A couple of choices here. I could talk about what a system does, I could talk about the RuneQuest system itself. I could talk about other systems I know.
But it doesn’t have to be a game system, so instead I’m going to talk about my system for making tribal conflicts, really quickly. This is about the most heavyweight method I have of making a plot, and it comes out with a particular sort of session. I don’t use it a lot – but when I do, there’s a lot of answer for the number of questions I have to ask.
It takes me under half an hour to build a full conflict for PCs to have to deal with, and I do it like this: I create three powers. Usually those are clans. That works well with a tribal city, and if there are more than three clans, I just use the most powerful ones, and have alliances with the rest such that they’ll be pulled in line. The only important thing is that none of these clans can swing the whole city (or tribe, or war group, or whatever) but any two can probably prevail over the third if they have outside support.
Then I write down what the clans want:
|The Clans of Alone|
|Wants their magical harp back||Stole the harp from the Amad in the first place||Stole the harp from the Bachad in a battle, and never admitted it|
|Wants to retain their high status|
|Wants a shipment of weapons|
|Wants grazing rights that are better than they have now||Wants to keep their ancestral lands||Wants to keep their good grazing land|
|Wants more cattle for their lands, as acknowledgement of the work they have done in defending Alone|
|Wants money; this clan is desperately poor, and in need of a cash injection|
|Wants to hide the fact that the harp they stole has in fact gone missing, and they cannot return it|
I know which things the clans can and cannot negotiate on. For the Amad, their harp is the one thing where they will not negotiate. The Bachad are not going to walk away from their ancestral lands, and they want public acknowledgement in the form of cattle, but the acknowledgement is the main thing – the cattle are just the way of delivering it. The Tres want to get out of being punished for stealing the harp and losing it, and they want to retain their high status. At this point, I don’t really have details on how, but that doesn’t matter.
Then I create about as many NPCs as there are PCs. By ‘create’ I mean I write down their names, and the name of the PC they’re most likely to talk to. If all of the PCs don’t get someone to talk to FOR SOME REASON then I’m leaving them out, and I need to consider that. At this point I can generally work out why the PCs are useful, because I know what they do. The merchant? Has a big Harmony Rune, is safe to approach. The warrior? Will be sympathetic to wanting our troubles acknowledged in public. If possible, everyone gets at least one thing.
I only plan about half of the story at this point, and only about half of the information. The Tres having lost the (twice-stolen) harp of the Amad is something no initial NPC knows. The initial NPCs may have true facts and good insight, or they may be wrong – but they are the initial contact, and can make it so that the real contact is sent for.
Plot will be that someone, in this case Argrath, decides they want the city of Alone to fall in behind him. Therefore, he sends the PCs (adventurers, in RuneQuest terms) to deal with it. The adventurers ask around a lot, find or get found by the first level of NPCs, and get to send for the second level of NPCs, who are the ones who know everything. The Clan Chiefs get sent for, and take a couple of days arriving (or organise a feast two days from now, if they are nearby) while the adventurers learn, dodge assassins (not all of the NPCs are nice, and other factions may be present), save orphaned puppies, and generally get into a state where they know enough to meet the major NPCs.
Then they get a second round of talking, for which they are at least partially prepared. They find out where the clans will and won’t negotiate here, and they may find out the Real Problem. They’ll find out the sums involved are too big for their employer, or that the harp is missing, or that the Wyter refuses to talk to one of the clans who are all secretly covering for that fact, or whatever. Matching up the negotiable problems and working out how to solve the non-negotiable ones is in their hands.
Many of the details get filled in on the way. The Tres demand for high status includes (I decide arbitrarily) having the Tribal Ruler or his wife chosen from their people. I don’t need to let the adventurers know that early on, and they might have a counter-offer, so until I make it up, it’s not needed, and once I make it up, it’s not set in stone, but the end result, high status, is. The Tres will not bend there.
Making up the details isn’t cheating. I don’t know what I’m going to need, and I don’t want to spend 5 hours guessing. Instead, when the PCs ask good questions, I reward them. When they wander in hopefully and assume I will make up plot, I add complications like, “You’re going to have to impress this person, and he looks REALLY bored,” or “Oh, only the trickster knows how that happened.”
In the play-through of the Harp of the Amad, the PCs spoke on behalf of Argrath, said that he would pay for everything AND get the harp back from King Brangbane, and then had to go report this to him. There was also a sub-plot in which they defended Bachad ancestral lands and an elf enclave from ghouls, thus learning how terrible ghouls could be, that the elves of the area were mostly allies, and that the Bachad were staunch defenders against the horrors of the Deep Dark Woods. Another sub-plot was about different factions, including some from outside the city, trying to stop each other from talking to the adventurers. Those are entirely optional, but can be thrown into the plot at any time, to give more interest. Again, these were added on when the PCs got interested in that bit.
So anyhow, Argrath got really angry, and killed one of the adventurers who kept trying to explain why they had done all that, when he had already thrown them out of his tent TWICE. But maybe they shouldn’t have promised he’d kill a major undead foe while paying out 20,000 Lunars he didn’t have, and giving away valuable food in campaign season. However, they earned him the city of Alone.
It took half an hour to write, and the PCs still remember it, and ghouls are the BEST of enemies. So’s King Argrath, but he’s also the best of friends.