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After reading How much experience should a PC be worth? I was wondering if and how party betrayal can be done successfully, especially since it's a real possibility in my campaign.

Criteria for success

  • The campaign does not end immediately because of the betrayal.
  • No players leave over the incident (a player leaving as impetus for the incident is different)
  • No tears are shed.

If it can be done, what influences success?

  • Setting
  • Party Dynamic
  • GM Handling
  • Other?
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11  
Not a full answer, but from my personal experience I worked with my DM for this. We had talked about it jokingly beforehand and decided to give it a try. Throughout the campaign he dropped very subtle hints that noone caught on to and then, at the end of the campaign my PC helped the BBEG in the last combat. The party members were shocked, ended up still winning, and loved it. Especially when we went back and talked about all of the clues that were dropped and where I had worked against them during the campaign. It can be done, but has to be done intelligently and with DM support/approval. –  GPierce Jun 27 '11 at 20:59
    
Related: How do you kidnap a PC? –  dpatchery Jun 27 '11 at 21:01

8 Answers 8

up vote 22 down vote accepted

In short: Yes.

But, there has to be clear communication between the player wanting to betray the other party members and the DM. If the player springs it on both the party and the DM then the answer changes abruptly to a resounding "No."

In addition to that, and probably the most important aspect to my answer of yes is this: It must make sense in relation to party dynamics and/or the story, preferably both. If it makes sense that the BBEG would have corrupted the PC or that it has been foreshadowed by the DM through plot clues, then it will make the betrayal all that much more fun. Players will feel cheated if the betrayal comes out of nowhere and doesn't make sense in the scope of things.

As okeefe stated, the maturity level of the players plays heavily into this. Are your players going to take this personally? Will they walk out or overreact? From personal experience, if the betrayal is done correctly and meets the aforementioned two requirements, then it shouldn't be an issue and should in turn be quite enjoyable for everyone involved.

Not only does a planned betrayal spice up a campaign but it is by nature unexpected. Sometimes a setting or adventure can feel stale or rehashed and this is a great way to break up potentially perceived monotony or repetition.

For examples of successful party betrayals see Cthos' comment on C. Ross's question, and my experience below:

Not a full answer, but from my personal experience I worked with my DM for this. We had talked about it jokingly beforehand and decided to give it a try. Throughout the campaign he dropped very subtle hints that no one caught on to and then, at the end of the campaign my PC helped the BBEG in the last combat. The party members were shocked, ended up still winning, and loved it. Especially when we went back and talked about all of the clues that were dropped and where I had worked against them during the campaign. It can be done, but has to be done intelligently and with DM support/approval.

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I have personally experienced this as a player being betrayed, and as a GM running a game where the PCs turned on each other in my game. Both games were Vampire the Masquerade games and both were very positive gaming experiences for everyone involved, and really were great examples of why I play RPGs. Below are the details of both games, presented as sort of case studies in PC betrayal:

Case 1: The Mole

One of the PCs was a Sabbat spy, sent to infiltrate our group from the beginning. While there was no above board agreement that a PC might be a betrayer, the GM did set a tone from the very beginning that Vampires were not heroes, and unlike a stereotypical D&D party, all PCs had a certain amount of in-game distrust the entire time. Personal agendas and minor power grabs were common.

As a result, when enough clues were dropped the party turned on the spy. He was able to escape and eventually hunted down and killed afterwards. It was a great climax to a series of adventures involving the Sabbat. That player then made a new character and the campaign continued. Using the criteria of the question, this was definitely a success.

Case 2: Sudden Betrayal

Unlike the above, I was running this game rather than playing. Without going into too much detail, the PCs had all managed to get arrested and charged with some very serious crimes. All of the PCs were somewhat guilty, but the evidence was much stronger against one in particular. As in Case 1, there was a very mercenary tone to the way the PCs interacted, and while they worked together out of need, none of the characters would have been willing to die to save another.

As the GM, I did not have a particular outcome in mind as this unfolded, but the players collectively decided to turn on the most heavily implicated PC and sell him out to the authorities. This culminated in one of the best scenes of political intrigue I've seen play out in an RPG, and the summary execution of one of the PCs. In this case, it did spell the end of the campaign- not because of hurt feelings but because this was the end of the story we were telling. As a result, it probably counts as a failure by the question's guidelines.

Takeaways:

So, above are two examples that worked out well. Why? Here are the key elements:

  1. We were all friends. Like the maturity comment above, if you get along with the other players no one fights about this kind of thing.
  2. There was a high trust level. Similar to #1, I trusted the GM to handle any player conflicts fairly when I was a player, and when I ran a betrayal scenario, I was trusted by my players. This trust was earned by being consistent and fair.
  3. Overall tone of betrayal. In a game where everyone is supposed to be allied, this wouldn't have worked, but in a dark political game everyone knew, without being told, that anything was fair game.
  4. Secrets allowed and common. This is less about preventing fights and more about making the betrayal a surprise, but if everyone gets in the habit of passing notes and having conversations outside the room, conspiracies can happen without everyone having to separate their in-game and out-of-game knowledge.

In closing, PC betrayal can be extremely interesting and rewarding as long as you aren't breaking any implied social contracts. Give it a go! I think some games, like Vampire, really encourage it.

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My experiences are very similar to Rain's answer.

I'm part of a very tight group, we've been roleplaying continuously for over 16 years now and we know each other very well. We've had two very memorable party betrayals. Both were "series finales", so the campaign did not continue afterward. One was completely spontaneous, the other meticulously planned. I was one of the betrayed parties on both the occasions.

The first was a CP2020 session where the group was charged with kidnapping a mob boss's twenty-something daughter. After some careful planning we sent in our most charming operative in a classic "honey trap" scenario. The aim was to get her to ditch her security detail and meet him secretly on her father's yacht. We would then overpower her, steal the yacht and sail it to a safe location. However, the operative decided that he really liked the girl better, and the group arrived at the marina to find the yacht speeding away toward the Caribbean. The GM handled it very well, dropping just enough hints. A very memorable evening.

The second was the end to our latest Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, where one of the PC's revealed himself as the villain behind one of the major plot-lines. We knew this character dabbled in forbidden lore, but we all massively underestimated his capacity for evil. What made this plot work particularly well is that he had actually been playing a double game for a few sessions, and when it all came together it seemed so logical, so simple, and so unavoidable. Equally unavoidable was his eventual demise, but that's what you get int he Warhammer universe if you play with corruption.

In the second scenario play could in theory have continued with a replacement character, but it was designed specifically as a finale. The first scenario is a bit more tricky: the PCs managed to majorly piss off both a major crime family and the corp that ordered the kidnapping. Even with a replacement characters, some way would be needed to smooth over the in-universe ripples. But hey, that's just another plot hook right?

The factors that made this work are largely the same as Rain's:

  1. These are all people that I trust are not out to just ruin my evening.
  2. They are coherent in-character
  3. They end the campaign on a memorable note.
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I find it interesting that all the answers here refer to betrayal that is secret to the players as well as the characters. While there's certainly advantages to that, I think so long as your group is mature enough not to meta the situation there's plenty of advantage to doing things out in the open as far as the players are concerned.

I'm currently in a Werewolf game where one of the players is trying to find a cure for her condition by actively working for people who are out to destroy the werewolf population. While none of the other characters are aware of this, we've had plenty of scenes of her meeting with her superiors and otherwise working against us. It's actually been really interesting, because it's still very up-in-the air as to whether the player will fully go through with the betrayal. At the moment she's probably on track to do so, but there's some definite conflicting feelings going on there as she gets to know the rest of the party better, and I've been really enjoying seeing that play out, despite my character having no knowledge of what's going on.

So yeah, don't feel that just because things are secret from the characters that they necessarily have to be secret to the players. Maybe that is what works out best for your game, but it's definitely worth considering all your options.

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1  
+1 That's a fantastic point, but sadly this is a minority case (at least in my experience.) While this would be more rewarding to a more mature group, it is also a lot harder to not color your opinions/reactions as a player. Clandestine conspiracy between DM and player is the easier route and is more surprising. That said, I'd love to encounter a group that would be mature enough to handle your example as I think it would be very rewarding (and not just for the betrayal aspect.) –  GPierce Jul 3 '11 at 0:51
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+1 I would very much prefer PvP to play out this way, but yes, probably not the best approach for betraying a hack-en-slash 4e group for purposes of swapping DMs. Also, welcome to the site, mate. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 3 '11 at 3:17

As I stated in my comment to the original question, I am about to betray my party. I will share the preparation that's been done and the plan for the actual betrayal now, and once the actual session has come and gone I will edit to share my group's experiences.

First off, let me say that by the criteria defined in the question, this betrayal will definitely be considered a success. There's no doubt in my mind.

And now, the plan...

The Reason

My group has been together for 14 years. Every so often we change GM's--the old GM will bring in a new (or old) character, and the new GM's previous character either is killed or takes off for story-based purposes. This is one of those times.

This is also our first stint with D&D 4e, so as we graduated from the Heroic Tier I started to get bored with my character, not realizing how dull a pacifist cleric would end up being.

I had brought up to the group that I wanted to bring in a new character, and everyone agreed that we could make it work. The next day, the next GM in line pulled me aside. He told me that as an adventure hook for his campaign, I should bring in a "fake" character and earn the party's trust. Then at the right moment, betray them and give them a reason to travel to the Underdark where the next adventure is set.

This also sets the framework for my "real" character's introduction to the party. He is a Drow, and would obviously not be immediately accepted by the group, as they are all good characters. So we decided together than my "real" character would disrupt the betrayal by my "fake" character, and save the party, giving him at least a moment to explain himself before being cut down once he comes face to face with the PC's.

The two characters are brothers. My "real" one has escaped the Drow society and turned good, though he still has a hunger to exact vengeance on his House, who put him through torture and killed people he loved. My "fake" PC is on a mission to track this renegade down and bring him back to be sacrificed to Lloth the Spider Queen, as well as any other notable people he encounters.

The Setup

My pacifist cleric was killed during a battle with a dragon. When the party attempted to raise him, he came back, but only for a brief moment. He sat up, looked the party's leader in the eyes, and said "I am at the Raven Queen's side to assist her in the defense of her citadel (foreshadowing the Death's Reach epic level campaign). Beware the Dark Elf." He then fell back to death.

My "fake" character then approached the party. He is a Drow Psion, but uses magic to disguise himself as an elf. He claims to have been sent by his High Cleric to assist the party in their current mission, in expectation that they will help him hunt down a renegade Drow assassin (my "real" character) as repayment.

This happened about 5 months ago. The party was wary of me at first. I continually changed my appearance from elf, to human, to eladrin, etc, to keep them on their toes. (Oddly enough, nobody ever asked me what race I really was, but oh well) The party started to get a little more nervous about me as I seemed to know an awful lot about the few Drow we encountered during the current adventure. I even volunteered to "disguise" myself as a Drow to try to negotiate our way out of a combat.

As the days went on, during each rest we took I would gradually mess with the player's heads. My character has the ability to alter memories, and combined with his expert disguises, he started imparting false visions on the PC's. After each session that we ended with a rest, I would send an email to a single player. I gave them a vision of my Pacifist Cleric, telling them something big was coming, something important, something they needed to watch out for. This continued for a while. During each vision I would somehow hint that the information was for them alone, that they couldn't trust the others.

Last session, we just rested before our last battle with the BBEG. I sent individual emails to each player, warning them not to trust each other, that their friends would betray them. This was mostly just to get them nervous.

The Betrayal

There are a few things that should happen soon. When we switch GM's, and the old one brings in his new character, the party will immediately not trust him (some of the visions hinted at new faces being dangerous). While this could be discouraging to that player for a little while, the betrayal takes place shortly thereafter and they will realize the true source of the visions.

On the first night is when the plan kicks into action. My "fake" character will sit down with the PC's over the evening meal, explaining to them more about this Drow he is supposedly hunting down. Beforehand, the meal was poisoned with a tincture that causes deep sleep for one hour. They can only be woken by being attacked or shaken violently.

Well, friends. I have assisted you in summary_of_mission_we_just_completed. Now it is time for me to ask a favor of you. As I've mentioned before, I am hunting a powerful Drow assassin. He is famous for crimes committed against my people. He has killed members of my own family in cold blood, and escaped without a trace.

(pass note to a player saying that he sees another PC's amulet of poison resistance turn from black to white)

The task I request of you is simple. All you need to do to help me destroy my brother... (My character turns into a Drow as he says those words) ...is lie back and sleep. Sleep so that you may be dragged into the pit and sacrificed for the Glory of the Spider Queen!

The GM then rolls the poison attacks to knock everyone unconscious. My allies--3 Driders and 6 Drow--arrive. During the first few minutes, the PC's weapons are taken and placed in a wagon. The strength-based PC's have their hands and feet shackled. The others are bound by rope. Spellcasters and those who have teleportation abilities are blindfolded and gagged. The plan is for the Driders to carry the sleeping PC's to a nearby entrance to the Underdark.

However, as the first Drider leaves the camp, my "real" character attacks. He strikes out at the Drider, causing it to drop one of the PC's it was carrying. That PC is handed a note describing what he sees:

You are violently awakened as your shoulders slam into the dirt after being dropped from some height. You are on your back. Your hands are clasped behind you in iron shackles, and you feel them digging into your ankles as well.

Above, you can see you are still outside, but night has fallen. Small glints of pale moonlight reflect off of eight huge insect legs standing over you. A truly terrifying Drow body rises from the spider's center, staring in shock at you with hatred in it's eyes. Slung over one deformed shoulder is an unconscious humanoid.

Roll Initiative. You are restrained by the iron bands around your hands and feet. You are still wearing armor. You are prone in the square of the creature standing over you. Your weapon is nowhere to be seen.

Play continues from this point with an instant message session open with me and the GM so I can tell him which character my "real" PC wakes up each round. The level of the encounter is actually pretty low, since the real dangers are waking up without your weapon, in the dark, with your hands and feet tied together.

The GM will declare what my "real" character does on each round, so that he is perceived as an NPC. Only once the combat is resolved will I reveal that it is my new character.

So per the criteria above, this really has no choice than to be a success. The adventure continues, and nobody is going to cry or leave. Hopefully everyone has an engaging encounter of panic, confusion, and satisfied rage as they eventually drop my "fake" PC to the dirt.

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What. I... well, you've played with your group for 14 years, so you'd know them best. But I'd have an awfully hard time with this plot. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 28 '11 at 13:05
    
@Brian I don't claim to be the best writer or anything, but what's wrong with it? This was mostly the GM's idea, I'm just going along with it. –  dpatchery Jun 28 '11 at 13:10
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Hop onto chat, mate? Mainly, it would trigger pretty bad feelings of powerlessness. There's no real element of choice in the matter. Also, I'm awful confused by your fake and real PC references. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 28 '11 at 13:17
    
@Brian, any chance to drop a comment of your concerns? I didn't see anything that would have made me cry foul (but my gaming group has been together for nearly as long). –  Pulsehead Jun 28 '11 at 17:05
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@Pulsehead mainly this plan takes away agency from the other players and, if they express agency at any point, ruin the plan. Here's the chat I had chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/11/conversation/… –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 29 '11 at 0:39

We ran a Dragonlance 2nd Generation campaign about 2 years before the books of the genre were anounced. The lead hero was the son of Tanis and Kitara raised by lord Soth in hopes he could redeem his honor. This went along well but my friend role played the character too well. He tore the party apart because half wanted to follow him to power and glory while the other half saw where the path would take them. A battle ensued and only one player on the good survived to spread the tale.

The players whose good characters died had created new characters that fit better with the new campaign. I cant say that no tears were shed but there were no real hard feelings... Though every once in a while the fact that the knight had killed the cleric in cold blood did come up over and over when we needed to lighten the mood. The campaign continued for about 6 months until it was inevitable that Krynn would be conquered. We even had a minitures battle where they destroyed the High Clerists tower.

Then we flipped all the pc's became NPC's and we ran a new campaign with more hero's to fight the war of the Hourglass. When the books came out we decided our story was far superior... Rastilin didnt become a reformed drunk in ours.

What it did require - We stopped the game play and explained what was about to happen. If anyone was attached to their character I promised them an out. No one took it. They fought the battle knowing they would lose. The warrior that escaped did so not to survive as a character but to get the word out. The player who eventually killed that character was the original characters owner.

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I was (almost) the target of a betrayal. We were playing an OWoD Vampire Chronicle. I played a Brujah (tough, short-tempered, but not too smart) with a very strong generation. The Betrayer was a Ravnos (all the negative stereotypes of gypsies) with a very weak generation. The actual target ended up being a Tremere (vampire magician) with a similar generation to my Brujah's.

It all started when our chronicle was investigating a security leak behind why the Sabbat kept knowing what we were doing in our (mostly) Camarilla city. The Ravnos told my character that a friend (and fellow Brujah) of my character's was Sabbat. My character expressed disbelief that his friend was one of the "bad guys", since the Sabbat NPC had been a very strong proponent of Camarilla virtue and fought the Sabbat viciously on numerous occasions. The Ravnos' weakness/vice was "seduction" (both sexual and more metaphorical). My character saying, "Wow. I can't believe that." was interpreted as an affront and the worst insult that could have been said to that Ravnos. This set the Ravnos off on a quest of vengeance against my character. He first was the picture of everything that my character stood for. Looking back, he was seducing my character into believing that he was harmless.

This guy was patient. It took somewhere around 2 years of setting up a fake attack that would have targeted only his "ally". Other things happened in game, and my character made some sort of alliance with the Malkavians (who are all insane). They found out about this plot and handed my character a piece of paper with crayon scribbles on it. They INSISTED that my character sign the "contract". My character figured "what can it hurt, they haven't done me ill for a long time", so signed it. For some crazy reason, my character was booked for a job 100 miles away from the attack. The Ravnos was investigating a suspected werewolf incursion into the city, so needed backup since my character cancelled at the last minute, so he called the Tremere to act as backup. They get to the ambush site, Ravnos stakes the Tremere, and diablerizes him. Tremere (who didn't trust the Ravnos) had told a few allies to come along and those allies reached the Tremere just a minute too late. They fell on and killed the Ravnos.

The combat wrapped up very quickly after that, and the rest of the session was spent laughing about how long this betrayal had been planned, all the things in that betrayal, and why. It was there in the BS session that we found out that the crayon-scribbled page was insurance from the Malkavians against a Diableristic attack for a term of a year (I think). That this whole thing was a result of a dialog that I (the player) didn't even remember occurred.

So, yes a betrayal can be done without killing a campaign, but everyone involved needs to be grown-up about it and know that it's a game and should be fun.

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Nothing personal, but this narration is a little confused... –  Lohoris Jul 1 '11 at 9:07

A lot of the factors that determine whether party betrayal can be done successfully are those that are out of the GM's hands, and firmly in the types of people that play the game. And a lot of those characteristics won't be known until the betrayal happens, even if there is clear communication between the GM and the players, simply because of the fact that the actual play of the scene will determine how the players' final reaction is framed. With that in mind, drawing on my experiences I can give these indicators that might help.

  1. Are the players' competitive by nature? I find that if the players are all competitive, that the betrayal is better accepted as the betrayer counted coup on the other players. Conversely, if they are largely cooperative, then it could be taken more personally.
  2. What form does the final confrontation take? If it's non-permanent to the characters, then that helps with the resolution of the situation.
  3. How long have the players been playing the characters? The time invested is a negative indicator towards acceptance of negative consequences that come from an unexpected direction will be taken.
  4. What ultimate resolution is available? This is the most important point, especially if the campaign is to continue. In each campaign that I've been in that have had elements of betrayal, the resolution ended with two parties, because of a lack of a clear path towards the recombination of the groups.
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