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Concept

I want to get a generally benevolent party to unwittingly further the villain's motives. More than parcel delivery - I'd like to tap into their sense of right/wrong, justice, vigilantism, what-have-you. My idea for this is for the villain to be some sort of mobster and they'd recruit the characters to 'punish some bad guys,' when in actuality all they'd be doing is harassing his enemies and executing his dirty work. Think late '60s and early '70s CoIntelPro.

Question

  1. How can I get them to see what they're doing as good?

  2. How can I get them to remain jaded against reasoning with their 'bad guys?'

  3. Lastly, how can I maximize the chances that they won't catch onto the villain's plans, and thus keep them in 'pawn' status as long as possible?

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Not a full answer, but have some known evil peon who is about to die Suggest to a PC not to do something — the rest of the party will rush off and do it, even if they don't know the consequences! If the evil peon is intelligent enough to use this reverse psychology on a brash party, it can be quite effective.. –  dlras2 Jul 22 '13 at 18:58
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Not a direct answer, so I'm keeping this as a comment. Very carefully! I've pulled this off a few times. I thought it was cool but the players resented it. Any time I invalidate their actions or decisions, they get upset. In this case I did it a lot and they felt like none of the decisions they made throughout the game ever really matter since it was all manipulated. You can pull the puppet strings sometimes, but make sure that most of the players' actions are their own. –  valadil Jul 22 '13 at 19:17
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How to do it? Lie to them. However, also give them an out somewhere along the line to either discover the deception, opt out at the ultimate moment, or atone once they discover it. –  JohnP Jul 22 '13 at 20:39
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Further point along the lines of valadil's comment - if there is a near 100% chance the players end up as pawns then you are railroading. If you progressively give them clues, it's a cool adventure plot - but still not one that 100% of players would appreciate. –  psr Jul 22 '13 at 21:22
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If you've ever watched the TV show Alias then you would pick up the way that the enemy entity operates to look legitimate –  Sean Cheshire Jul 23 '13 at 13:57
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10 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Well Lithe, I'll take a stab at your little problem as one of my favorite things to include in the game is a bit of moral grey area.

1) You have to remember that most of the time, people will automatically assume that those that work against them in anything but the most passive ways as the "bad guys" and usually even the good guys will do something morally ambiguous in order to make things turn out in their favor. Think ends justify the means. Your "bad guys" could have been doing that. Possibly they have been attacking businesses run by your Patron and in the process have harmed innocent workers or customers. Your Patron just happens to leave out that the store was a front for a drug ring or something. Its less about what your Patron tells the party and more about what he DOESN'T tell them.

2) In order to keep your group from turning on the Patron, the best thing you can do is to keep the interactions with the "bad guys" on hostile terms. Even if they were to capture one to interrogate, keep the captive insulting and spitting in their faces or something. Even the most patient of people will lose it after a bit of that and strike the captive or begin to torture him. Another good point would be to make the party somehow be harmed by the "bad guys". A drive by shooting becuase the "bad guys" have found out the Patron approached the party to do some work.

3)Make the Patron play the part of the victim. Any interaction that the party and the Patron have should be with the Patron imploring them for help or being slightly servile. If the man is older it would help to play the helpless old man. If you are in a situation with the Patron's power showing, say it is simply a gathering of political activists or community organizers. Thinly veiled terms for Mobster, but good enough that, if played right, the Party won't catch on. A charitable organization would be a good cover too.

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If the first time I meet Professor Evil, he's being beaten in an alleyway by thugs and calling for help, I'm very likely to be sympathetic! Who's to say if those thugs are from a rival gang...or even staged by him, to garner my sympathies. –  Jeff Fry Jul 22 '13 at 21:51
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Have more than one villain - and develop all of your villains into full characters who, besides their "villaining" dark side, have neutral and good traits as well.

Go for realism character-wise. Nobody's entirely good or evil. Every power player has some good in them (and they might turn out to be the father of one of your PCs as well. Especially if the PC is called Luke. :))

In the case of the "friendly" villain, whose agenda you wish the PCs to further, focus on the positive traits. Illustrate them regularly, but not always by casting direct light on them (that would be too obvious), but subtly, through hints and clues, and contrast them with the negative traits of the "enemy".

Example: When a PC gets shot by a rival mobster, he's taken to a hospital for a few days, where he accidentally overhears a conversation between a woman and a doctor. Turns out she's the wife of your friendly don Villainetti, and she's interviewing the doctor about the needs of the hospital, for she and her husband are about to donate a larger sum to the institution which saved their daughter's life. The doctor (a top member of the hospital's board) doesn't want to accept the donation, for he's afraid the cops, lead by Chief Inspector Goodman, a pawn of Mayor Major, would use it - their accepting Villainetti's money, that is - in the political game to oust the current board of the hospital and fill the positions with their medically incompetent lackeys. Villainetti's wife responds to this that she and her husband know this, and are willing to donate anonymously - which shows that they really are thankful. So, who's evil here? Sure everyone, a bit. For when the PC recovers, he and the party gets asked by Villainetti to arrange some money laundering for him. For the hospital, of course. Only for the hospital. Problem is, CI Goodman has too many eyes. Some should be forced shut for a while.

Yes, the above example would partially fit the third point of @WhiteWolfDM's answer (a good one that I upvoted) as well. What I'm trying to emphasize here, in contrast with that, is that there should be real good in your friendly villain, that he should be a layered, well developed character, more dark gray than black... and that his enemies, against whom he's going to use the PCs, shouldn't really be simple victims either, most of the time: they should be just as fully rounded, gray figures. A cop - who beats his wife (who's slowly poisoning him in turn.) A state prosecutor - who sent her husband to jail using fabricated, false evidence to get rid of him (because he's been cheating on her, in turn, because..., because...)

You get the idea, I guess. Complex layers of opposing personalities, contradictory layers of information, slow revelations. :)

But, as @valadil said in a comment: Be careful, don't overdo it. You don't want frustrated players turning away from your storytelling. Give them successes.

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I've played a game where we were low level characters caught between rival factions, forced to choose sides but uncomfortable knowing that no side was above reproach. It was a unique, positive experience for me...though some other players found they simply didn't enjoy a game where there were so few "great" choices. Definitely know your players first, as even done well this would alienate some. –  Jeff Fry Jul 22 '13 at 21:48
    
Very interesting take. +1 I'll definitely be using this if I do pull this off. Yes - definitely for the PC successes, I intend to try it once and let them swiftly overcome the person playing them as pawns after they find out. –  LitheOhm Jul 22 '13 at 23:57
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+1, finally a good answer. –  Sardathrion Jul 23 '13 at 6:47
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I tend to run campaigns where everyone is morally dubious, since my main game is Shadowrun and that sort of lends itself to those sorts of things, but there's a number of things that I do to create the image that the bad guys are the good guys:

  1. First Impressions: Often, my players assume that the first people they meet are the people they're meant to be with, and that they are lawful good crusaders, often driven by the fact that the people they're with tend to be the driven vigilante type of NPC's, who justify their actions by pointing to the crimes of their victims. My Dark Heresy campaign had a couple players who weren't big on the lore, and were really gung-ho about being Acolytes and how great their job hunting down servants of Chaos to save the innocent populace was until they got to witness an Exterminatus on said innocently populated world. That changed their tune just a little.
  2. Good isn't Pure: The best ways to drive the players from realizing the horrible nature of their own employers is to expose them to the worst of the good guys' stuff. Maybe the good guys use necromancy to keep their agents safe, sending in expendable corpses. Maybe their first encounter with the town across the way is a fed-up, desperate man raiding their post-apocalyptic outpost for supplies. Maybe they just get an introduction to Seattle in the middle of scandals and race riots, predisposing them to hate the entrenched authorities. Stuff like that very easily prejudices the players against the real good guys; a rogue agent, seemingly despicable tactic, or even an outright moral compromise on the behalf of otherwise benevolent forces can go a long way to keep them from questioning their own orders.
  3. The Cookie Jar: If you've ever played Borderlands 2, there's a part where you can even question how much you hate the overtly genocidal, megalomaniac Handsome Jack when you see how much he cares about his [spoiler redacted]. The bad guys don't think of themselves as the bad guys; Jonestown claimed to take care of its inhabitants and safeguard them from the world, Mussolini made the trains run on time, Caesar was a populist who undid a republic. Letting the players catch a glimpse of what the good guys are fighting for; a pleasant suburb community, the promise of clean water for the wastelands, or a hope for strength against the oncoming horrors of the Sixth World all seem overtly good things on the surface, until you realize that there's only self-interest driving their actions; the suburbs are notably clear of ethnic diversity, the clean water contains a virus that kills off people who don't meet a genetic baseline, the horrors are being repelled through sacrifices that may or may not even help in the long run. Mind you, it's the Cookie Jar because the players are never allowed in-merely showed it and given it as a motive. If they get to hang out there too long, they might get suspicious, and only a stupid or confident villain would let that happen. That said, these things definitely seem like admirable goals on the surface, and...
  4. The Road to Hell: ...is paved with good intentions. Bad guys almost never think of themselves as evil, chaotic forces. Even in the fringe cases that they do, they operate under some code (for instance, the former paladin who becomes a blackguard to be unfettered while hunting down threats to the safety of his community) or have mental issues (the Joker, for instance) that complicate the question of whether or not they are truly evil or just need help and reformation. I've found that the best villains are the ones who can be convinced that their attempts are failing or causing more harm than good. Now, they may be too dogmatic to realize this, and it may cause an existential crisis (Inspector Jalvert from Les Miserables is a great example) within them, but because they view themselves as good there is no real question about what they are doing. Alternatively, if you want to get really dark, you can look at genocides as an example, Rwanda and Germany perhaps have the largest body of literature on the subject of their genocides. Frequently people would recognize their neighbors, sometimes even fondly, but killing them was justified without a thought because it's "what we do to them", without any real moral thinking behind it. Making the bad guys follow, or at least not violate, a set moral code makes it hard to realize they're bad guys until a specific action rips apart the masquerade.
  5. Need to Know: The best way to keep players pawns is to make them pawns, and think about what that really means. When they're working for someone who is evil but questions their commitment, they may be sent on missions that are the least horrifying. Instead of hitting the village with napalm and white phosphorous, they may rather be sent to wipe out the military installation with less contentious weapons technology; the horrors of their actions, such as allowing a smaller, elite, loyal force to go in and massacre civilian populations, will not be immediately apparent. Some historians say that this was the sort of tactic used in the German army during WWII, though modern historiography seems to suggest that there was more of a Cookie Jar/Road to Hell tactic instead of necessarily the lack of knowledge about genocides and war crimes. However, if you don't feel like brainwashing your players' characters, this works well.
  6. Too Late to Turn Back: The part of the campaign that I always celebrate when I try to get my players to go for the bad guys is when they realize that leaving equals sacrifice. This is the best part, because it tests the depth of their convictions both in-character and not. For instance, if they were hired to bomb a bridge so that a rent-a-cop contract got changed, and they figure out their employer, they then must face the question of how they can justify setting off a dirty bomb in Seattle and killing thousands of people when they thought they were just going to drop a bit of bridge into water and minimize population damage. This is a staple of dramas where a character joins a politically motivated group then realizes that they're planning something extreme; be it a cult, ecoterror group, or other organization, they think they're signing on for the rebellious good-guy schtick but get the "Nah, we're killing them all." outcome and must decide if they want to risk their lives to turn against their very dangerous bosses.
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Great answer, some fantastic solid points and "shades of good and evil" here. Point 1 is especially good, players just don't realise people LIE sometimes :) –  Rob Jul 23 '13 at 9:37
    
Very nice, especially 2-4. I wonder if 5 wouldn't accomplish the 'undermining' danger people are warning me about, though? –  LitheOhm Jul 23 '13 at 15:01
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I mean, 5's really subjective; players don't like limited knowledge, and you shouldn't be too vague with them. Another way to handle 5 is to mention "Yeah, someone over in Unit 219 snapped and offed most of a town" rather than explicitly stating "Unit 219's orders were to exterminate the inhabitants of New Stalingrad". Intentional deception can go as far as just not telling the players. As far as "undermining" goes, I tend to favor an imperialist GM attitude; if the players take it, I'll give it. –  Kyle Willey Jul 23 '13 at 20:30
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How about a straightforward false-flag operation, where a discreet gentleman tells the party they have been selected as potential government intelligence agents? A couple of standard con-tricks (meeting in the genuine office of a senior bureaucrat who's on holiday, having the recruiter use his supposed status to gain instant obedience from a 'street cop' who's actually a mobster in a stolen uniform, asking them to phone for confirmation but diverting the call) and the party will be happy to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, particularly if they are issued with official-looking badges. (How many people actually know what a secret agent's badge actually looks like? If "A lot" then it's not hard to fake; if "hardly anybody" they have no way of checking. Most probably. the mobster recently caught an infiltrator, and copied his genuine ID).

But I do urge careful thought before you do this, at least with a system-agnostic tag. Most players, unless the setting positively encourages paranoia, prefer to spend limited gametime overcoming obstacles and fighting enemies rather than checking credentials, and it's not hard to take advantage of that. Equally, it's not hard for the bad guys to spend hours working out foolproof tactics in the expected situation, trap the party who only had five minutes to plan, and achieve TPK. Either can and will be seen as a betrayal.

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+1 that's fairly simple, which I like. I'm definitely noting your advice to consider it - you've brought up really good concerns. –  LitheOhm Jul 22 '13 at 23:53
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The "false-flag" is always a favorite. –  CatLord Jul 23 '13 at 1:41
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Some of my options may parallel other reponses, but I wanted to put them in my own words.

  1. Mysterious Benefactor: "When the money comes rolling in you don't ask how", so when the backer has some questionable requests they turn the gray area white with the shine of gold.
  2. The Devil You Know: When a new threat arises, sometimes the party has no choice but to pair with an evil they already know how to fight. There is no smokescreen, and they can expect treachery but this is a favorite seed of mine in games like L5R, where the party knows the Scorpion has a plot but they can't pin it down while (s)he's helping them in this moment at least.

  3. False Victim: The villain takes the role of someone they would defend and let their rivals start knocking down the doors for the party to deflect and maybe retaliate.

  4. The Advocate: Whether it's true or not, the (currently unknown) villain claims to be the middle man for someone the party actually trusts. The orders get warped or have little personal addendum added in that make the party circle back to find out too late.

  5. Red Herring: often times in my games, PCs aren't terribly adept at finding plots that don't flash in neon signs. Enter the Informant. This little bugger is the superspy who needs the meatshields to protect him from the enemies that can find him. Moreover, he becomes the party's fixer and finds little favors to do them. He steps over the line? Fine. Party can do without staying in the nicer inns. Their paperwork can take an extra week or seven. Maybe their horses get fleas. The party will come crawling back sometime. Until then? He gets a new meat phalanx.

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hehehe... meat phalanx. Option #2 is always been the best IMO. Especially if that devil has honorable goals... supposedly. –  Jersey Jul 23 '13 at 16:56
    
+1 I dig 2, 4 and 5 especially –  LitheOhm Jul 23 '13 at 18:02
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As a GM, you can usually manipulate the players into doing nearly anything you want them to do, without 'railroading' them. The trick is misdirection.

The key is to distract them with some other plot device at the time of giving out a mission. You can, for example, have an NPC of unassailable goodness hand out the mission - perhaps a dying unicorn who's been injured fighting some evil. They'll be so curious about the back-story that they won't question the mission.

For example, I once had a tree send the characters on a mission to save the forest. The tree itself was despicably evil and so was the quest. But the players never once questioned the quest because it was given by a tree, and in western society, things 'green' are unassailably 'good'. In another instance, I had a pair of elderly women, twins, beg the party to rescue another old woman, their triplet. Because that was so odd, the players were distracted by the novelty of the old women, they didn’t question the mission (which was to attack a small outpost of the king's men, who were looking for a band of bandits run by two elderly women).

Another, more subtle example of the PCs being pawns... I once had the players unknowingly assist in an assassination plot by having a suspicious man offer them a large pre-payment for simply performing a mundane errand - buying all the high quality fabric in town. He was so suspicious looking, the players went along with it, thinking they'd catch him in some evil act when they delivered the goods. But he never showed at the meeting point. And the assassins, posing as the only dress maker left in town with quality fabric in stock, gained access to the castle. The players were very upset at themselves when the realized they had been used as patsies. And of course, the royal investigators soon noticed that a party of adventurers had curiously cleared out all the dress shops of fabric, drawing suspicion.

This is obviously something you don’t want to do often, but used judiciously, you can catch the players off guard.

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+1 actually, now that I think of it, one of the Elder Evils villains uses this tactic. –  LitheOhm Jul 23 '13 at 18:01
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+1 I've always been a fan of good deads that just aren't, as you can always introduce a potential double-cross or realization that something isn't right to give things a good twist. I saw a great one recently in SWTOR where a sick old man wants you to help "purify the water" from terrible pollution that is making people sick. Turns out that 'purify' means "mutate and drive creatures insane to kill everyone" so there'd be no more people left to pollute. It was ham-handed and forced in the game itself, but its a great premise. –  BrianDHall Jul 25 '13 at 5:06
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  1. I would have them meet with the villain and have them at like a person the characters would like. Have the characters get to know the villain before offering the job. Make the characters think he is a good guy. After gaining the trust of the characters have one of his henchmen rush in saying they had been attacked by Group A.

  2. If the befriending was successful then the characters might be more jaded. This could be furthered if one of the characters were to be badly injured on the mission. Not killed but a controlled explosion or such could assist with this instilling a want for revenge in the characters.

  3. I would limit the characters access to the town outside of the villains domain so they won't hear any rumors about their 'friend' until you want them to

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+1 urgency. Also for the sabotage tactic. Any alternative to limiting the characters access to the town outside? –  LitheOhm Jul 22 '13 at 18:38
    
I would have the villain either tell the character the 'bad guys' are looking for them around town and they should stay close to the area or something similar. It somewhat depends on the characters and if they would go out looking for a fight. It also depends on the size of the city and if they can reach everything they would need while inside the villains area. –  Aaron Jul 22 '13 at 18:43
    
k. Most of my players do go out looking for fights, unfortunately (for this purpose anyway) –  LitheOhm Jul 22 '13 at 18:52
    
That might not be a bad thing exactly. It is not like the 'bad guys' are going to just stop fighting and ask why are you helping the bad guy unless you want them to as the DM. You could attempt to control where the characters go by having the villain pay them to patrol a certain area. This is also a good way to give characters some cash to play with if there is not a lot in the world. –  Aaron Jul 22 '13 at 19:02
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This was actually the plot for my very first game (Eberron). What I did was have them going under an umbrella goal of good. In this case it was to help the more minor races of Eberron (warforged, shifter, goblinoid, etc. which they were already playing) gain more respect and power compared to the "normal" races. This was reinforced by the fact that they know I like monstrous races, so my con had a bit of truth to help it along.

My big bad gave them missions that seemed like it was for their gain, but was actually for his plan of world domination, which may sound over used but the way I see it there is a pretty large power gap in the Eberron setting. I thought the scam was a little too obvious as my big bad was pretty mean and only had the one goal in mind whenever they tried to diverge, but to my surprise they bought the whole thing and had no idea he was going to turn on them. They eventually fought and defeated him, saved the world, and did help out the little guy quite a bit actually.

So I guess my answer would be:

  • Have a cover premise that's believable. A bit of truth in the con helps.

  • Mask your actions and even the way you present your bad guy (master of many faces or something in that manner may be beneficial).

  • Let them take most of the lead on how the missions are done. Your big bad needs to be concerned with the final outcome, not how they got there, so that they can choose to do every mission with the "good" options and won't be easily tipped off that it will ultimately be evil.

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Have one of your players be a confederate for the villain. Many players enjoy secret knowledge, even if it's that their character has been body swapped with a pod person or that they are a covert agent for a shadowy organization manipulating events while everyone else is in the dark. The confederate can manipulate the rest of the party into destroying artifacts, feed them false information from scouting expeditions, and cover up any evil fall out from what the rest of the party believes are heroic actions.

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+1 for secret knowledge –  LitheOhm Jul 25 '13 at 1:24
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I have found that after the initial distrust my party constantly trust NPCs that have proven themselves to be useful and often begin to take everything they say at face value until proven otherwise. Providing a Criminal organisation can subtly influence a person in contact with the players this makes it easy to guide the players as pawns.

Below is an example scenario of how a campaign would develop with this theme though it does suit more of a 50's Noir feel.

The characters have recently beaten down/arrested or otherwise removed a local thug and shortly after they receive a small message from a local bar owner thanking them and offering them drinks on the house that evening.

The bar itself is in fact a safehouse and a cover for a small local brothel under the control of the criminal organisation that wishes to influence the party, they are also responsible for the invitation. When the party arrives they are indeed treated to free drinks and are the heroes of the hour, a few of the waitresses or local girls flirt with them, the bartender chats happily with them thanking them for removing the thug and they have a great time with the promise of half price drinks whenever they are in and perhaps some favours.

Hopefully the party will begin seeing this as their potential hangout and begin frequenting it more often though only the most astute characters should realise something is a little off about the place at this time I.E: The locals girls with different men each time, a general nervousness around some regulars, the girls vanishing into the backrooms on occasion.

At this point the bartender begins asking them questions along the lines of "If they had heard about those shady deals over in.." in a manner that he is under the assumption the party as local vigilantes already know and intend to do something. Of course this is all a ploy to subtlety direct the characters towards a rival mob's shipments of drugs and weapons, for the criminal gang at this point everything is a win/win either their rivals suffer a set back or a possible future problem is killed off.

This drip feed of information continues with stories of "My brothers kid in the force says.." and "I've heard from one of the delivery lads.." each with just enough information or a name to have the party start investigating until the group trusts their bartender friend perhaps even coming to rely on him for information more so than other sources even in unrelated cases.

At this stage all these tips have been aimed at obviously illegal operation's that have had no connection to the Criminal Gang but the removal of which would help them stabilise their position in their territory and they can claim they had no hand in the attacks as they were done by a unaffiliated party thus preventing retribution attacks.

However a minor complication/opportunity has arisen for the Criminal Gang, one of the corrupt police officers that they pay off so their businesses are ignored is demanding a larger cut. Not wanting to continue paying the corrupt officer nor obviously remove him the Criminal Gang begins a scheme to use the characters group as more direct pawns.

Informing the corrupt officer to collect his pay off from the players frequented bar with the code word "This months insurance" the players observing the transaction. If the party tries to intervene they are rebuffed and threatened by the arrogant and aggressive officer and the bartender pleads with them to not intervene. Once the corrupt officer leaves the Bartender privately breaks down and confides in the players informing them that he caught several of his waitresses prostituting themselves to customers for extra money but rather than throwing them out onto the street where they would continue he allowed them to use the backrooms so they would be safe and not risk been murdered however the police officer found out and has been blackmailing him since keeping all the records in a personal ledger.

The story is a complete lie but the group now face a dilemma, they could report the officer for corruption but their friend would be jailed for allowing prostitution on the premises so now they are increasing forced into the morally grey. At this point the party may start planning ways to remove the officer whether it would be having him killed, threaten or even framing him for another crime but the Bartender informs them that in order to prevent himself been arrested in the investigation they would have to retrieve or destroy the ledger also.

To add weight to this the Criminal Gang after ensuring any illegal goods are relocated elsewhere give an anonymous tipoff which results in a brutal police raid on the Bar a few days later. The players either getting caught up in the raid or seeing its after effects are further enraged and more seeds of distrust regarding the police are sown.

Where the campaign goes from here (as in discovering they have been tricked or been drawn deeper into the criminal world) heavily depends on the party and how they use the ledger, so in the interest of not dominating the whole page I'll end my example here but I hope it helped to see how this theory works in practice.

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