The noble throwing a banquet, the feast in the players’ honor, the masquerade ball the players are infiltrating, and the gala used as a cover for the great heist. Big dinner parties crop up time and again in campaigns of all genres. While the reason the players are attending is usually tied to some campaign story or plot, I am going to discuss things you can do to make the event more a set piece than window dressing.
(art The Banquet of Cleopatra is a painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)
The players are attending a dinner, either in disguise, as guests of honor, or random attendees. They are most likely out of their element and forced to interact with people they don’t know and who don’t know them. I am sure the players are embroiled some wondrous plot, but the party isn’t thrown by them, so theirs aren’t the only schemes in town.
The Longhouse Feasting table, the grand banquet hall, or the corporate party, the setting, and circumstances of the festivities should really effect the mood. Parties are intended to be joyous affairs, even when they are merely a rouse to hobnob, network, and discuss real business. Rebellion pacts, noble alliances, and assassination plots are usually forged in the smoking lounges, side rooms and dark corners of parties like these.
If the players are going to attend a fancy party decide who’s throwing it, and why it’s REALLY being thrown. This will add some depth and help with world-building. The answer could be as simple as “Count Belvidere wants to show off the fine jewels his company excavated from Estrana thus raising his social standing.” or as complicated as “Lord Evans suspects Count Helif hired the bandits that have been stealing his bourbon shipments, so he wants to let it slip to the Count’s Wife that his men caught one of the bandits alive, in order to see what develops” Whatever you choose for the real reason for the party, the joyous occasion should be peppered with undertones of that type of gossip.
Duels can break out at parties. The party itself could be raided by a thieves troupe, and the palace guards could be on the lookout for people who don’t really belong. Sure there is a chance for violence at a Banquet(especially if the players are actively involved in a job) but the party itself should generally be a violence free affair. That doesn’t mean however that it is without threats. The players are probably an unknown entity. Powerful nobles may try to make a party member look foolish to discredit the outsider. Up and coming nobles may try to have them publicly support one of their causes. Others may try to pump them for information. And rivals will try to spread all kinds of lies. A Banquet can have more traps than the darkest dungeons. If your players are going to a Banquet, think about who will be there, what plots they are involved with and what their motivations will be. If a couple nobles have already shown up in your campaign great, you probably already know what they are all about, but create a few new people. They don’t have to be too detailed just a name, a cause, an ally and a rival. Something you can quickly reference to add some interesting flavor to part of the scene.
Maneuvering the pitfalls of a ballroom full of nobles is usually a purely social affair. Deception, perception, charisma, social graces all play a factor. Sensing someone’s true intent will probably a skill your player want to leverage a lot in a scene like this. Don’t make it easy. These are people that deceive on a daily basis. Try to downplay the Roll-play and emphasize the Role-play in these scenes.
You don’t have to play out every moment of the event. You can play scenes out as quick vignettes. Or just skip forward in time as things progress.
GM intrusions, generated threats, or other mechanical setbacks rolls, should lead to another social encounter of some type. Maybe a player is mistaken for someone else. Or a faux pas leads to an offended noble. Complications that can pay dividends later.
Split up the party. Force the Face away from the rest of the group, force the rest of the group into their own social scenes. Some interactions could reveal potential enemies, but others should reveal potential allies.
Sure the players are the center of your game, but they are not the center of the world. There can be more going on at the party than whatever scheme the players are involved in. Maybe another group has the same ideas, or better yet an unrelated plot is intersecting and interfering with their own.
Exploit the player characters’ own personas. The Paladin wears his beliefs on his sleeves, then the people at the banquet can see that too, and use it to their advantage. They can embellish a story of how one if their rivals did them wrong, hoping to spur the player into action so they can get what they want, they could also turn it around to show how gullible the player is.
In other set pieces, I have talked about how you should allow the players to feel heroic. Scenes like this server better to make them feel paranoid. They are in a vipers den, out of their element. Are they the player or are they getting played?
A Banquet is also a great place to reveal the villain, or at least have them reappear. Maybe this is how they find out that ‘cult leader’ that sacrificed all those people and got away is actually the Duke’s son. The villain would be in their element and the players on the backfoot. Not a location they could get away with an all-out attack and any public spectacle the players may cause could be laughed away.
Spread rumors about a party member or two. The party is probably unknown. So they will be the subject of gossip. Some flattering, others not so much. Speaking of flattering. Romantic entanglements also complicate dinner parties. Is it true love at first sight, or is there ulterior motives.