Evil GM Tricks #79: Betrayal From Within


By their very nature RPGs have a tendency to pit the players against the Game Master. You supply the challenges, the monsters and if you are an Evil GM, all the horrible things the players will encounter. Being one such Evil GM I have noticed the players in my group tend to band together for protection. They stand back to back against the worst I can throw at them, and have learned to trust, or at least tolerate, each other.

By their very nature RPGs have a tendency to pit the players against the Game Master. You supply the challenges, the monsters and if you are an Evil GM, all the horrible things the players will encounter. Being one such Evil GM I have noticed the players in my group tend to band together for protection. They stand back to back against the worst I can throw at them, and have learned to trust, or at least tolerate, each other.

Of course, such an attitude leaves them vulnerable in a way most of them never see our coming. The players in the group may not fully trust each other. They may watch their backs in the event that another character will try to kill or screw over their character. But most would never in a million years believe another player was in league with the GM.

What do I mean? Why, the player-spy of course. If done carefully this tactic will shock your players to the core and will make for a game they talk about for years. Let me lead off with an example.

Last year I ran a high powered Rifts campaign. During the character creation I approached two of the players (separately), and asked them if they would like to try something a little different. Both were intrigued, and both jumped at the chance once I explained what I wanted them to do.

Each would work for an organization which had very different goals than the party. Their jobs would be to infiltrate the group and to pass along information to their respective masters. Their fellow characters could have no idea of their true motives, and they were to take great pains to fit in. More importantly, none of the other players could know; both of my spies did a great job of concealing their true allegiance.

The first character was a Sunaj assassin working for the Splugorth. He masqueraded as a just and noble Atlantean Undead Slayer, and none of the party had any reason to suspect him. The second spy worked for the USS Ticonderoga, and while he had more benevolent masters his aims still differed from the rest of the PCs.

As the campaign progressed I had each spy receive orders, and most of the time these orders were at cross-purposes to the party. For example, at one point the Sunaj was ordered to replace a powerful artifact the party had recovered with a fake. This artifact could have stopped the war between Tolkeen and the Coalition, and the party was utterly baffled when the council of Tolkeen pronounced it a fake.

Eventually, near the end of the campaign, the Sunaj was ordered to lead the whole party into an ambush. They were captured by minions of the Splugorth, and sold as slaves in Atlantis. Wait. It gets worse. You see, the Splugorth have a very sick sense of humor. They decided it wasn't enough the party was betrayed by one of their own. They arranged for the rest of the party to fight the Sunaj to the death in the gladiatorial arena in Splynn.

The party won, and managed to kill the Sunaj. Of course the Splugorth simply resurrected him, and used a potent spell to change his appearance. They then placed him in the same slave pens as the players, and released the whole lot of them into Splynnkryth's private game reserves.

The other players assumed the player with the spy had simply taken a new character, and had no idea their nemesis was still with them. They adventured for a few sessions in the preserve, and gradually made their way to the coast of Atlantis.

Enter the second spy. He sent a coded message to the USS Ticonderoga, and it was on hand to rescue the party. At this point the Sunaj was forced to reveal himself, and alerted the Splugorth to the Ticonderoga's approach. This resulted in a climactic battle, and in the end the Sunaj was finally killed for good. The rest of the PCs escaped, and I ended the campaign there.

Everyone loved the game, and none of them could believe two of their companions had been spies the entire time. It lent a different feel to the game than any that I have run before, and is a tactic I will definitely use again. There were a few things I may have done a little differently, but I definitely learned a few tips.

First, choose your players with care. Make sure they can keep a secret because if they can't, the whole plot thread is for nothing. If the rest of your players know, even if they are great role-players, the eventual betrayal will not have the same impact.

Also, have a definite plan going in. The organization your spy works for needs to have a reason to help the PCs succeed at least part of the time. Otherwise the PCs will get frustrated, and the spy runs the risk of discovery. It's also important not to rely too heavily on the spy plot thread. Use it sparingly and it will have a much greater impact.

As long as you keep these things in mind you should have no trouble using this Evil GM tactic. Its one of the hardest, but it's oh so worth it when it works like it should. God I love being evil. . .

What a wonderfull article! I like it, but sadly to do something like that I would need more players.

In addition to making sure you have players who can keep a secret, be sure you have players who could handle being put in this situation. You don't want to make your campaign memorable at the expense of making the game fun for the players.

I'd have to agree Bluegirl. You do need players who can both handle and appreciate a situation like this. When I say memorable, by the way, I mean that your players talk about the game in a positive light for years to come.

Most of my Evil GM articles follow the same vein, and they all require a certain type of group to work. They definitely aren't for everyone.

I take a dim view of games with traitors.

The primary reason is that, by nature of the game, the party is required to accept new PCs into the party and stay together as a party, even if they might not do so in real life. It is not practical for a 4-PC party to split up and each essentially set out on his own solo campaign because, for whatever reason, each player decided that it makes sense for his PC to go off alone. It may be realistic from the perspective of the PC but it is impractical from the perspective of playing with a gaming group. Similarly, new PCs join the party somewhat artificially. It is difficult (and dull) to spend a lot of sessions doing background checks, building a rapport, establishing trust and finally accepting a new PC as trustworthy. For expediency, the new PC gets inserted in the group and is assumed to be trustworthy by the group, simply to avoid bogging down the game.

For example, in the game in the article, did the party really have a choice of accepting the Sunaj-turned-slave? I'd say no. They couldn't really say, "Sorry, we have no reason to trust this new PC so we don't let him in the party. We get rid of him or leave him behind." If a PC is a traitor, the GM must be very careful that he compensates for the artificiality needed to keep the game from bogging down. Forcing the party to accept a new PC for meta-game concerns and then making that PC a traitor is unfair without some counter-balance. And, it is very difficult to provide this counter-balance. Possible but difficult. The campaign should have several mechanisms where the traitor might be revealed prematurely or hints that would lead the party to suspect one of their own.

A secondary reason is that the betraying player often has much more fun than the betrayed ones. It is usually effortless for a player to leverage his out-of-game player friendships into in-game PC trust. Enjoying playing a traitor is often not so much a gaming challenge as it is enjoying the manipulation and exercise of power over other players (i.e. a power trip). Another reason is that, once a few betrayals happen, future games may be filled tedious research and paranoia as the PCs search for traitors which aren't there before beginning the actual adventure. Yet another reason is that, as the result of a betrayal or two, the players may not interact much with NPCs, besides killing them, and, in my world, I put great effort into building PC-NPC family relationships, friendships and alliances. And, finally, betrayals are easily misplayed: the GM may misappraise his players' maturity and emotions; the plot may spoil the game and even the group.

I'm not saying that it cannot be done and cannot be enjoyed. I personally dislike games with traitors because I prefer games with external, us-against-the world goals and not internal, party-strife ones. But others may feel differently.

This is a fun article, and the campaign on which it is based seems to have been similarly fun and well-constructed.

To amplify the words of bluegirl, I would caution GMs who have sensitive or inexperienced players not to interfere too much with party solidarity.

Personally, I have enjoyed giving the PCs various purposes that sometimes run contrary to each other. The problem is that it's a delicate balance; once PCs stop trusting each other, the party becomes a grim little group. I have yet to meet the person, good roleplayer or otherwise, who can wholly divide in-game antagonism from out-of-game relationships.

Also note that the "party infiltrator" tactic is much easier in some game settings than in others. In a world where mind-reading exists, spies must take extra precautions to maintain their identities. This necessity may force the GM to perform some credibility-straining maneuvers to keep an infiltrator in place.

I think this article is good for groups that know and trust each other, and that have developed a certain level of compacency. Used in that context, I think the idea of the party infiltrator is very appropriate indeed.

This article is very similar to one posted a month ago titled "Twists of Fate: Subterfuge." I posted a response to that article so I will try to avoid repeating myself here. To be brief, I agree with the comments of dwhoward in that you are creating a player vs. player group dynamic that if handled improperly, could damage the group as a whole. In general, I believe the likelyhood of this type of story ending successfully, with no hurt feelings, to be so unlikely as to not be worth the risk.

However, I will say that if I were to attempt something like this, I would only do it with the double-spy approach outlined by Arkelias. Having two spies that don't know about each other, and working against each other, not only injects some of the counter balance mentioned by dwhoward, it also has the advantage of playing the same trick on every player in the group, not only the non-spy players.

I have tried a campaign where each player has his own agenda in addition to the group's goal - the problem is that the players tend to place the importance of their own goal above the main plot ... enjoyable for the players, but I struggle to get any real story done - it is hard to have PCs who have jobs, families and are members of societies to band together and trust each other.
Stil, I have tempted the PCs to work with their enemies, as well as inserting clashes of loyalties and principles. Okay, I haven't got a group of PCs that stands united like a breakwater against all challenges, but at least the characters are real people. Hmmm. So many pros or contras.
I guess I will try to instill a greater feeling of unity in the next campaign - the players are anyway paranoid enough.



pros and contras? Is that a stupid typo, or am I missing something because I am 16 /raised differently /a moron / too bloody tired / all of the above?
I am confuzzled. Please explain.

Confuzzledly yours,

Of course, Vampire LARP normally thrives off this trick...but players in those games don't trust one another anyway :)

I tried this tactic in a Shadowrun game and it worked beautifully. I agree that this should not be used on newer gamers or people who can't keep in game and out of game seperate.

Hehehe, I too am an Evil GM. I have spent much time devising ways to put the FEAR of DICE into my players. The player spy has always been one of my favorites.

I've seen few campaigns that it won't work in, but it must be used sparingly. I don't understand the complaints regarding background checks and "working to build PC trust." It seems that if a character or party has become paranoid enough to actually (roleplay) go through background checks, then a) you have a wonderful opportunity for some great and subtle gaming and b) you have done your job as an Evil GM.

Players are never forced to accept a new party member. If the character acts suspiciously, the players have a vast number of choices on how to deal with them.

I had one game where the party no longer trusted a particualr character to speak in the presence of others (he liked picking fights and sewing mistrust), so they routinely cast a silence spell on him.

Making other characters circumspect often enriches the game because, the players have to react to an even more dynamic set of challenges. The obstacles can come fom anyside.

Don't overlook the fact that if the characters get "too" caught up in fighting amongst themselves, the game timeline still advances, and they may very well miss the chance to save the world. Then an entirely new campaign starts -- based on the horrible cataclysmic event that they failed to stop.

It should be noted, however, that fostering character on character trials should NOT be done if you have whiners, jerks or players incapale of discerning a seperation between the game and real-world friendships.

P.S. I saw some 6-sided dice that onl went up to 3. I can't wait to slip them into the community dice pool. hehehehehehehehehhahahahHAHAHAHAHAH -ahem-
Of course I won't make any failures stick with those dice, I'm not that Evil. I'll just blame it all on Sam the god of Wackyness.

My DM and I did something similar to this recently. We were playing in a world not unlike Star Ocean 2 or Final Fantasy 8 - magic and technology existing in harmony.

We were a typical fighter-thief-healer-wizard-multiclasser party, my character being a fighter-healer-wizard who fought with nothing but gloves or spiked gauntlets.

The party was one of those general parties which sort of accumulated over the course of about a year, after several PC deaths and the like. I got quite pissed off after the charmed thief stabbed my pyromaniac sorceress and killed her, so I waited until the following Wednesday, and had a quiet but intense conversation with my DM.

Everyone liked my multi-class maniac. I'd rolled some bloody good stats, so I even had I decent CHA! She got the party thinking she was on their side, then... BAM!

The enter a compound belonging to the resident baddies, an organisation called the Death Touched. They think their going well. Suddenly Noelle (hey, I was hung over, OK!) *accidentally* pulls a lever and the whole party gets teleported to the throne room, surrounded by about 100 undead! Noelle walks up and *kisses* the Necromancer on the hand. Party gets worried. Even more so when Noelle gets turned into a lich as a reward.

They've still not caught her, although they're trying...

I had a GM do this in a WEG SW game. There was a player who was running a Jedi who we all thought was on our side, when about halfway through the campaign, he betrayed the entire group, revealed that he was actually a Dark Jedi, and tried to blow up the ship we were on, himself included.
We scraped by with the hair of our teeth, but it was a truly exciting game. West End rules being what they are, the player then lost control of the character to the GM for the rest of the campaign, but we were always very careful of his characters from then on.
Yes, it made us a little more paranoid, but it was one of the few truly memorable moments we had in that campaign.