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I'm considering running a game, in which characters take on a role of courtiers in a sovereign ruler's court. The idea is that these courtiers all serve as spies, diplomats, enforcers etc. to some factions, domestic or foreign, to further their causes through intrigue and conspiracy. The PCs would not (initially) be orchestrators of any major plots, but instead given short-term goals to accomplish by their masters.

To keep the group coherent, I would like to give them two sets of goals - major one, that is the same for the whole group, and a minor one, specific to each player. The minor goals would be divergent, but not mutually exclusive. An example would be to have a major goal: "Make sure Joe Traitor survives the trial he faces" and minor ones given to each player"Make sure he leaves the country", "Make sure he is acquitted of all charges" and "Make sure he escapes his arrest". While they potentially could be all achieved, it would be much more complicated than just achieving the major one.

I'm currently considering Fate Core as the system to run it, but that's somewhat ill suited to include mystery elements, if needed. I would like to be recommended a system that could support my idea with solid mechanics.

A perfect system would:

  • have a mechanic to handle intrigue and influence of PCs
  • be simple and light on dice rolling
  • handle combat (duels, small skirmishes, assassinations) and mystery
  • be possible to run in a Low Fantasy, Dark Fantasy or Gaslamp Fantasy settings
  • support cloak and dagger moods of treachery, several-layer conspiracies and political struggle
  • reward players for successful scheming more than a head-first approach

I see that the question attracted some bad answers, so I'd like to clarify.

I am not looking for a system as in "a mechanic to handle social conflict". I'm looking for a whole game that includes such a mechanic.

The mechanic (or tool, or methodology) has to support me in keeping track about who schemes what and what is going to happen. If every NPC has a plot of his own, keeping track of what happens in the end is very complicated very quickly without a way to do it.

Several layers of conspiracies would be a facility to have, well, exactly that. So the players plot to have Marshal Mutton assassinated, but that's just a part of a plot to have the Household Guard issue less patrols, which in turn is an element of a scheme to allow smuggling of Crazy Herb into the capital, which is needed to throw the city into turmoil, a part of the machinations by Baron Blaggard to swoop in and save the day. And that allows Scheming Steve to bang Baron's wife.

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Let me recommend Polaris, which is a very odd game but potentially just what you're looking for. It's also potentially not at all what you're looking for, because Polaris is weird, but nothing ventured nothing gained eh?

By default in Polaris, you are knights under the command of a king who has begun to go mad. As a last resort, you have formed a kind of secret coalition among some of your fellows to try and secure the civilization you all love. You are also doomed to fail. I suspect changing the fluff so that you're spies in the house of a foreign king will not change the core system too much. (Though you don't have to- there are other remnants, and probably dukes or the like you could spy on. Also, I suspect that the Knight's relationship with their king is adversarial enough to work for what you want.) If you do not want to end in tragedy, that's a bit harder.

Has a mechanic to handle intrigue and influence of PCs

I'm not entirely sure of your meaning. If you want something like D&D 3.5's Attitude, Polaris doesn't exactly have this. If something more like Fate's aspects would do, Polaris almost gets there. Protagonists have themes and aspects and even cosmos that can relate to people, but you never really attach numbers to the question of how much an NPC likes you.

However, if you're comfortable with not having numbers attached to relationships, Polaris's mechanics transition smoothly from duels with blades to duels with words. I particularly like the negotiation aspects, as there's a sort of four way tug of war between the protagonist, the NPC, and the guides. It works really well, though it takes a few readings to be comfortable with it.

On the other hand, given the way that each protagonist has different guides (I'm controlling Urist McProtagonist as his Heart, but Urist's Mistaken is a different player and controls all the antagonists in his scenes, and Urist's Full Moon is a third player and they control about half the NPCs while the other half is controlled by the fourth player, called the New Moon) interplayer influence is fascinating, and by breaking up the DMing role like this you often wind up with very NPC focused challenges.

Simple and light on dice rolling

Polaris is not diceless, but it comes very close.

Whether it counts as simple is up for debate. The entire rulebook is about sixty pages, half of which is fluff. The core system involves the use of key phrases, like "But only if" or "And so it was" that have specific meanings in the context of the game. For example, "And so it was" begins and ends scenes, "But only if" is a negotiation with another player, allowing what they said to be true if they accept the addition you're making. Polaris is honestly fairly simple, but tends to confuse experienced RPG grognards because it doesn't really use any of the standard mechanics of these games. (There's no real hit point equivalent, there are no dice, there is no DM...)

Handle combat and mystery

Combat is easy. Polaris can do swordfights, though as you may have gathered they won't play like anything you'd see in D&D. (Even though they might look a lot alike in-universe.)

By mystery, do you mean that the player is unaware of something and trying to find out, or the character is unaware of something and trying to find out? The latter is easily accomplished, and will probably run smoother than most mysteries you've played through. (The wonderful scene setting rules are perhaps the least noticed genius of this game.) The former could theoretically be done, but would probably require some fast and clever play on the part of one of the guides.

Low Fantasy, Dark Fantasy or Gaslamp Fantasy settings

The main setting for Polaris is dark fantasy. The game is subtitled "Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North" and invariably ends badly for all concerned. The end of the world is coming, the end of an age of beauty and light and majesty, and demons and dawn both rise to end the world as we know it.

Mechanically, I can confirm the system works perfectly as low fantasy, though be very sure that all players are on the same page as to what is appropriate. If deviations occur during play, roll with it- whoever's Guide it falls under at the moment has say. My playgroup ran a Lies of Locke Lemora-inspired Polaris game, and it worked wonderfully. (Bug lived! Sweet, sweet victory!)

No idea on Gaslamp Fantasy. My instinct is that it might work, but gaslamp might also trend too optimistic for the tragedies that Polaris produces.

Cloak and dagger, several-layer conspiracies

Read the section on Mysteries again for the distinction between player and character, and how Polaris handles that.

The mechanics do not prevent cloak and dagger; There's no equivalent to a sneak attack, but it will usually help in negotiations. Run as close to default as you can, the game starts out with on conspiracy (the Knights against the King) and will almost certainly have a conspiracy within a conspiracy before it ends (as one or more of the Knights turn against each other.) Add to that demons of the heart and soul, which are invisible, can possess people, easily penetrate your fortifications, and work for the downfall of all you hold dear (did I mention some can destroy your memories of love just for shits and giggles?) and you have a recipe for some pretty solid paranoia.

Reward players for successful scheming

By clever play and skilled negotiation, the things you want to happen will be brought about. By collusion, appeasement, and outright bribery of your Mistaken, you can greatly extend the lifespan of your character. Does that count? No?

How about this; experience is checked when you act in sympathy with the demons, in hatred of a person, or in despair or apathy towards the people as a whole. In other words, by fundamentally betraying your team, you get XP. (Of course, if you get too much XP then you completely betray your team and stop being called a protagonist. You can still play the character in scenes though.)

TL;DR

I don't know if this is the best fit for what you want. It's a weird game, and requires a kind of solemnity of play that isn't what everyone's looking for. But it's a great game, and if you want a courtly feel I can't recommend anything better. It fits most of your criteria, though often in unusual ways. Give it a look.

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There is a P&P system for Game of Thrones. You might want to look into that. More intriguing and backstabing than that isn't possible I guess.

https://greenronin.com/sifrp/

There is a quickstart PDF as well, if you want to see if it may fit your needs.

I haven't played it myself, but my Gamemaster has told me a little bit about it.

The intrigue part is very high in this game. Be aware, that you need to play a lot of NPC's, which may even talk to one another in front of the PC's. What would intrigues be without a large audience?

I don't know how the rolling is in the system. But the other points should all be fullfilled. It's supposed to be played similar to the books/TV show. So all your sneaky/evil characters have a higher chance of success than your honorably heroes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used the system? If so, can you please give a little information about how it meets the individual criteria specified in the question? \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Jun 29 '15 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Added some experience from my gamemaster \$\endgroup\$ – Thanathan Jun 29 '15 at 14:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Thanathan thanks for the answer, I think I'll take a look. It's a shame you don't have firsthand playing experience. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Jun 29 '15 at 16:41

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