Blackmail appears in many gaming scenarios, most often in the following form:
A wealthy politician, Sir John Edward receives an anonymous note.
“Pay me 10,000 gp or your wife finds out about you and the comely portrait painter. We have evidence!”
Note in hand, the politician hires the PCs to kick in doors and retrieve the evidence. The adventure hook is firmly set.
I hate this scenario. I hate it for a couple of reasons, notably it is a cliche like a bar room brawl or saving the princess from the dragon. Secondly, it is a clumsy approach to blackmail that has no place in a thinking man’s role-playing game. Blackmail of this type is for merchants and priests. In the halls of real power blackmail has another name.
Let’s take a look at a more interesting scenario variation with the same underlying premise.
Sir John Edward is a villian of the highest caliber. He is mean to his mother and kicks puppies. The fiend does not even wash his hands before dinner! Sir John is also the brother of a beloved king, feeder of the poor and healer of the sick. Sir John is about to raze a local slum to install a new tennis court. Thousands will be displaced and Sir John’s brother fears a revolt.
Sir John is powerful, wealthy and does not listen to his brother, king or not. John must be stopped, but not harmed or humiliated. The king asks the PCs to investigate and provide materials to dissuade John from his evil deed. The king must have “plausible deniability ” so the PCs must do everything without his knowledge.
The PCs through good role-playing and general sneakiness, determine that Sir John enjoys the company of women other than his wife. They even get evidence of his dalliances.
Now, it is the PCs turn to blackmail….er…negotiate from a position of strength with the randy Sir John. Do they do it anonymously or in person? Will the PCs actually return the evidence or do they keep it to prevent some other great evil?
Sir John is not about to take this lying down either, expect him to hire assassins, local criminals or to personally try to get the evidence back. Should he discover the PC’s identities, framing them for murder gives Sir John more leverage over them. He is, after all, wealthy and powerful. A few well placed bribes and the PCs are now a fearsome group of demon worshippers that eat babies. Nothing like going from working for the king to public enemy #1 over night.
Here is a fun idea. After the PCs reveal their evidence to the villian have him do something truly villianous to neutralize their leverage. Perhaps he fears his wife will find out about the affair and divorce him. No problem, the wife has a fatal accident that night. Or the PCs have a witness that will testify about the affair. Sir John kills him in some spectacular way, like burning down a city block to kill one person. Go nuts, the more evil the act, the better the look on the PCs faces when they realize their leverage is not only gone, but they just angered a truly scary villian.
I love blackmail in role-playing games. It makes the PCs wallow in some morally shady areas and gives the villians an opportunity to do vile things. Both of which make for great gaming.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer