucial social challenges are to your campaign. If the APL is on the low range, shift the CR to an appropriate fractional value. Deal with treasure in a similar manner. Table 12–5: Treasure Values lists values based on APL rather than CR; therefore, if you want to award treasure for a low-CR discovery event, use the appropriate values on Table 4–2: Treasure Values for Low-CR Encounters.

Table 4-2: Treasure Values for Low-CR Encounters

Treasure per Encounter
1/821 gp33 gp50 gp
1/628 gp42 gp65 gp
1/443 gp65 gp100 gp
1/357 gp88 gp135 gp
1/285 gp130 gp200 gp

Challenge Events: Challenge events should nearly always grant experience points and treasure. This is especially true if you’re running a serialized social conflict campaign. If a social conflict is the main thrust of a campaign, most challenge events should have a CR close to the APL of the PCs. Just like with combat encounters, particularly taxing challenge events (especially those that might consume the PCs’ resources or include the chance for a significant change in the stakes) can be of a higher CR than the APL, but never more than 3 higher. Challenge events should use the normal experience and treasure values whenever the PCs are involved in a combat encounter.

Example Social Conflict: The Taken

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 173
The following serialized social conflict serves as an extended example of how to build a satisfying series of encounters and adventures using the guidelines presented throughout this section. Since social conflicts evolve over time in response to the PCs’ actions, this example provides a step-by-step description of the conflict’s early stages—which could then evolve however you see fit These elements might serve as background between other adventures or the basis for a full-fledged campaign.

Aside from the PCs, this social conflict involves two open contenders: the revolutionaries and the royalists. However, there is also a secret contender: the fey fosterlings.

The Contenders

The revolutionaries are common folk who believe that the nobility of the kingdom are decadent and out of touch with the plight of the commoners. They blame their recent troubles on the nobility’s neglect. While these contenders are basically looking to destabilize the royalists and usurp political power, they are decentralized and rarely coordinate well. They want to change or even overthrow the government; though they are by no means united in what they think should happen next. Even among these contenders, there is no consensus of opinion on how to increase the stakes. Some of the revolutionaries want to overthrow the nobility in general. Others want to stop short of their monarch, King Theobard. The latter faction believes it will be sufficient to get the king’s attention and have him address the issue, rather than oust him entirely. Even among those who blame the king and want him removed, most still support Princess Annika, and they hope to replace King Theobard with his daughter. A few have dreams of setting up an entirely different, more egalitarian form of government.

The royalists are composed of both the nobility and other citizens loyal to the crown. Unlike the revolutionaries, they have a single leader: King Theobard. The royalists believe the revolutionaries are manufacturing or at least exaggerating the recent troubles for their own political agenda, and many believe they’re nothing more than bloodthirsty anarchists wishing to toss out the status quo and loot the riches of the kingdom. The royalists are more powerful and organized than the revolutionaries, but they’re slow to react, at least at first, as they dismiss the commoners as a disorganized mob of sheep pushed along by a handful of rabble-rousers. The king and many of the nobles feel that mounting a response is expensive, and a heavy-handed reaction might just stir up unrest elsewhere.

The fey fosterlings are the final contenders, and they’re the ones who on the surface appear to be pulling the strings. These fosterlings are fey children who were swapped in the cradle for human children. They appear fully human and magic detects them as being such. The fosterlings are spread throughout the kingdom and communicate clandestinely via animal messengers and the like. Their greatest political asset is the fact that Princess Annika is a fosterling, and the main coordinator of the faction. Given how disorganized the revolutionaries are, it was easy to seed some fosterlings among them, and Annika and her few fellow fosterlings among the nobility can manipulate the royalists with ease. Annika and the fosterlings are not the true power behind their faction, however. A powerful <%MOSNTERS%Norn">norn has become convinced that fate demands a firmer hand with this kingdom, and she is actually the one pulling the strings—and snipping them if necessary.

The PCs enter this situation as a fourth faction, capable of shifting the balance between the revolutionaries and the royalists, or even of exposing the true culprits.

Conflict and the Stakes

This particular conflict is one of political power. The royalists have the power, the revolutionaries want it, and the fey seek to ultimately control it no matter who seems to be in charge. Over the course of the social conflict, the PCs will likely become agents of a faction, only to eventually discover the force behind the real political power in the kingdom, and could even work to motivate the revolutionaries and the royalists to join forces and confront the real threat to the political landscape of the kingdom.

Conflict Arc and Early Events

The conflict arc begins with the PCs in a town on the kingdom’s outskirts, on the edge of a forest known to be the home of fey. The superstitious villagers purchased charms to ward their homes against the fey, but a fosterling in the village has been exposing the charms to fey magic, causing them to erode faster than usual. With the failing wards, a quickling managed to sneak into the home of a popular local woodsman and whisk away a baby, but not before the parents spotted him. The woodsman and his revolutionary friends blame the nobility for the baby’s kidnapping, as the appointed mayor refused to pay to replace the crumbling wards, considering them superstitious nonsense.

Challenge Event: Angry Mob

The PCs notice an angry mob gathering around the mayor’s house. These revolutionaries are intent on punishing the mayor for what they perceive as his role in the baby’s kidnapping. The mayor’s hired guards attempt to forestall the mob. The guards are outnumbered, and they probably have to resort to lethal force to compete with the townsfolk, who aren’t pulling any punches. At this point, the PCs can come in on either side of the conflict, either by joining one faction in combat or by attempting to talk down the mob, perhaps with a verbal duel.

Consequences: If the PCs can win a verbal duel against the leader of the revolutionaries, they get the rabble to realize they don’t have much proof against the mayor, and there is a real mystery that needs to be solved here. A critical success (beating the revolutionary leader in three or fewer exchanges) settles the mob to such a degree that they realize although the mayor works for the nobility, he cares more for the people than his position and is not the enemy here.

A failure means that the PCs are going to have to physically defend the mayor or let the mob have their way. A critical failure (being defeated in the verbal duel by the rebel leader in 3 or fewer exchanges) brands the PCs as royalist collaborators no matter where the PCs’ true sympathies lie.

Whether or not the PCs are able to resolve the event with reason or with force, they will likely move on to one or more discovery events: either investigating the baby’s disappearance or learning about the political turmoil in the kingdom, but likely both.

Discovery Event: Scene of the Crime No matter the turnout of the “Angry Mob” event, the PCs will likely want to investigate the disappearance of the child that sparked the riot—maybe with a bit of detective work taking the form of a goal collection freeform challenge.

Consequences: When the PCs piece together enough clues, evidence shows the child was spirited away by some creature from the woods. If they gain enough successes, they can even determine the abductor was fey, leading them to search the woods for fey involvement. This may allow the PCs to uncover the secret contenders of the conflict, though finding the fey’s motivation may prove difficult. This leads directly into the “Hall Under the Hill” challenge event.

Botching the discovery means the disappearance will remain a mystery, at least for now, but the PCs may be able to find other clues of fey involvement later in the social conflict. This likely leads PCs to events that revolve around the conflict between the revolutionaries and the nobility.

Challenge Event: Hall Under The Hill

Chasing after the clues that something or someone in the forest abducted the baby, they follow the trail to a strange hall under a mossy hill. There they find a group of quicklings who have been abducting children from various settlements near to the forest. The quicklings, rather than being knowledgeable of the norn’s overall plans, are nothing more than fey mercenaries capturing the babies for a mysterious buyer they meet during full moons among a nearby group of standing stones. They then replace the babies with eerie fosterlings for another fee paid in ancient coins.

Consequences: While the quicklings don’t know who pays them (nor do they care), by either defeating the quicklings or bluffing or bribing the information out of them, the PCs can learn that neither the revolutionaries nor the royalists have anything to do with the unusual kidnappings.

Continuing the Conflict

At this point, the PCs have many possible avenues to explore. If they return the woodcutter’s baby, they earn the gratitude of the townsfolk, and one of their friendly contacts in town requests that they head to the capital, either to deliver a letter requesting more funds to assist the town (if they ally with the mayor) or helping with a mass protest (if they ally with the revolutionaries). Even if the PCs are making their own path, they still might want to head to the capital if they find out about the potential mass protest. On the other hand, depending on the results of the last event, the PCs could attempt to chase down the quickling’s buyer, or even to check on the other entries on the quickling’s list.

Social conflicts branch and diverge quite rapidly and respond to the PCs’ choices, which makes it difficult to plan more than an engagement or two ahead without quickly devolving into numerous if-then contingencies. Depending on the PCs’ path through a social conflict, they could wind up pulling a heist on the royal treasury (using the heist rules on pages 118–129), attending a gala to gain influence with the upper nobility (using the individual influence rules on pages 102–109), working with Princess Annika for a peaceful solution as she secretly manipulates them to further the fosterling agenda, pursuing a group of kidnapping fey to discover the whereabouts of the buyer (using the pursuit rules), performing acts of sabotage in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy, researching the connection between the fosterlings (using the research rules), engaging in a verbal duel with one of the founders of the revolutionaries in front of a crowd of his followers (using the verbal duel rules), and much more. No matter what the PCs do, the fosterlings try to turn it to their advantage, and if the PCs unearth the fosterlings’ existence and launch a shadow war against their adversaries, the fosterlings turn all of their efforts to destroying the PCs and their reputation, preferring to use the other factions as proxies if possible.

Concluding the Conflict

Depending on the PCs’ actions, the conflict has many possible endings. In general, however, each faction acts in a certain way as it approaches defeat.

If the royalists approach defeat, they concede the social conflict. The king agrees to abdicate to Princess Annika, which ameliorates enough of the revolutionaries that the truly radical among them lose almost all of their remaining support. These remaining revolutionaries continue to attempt to take down the monarchy, but with far less efficacy, their future actions are likely to be fruitless without aid from the PCs.

If the revolutionaries approach defeat, they concede the social conflict by dissolving, still dissatisfied, but quieted at least for now. The royalists accept this concession and grant pardons to the revolutionaries, other than one of the more radical ringleaders who wanted to overthrow the entire government and watch the nobles burn. This woman refuses the pardon, so she is named as the leader of the revolution and executed.

The fosterlings do not concede the social conflict, even to the point of total ruination. While Princess Annika would prefer to occlude her ties to the fosterlings and allow her lieutenants to quietly back off, the norn commanding all the fosterlings demands they continue to the end. When they are completely defeated, the fosterlings are exposed, both sides informed of their existence, and Princess Annika along with them. If the PCs have a personal connection with the princess, she begs them to protect her against her norn mistress. Once the norn is vanquished, the princess and the fosterlings may need a new place to live. The PCs could then convince the people of the kingdom of the benefits of letting their former infiltrators become loyal citizens.