No Plan Survives First Contact With A Horny Bard
Who doesn’t love a good mastermind villain? You’ve got your grand evil schemes, plans within plans, laying elaborate mental traps for our plucky heroes – these nemeses delight in outsmarting their foes. They’re also really hard to write, especially in an interactive story like a tabletop RPG. At the table, you aren’t tricking some hypothetical reader – you’re matched against the combined intellect and problem-solving skills of all of your players. And players are smarter than you think. I personally know many game masters who spent hours on intricate intrigues only to have their players either see through it immediately or do something unexpected and bypass the whole thing (including me. I’m one of those GMs). But, as that holiest of books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, tells us: DON’T PANIC. I have an easy method that you can use to sell the idea of a mastermind to your plan-destroying players, and it can be expressed in one word: Turncoat
Shoot the Fake! I’m the Real One!
Turncoat doesn’t just mean “person who switches sides” in this context – it also means “person who pretends to be on one side but is a dirty, dirty liar who lies to your face.” Not just the do-gooder who turns to a life of crime, this is also the villain who puts on elaborate disguises or convincing accents and gets the heroes to do their bidding (or, at least, to leave them alone). What we’re doing here is a bit of the ol’ razzle-dazzle: we have the villain dramatically outsmart the players once, and they’ll believe their foe is smart forever (or, at least, for a while). We’re selling an illusion, using smoke and mirrors to get our players to buy into the intelligence of their enemy. To make a long story short (too late!), you don’t have to actually outsmart your players – you just have to fool them once.
So, how do we pull off the magic trick? You’ll need a 100-point plan accounting for every possible scenario including multiple branching paths and… just kidding. Five is the magic number here. With these five simple steps, you too can pull off the heist of a lifetime. Without further ado, they are:
Clear Goal â€”> Deny Information â€”> Establish Trust â€”> Secure the ‘Yes’ â€”> Dramatic Reveal
The villain isn’t looking to hire the heroes as full-time henchmen here. We want a clear and simple goal for our mastermind. Something like “escort me from here to there” or “get this thing for me”. Naturally, the players are unaware of the true meaning of the task until it’s too late. Write this goal down, and put the secret part in italics, such as:
- Escort me from here to there so I can kidnap my love interest.
- Find these criminals and by ‘criminals,’ I mean ‘resistance fighters’
- Get this thing for me so I can complete my doomsday device.
Keep it simple and keep it short. We’re using shorthand to sell the idea of a hyper-intelligent villain, not scribbling an evil manifesto or vomiting out the entirety of the villain’s plans.
We need our heroes to lack crucial information here. Maybe they don’t know what the villain looks like, or don’t know that there is a villain. Perhaps they took a job without knowing the details, or haven’t run into the townsfolk who know to avoid well-dressed strangers. There needs to be a blind spot in the players’ combined experience that we can hide a dastardly foe in. If the players just got here and don’t know who’s good and who’s bad, present the baddie as a goodie, or have them in a position of respected authority. If the players know about the villain, then this is a perfect time to bust out some fabulous disguises. That traveling salesman who restocks the party? Disguised turncoat. The sympathetic guard who helps the party sneak out of the city? Turncoat. A piece of outerwear facing the wrong direction and belonging to the villain? That’s a turncoat’s turned coat and is not an appropriate disguise.
The players have to believe that this secret enemy is on their side. Seems like a tall order, but we already laid the groundwork for this in the Deny Information step. Now, we’re just putting your plan in motion. As before, keep it simple. Also, keep it vague. If the turncoat launches into an elaborate cover story about how they’re eternal blood enemies of the villain and have been plotting their revenge for blah, blah, blah… Your players will instantly become suspicious. Too much detail can be your enemy here, but no detail is equally bad as it makes your turncoat seem like they’re hiding something. There’s a balance point here that can be tricky to find, but if you write the turncoat like any other quest-giver in your campaign, you’re golden.
Some believable disguises:
- A traveler whose car/wagon broke down in a dangerous area and needs an escort back to town
- A local mayor/magistrate who is hiring well-armed people to deal with a bandit or monster problem
- A chatty innkeeper who can’t travel because of the big bad’s army
- A guard/soldier who secretly hates the evil regime but doesn’t want to risk their family
- A crucified man being drained of water by a thirsty desert cult?
All of these could just as easily be regular, “I need help, here’s a quest” interactions, which is exactly the point – the turncoat should seem normal until the #BigReveal.
Secure the ‘Yes’
The turncoat has convinced the players to trust them. Great. Now, what? Now, we give the players the task and get them to do it immediately. If your players are walking up to the town magistrate, looking for work, then this step is done for you – give ’em the job, and let them find out the truth when they get on-site.
If you’re farther along and the players know up from down, then you need to get them on board and fast. Don’t give them time to see through your scheme. We need to sell the task as both urgent and relevant, but not cataclysmic. That traveler on the side of the road? They could be a vital ally, assuming they live through the next 24 hours. The innkeeper? They’ve heard rumors that their business will be raided by the evil army tonight. The important through-line is that the turncoat needs the party’s help, needs it urgently, and can be helpful against the villain in the future, assuming that their immediate needs are met. Avoid putting too much narrative weight to their ask, however – Do Not Hinge The Fate Of The World On This Task.
You may need to do a little extra work here to get the players to play along. Remember that if the turncoat needs the party’s help then they are, narratively speaking, weaker and less capable than the party. Use some storytelling shortcuts to sell the illusion. Maybe the turncoat tries to pull out a sword when the party approaches but nervously drops it. Maybe the turncoat is concealing a secret identity (not the actual identity – a fake within a fake) so badly that a toddler could figure it out. Failure elicits pity. You are Hans Gruber – pretend you’re one of the hostages.
The final piece of this narrative puzzle is showing the players that they’ve been lied to. This is vitally important. If the players don’t learn the truth then their opinion of the villain won’t change. All I’ve been yammering about here is a way to establish a villain as clever and conniving, a shortcut to mastermind-ness. Your hard work will be for nothing if you don’t show them that they’ve been had. Once you pull back the curtain, your players will realize that the big bad is toying with them, and, vitally, that the big bad is capable of toying with them. And, trust me: this is the fun part. Watching your table freak out when they learn that they were tricked is… perfection. They will become instantly invested in the story and will tell you at length how much they hate the turncoat and their dumb, smug face. “How dare they make us look like idiots?!” Rip off the mask and then sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
So, remember way back at the beginning of this article when I said writing masterminds was hard? Turns out describing how to write turncoats is also hard. Or long. I’ve run out of room here, but I want to give you some in-depth examples. This means, like many a great episode of Star Trek, we’re doing a two-parter! When next we meet, I’ll lay out three scenarios (one of which I actually pulled off at the table) to whet your creative appetite. Until then, safe travels!