This article is a preview of the show topic for Happy Jacks RPG Podcast Season 09 Episode 20. The show will be recorded on Friday, May 24th at 8:30pm Pacific Daylight Time. You can listen live at happyjacks.org/live.
As is often said, the plans you come up with as a GM are often thrown out the window once the players sit down to play. It is especially dangerous to give the PCs access to your main villain — even if they don’t yet know he’s the villain.
It’s even more challenging when the villain is a turncoat: a trusted ally of the party who has secretly been working against them the whole time.
Read any Dan Brown book (yes, literally, any one of the — they all have the same story) and you’ll know what I mean. In literature, it’s easy to pull this off: just have the protagonists act oblivious as you drop clues for the reader.
But in an RPG, your protagonists and your readers are the same people. If they catch on too early, your meticulously plotted plan (and your bad guy) might find themselves at an untimely end — and your game session cut short by hours.
Here are a few techniques I’ve had to come up with to successfully pull off a turncoat:
Play it Smart. The players are watching you. Even if they’re not the suspicious sort, once they come to the realization that the person or persons working against them knows too much about them, they’ll start casting about for suspicious activities. They’ll look for the mole, the spy, the saboteur. Make sure your turncoat has an alibi. Put some thought into who else he could deflect blame upon.
Don’t Let the Party Meet the Turncoat. It will never be as personal to the players if they’re deceived by someone they’ve never physically met, but it is a safe way to make sure your NPC gets a chance to betray the party. A patron who only communicates through phone or view screen. A magical sage who speaks with the party through some sort of spell or magic item. A lordly patron who communicates by messenger.
Have More Than One Potential Turncoat. Not the greatest solution, because it almost seems like cheating, but it can work. If the party has a group of NPCs that are close, set things up so that any one of the could be the turncoat. If the party suspect one and offs him, you have more. The important thing to remember is that you need to be consistent. Make sure none of them has done anything that the turncoat wouldn’t do. Make sure they all have times when they are unaccounted-for. Keep the party guessing.
The most important part of a story involving a turncoat is the dramatic betrayal of the trusted ally. For this to work, the party must truly trust the turncoat. It’s best if you can orchestrate things so that the party also likes the NPC. Then when his plan is finally sprung, you’ll have an opportunity for some intense role-playing.