(Last edited Feb 9, 2012; concised.)
The best way to learn how to make something is to be the audience first. Examples of my aim: The Twelve Kingdoms (book/anime series), Code Geass (anime series), and MATSUNO Yasumi's writing in games such as Final Fantasy XII , Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics: War of Lions.
All strategy (and the intrigue from pursuing it) is about putting oneself in a position of strength. What is judged strong depends on your objective. This means one must at times trade one strength for another.
Being a DM
This article helped me tremendously. In short, instead of planning out the path PCs would tread, devise the plans your NPCs will follow. Your NPCs will pursue their ends, and the PCs are free to do whatever they want.
The first thing the DM need do is to make the NPC powerhouses of the setting. Treat each one as a character in that it will have:
3. plan to achieve motive
4. three truths the PCs may readily know about it
5. and 1 secret.
Remember: the secret's power is that it must be uncovered by the players; it can't be handed to them, nor can it remain secret in the end. Here are some example powerhouses:
- Church (here meaning a hierarchical, institutionalized, religious power base):
Motive: Peace thru cultural/moral supremacy. A good Church spreads peace beyond its flock without demand for supremacy. An evil Church prefers supremacy to peace.
Plan:Bishop or other hierarchical administration figures coordinate efforts. Their power lies in the public's beliefs in their teachings. If they loose credibility, they loose their authority. To keep their credibility, they spread representatives, stories, and art that teach their way early and frequently. Devoted followers may found monasteries/nunneries: communities for contemplation of their teachings. They also attempt to undermine other systems of thought, even other hierarchies that branch from the same religion, making their symbols and champions out to be devils, witches, and heretics. If they have influence over law, they may institute witch hunts, inquisitions, and banishment to cleanse out dissension.
- Crown and other Nobility:
Motive: aims for stability and consolidation of its rule.
Plan: In some cultures, the nobility is not part of the military, but in Medieval Europe and Tokugawa Japan, for example, they were. Within their domains, the nobility holds both lawmaking power and military power in the form of mercenaries or legal subordinates. Nobility must yield to higher nobility (unless they have enough power and motive to ignore or overthrow higher authorities). It may also have secret agents who work surreptitiously where public knowledge must be avoided. Stability of rule depends on civil rest, and so nobility will always want to make itself look good...at least to the people whom it believes can affect its rule. To this end, punishment or reconciliation of rebels may be publicly displayed.
Motive: seek quality of life; freedom from fear, starvation, bloodshed, etc. so they can grow the keystone of the nation's economy in peace.
Plan: They grow the food, sometimes man the lower ranks of a military, and circulate products. If too much is demanded in payment to authorities, or the lean years have not been eased by the opening of the authorities' granaries, they will have complaint. Petitioning will work with perceptive authority. Otherwise, mob justice and boycotting are usually their only weapons. They are commonly the vastest in numbers, but not always well-organized.
Motive: seeks wealth and ways of guiding wealth to itself. May be a front for other bodies to produce funds or collect a certain type of item with which they shouldn't be directly associated (such as money and the clergy, smuggled goods and a foreign baron, or a king supplying a rival nation's rebels with weapons during a civil war).
Plan: Obtain it where it is in least demand; sell it where it is in most demand. If politically inclined, they may champion laws that give them wealth, regardless of their effect on the general populace. To that end they will monetarily support friendly lawmakers and other authority; they do not have that authority themselves. They may also have means to hire mercenary force to protect their wealth.
Planes of Power
The rules of government are commonly enforced by the army of the state, yet the offices of the state and other support may be bought by the wealthy or obtained thru demagoguery; the wealthy and those of law may in turn be discredited by the church's sermons, who gain the people's ears thru humanitarian gifts or teachings of imaginary salvations and consequences. All use their own methods to play at power, either believing their actions just or believing the end goal will eclipse their smaller crimes. The commons are denied power by someone with more wealth, position, or popular attention than they, and hence always look to heroes, those who pursue justice despite their own mortality.
For your NPC schemes, start straightforward and simple. This works because the players don't see the whole at a glance (just enough to be interested), and they get to participate in it and thereby change it.