Intrigue & Investigation: A System for Urban Suspense

I’m in the midst of playtesting Block, Dodge, Parry, and I’m doing so with a 1-on-1 campaign with a friend. The campaign centers around a dethroned noble trying to seize back control of the land he lost, and in the most recent arc, he has arrived in a border city in order to gain some military backing for his claim.

I whipped up an impromptu system to reflect the intrigue, backstabbing, and politics going on in this city, and that’s what this post is about! It’s not as polished as some other systems I’ve written (and will not be featured in Block, Dodge, Parry), but if it inspires someone else, I’m happy (and please let me know if it does!)

Image credit: Stealth by Andis Reinbergs

The Premise

Pista is a town on the southern border of the province where our plot takes place. Being a border city, it houses a considerable garrison – the backing of which would provide highly valuable in any potential claims for the ‘throne’ of the province.

It is led by a Commander, who mostly focuses on matters of the military (and frankly doesn’t care about politics). They leave the actual policy-making up to their Council, which consists of the Keeper of Coin (the taxman) and the three foremost merchants (rich people) of the city.

Upon arriving in the city, the Keeper of Coin informs our hero that he suspects that the rest of the Council intends to ‘lock up’ the city’s troops by sending them south, into the wilderness, on some bogus mission of peacekeeping. He suspects that this would be on the orders of the ruling house, preventing these troops from taking part in the civil strife to come.

The Keeper of Coin is shrewd, however, and is not willing to make these accusations against his fellow council members. The hero, however, is the perfect outsider, the wild card: everything to gain, nothing to lose.

Thus, the set-up for the system is:

Secrets & Lies

Each council member has secrets. Some big, some small – reveal as much of them as you can, and use them as leverage, blackmail etc. in the council meeting to win them over. The big secret is who, if any, is on the payroll of the current province ruler.
Each council member is highly suspicious of strangers and protective of their secrets. Everyone in this city works for one of them in one way or another.

The System

So, there are several variables at play here:

  • The allies of the hero are assets – they are ‘the party’. Each of them can be deployed to investigate.
  • The meeting takes place next week – so there are 7 days to figure out as many secrets as possible.
  • As council members are investigated, they will grow suspicious – which leads to danger and consequences.
Why not completely freestyle this? Because I aim for a certain pacing - this arc is to take place in 2-3 sessions tops. By leaving it completely open-ended, I run the risk of us being stuck on the minutae of surveillance for far too many sessions. I outline the mechanics at play, and go from there!

I wrote the following rules:

For each day, assign your investigators.

Roll 1d6 for every investigator assigned to the same target, and take the highest value.

  • On a 1-3, no discoveries are made
  • On a 4-5, 1 discovery is made
  • On 6, 2 discoveries are made

Using the same roll, take a look at the lowest value.

  • On a 1, +2 Suspicion, and a Chase ensues.
  • On a 2-3, +1 Suspicion
  • On a 4-6, no Suspicion

Using the same Investigator on the same target adds +1 Suspicion.


At 5 Suspicion or higher, a Chase happens at every investigation. Roll 1d6: On a 1-2, this chase happens before any discoveries are made, and disrupts the investigation for the day.

At 10 Suspicion, grave consequences will come down upon you.

So, what’s going on there?

  • Days become clear-cut time units, and the time frame becomes easy to oversee.
  • By using the same ‘dice pool’ for both discoveries and suspicion, there are multiple decisions to be made when assigning investigators:
    • Sending a single investigator means they are harder to detect, but less likely to find something.
    • Sending multiple investigators means they are easier to spot, but more likely to spot something themselves.
    • Sending a single investigator means that this character is isolated in case of a Chase – meaning they have little chance of surviving violence.
  • A Chase is like a random encounter – 3 or more Thugs show up to chase down the investigator. Just like base Cairn rules, an Investigator has a chance to retreat – but failing to do so does mean violence.
  • Chases are more likely to happen as suspicion increases – meaning that the player needs to commit their resources instead of keeping them spread out.
  • Discoveries are pre-written bullet points, leading to a council member’s core secrets – for instance “Leaves workplace every day > Goes to a local bar > Gets drunk” would be 3 discoveries.

How It Worked In Play

We resolved each investigation sorta clockwise, with the one that had ‘main character involvement’ last.

Discoveries and Suspicion were displayed for the player as well, informing them of the risks. I noted down all key discoveries as well. The resolution is not set in stone – all open for interpretation and improvisation – but the clues are at least a central baseline of information.

Besides that, we kept a central Investigation Log. All the non-discoveries and close calls were written down here and served as good prompts for fleshing out the ‘roleplay’: sure, you found nothing today, but why? You were spotted, how?

Each day riffed off of the previous one in this way, and through the system/dice rolls, we ‘built’ the story of the investigation.

Final Notes

By leaning heavily on the “1-3/4-5/6” distribution of results as seen in Electric Bastionland and Into The Odd, every dice roll felt tense. I did not extensively ‘test’ this system before play, and the timescale, risk, and odds were all “Let’s see how this plays out”. It did create genuine tension and a sense of looming dread, as everything could blow up at any roll.

To conclude, I want to memorialize Stain, a loyal mercenary under the employ of our hero.

He was assigned to shadow Lady Emalia on Day 3, having learned from others that she left her manor every night, though nobody knows where she goes after that.

Since his d6 roll was a 1, no discoveries were made, and as the unfortunate merc shadows Lady Emalia through the dark streets, she gave an imperceptible nod to three thugs hanging out on a street corner.

Stain failed his DEX Save to escape as they approached with drawn daggers, and after a brief chase, he found himself cornered. He swiped his dagger at the first thug, dodged an attack from the second, but the third wasted no time with a lethal stab (3 dice attacks, 1d6 each, keep highest – a 6).

We’ll see next time how this investigation concludes – now that our hero is down one investigator, and the council members seem pretty aware that something is up…

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