Twists of Fate: Subterfuge


Generally in our gaming sessions we are accustomed to all our PCs being on the same side. We are also accustomed to their side being the side of the just and good. What if one of our PCs was playing for the wrong team? What if the amazing way this PC predicts the enemy's movements is no accident? Moreover, what if this PC is the great enemy the party will finally face to end the campaign? An ultimate challenge for both the GM and one of the PCs, the subterfuge storyline can be the biggest shocker you have ever seen in a roleplaying session.

Generally in our gaming sessions we are accustomed to all our PCs being on the same side. We are also accustomed to their side being the side of the just and good. What if one of our PCs was playing for the wrong team? What if the amazing way this PC predicts the enemy's movements is no accident? Moreover, what if this PC is the great enemy the party will finally face to end the campaign? An ultimate challenge for both the GM and one of the PCs, the subterfuge storyline can be the biggest shocker you have ever seen in a roleplaying session.

To pull off the subterfuge plot, several methods have to be employed not usually used in gaming. The most important is a very good line of communication between the GM and the malevolent PC (MPC). Out of session, extensive planning is needed to map out most of what will happen during the gaming session, and malevolent communication during the session should be made in secret. Some GMs will announce aloud if only one character sees or hears something, but this technique is not recommended in this instance because it will arouse suspicion that one PC is always informed privately. Always be sure to make at least some of the enemies engage the MPC, though pulled punches need to be taken into account. If an enemy pulls a punch against the MPC, other characters may have to role perception checks since they could notice fake fighting. The MPC must also give plenty of forewarning to the GM as to when he will reveal himself to the party. The GM will have a great deal to prepare for when the truth rears its ugly head. The longest an MPC should wait to reveal himself is 3/4 of the way through the campaign; any later will bring about the climax too quickly and will not leave enough time for the party to get used to fighting one PC short. Hopefully the party will find out about the treachery before then, but if they do not, you must reveal it. At some point, being a mole will lose its advantage anyway.

There are two types of MPCs: the moles and the ringleaders. A mole is a mere spy, someone who can be at any level in the forces of the enemy. They can be a peon trying to earn their stripes, or they can be the most trusted assistant to the uber bad guy. This can also include a once benevolent PC who has been bought or coerced into betraying his party. Obviously, lower ranking and paid characters are going to be more likely to switch their alliances to the side of the PCs, but if that happens, the GM and MPC must work very hard to make the transition believable.

The second type is the ringleader. This is the uber bad guy beginning the campaign as a member of the party. In this type of campaign, the MPC almost functions as a second GM. The MPC has to orchestrate all the actions of the enemy forces aligned with him/herself. For this very reason, make sure not all of the enemies are aligned with the MPC lest your MPC player will get very bored knowing he has no chance of dying. In a futuristic campaign with communications technology, the MPC may have to bark orders to his underlings through a secret communicator during the session. The MPC must also venture from the party during down time to make sure his forces are staying in line. Since a ringleader MPC will probably be far more powerful that the other PCs, he/she will have to pretend to be of similar or even lower skill level than his party members. To play an MPC requires a very seasoned player to pull it off well, because getting away with betrayal is very hard. The MPC may want to take the party off to rescue some damsel whilst a far more important crime is being committed somewhere else. The party members will surely learn of the other crime, and if it happens too many times they may begin to suspect. For good references on subterfuge in the ringleader style, watch the movie "The Usual Suspects".

The party is hot on the trail of the Felix Syndicate's boss who has been trying to get them killed. They make their way to the top floor of the office building, almost too easily. Max takes point as they head out of the elevator shaft into the office. The party finds an empty room. Max turns around holding a small remote device. He says, "Congratulations, my friends. You've successfully helped me bring down my biggest enemy, the Harrera Syndicate. My name is Max Throuman, and I am the president and CEO of the Felix Syndicate. . . and thank you again for the helping hand." With that, he pushes a button on the remote device, the wall behind him slides open to reveal several dozen soldiers and a few elite guards, all with assault rifles pointed at your heads. What do you do? That, fellow gamers, is a twist of fate.

I have carefully read your article and it does a good job in laying out some of the basic techniques that would be necessary to pull off such a ruse. However, I would very much have liked to read your ideas on WHY you would want to try it. It seems to me that not only would you need a special player to serve as "MPC", but a special group of players to appreciate it even after the "Twist of Fate" was unveiled.

Putting myself in the role of a non-MPC player in such a group, and just having this twist revealed, I would have the following concerns:

1. Was I given a fair chance to discover this betrayal in game?

Keep in mind that you are not proposing having a good PC slowly turning bad, which could be roleplayed and potentially discovered. You are talking about placing a mole in the group from day one. Since such a plot twist has to be planned from the very beginning, I might come to believe that the GM wasn't really willing to let all of that planning be undone by some random die roll in the middle of a combat (the perception check to notice fake fighting).

2. Are any of the things my character accomplished, and that I took pride in as a player, real? Or were I and my fellow PCs allowed these victories by the MPC?

With the right group of players the above question and the discussion it would generate could well be a reason for pulling this trick. If the discussion stays strictly in character, and is handled as an opportunity for role-playing, great! But it could also turn rather ugly. Why? Because gaming sessions are often discussed by the players after the session is over. Which depending on the relationships between players could lead to the following question.

3. How often was I as a person, and not a character, lied to by the MPC player in order to maintain the fiction?

In a gaming group the GM's role as adversary is clear and understood. So whenever a post-session discussion turns to speculating about the campaign itself, the GM remains silent, and we as players understand. But what does the MPC player do? They obviously can't reveal what they know, but can't really stay silent in these discussions. So they lie. Wait a minute. This example is rather tame. Let me give another. The group comes to a difficult encounter that the MPC (after planning with the GM) wants the group to overcome. Player A comes up with a plan to overcome the encounter. The MPC player knows the plan will not work becuase of their special knowledge as MPC, but they can't modify the plan because it would expose them as a bad guy. So the MPC helps to fudge the encounter so the plan succeeds. In the post session discussion, player A is personally proud of their plan and maybe even does a little boasting. How will they feel after the twist is revealed and they realize it only worked because the MPC allowed it to? Might they feel mocked, or remembering their boasts, embarassed?

The bottom line for me is that this idea boils down to a player vs. player campaign, but with only one player knowing it. If your group is normally competitive with each other and likes player vs. player conflict, this idea won't even work. Not only would it be discovered rather quickly, but even should it somehow work, what kind of "Twist of Fate" is it when players have been plotting against each other from day one? The "Twist" will then be that the GM took the side of one player vs. the others and what fun is that for anyone? In my opinion it only works with a group that trusts each other. And in that case, I don't think the payoff is worth the damage to the group dynamic that I believe would occur.

Very good idea. I would use it myself if I have more players. I have used a little bit changed idea when I recently GMed only one player. My friend has more than one character and one of his characters were forced to work against others, which opened oppurtunity to test his roleplaying skills.

Thanks for the detailed post. The entire point of this twist is to challenge your players. The GM should take a neutral point of view, neither working for or against the MPC. You were right, only a very trusting group can pull this off, but remember, conflict is at the core of character development. Questioning the actions of a character after finding out the truth (has everything I've done been for the sake of the mole?) is a great exploration in the resolve and morality of a character. The point of roleplaying isn't to always have a perfectly cohesive group, but to develop characters and unravel an amazing story. Sessions should be based around their characters, not around numbers and quests. Thanks again for the post.

I'd love this kind of game, actually, so long as we'd have it confirmed that everything would work well enough in the end.

I think I've heard it done that _everyone_ has a secret agenda- it's dangerously close to an Evil Campaign, I suppose, but it'd hopefully be different when everyone trusts each other. Yesss. Trust.

It'd probably work if even the _GM_ had an overarcing motive beyond the MPC- imagine the MPC being forced to work with the group after his own conspiracy decided to turn on him. Wouldn't even be angsty if the threat was _immediate_; which, after the realisation, it probably would be.

Yess. Spy stuff.


Personally I don't think of it as Player+GM vrs other players. The GM is just adjudicating what all the players are doing. The guys in my campain know that they can pass messages to me or just talk to me afterwords, so its all fair. Personally I think its great idea, the best enemy is a human.(one that has time to think of everything and not be god.)

there i san easy way to get rid of the idea that the GM was taking sides: don't initiate this kind of thing as a GM: do it as a player. Pull your Gm aside and say "there are some things my charachter would like to keep secret from the other players...

At the time I took part in them, I hated player vs. player games. (Usually one known selfish player). Yet three of my most memorable campaigns were such.

I've been in just as many player vs. player campaigns that I hated, had to leave, but 50% is not a bad ratio.

I agree with mormagli -- there is too much room for distrust and feelings of betrayal when the GM initiates a MPC campaign. When a player decides to do it on his own, it can work, though. I've had one DM tell a player he had to continue playing a thief who stole from the party because I came up with several good plans for tracking the thief down and other party members agreed with me that we wanted our loot back. The player was slightly miffed that he couldn't switch to a new character, especially since he hadn't done ANY long-term planning for the thief's getaway, but his quick thinking meant that it took us two long entertaining game sessions to catch him and get our stuff back. (Of course, since he had a habit of playing characters that cheated the group, we never trusted another of his PCs again -- we only allowed his subsequent characters to join because the DM didn't want to kick him out.)

One way for the GM to initiate a MPC group without making every PC a secret MPC is to make several sealed 'secrets' for the players when the campaign starts. Have only one of the secrets be evil at the MPC level. If necesary, discretely fold one corner of the MPC envelope or something like that so you can be sure to hand the MPC role to the right player when 'randomly' assigning secrets.

One great tool for ANY game with secrecy is occasional random notes. "Please frown when you read this. Don't show this to anyone". Useless paranoia inducing notes like that. I've used such as both a GM and as a player. If you're the DM, be sure to ask players again what their PC's 'Spot' and 'Sense Motive' skill are early in the game session before anything actually happens. Makes it hard for players to guess what's going on, but gives them enough paranoia that they won't feel betrayed later.

A DM can pull the goof off well, but it takes a DM with skill and planning beyond anything I'd like to think about. Wulfgar, my cleric, Millie, the sorceress, Nambar, the bard, some dwarven fighter, some elven druid, and Nevvon, the wizard (necromancy) were searching for a stone to create, control, and destroy undead.

Nevvon had tendancies to run away and disappear, and we ALL knew he had secrets. One time he came back, and the next day we were confronted by a fiend and a hydra who claimed we had the stone. We did, but only Nevvon and the fighter knew. --On a sidenote, Nevvon was actually a Pale Master from the start, only we didn't know, with a ring of Undetectable Alignment, and the Fighter was turned into a Vampire by the stone -- Later we gave up searching for the stone and joined an army fighting to stay independent in front of a mageocracy. Both army were dying and not doing terribly well when a giant army of undead appeared at the sides of the clashing armies. Nevvon and the dwarf were missing from the day before. A few rounds later, with around 18 mages killed by us against the Mageocracy and their army a small black figure Rode forward. Nevvon.

Millie rode her horse forward and shouted "Nevvon you fool! Stop attacking us, we're helping--" when Nevvon raised up the stone (Lesser Artifact) and cast Finger of Death on her. She died. We all started smacking at Nevvon, and my cleric, failing an intelligence roll, cast Inflict critical Wounds on him, fully healing the enemy. 4 Cure Critical Wounds later... Nevvon is lying on the ground, a hafling rogue with a dagger +2 instilled with Searing Light is grappling the Vampire fighter, and the bard decides to pick up the stone. He fails the Will Save (3+4...)and everyone in a 20' radious took 1d20+8 damage. Ow. Nevvon stood up.

Hacking away at him another round, his turn came before mine. Finger of Death. Made the Will save but took 4d8 damage, bringing my health down to two. Finally, forgot restoration and cast Cure Critical wounds. Nevvon crumpled into dust (go 4d8+8 healing power!) and the bard once again picked up the stone and failed the Will save.

"Bring me back to where I was found and I shall not harm you any further." Gee. I'm a Lawful Good cleric. I lunged at the stone and grabbed it. Will save? 19 + 10 base, 4 cleric, 4 sunlight... DC 20, I make it. I force a shattering holy blast through the stone, turn undead amplified, and the army of dead crumples. Cure Serious wounds dropped the fighter vampire, and my character leveled up (Go Ressurect!). Millie Canolie rose up, and so the adventure ended, in the middle of a bloody and empty plain.

My character later spent 3 months in a temple attempting to convert the stone to good (Neutral Evil base, though he didn't know it) and succeeded, though some demons and fiends nearly killed him.

On a sidenote, attacking a temple full of clerics is NOT easy. You might think clerics are weak, but 40 level 8 clerics can summon up 160 fiendish black bears. In one round that is.

To summarize, the DM has to be good, but the campaign can be pulled off. All of us were very shocked, but the game went well, the storyline was complete, and, surprisingly, we all survived.

I have run games with MPC's (or campaigns with an MPC). This the best way I've found, approach one of your players that you know to be a good "roler." Especially if his/her characters are normally deciding factors in game plots/fights. If he/she is willing then set them up as a mole or hierling or minion of the evil guy, then give him/her/it autonomy. Their rewards are based on their success as MPCs. Occasionally pass communiques from the boss, so that the agenda remains on task (i.e. following your plot). But leave how things are to be acomplished up to the player, allow them to devise devious plans and traps. If they make mistakes, (they have to roll for success else leave suspicious evidence), then they can be found out.

Its really alot of fun.

If you're certain your group will react well to an MPC, this can be very well accomplished with an NPC benefactor, but it takes a skillful DM to do it well.

Players will inevitable not trust an NPC fully... but you can often set up an NPC ally for the party who can gain their trust. Start with someone who gives them adventure leads, or perhaps hires them to do a few missions. Once the PCs get the idea in their head that the NPC benefactor is a "good guy", the fun begins.

Think of the situation outlined in the show Alias, where the mission director turns out not to work for the CIA, but is actually running a cell for a terrorist organization under the mantle of the CIA. A few of his trusted lieutenants know the truth, but most do not.

This idea can be adapted to a campaign of any genre. The NPC benefactor/mission lead is secretly working for himself under the mantle of doing his duty "for the good of the kingdom/country/etc". The missions the PC run for him actually add to his own power base or result in objectives that appear to be "good" but actually help him achieve his evil goals. Perhaps he even begins adventuring with the PCs on some missions in order to gain some item or other means of power.

He might even reveal his goals to the PC, offering them positions in his power structure, attempting to convert them to his side. He may actually believe his is the one right and true way. A villian who believes he is the hero is even more interesting than one who knows he is evil. So what if a few thousand people die if it means that he becomes the rightful (benevolent?) ruler? The end justifies the means.

Maybe it is ALL shades of gray. The NPC's ambition may result in many deaths, but perhaps that is no worse (or even slightly better) than the current ruling class. Should the current king be overthrown, and if so, will the PCs help the NPC even if they're not sure he's entirely good (or sane, for the matter)? He may actually be the lesser of two evils... and he's been very good to the PCs... so far.

These type of scenarios can offer all kinds of role-playing potential for the right group of players. The world isn't always black and white, good and evil... Perhaps your alignment system (if you even use one) also follows a slightly more gray-shaded approach.

1st of all, if done right this could be an awesome story. However, the MPC can only be played as a PC until they are revealed, then the MPC will become a NPC and the player will have to make a new character. In a mature roleplaying group this will not be a problem as long as the player makes the 2nd character a non-MPC.

Another issue is that the PCs will have become more powerful during the course of the adventure. The new PC will either suck (comparatively speaking), or have to be made at a higher starting level or with more points, or be an existing NPC that the player takes over.

During a Shadowrun game a couple of months ago my shadowrunning undercover cop/undercover terrorist was possesed by a mage during combat. After the combat was over everyone started questioning my character's actions. (I had lit a pipe bomb and dropped it in the middle of the group and walked off). I explained that I had "blacked out" for a moment but that I feel fine now.

Still possessed, I led the characters to a "safe house" that I knew of (my character had never even been to Denver before) wherein the mage had slaughtered a family. I was possessed for a full hour of playing time during which NONE of the other players had a clue.

One thing that really helped was that the GM was sitting on the far side of the room from me with the rest of the group between us. Whenever they asked me questions they would all face me. I'd stall for a second or two and the GM would shake his head "no" or nod "yes", sometimes he'd just shrug and I was on my own.

I am well known with my roleplaying friends for being able to run a line of crap a mile long and yet they still fell for it. We all still talk about it and my character is still a trusted and valued member of the group (the other players don't know of my other affiliations yet). I believe that I will have the opportunity and capability to pull off the MPC act with this character twice more, once when it is revealed that I'm an undercover Lonestar Cop and again when it is revealed that I am an Elven American Indain terrorist from Southern Oregon.

Ya, good times...

"That which does not kill you postpones the inevitable."

Mugajak I LOVED this! That is a great story! I wish that I could play through something like this! Alas, I am the GM time and time again...

"If the boot fits, kick somebody."

A small twist on this that works really well is to have the PCs employer, especially if it's a well respected or loved person like your uncle or Senator Palpatine, use the characters to further their own designs.

Imagine spending 3/4 of the campaign trying to eradicate the spies, assassins, and soldiers of the insurrection led by the barbaric mongol leader only to find out that your king has been lying to you (and everyone else) the whole time and has been systemetically murdering the mongols and using propoganda in an effort to cover up atrocious crimes and to legitimize the war. (This of course, is loosely based on Hitler) What will the players do when they finally realize that they've been fighting for the wrong side the whole time? How will the rebels react to the PCs trying to join them? Is this all part of the King's plan?

I think that would be a blast to play. It'd take some serious planning on the GMs part though.

Just my thought for the day...

"All a man needs to be happy is a sharp sword, a fast horse, and a beautiful woman waiting at the battle's end."