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If anyone has experience running a game like this, what are some common errors to avoid and tips you would give to a GM embarking on such a campaign?

Specifically I intend to have a 3 PC party with 2 playing as the "heroes" and 1 playing as the "villain". We'll be running BRP with the Call of Cthulhu setting/rules.

I'll need to work with the Villain Player to set up his plans in advance, and he'll also have access to future events in the plot, while also subverting this relationship at certain junctions to make the game a challenge for VP too.

What I'm wondering about at this pre-production stage is:

  • How do I set up a system wherein the Villain Player knows plot points in advance without giving him an unfair advantage over the Hero Players. I want the Villain-Hero relationship to be as dynamic as possible while still having a coherent over-arching narrative.
  • How do I run this game with minimum player segregation - I don't want to have a rotating door system of people walking in and out of the room to play each turn.

But at this point everything's up in the air save for the system we'll be using, the players, and of course the central premise of 2 heroes and 1 villain. As said above, aside form those specific points on the mechanics of the campaign, I'm mostly interested in stories and examples of GMs/DMs/Keepers pulling off a similar campaign and the rules/system they set up to make it organic and interesting.

To further clarify, I'm very much in the early exploratory phases for this campaign so the original question was posted basically as a shot in the dark literally after one of my players suggested the idea(and he feels strongly that it'll work). The group is with long-time friends and we've done some campaigns together before, so trust isn't an issue and we all know eachothers RPGing quirks and tastes very well. Role-Playing, exploration, and mystery solving are our priorities in terms of entertainment gained, with occasional combat to add spice

I'm mostly interested in case-study style anecdotes of how others have managed such campaigns in the past and what helped them make the experience smooth for the PC party and themselves.

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4 Answers

I have tried this in two ways in the past. I think of the two, only one will be of use for your objective.

PC Villain in the Group

Create the villain with its player and discuss what their villainous goal actually is. Ensure the player can and will commit to being a villain. Their goal should require the villain to need to be close to or involved with the players to achieve. You will probably want the nature of your villain to be a big revelation at some stage of the campaign, so they need strong hooks to tie them to the heroes, and to tie them to what the heroes are trying to do.

Of course, the heroes will want to achieve a positive outcome in the scenario, while their supposed "friend and fellow hero" is actually trying to ensure a negative outcome. This ensures challenge for each player without necessitating that the players be targetting each other, limiting the sense of mutual dependence, or requiring that the relationship be entirely based on lies.

In truth, the variance between the heroes and the villain might only a slight difference in ideology, the burden of a dark family secret, or the interplay of noble but misguided intentions.

Example:

*Over time the group learns that an ancient prophecy claims a soul-collecting terror from ages past will rise again to plague a small village on the ancestral lands of one of the characters. As they uncover more and more about the prophecy, they realize that the time will soon arrive. They must act now. They become desperate to discover a way to prevent or guard against the soul-collector. Throughout this period, the villain is aware that it was their many times great grandmother which unleashed this foul curse on the village in the first place to spare her own children from the ravages of the soul-collector. If the villain chooses to delve deeper into the lore of the family, they will discover much more about the monster than the heroes, including that it was bound by the family to both stop greater depredations and to extract special favors from it. They can, if they have the will, learn how to bind it, and become tempted by what the being will offer for even a little bit of freedom. They will also learn that if the monster is balked it will come for them, their siblings, and other members of that generation within the family and nothing will be able to stop it. Worse, if they reveal the family secret they will be disowned, the monster will take back all the gifts it provided the family, and it will be set loose to kill indiscriminately. To ice the cake, if the villain chooses to master the rites involved, they can gain direct control of the monster and earn their own, very special favors from it.

The heroes will of course be committed to stopping the creature, and their flawed understanding of the situation will enable the villain, if they stick close to the heroes, to monitor progress and to try to redirect it when necessary to prevent success.*

Requirements

This style of scenario best pits character goal versus character goal, but not character versus character explicitly. It does not need to require that the villain receive lots of useful extra knowledge, nor that they go off for extended periods to plot or take care of things off-screen. Moreover, it allows all the players to play toward a goal of uncertain resolution, rather than forcing one of them to be a glorified NPC just there to trick the players. A great scenario will have lots of conflicting emotions on both sides of the group as the course of events plays out.

Key Points

  • Everyone plays in the scenario, no ringers or PCNPCs
  • Each has a related goal that they may or may not achieve
  • once play starts there is no meta-fiddling with the villain's knowledge or activities
  • the heroes may remain focused on ending the threat little knowing they have a viper in their midst
  • the villain has the burden of keeping their secret agenda of foiling the goal of the heroes without getting caught

At the end, there is a chance for a dramatic conclusion when the duplicity of the villain ultimately comes to light. If the bonds between all the PCs are tight, the heroes may even be swayed to the villain's side...

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excellent write up! I'd add that you have to pre-plan the outline of how the good-guys uncover the bad-guy's intentions. in a 2-on-1 situation it's reasonable that the good-guys will figure out the bad-guy earlier than you want. It's also possible that the bad-guy player may give away clues too soon. In these situations, i generally try to make the two sides even by having the same number of players on each –  SteveED Nov 3 '12 at 15:51
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Why you have to preplan it? When and how the bad guy goes uncovered will depend on the wits of good and bad guys. I'll let the players a fair competition. –  Flamma Nov 3 '12 at 20:14
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I have played "PCs as villains" in various ways. The more you want a long, traditional campaign play with all the PCs "in the group," the more constrained you will be in options - a one shot or a planned several session adventure, you can accomplish this all sorts of wild ways.

Covert Bad Guy In The Group

In a long Night Below campaign (AD&D 2e), I had one PC who was the agent of an evil organization (the Scarlet Brotherhood) which however wasn't the primary opposition for much of the campaign. He was urged to just "observe and report" and they'd feed intel back to him. The SB had its own agenda re: the other power blocs the PCs were interacting with. This could be modified easily for the PC Villain to be more proactive, but you need a similarly indirect goal. If the problem can be solved with "Well I kill these other three dumbasses in their sleep" then the campaign won't last long. You have to have some active reason for the PC Heroes and PC Villain, if they are hanging out, to not kill each other if the villain's "discovered."

Also note this model is fragile - that player eventually left the group. Since he was a subplot that was fine, if he was "the" villain that would have been harder (though entertainingly, the other players never knew he was a spy, so even after he retired from the party after becoming an NPC they would go find him to give him updates and ask his advice.)

Not So Covert Bad Guy In The Group?

This is harder, but you might be able to have an open baddie in the group under controlled conditions. It doesn't have to be a symmetrical relationship, for example, the movie Se7en comes to mind, where the two cops have the serial killer in custody for a good bit of the movie but his plan is already unfolding, so they're dragging him along in handcuffs trying to stop it. This is probably the only way to do long campaign, same group, with planned plot. Or maybe the "villain" is an evil artifact they are taking/using (Stormbringer!) that the plot relies on. But here you need a big, big, super overwhelming issue to keep the guy alive because it'll be very easy for, under pressure, them to decide at any given time "just kill him!"

Hard Hitting PC On PC Action

In one high level Forgotten Realms campaign (AD&D 2e) where we were playing Four from Cormyr, half of one party got vampirized into daywalking vampires and then they were all out in this ruin in a swamp with half the group trying to vamp the other half, and the others trying to kill and rez the vamps. It happened by accident but ended up spanning three play sessions, as they were equal in power and really got into the challenge of it. I had to go back and forth between rooms though, because much of the juice of this setup comes from tactically outdoing the other group. This is clearly a more time limited option, but hey, every campaign doesn't have to be a Three Year Epic (tm).

Player Plays BBEGs

I haven't done this with one player playing the same villain every session, but with major or recurring villains I like to have a real player show up and play them - it makes climactic combats "fair" and super hardcore. The players definitely know why that other player is there and it does require a little note-passing, but then again I tend to discourage metagame talk at the table so it isn't too disruptive. Tends to not be the same villain, but gets you some of that PvP frisson.

Players With Different Goals

OK now, this sounds like it's maybe what you're going for - players with different motivations who then inevitably come into conflict. That's cool and awesome. The problem is, you can't really plan it. PCs are/should be dynamic people, so you can plant seeds but you can't make "that guy the villain." It doesn't work that way.

In that same Night Below campaign, there was an eventual party schism along the lines of the "let's learn crazy Cthulhian lore and maybe sacrifice a party member if we need to in order to power a ritual to keep the world safe" faction and the "we are good people and we'll try to overcome but even if we don't it doesn't justify betraying friends" faction. I did a lot to encourage this and generally knew where the players would fall on that divide, but by its very nature is uncontrolled and up to the players. And maybe the players just say "hey, I'm the villain, whatever happens I'll just keep with the original plan" but the longer the campaign, the more unsatisfying that becomes.

I was a player in a Planescape campaign where I was a bladeling and we went through this whole plot where I started to get dreams from the Lords of Blades or something, that wanted to be freed to kill all the gods and start over. The party's plan was in general to thwart this goal. Once we got down to the end, however, I decided that I saw no good reason for it to NOT happen and plenty of good reasons for it to, so I tried to let them out. Oddly, this was counter to the DM's plans (aren't those the kinds of seeds you plant when you want this to happen?) and people didn't like the PvP that started, so I had to handwave giving in.

Storytelling!

Now, there are various storygames, like Fiasco, designed to be played from less of an in character point of view and more from a playwright point of view, where you will all sit around and control the heroes and villains and therefore the need for information compartmentalization is gone. This is generally a major step away from the core kind of IC experience you get from traditional games, though, so you'd have to decide if you're into that or not. (I'm not.)

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The different goals section reminds me a CoC game we played. We were gangster and had a boss, and we discovered the boss was trying evil plans. It was supposed that we would act against it and try to stop those plans. But I felt my character cared more about loyalty that evilness (a gangster after all), so I fought my companions. Fortunately for all, my character lost and died, and I had the chance to generate a less evil character. If I had won I think my fellow players could have been upset. –  Flamma Nov 4 '12 at 15:18
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I had some experience with this, both from a very old AD&D game where inter-party rivalries culminated in assassination attempts from one PC and from a slightly more recent CoC game where one of the PCs was "possessed".

So he was still being played by the regular player (and in the end cured) but for part of the campaign he was pursuing an agenda which was in direct contrast with those of the rest of the group.

In my experience, this does not work very well. The main problem is communication: as you mentioned, you either force players to be segregated or have to communicate "secretely" by exchanging short messages at the table (we used slip of papers, now perhaps you can use a chat app on smartphones).

The problem with this approach is twofold:

  • a) it distracts everyone from the main adventure
  • b) it soon makes obvious that something is going on, because "villain" PC will often have to exchange notes with the Referee, and this makes him/her stand out.

A solution for "b" is to have every player having an "agenda" and some secret (the difference being that the two "non-villains" have goals which are still aligned and are just trying to protect some personal information, or do not trust the others etc. - one of them could be a police officer who infiltrated the group, for example).

This way everyone is passing notes, or texting at different moments and therefore the villain won't stand out. The problem is that in this way point "a" is even more of a pain.

But if you actually manage to pull this through I believe it could work very well. Have a look at the movie "Ronin", for example, where the members of the group share (at least at the start) a common goal, and yet all of them have some secrets to keep from each other, and soon we find that some of them are allies and some are enemies...

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As people has told you, it's quite easy to play with a traitor infiltrated in the character's group. I have done it dozens of times. To minimize the time talking with players appart, or the notes passed, I recommend you to meet the traitor(s) before the game session start, or, if you can, talk with him other day, between game session (doesn't have to take much time). This way some of the secret actions can be advanced. For instance: "if one of my companions goes to the basement, I lock the door", or "when I tell you I'm going to buy weapons, I mean my character goes and tell my demonic masters what's happening". This way you can have a series of codes and conditions which makes secret interaction exceptional.

The only thing you must care about is that the players are accepting the outcome sportly. A character being killed by another character (the most extreme situation) can potentially upset the victim player, so you must know well your players before allowing the situation. Also, the traitor player must have an escape way or be prepared to his character to die, because he will surely be eventually discovered.

The other option, a villain character playing apart and against the protagonists seems very hard to achieve. You'll need very good players, able to not use out of character knowledge and to play sportly.

One option would be let the antagonist know the players actions (a crystal ball, an informer, spy dispositives,...) and make him react in secret. The antagonist player must know that he will play less time. His role would be an observer, and then short actions (commands to his minions, cast a spell, escape,...).

If you play this way, I wish you luck, because it seems hard. But if you suceed, it can also be epic.

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