There's this innocent bystander...


Advice


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A relatively common trope in rpg adventures is the monster-posing-as-a-victim who is "rescued" only to turn on the party at some inopportune moment. I have exactly zero examples coming to mind now, but hopefully that's uncontroversial.

My problem is that I am obviously not very good at conveying this particular situation (or I telegraph it or something) and my regular group of players pretty much spot the wolf in sheep's clothing routine immediately. Even if they "play along" in the interests of roleplaying or whatever, I'm never able to get the full value I suspect that a scene like this can provide.

An Internet forum is probably a poor medium to talk about it, nonetheless does anyone have any suggestions or observations about how I might do this better? Are other DMs able to pull it off and actually surprise your players with this kind of thing? A vague question deserves a vague answer, but any thoughts would be appreciated.


you probably have a tell, like you describe such a "person" more or less than the usual innocent bystander.
Or it might be as subtle as big evil smile on your face.

The other possibility is that there is never an innocent bystander, and you pull stunts like this all the time. So every time something extraordinary happens, they guess it's a trap and are 90% right.

You might even fudge a bit, and if they tabletalk that it's a monster in sheeps clothing, just convert it to a real sheep and never let it reveal itself.


The best way to get around this metagame problem (players knowing what their characters necessarily shouldn't), is by approaching it from a metagame perspective.

Play to the way the player thinks, instead of the way the character thinks.

So instead of dropping the trick NPC into the game and finding a way to introduce them without seeming too obvious... pick a slightly-more-disposable NPC that the players have already begun to trust.

People you are getting information from, or missions from. People they've accepted awards from.
If you pick someone after the fact (that it isn't contradictory or overly put-on to the story to fit this in), then you don't have to worry about making the NPC accepted by the players... you are finding the best one that already is!

Work the backstory for the situation, and instead of working the NPC and situation to your backstory.
This will make you look like you are genius that had planned something from the start, and that's where you can wow the players. A lot of TV show writers work like that. Venture Brothers episodes (at least in the beginning, according to the writer interviews) were created with one writer saying "Character X has Y background now", and the other writer playing off that and moving the story forward. Makes for some really convoluted and wild storylines, but can really surprise the viewers.

Gotta watch yourself though.. pick an NPC and forget a detail or two that clashes with the "traitor" background, and your story will need retcon and feel awkward like the TV shows that accidentally do this too.


Well, there's the fact that it is a trope.

In fact, at least one group I play with has this policy that whenever they encounter a helpless, good-looking female in a dungeon environment, they immediately attack. (And I don't think they're 100% joking when they state their policy, either!)

And if you only ever mention victims (especially innocent-looking ones) when they're wolves in sheep's clothing (the metaphor, not the monster, though that can work, too), people are bound to catch on. It's basically a variant on Chekov's Gun, i.e. "nothing is mentioned without reason".

I guess the trick is to have these things be commonplace in your games. When only shapeshifted succubi and whatnot are ever there to be rescued (at least without it being a quest), people are going to notice the pattern. So have lots of actually innocent damsels in distress and wait until players accept it as routine before you spring a shifter on them.

And make sure to make them roll sense motive checks and the like for all, or at least many, victims.

Oh, and avoid the "victims" muttering under their breath, or make obvious double entendres. "Innocent girls" telling heroes that they will show their gratitude by "sucking them dry" and actually making the quotation mark hand sign or overemphasising the sucking part will make all but the most oblivious and/or horny characters jump to one of two conclusions: succubus or vampire (poor pairaka divs, always overlooked). Same for girls who promise kisses and say their lips are "to die for" and wag their eyebrows so much it induces dizziness in onlookers.


First of all... you can't do this thing too often. What I've done in a similar situation with chronically skeptical players is make it sound like I'm making up the NPC on the spot... fumble around for a name or something.
Making it clear how important it is for the PC's to trust the NPC can be a huge red flag.
This can also happen if NPC interactions are uncommon. One of the peeps I play with has that problem when he DMs... when we meet an NPC (with a name!?)... time to get your dice ready and detect evil.

good input from previous posters... really like the idea of picking the "traitor' after the fact, Kaisoku.


Make sure you place the "wolf" is the proper setting. The players bursting into a room at the bottom of a keep and finding a woman who says she is a prisoner, but is healthy,not chained is a dead giveway. But finding a emancipated woman in a jail cell covered in filth and wounds and appearing to be in poor physcal condition would would easily fool adventueres. Same for the party comes up on a person being attacked by a group of undead/lycans/orcs etc. the person calls out for help as its being attacked, the party is more likely to help them then trust that they are not bad guy. Just walking up and seeing some guy in middle of forest is not going to work.


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I'm a pretty treacherous GM with my NPCs so I have some experience here. First off, by default, players naturally distrust NPC's because they are being controlled by the GM, and they know intrinsically that there is a line of separation between this character and the other characters in the party. If you really want this kind of thing to work you, need patience. Expect the party to distrust them from the start, and then work to gain their trust. Throw some combats out there and let the new NPC take some risks to help the party. Let him come to the rescue. Then in another encounter put him in danger and let the party come to his rescue. If someone in the party is particularly vocal about distrusting him, have him strive to impress that character. Make the player feel like his character's being a D-bag and the NPC is kindly and patiently turning the other cheek. Build up a history where the party doesn't just trust him, they WANT to trust him. Once he's been around a little while if you can casually win a few gestures of trust from the party you'll know your on the right track: for example, when camping ask the party if they're setting up watches. Have the npc offer to take the watch with the most vulnerable character or if possible a watch by himself, and then either have him faithfully help out in an encounter on that watch, or let the night pass smoothly without him trying anything. Once you've laid down some ground work, the betrayal isn't just more of a surprise, its more of a betrayal.

That said, if you spam this, it becomes more and more impossible to get the party to trust any NPCs. That's where you make it a point to pick a bunch of NPC's that you don't ever plan on betraying the party. If 1/3 of the friendly NPCs a party meets are traitors, then expect lots of dead NPCs who never even got the chance to lie. But if 1/10 of the helpful NPC's are traitors, then its not really worth it for the party to be overly suspicious.

Also, if you find that you've broken the party's NPC trust beyond a point where you are satisfied, just use more tricks. Come up with some situations that turn their mistrust against them. Make an NPC look really suspicious, then when the party turns against him, produce incontrovertible proof that his intentions were good, and create consequences for their aggression on him. Make it a world where PC's learn that they have to judge each NPC individually, and treachery is neither precluded or guaranteed.

Finally, make your traitors believable. If someone is hired by the enemy to specifically infiltrate their group, determine in advance what his intentions are and have him act on those intentions. If he has been instructed to lead the party into an ambush, then that's why he's hanging out with them, and that's why he doesn't just kill them in their sleep. If however, he is operating on his own and is simply waiting for an ideal time to attack the party when their guard is down, killing them in their sleep would make perfect sense, and it would be stupid for him to reveal his true nature when everyone was fully equipped and ready to go. If he intends to infiltrate and betray the party, but he seems to form real attachment to one of the characters, then make it possible for him to change his mind. Think about who he is, why he's doing what he's doing and how he feels about the situation he's in. If the party feels that the treachery itself doesn't make sense, then they don't just start to mistrust the character, they mistrust the plot. And once your in that boat don't be surprised when the party starts attacking the plot with swords.


I just ran a home-brew murder mystery in a small, fledgling lumber town of about fifty people. The party knew the killer was among the group, and so to avoid exactly this problem, I pre-generated descriptions and personalities for all fifty of them, so that the players would never be able to dismiss any NPCs due to lack of details about them. The PCs literally talked to every single person in the whole town and I ended up using every word I had written.

I'd suggest cooling it with the traitors for awhile, and make a conscious effort to give more description of random NPCs. Perhaps generate thirty-odd descriptions for NPCs, and everytime the party encounters some random guy use the next one on your list. It makes it seem like this NPC is important somehow when it's really just a fruit vendor.


If you want to use what amounts to social engineering against your PCs, you need to ensure that, on the balance, what their players reap in benefits from being functional members/heroes of society significantly outweighs the occasional treachery---otherwise your players are going to turtle on you, and that's not much fun.
So prisoners rescued should be pretty common on adventures---in fact they can effectively be part of the treasure (i.e. the reward that their families will lavish on the PCs for rescuing their youngest son, who they thought had been sacrificed on some altar to a dark god months ago might be part of the treasure allocation for a band of orcs). Members of the opposite sex SHOULD come on to PCs on a regular basis, even in some cases where they're already committed, not just succubi. PCs beyond 1-3rd level are very high status individuals---Kissinger has some choice thoughts as to how that affects one's love life.


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I just ran a home-brew murder mystery in a small, fledgling lumber town of about fifty people. The party knew the killer was among the group, and so to avoid exactly this problem, I pre-generated descriptions and personalities for all fifty of them, so that the players would never be able to dismiss any NPCs due to lack of details about them. The PCs literally talked to every single person in the whole town and I ended up using every word I had written.

I'd suggest cooling it with the traitors for awhile, and make a conscious effort to give more description of random NPCs. Perhaps generate thirty-odd descriptions for NPCs, and everytime the party encounters some random guy use the next one on your list. It makes it seem like this NPC is important somehow when it's really just a fruit vendor.


Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, PF Special Edition Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Superscriber

Thanks for the comments. I like the idea of putting more effort into describing actual innocents. Presumably that's the clue they're picking up on. As it is currently, i pretty much just remove any such scenario from the module - pretending to be surprised is probably no more fun for them than watching them fail to be taken in is for me.

The long term ally turning out to be a villain is a good strategy for me if I ever went back to writing my own adventures. I can't remember the last time I ran something which wasn't straight out of the box though - it's a little more difficult then as they're usually tied to the scenario in question.

Anyhow, thanks for the observations. Maybe I'll give it another go with some of those suggestions. Cheers.


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

My personal spin on this? Have the traitor be a PC. Definitely not something everyone can pull off, or that can work all the time, but brutally effective. As Edross said, there is a line of seperation between PCs and NPCs because the players known an NPC is an NPC. Players instinctively trust PCs, even when given little to know in character reason to do so.

A good friend of mine running a 3.5 game had his girlfriend "express interest in seeing what the game was about" and show up for a one-shot to play a "throwaway character".

At the end of that session, when she royally betrayed us and turned out to be a major villain in disguise, BOY were we surprised.

And it works even if the betrayal is more subtle. This was an intentional goal of mine with the Kingmaker game I'm running - several of my PCs secretly work for organizations that, while they are not directly antagonistic to the party, might not always have eachother's best interests in mind. In fact, one of my PCs is unknowingly doing the bidding of the main bad guy (and the great thing is, if my players read this, they wouldn't be able to figure out who I'm talking about... ^^).


Kaisoku wrote:

The best way to get around this metagame problem (players knowing what their characters necessarily shouldn't), is by approaching it from a metagame perspective.

Play to the way the player thinks, instead of the way the character thinks.

So instead of dropping the trick NPC into the game and finding a way to introduce them without seeming too obvious... pick a slightly-more-disposable NPC that the players have already begun to trust.

This is my favorite tactic for this trick. Generally I am not planting an NPC in the game with the intention of betraying the party. So, when I decide that I want to do just this, I will dig through the NPC's I have used and find one that the PC's have come to trust but is not a major ring leader (i.e. not in charge of anything, not high ranking in the military, and not important in any private circles). Then I drop some plot line or another and start the work from there. After some time I reveal that the NPC has been the one behind all that has been happening and betray the players. Takes a bit longer this way, but the reaction is more genuine. That, and I have only dropped this trick twice and all the players were different in those games, so no worries about "repeating."


In my current campaign, I'm actually working on trying to get the party to forgive a previous traitor. It's hard, but it seems to be working... at least they didn't kill him on their first meeting post betrayal. Laying down the ground work...


Had a player join a game (Star Trek RPG) on invite to play such a character. He gave away a few minor things, but the others never caught on until it was too late. On the eight session after he joined (about 4 months of gaming for us), the PCs were finally on the right track to stop the villainous organization that had eluded them. This is when the bastard turned on them. He killed off one PC and two significant allied NPCs along with crippling another significant allied NPC. Additionally, he delayed the group long enough for the leaders of the opposition to elude the PCs...

The group was devastated in character and impressed out of character at the roleplaying ability of the player. Lots of fun.

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