I am a novice GM playing with several more experienced D&D players (who happen to be good friends). I wanted to spice up the game for them and take advantage of their own intelligence/experience by creating (story-related) within-party intrigue. In short, I want to secretly set up two factions of characters within the party with some potentially conflicting adventure goals. My question is, how can I do this without destroying group cohesion, both within and potentially outside of the game?

As it stands, I have two new PCs/experienced players joining the group who would form one faction, while the two older PCs/experienced players would form the second faction. I would appreciate advice from GMs who have done this before as to whether a) it is a good idea and b) which (other) approaches (aside from secrecy) seem to work best.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would start small -- don't have the players conflicted over the main goal, have them diverge over smaller stuff like "some want to avoid killing defeated enemies, some don't" or "A and B come from warring cultures taught to despise each other". That way they can work together as usual during combat, but every so often they should be encouraged to blow up at each other in character. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack V.
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 13:25

9 Answers 9


Inciting intrique (without forcing firefights)

  • Ensure that both factions' real goals require resources or skills that exist in the other half of the party. If the goals can be accomplished alone, the party splits into two separate parties that merely happen to be travelling together.

Example: If faction A contains the party mage, make sure faction B has some goals requiring identify spells, or detection of magic, or where a fireball would be handy. The intrigue comes from trying to create plausible reasons for the whole party to do what faction B secretly wants it to do.

  • Ensure that both factions have some goals which simply require the total party strength to accomplish. Set up good reasons to do both sets; make all goals seem like reasonable choices. (For bonus points: then make sure there isn't time to do everything, and enjoy watching both factions fake evidence for why their project is the biggest problem.)

  • On that theme: mix small and large goals. When faction A has failed to convince the party to attack a wizard's keep, they'll still feel satisfied that they recruited the nobleman's cellarer as a spy. A mix of goals lets everyone feel they can accomplish something every session.

  • Major-goal-failures don't end the game for either faction. This is important, or your party breaks apart. When the factions' goals for the party are opposed (or there's only time to accomplish one), lower the stakes - make sure the players don't think their goal is a life-or-death-necessity for their subgroup. Make sure the losing conspiracy can think "That hurt... oh well, better luck next time" and go on to the next scheme. You want the goal to seem to seem important... but not enough to kill the rest of the party over, thus losing their resources. (Real power groups rarely bet everything on one plan.)

  • It seems obvious to establish a note-passing rule for people to scheme secretly, but I advise against it. It brings the intrigue into an obvious, game-slowing mechanic. Instead, be sure to ask the factions secretly between sessions - not only what they plan to do next time (and what excuses they'll use), but also for what they just did. Give the players a limited power to retcon the explanations for their own actions, and they won't need notes, just cover stories.

("When I took that bandit prisoner off to the city guard to be hung, I actually dropped him off with my family's militia for interrogation. Once we know where they hid the loot, our side can send soldiers to go get it.")

  • Take notes on those cover stories, they can lead to consequences later... making players scramble to make facts fit the story they'd already told the rest of the party.

  • Despite what's been said in some answers here, I think D&D can be used perfectly well. I've run this approach to good effect in several Star Wars and Werewolf games, which are just as conflict-oriented. The key is to ensure that neither faction's goals are well-served by the total collapse of the party.

Maintaining Cohesion

  • Even enemies aren't adversarial all the time. Be sure that both factions have some goals that the other group simply doesn't care about either way. You can create the feeling and tension of intrigue without risking a party feud when tasks fail. (Bob ends up running out of arrows to make a plausible excuse for visiting the markets before storming the overlord's tower; actually he just needs a chance to slip his side a magic statue they gave him to transport.)

  • Let the factions disagree on methods or outcomes, not primary objectives.

Example: I ran a two-party competitive Star Wars game in which the players were Rebels and Smugglers. Both want to smuggle firearms past the Empire... but subgoals vary. When the stormtroopers pour out, they can fight together as a cohesive party. But if the stormtroopers attack some other random facility... the rebels want to act, and the smugglers want to lay low and get paid.

  • Make sure have different aims in the grand scheme of things, but not inherently opposed ones. If the factions are mortal enemies, this can only end in a firefight. You want the game the factions are playing with each other to be non-zero-sum. Some actions should help both, or hurt both.

Example: Factions A and B wanting different candidates to inherit the throne is bad; one's gain is another's loss. Faction A wanting more money for the military and B wanting a balanced budget is better. There will be conflicts, but also some situations will make both factions happy (more farm tax income), and some will make neither happy (loss of expensive equipment). They may scheme to get different people on the throne... but that won't be the point for them, just a means, so the party doesn't have to break apart over it.

  • Make sure both factions have plenty of leverage over each other. You want party conflicts solved by roleplay and intrigue, not firefights. So give them things to negotiate with. When faction A doesn't accomplish their goal because the party does something else, the players will feel like they traded off one priority in order to accomplish another objective. This maintains the priority of intrigue and secrecy over just arguing. More importantly, it avoids one faction's players feeling that they were "beaten" or "outplayed" by the rest of the party - they at least feel as if they gained something for their side, even if it wasn't their ideal goal.

Example: Let a mage in faction A have research notes he's not using, that faction B would love to have. Make sure faction B's thief hears information that can prevent (or cause) blackmail attempts against A's priest. Let A have all the rich characters, and B always need money, but have much better contacts.

  • Major villains should be existential threats to both factions. (This needn't spoil the theme of intrigue; a new player trying to turn one faction into attacking the other is an enemy of both... and both sides may have independent reasons to deal with it.)

  • Be cautious with your intention to put the experienced players in one faction and the new ones in another; it leaves you without a character present to 'smooth the way' if the newer players struggle with a goal. Consider putting one experienced player in each faction, and letting them 'recruit' the rest of their group in-game.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the most thorough answer and incorporates aspects of all the responses I found helpful :) Best answer to you, Tynam! \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 20:21
  • Get buy in from the group about intra-party intrigue. If the players aren't interested in this, it's going to flop.
  • Play with open secrets: Players know each others' secrets but their characters don't.
  • Consider a system other than D&D. D&D's main resolution mechanic is combat, which I presume you're trying to avoid between PCs.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Open secrets can be a lot of fun when the group enjoys keeping In Character and Out of Character knowledge separate, and can find humour and enjoyable tension in the situations it creates. I have had a lot of fun with this in the past. +1 \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 10, 2012 at 4:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the point on combat being the main form of resolution in D&D. If you don't want your players to resolve their differences with steel, you're gonna have to either give them a good reason to be civil, or make the intrigue something not worth fighting over. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the concept of having open secrets and player buy-in. Yours is probably the "best" advice (and answers my original question in a way I hadn't considered), but I, like a fool, am going to try the "closed secrets model" based on the fact that the players have already bought in to a lot of note-passing during the average game, and some folks here have made some good suggestions as to how it might work :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for open secrets. Our group has had tonnes of fun in the past with those. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2012 at 12:39

The short answer:
You have to choose between intrigue and unit cohesion. Intrigue involves some degree of "screwing over" the other faction and if you are the "screw-ee" you don't feel very cohesive towards the "screw-er"

The longer (and more complex answer):
If the main plot involves the same goal, but two very separate reasons to achieve that goal, you have some room for intrigue and unit cohesion. For example, if there is an evil overlord who wants the Artifact of Epic Awesomeness so he will become more Awesome, there can easily be two factions in the party. One wants to steal and use the artifact themselves, the otehr wants to swipe the artifact to destroy it (or return it to the Temple of Awesome-god for safe-keeping). They can both work together since they agree that Evil Overlord needs to be denied the possession of the artifact, but once they are free from the Overlord's domain, the intrigue begins.

Personally, I would not set it up as "2 must go this way, 2 must go that way". I'd engage your two senior PCs to create very different backgrounds that would invite this style of back-stabby behavior. The two new PCs can choose which side they prefer and that can build fun for the whole group (especially since the two ring-leaders will know ahead of time to expect inrigue).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate your observation that trying to artificially set up the factions is likely a bad idea - I will definitely avoid this, although I am too tempted to leave the within-party intrigue alone altogether, even if it does "screw" party cohesion. Let's just hope the damage isn't permanent ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 20:05

The key to this is going to be what the intrigue entails and the scale of the goals that conflict; the larger the reward/loss the more likely that inter-party problems are going to occur.

For example if the story involves going to find grand wizard Bob; and group A in the party want Bob dead, group B in the party want to release Bob from his prison and let him perform his Bob-magics once again. This is going to cause major party tension at the end of the adventure (and possibly before if A finds out what B plans) that may involve pvp as the groups try to kill/free Bob.

What I have found works for groups I have run is where conflict and inter-party issues are a secondary issue to the main story; so the party still has it's major goals in mind and the grand quest, but if (again for example) the informer who helps them is handed over to the authorities rather than released to pay off a crime boss debt then the party still has the information from that informer and can carry on to ultimate-goal-X.

In summary, make sure the wider goals and cohesion of the party are never compromised by sub-plots and conflicts. They are great for flavour and contrast, but try smaller differences between the party first to see how they cope with arguments before you give them a "turn left or right" option that may see characters decide to leave.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the suggestion of having the inter-party issue being secondary to the main story :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 20:15

I like running games with intra-party intrigue. I agree with @Pulsehead's comment that you have to trade those two things off to some degree. Here's some techniques I've used to run a game with intra-party conflict.

Abandon unit cohesion

Games like Fiasco specifically allow for creation of a story without the traditional "party" conceit. There's no such thing as unit cohesion unless the specific story calls for it. Consider checking it out to see the approach.

Even in trad games, you can do this... I had a time where half the PCs became vampires and we ran a month worth of games with them sitting in a different room from the live PCs where they fought each other tooth and nail for many sessions. Everyone loved it.

Have a huge overriding driver for cohesion

If you're in prison, or in the military, or impressed on a ship, or are in boarding school together, or are the few hunted wizards in an anti-wizard crusade, or are the survivors of the zombie apocalypse/alien invasion - then it doesn't matter if you don't like each other, you have to get along with each other. See: every genre TV show ever.

Have the goals not be directly conflicting

In Pathfinder Organized Play, all the PCs are part of different factions that have different faction goals. But these goals aren't all directly in opposition. So it doesn't have to end in conflict, but in negotiation and a little sneakiness sometimes. They've written a good bit on how they make this work for a large setup like this.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for overall awesomeness of this answer :) You gave me the tips I was hoping for, as well as indications that it has worked well for you in the past. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cat
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 20:19

Often times when inter-party conflict has come up it has been such that individual party members each have their own dirty laundry, and thus have little splinter adventures that might hinder the party but don't affect the allegiance of any one character to the party as a group, even if they don't agree with one or two specific members.

This is one of those unfortunate circumstances where metagaming saves the table. The party knows each other OOC and thus they don't want the out of game "intrigue" of trying to force characters out and drawing the ire of the controlling players out of game.

In one game I played with a very motley party, a character with background as an assassin had killed another PC which not only caused in-game static but out of game static as well, and that's the sort of thing that the group needs to avoid most of all. Therefore, it might be wise to make all important contributions a given cause remote and not directly affecting the party.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Mmm, the problem with using meta-methods of avoiding the problem is that they break suspension of disbelief - and that severely hinders any attempt to derive thrills and tension from intrigue, making it much less fun. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 6:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ As does being difficult to a fault. In one game I was in there were two characters at odds, and one was an assassin so he did what his character did best - silently eliminate the problem. This caused only some inter-party issue but heaps of out of character trouble. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 17:53

One thing you could do is introduce a little mind control whether is be physiological or magical depending on your setting. This requires that the within-party intrigue has a potential end point. They'll be plotting against each other, but when the conflict is resolved/won, then the mind control is revealed and there should be much better part cohesion after that point. I've been the mind controlled player before. It only occurred for a session or two and I almost TPKed the party when I was finally told to kill them. Once the whole plot was revealed I was let back into the party without problems, but it made for a few interesting sessions for everybody.


The board game Battlestar Galactica has a mechanic that might be what you're looking for, though in board game rather than RPG form.

Short version: There are two teams, Human and Cylon, and everybody is nominally on the same team at the start of the game. Everyone is dealt a 'loyalty card' which they must view but keep secret - this card tells them which team they are 'really' on. Players who are Cylons attempt to sabotage the Human team without revealing their true nature by making bad decisions. At the halfway point of the game, an additional set of loyalty cards is dealt out - this is called the 'sleeper phase' and can result in a player suddenly switching teams.

Throughout the game, there are many opportunities to make a choice where only the chooser knows the options - the choice is announced and the chooser never has to reveal what the other option was. There are also other mechanics that allow the team to make group decisions in a way that allows one player to sabotage them with plausible deniability.

There are also certain opportunities for players to view each others' loyalty cards, though they're not allowed to show them to the group; thus an accusation of being a Cylon could mean that the accused is a Cylon, or the accuser is a Cylon trying to divert suspicion.

A significant part of the fun of the game is the constant accusations that fly around the table.


Tread carefully with inner party intrigue. It can be a blast with real role players. The quickest way we did it was the GM writes notes. Short concise slipping them to potential players sometimes it was blank sometimes not. Players could use these slips to pass notes between themselves "whispering when no ones around" or they could have actions on them they want to accomplish when others aren't watching (Asleep,distracted or gone). The GM then after reading all the notes pass them back with a answer. This is done infrequently usually triggered by group consensus.

During short gaming breaks the GM could quickly make dice rolls with one or two players to determine success or failure of there said secret actions. We used it mainly for greedy rogues and gives a rather whodunnit feel like the game clue. The biggest problem is the GM has to keep the hidden one on one gaming brief and discrete. We had people sneaking into other peoples bags while they slept and others spying on each other. It can be a lot of fun but shouldn't be the focus of the adventure and eventually it usually comes to an end with a murder or fight, so players should tread carefully.


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