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In my plot I have a big bad obvious "dark lord" type villain... who is the pawn of the hidden evil mastermind. Basically said mastermind created a threat to ensure that everyone bands together to fight it, and elects him Supreme Chancellor (not literally) to fight the apparent big bad. I'm trying to pull off a big reveal that they have been pulling the strings the entire time.

Of course the players took one look at the friendly NPCs who offered support and said out loud "I don't know they are not behind the whole thing".

I feel like the meta plot might be way too easy to scope out so I have been going out of my way to throw suspicion off the mastermind. I'm worried that it will take away from the bond I'm trying to form between the players and mastermind. And if I totally throw suspicion off I'm worried it might seem like the twist is unfair.

Here are some key elements of his motivations that might help.

  1. He believes that the world is in danger and that he is the only person who can save it, by seizing control.
  2. He is, by design, too smart for his own good, and right for the wrong reasons.

  3. He knows one of the PCs has a secret that they themselves don't know the scope of. He has helped them keep the secret, and desperately wants to know it himself, but since there was too much heat on him I have not had him offer assistance in figuring out the player's past.

  4. He is starting to despair that the "forces of good" can actually carry a victory against his straw man, who he intended to be much easier to defeat.
  5. My original intent was that if he believed the good guys could not win he'd "die" and take direct control of the bad guys, who would suddenly fight to win. And likewise if he believed the players could not only win but also save the world he would likewise "die" and not be bothered to care.

Is there any way to save the plot without angering the players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You might benefit from some of the answers on my similar question \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Mar 13 '18 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Conduit I did not see your question, many of the answers are very good and relevant. I also thought this one which I did see was good. \$\endgroup\$ – kleineg Mar 13 '18 at 17:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do an online search for “Darth Jar Jar” — a Star Wars fan theory that Jar Jar Binks was originally intended to be the evil power behind even Palpatine. It goes through the first prequel movie and shows how the evil genius Jar Jar manipulates everyone around him into thinking him a buffoon. Seriously, once you read it you’ll never look at him the same way again. I genuinely believe Lucas had this intent, but chickened our when public response to the character was so (not in a good way) negative \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Mar 13 '18 at 18:14
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If the plot is "way too easy to scope out", then perhaps your mastermind isn't as smart as he thought he was. This happens in real life a lot - search for "dumb criminals", or just look at famous examples in history. Why would anyone be so foolish as to invade Russia in wintertime? Yet it has been tried more than once, by people who "should" have "known better". Hubris, tunnel vision/thinking, or religious fervor can blind smart people to the downsides of their plan of action.

No one, not even a villain, can plug up every weakness. They have weaknesses, vices, or distractions that can provide an avenue for defeat - if the PC's detect them. Detecting them is part of the fun!

If your players' characters are smart enough to figure this one out, then you should give it to them. That's part of the game - allowing them to come up on top by smart thinking and strategizing. This applies especially if your players prefer combat as war, where "even" fights are not as emphasized.

Even once your PC's "know", that isn't the end of the story! How do they convince others (e.g. the king, or the Senate) of the mastermind's plot? Can they stop it? Can they trick the mastermind into not realizing that he has been exposed? Maybe the PC's "know" the truth, but local authorities are skeptical and unwilling to send in the Army to arrest the mastermind unless further evidence of the mastermind's plot is presented to them. Do your PC's go out in search of that evidence, or do they try to take down the mastermind alone? Maybe the PC's want to fabricate the missing evidence to get others on their side against the mastermind, but that could backfire in a big way if the falsification is discovered (turning official or public sentiment in favor of the mastermind as a victim of a frame-up campain by those wicked PC's). Maybe local authorities are in cahoots with or under the control of the mastermind already, so the PC's end up getting arrested themselves on trumped-up charges and thrown in prison.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer! Basically there are still plenty of opportunities for hijinks even if the PCs know the villain's real identity. Have secret big bad throw a grand dinner and invite the heroes - now the heroes have a dilemma, since they'll suspect that it's a trap, but be tempted to attend regardless. Now they're suddenly planning to crash the party in a big way and turn the trap against the big bad, using all the tools in their armory. Hijinks ensue! \$\endgroup\$ – timje Mar 13 '18 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @timje To add to this, the big bad of today doesn't have to be the big bad of tomorrow. When all this business dealt with that doesn't mean you can't create a new big bad and continue the adventure! You probably already know this but I think it bears emphasizing. \$\endgroup\$ – Cronax Mar 14 '18 at 12:31
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Embrace the dramatic irony

It happens all the time in TV, literature, movies and videogames - the reader/viewer/player catches on to the bad guys' plot before the protagonists do. Some works do this intentionally: it's called dramatic irony (read more on Wikipedia).

There's no reason why this couldn't work in RPGs. If your players have figured out the big bad's plot, you basically have three rough options:

  1. Change the plot so the players' guess is incorrect
  2. Don't confirm or deny it, just let the players believe what they want and reveal the truth when their PCs do
  3. Let the players know they're correct and ask them to embrace the dramatic irony

I recommend the third approach, and here's why:

Changing the plot might seem like an appealing solution, because it preserves the element of surprise and keeps player and PC knowledge aligned. However, this maneuver is likely to be very transparent, and of course writing a new plot just to cover up an old one is a lot of work! Retconning can also leave players sour, because it can be seen as an "unfair" way of GM'ing - forcing the players into incorrect conclusions.

The second approach might also seem tantalizingly risk-free, but it also suffers from being transparent enough to spoil the surprise. With you trying to hide the plot, it's possible for your players to feel like they're walking into a trap with your intended plot. Players are likely to try metagaming to gain more information about the villain's intentions when you aren't providing enough, and that's something you'll probably want to avoid.

Which takes us to the third option: tell the players their guess is correct and ask the players to enjoy the ride. Tell them it's more fun this way; no tricks and no gotchas.

You've been honest with them and told them what you expect of them. They know they won't be punished for following the plot where their characters don't recognize the villain's schemes. This cuts back on the metagaming: when they know the villain's intentions but that falling for them makes for a better game, they have no incentive to spend time second-guessing your true intentions regarding the party or the villain.

As an added bonus, you can now throw in bits of narration from the villain's perspective to make the players more intrigued by their personality and motives.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hahaha, I actually like this, for one this villain takes inspiration from a work of fiction where the reader was fairly certain they knew who he was even while the main hero called him a friend and mentor. \$\endgroup\$ – kleineg Mar 13 '18 at 17:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would rather go with option two; which happens all the time in entertainment. Think of the movie where the Big Bad presses the button to unleash his diabolical plan and find it doesn't work. We then pan over to the hero who then monologues about how they figured out the plan, and what actions they took beforehand to keep the plan from working. I reasoned you were going to blow up the tower which it why I took the liberty of cutting the wires before letting you capture me. By encouraging this line, you can have more fun in the future when they end up foiling the wrong plan. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Mar 13 '18 at 17:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kleineg ...This hero wouldn't happen to be named Potter-Evans-Verres, would he? :) \$\endgroup\$ – Onyz Mar 13 '18 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Onyz That is absolutely 100% dead on. \$\endgroup\$ – kleineg Mar 13 '18 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kleineg All the evidence pointing to mentor = David, especially the post-humming scene, actually made me suspect that this had been changed from original canon... but the interaction thing was definitely a strong give-away. \$\endgroup\$ – wizzwizz4 Mar 13 '18 at 19:23
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Never Confirm Anything

It seems that you want to ensure that your players never get any inkling of the Big Reveal, but you're also worried that it won't be fun for them to get completely blindsided. ...a legitimate concern.

I would posit that what you actually want is to deny them confirmation of any suspicions until the last possible moment.

There's very little harm is letting them have suspicions. If they're the thinking type, and engaged in the plot at all, then they WILL have theories about what's Really Going On. Furthermore, the desire to validate their ideas will drive them to advance the plot. (Because everyone wants to know if they were right!)

Consequently, having your players be right isn't actually a terrible thing. Most people tend to be incredibly satisfied that they were able to "solve" the mystery. ...and if you postpone their ability to confirm it for as long as possible, you're only making the eventual reveal MORE satisfying for them.

But how do you do this?

In game: Never give them solid proof. Since you control all of the information they have, never give them anything that confirms their suspicions. Even if they "guess" the right answer, if they can't confirm it, there will always be doubt lingering in their mind. Once again, that doubt will drive them crazy, and will push them forward. Even if it seems fairly obvious to you, don't underestimate their ability to doubt themselves.

Out of game: This is definitely an in-game problem ...but it can be helped with a little metagaming on your part. Chances are high that, if your players suspect something, they will bug you out of game for hints to try and confirm their suspicion. Give them nothing. Stick to the narrative unrelentingly. If, while cleaning up after the session, they joke about their npc "buddy" being the mastermind, tell them, as a friend, exactly the same thing you told them in game. "Nah man, he's just nice, don't worry about it." or "I dunno, that seems a bit far-fetched to me."

You'll need a good poker face to sell it, but every shred of doubt that you can instill in their minds will make them less and less certain about what's really going on.

...and then naturally, when the reveal happens, and the "I F***ING KNEW IT"s come out, then the plot will make total sense to the players. It won't be a blindside.

Additionally, they will perceive their own inability to have confirmed their suspicions as evidence that the mastermind was just smart enough to cover their tracks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Alas, I have but one upvote to give. This is a very good answer, and exactly how I am handling the same issues in my game. \$\endgroup\$ – Leliel Mar 13 '18 at 21:30
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A well executed false-flag operation can help throw off suspicion. Have the mastermind be "kidnapped" by the obvious villain, along with several other politicians, requiring the heroes to go rescue them. By the time they arrive, several of the politicians have been sacrificed already, with the mastermind apparently next. In reality, he is directing the entire encounter.

If the players truly believe the mastermind was in danger and they saved him, this should allay most of their suspicions. You could even throw in a few clues that he is guilty before the kidnapping, depending on how confident you are they'll take the bait.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I do appreciate the input, the players are familiar enough with, for example Revenge of the Sith to probably see this as confirmation. Now, maybe this could be combined with kviiri's answer (suggesting that the players knowing shouldn't detract from the character's surprise). \$\endgroup\$ – kleineg Mar 13 '18 at 17:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Alternatively then, have some completely innocent party kidnapped and saved, to throw suspicion onto them. The bottom line is identifying what your players find incriminating by implication, and then pointing that elsewhere. Avoid hard evidence, and rely on the circumstantial \$\endgroup\$ – Bedro Mar 13 '18 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or, just use Star Wars as inspiration rather than copying entire plotlines. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Mar 13 '18 at 17:58
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If you are going to railroad, just railroad. Railroads are great, they give you lots of plot control, and if you want to tell a complex plot, that control is very useful.

However, if you don't want to railroad, ensure that both choices lead to something interesting. Here, the choice is "trust the proto-chancellor" or "don't trust the proto-chancellor".

They can fail to trust the proto-chancellor, and still use the proto-chancellor's resources to help them. They can fail to trust the proto-chancellor, and work independently to defeat the apparent BBEG. They can fail to trust the proto-chancellor, and start working against the proto-chancellor even at the risk of letting the BBEG get away.

All of these can be interesting plots. Every one of them can have wonderful drama and reveals and twists. None of them require that you make the proto-chancellor look like an angel and disarm their suspicions.

In fact, given the player's suspicions, what I'd do in this situation is continue to drop really subtle (not meant to be noticed) hints that the chancellor isn't on the up and up. Instead of dropping hints that the proto-chancellor is trustworthy; make the evidence the proto-chancellor is good be more obviously constructed than the accidental seeming evidence the proto-chancellor is evil.

The proto-chancellor, however, continues to be useful, and always claims to be on the up-and-up. Knights proclaim him a hero and saviour of the realm. Babies kiss him. You can lay it on thick if you want.

Let the player decide if and when they want to turn on said proto-chancellor. And if they never do, let the plot continue, until the chancellor turns on the PCs and they say "I KNEW IT ALL ALONG".

Or maybe they reach the apparent BBEG, and they (based off the myriad of hints you dropped) are now convinced the proto-chancellor is a bigger risk, offer to team up with their opponent against the proto-chancellor. Awesome plot!

Plan, DM-plot wise, for the players sudden betrayal prior to the proto-chancellor's betrayal. And enjoy the ride.

Oh, and the best part? If the players leak the fact they don't trust the proto-chancellor back to the proto-chancellor, the proto-chancellor may decide that they must be delt with. Send them on a mission and arrange for the support not to arrive. Leak information about them to the other side so the other side ambushes the party (and the party gets a chance to learn information was leaked ... from someone).

Even more fun, the BBEG could try to recruit the players to turn on the proto-chancellor "before it is too late", maybe after the above. The BBEG is still a bad guy.

Both of these lead to wonderful complex plots where the players aren't sure if they are doing the right thing or not by turning on, or supporting, the proto-chancellor.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fair point. And that brings another avenue, if they trust... Palpatine through and through, and don't figure it out after fair clues are provided. Well then, there won't have to be an overt betrayal, he will have won. The game ends, players satisfied, and if the players have lingering doubts then I can just give them that smile and assure them they changed the world. \$\endgroup\$ – kleineg Mar 13 '18 at 19:29
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In addition to what everyone else as said, I wanted to add that I don't really think you need to worry about your players being angry. They may think that you did a bad job at telling the story, and be disappointed, but the plot twist you're suggesting (the guy we thought was good was actually bad) is not really that absurd. It's common enough in fiction that even if the players are blindsighted by it, they're more likely to see it as an exciting plot twist.

It may be worthwhile to drop subtle hints along the way so that players looking back at the campaign will realize that the signs were there all along, similar to the Darth Jar Jar story mentioned by Stephen in the comments.

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