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There is an NPC that I want to introduce soon, but I don’t want the PCs to be suspicious of her until a later big reveal that she is a major villain.

The NPC

My game has a woman who is a noblewoman. Despite her low-status birth and life as a peasant, she would later be seen as a miracle child because of in-world lore related to a physical feature of hers. This allowed her to get many followers who helped push her into the ranks of lower-"nobility" as a baronetess. From there she manipulated her followers in order to make her actions seem more praise-worthy and honorable that she eventually was made a trusted adviser of the king's, granting her a formal nobility rank as a Countess and, as a result, allowing her to run her criminal operations more smoothly.

Okay, lore aside... She is an absolutely beautiful and cunning woman. She never lies because she doesn't ever have to thanks to her wording. She has a high charisma and wisdom, so if someone were to question her, she would always be multiple steps ahead of them so that she doesn't have to say anything that is false. That said, one of her quirks is that she tries to collect (Read: "Enslave"/"Own") anything that she finds to be unique or valuable and she sets her eyes on one of the PCs.

The villain’s introduction

The PCs just shut down a large part of the kingdom's slave trade. Slavery isn't illegal, but it is something the king is trying to edge out of their society. At the same time, he can't request people to shut down and deincentivise slavers lest he causes unrest in his nobility. He trusts Countess who he does not realize 1) owns many slaves that she keeps hidden in secret and 2) is the one in charge of the vast majority of the kingdom's slave trade; therefore, the king has invited Countess to the celebration of the PCs shutting down such a large aspect, freeing many slaves and getting them someplace safe. Publicly, the celebration is under the claim that the PCs found a lost artifact (which they do by chance) belonging to the royal family (and therefore the kingdom) by right and it's to honor their (the PCs') service to the crown. Everybody who is invited to this celebration are those whom the king trusts with the information relating to the true reason for the party, guests and staff alike.

At the party, Countess will try to seduce one of the PCs by putting a "love potion" of sorts into a drink which she will then offer her target. (I as the DM expect the player to succeed the DC to be unaffected by the immediate effects of the potion, so mentioning the potion is more "side information" than anything.) That said, when they are talking, I need to know how specifically to keep her from coming across as obviously suspicious since she will be directly approaching one of my players and will have a noticeable impact on him thanks to a very "Strahd von Zarovich"-style Charm skill while they are talking, regardless of if he drinks from the spiked glass or not.

The problem

My players are quite genre-savvy. When I do this, I expect them to figure out that she is suspicious, if not evil, but I want to avoid her being seen as even suspicious. What is the best way to do this while maintaining the story as intended? This is done through a homebrew system, but if you must, assume D&D's system. If you need my party's (the PCs, not the celebration,) information in order to answer this accurately, let me know.

The question

How can I convince my players, not just the characters, that this evil character is actually good for a prolonged length of time until the final reveal?

A best answer will be almost entirely through minimal use of rolls and maximized use of story-telling. Rolling would just add to the suspicion and I don't want my players to even think they are on to me.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This comment is a clarification to prevent another incorrect editing of "baronetess" to "baroness". The titles are different and should not be confused for the same thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Jan 20 at 7:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Answerers - please remember good answers on this Stack use Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and back up their opinions with experience or citations. Saying "do this" is not helpful, there's no way to determine if you are giving horrible advice pulled out of an orifice or not. Saying "I did this or saw it done and here's the effect it has" is the expert advice we expect here. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 20 at 14:31

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I suggest that you give the Countess some other secondary objective that you can suggest that she wants the PCs help with. Pick something they'd be inclined favor, and you'll have an easy way for the Countess to be manipulating them, and for them to be willing to go along with it for a while (until the Countess's real objective comes out).

So if the Countess's real objective is to murder the King in order to reverse his efforts to ban slavery, maybe her secondary objective is to marry her daughter to the King's son (or whatever, pick details that make sense in your story). What you want is for the secondary objective to be sensitive enough to justify the Countess being sneaky and manipulative towards the PCs, but benign enough that the PCs won't immediately oppose it or think badly of her if her manipulations fail. It's even better if achieving the side objective improves the effects of the main sinister objective (as marrying into the royal line of succession certainly would)!

Indeed, you could perhaps subtly color the information the players get to make the initial objective seem a genuinely good thing, and for the factions that are opposed to it seem more sinister than they really are. For instance, the Countess's daughter could be a beautiful and benevolent person, and for the King's son to be attracted to her, while a rival suitor is the haughty and arrogant daughter of an Duke who has insulted the PCs in the past (but who might actually support the King's anti-slavery policies, just not where the PCs get to hear about it). You could also set up the Countess's need to manipulate the PCs by letting them learn that she fears they're opposed to the side objective. Perhaps the Countess's daughter will apologize to the PCs in advance for her mother's manipulations at the same time she is introduced as a sympathetic character.

While I've never personally used a trick like this in an RPG (as I'm not normally a GM), I'm familiar with how the technique works in literature, where it's known as a red herring. A red herring is a false (or irrelevant) clue that misdirects the attention of anyone who sees it away from the clues to the real plot. You probably use red herrings to a small extent already if you sprinkle your descriptions of people and events with irrelevant details. It's just more important to misdirect their attention when you have something important you want to hide (or at least, hide the importance of).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm... Have her alleviate suspicion by having her be up-front about wanting something different from what she actually wants would be a good idea. It makes sense and feels kind of obvious when you say it out loud. xD My issue is, though, that I'm concerned my players might see through it when they inevitably have to do certain rolls around her due to her skills, such as her Charm. If you can include something that can specifically alleviate that, I think your answer would be even better. Either way, +1. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Jan 20 at 14:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can perhaps excuse more of the Countess's shady behavior if you can let the PCs know that she thinks they'll oppose her pursuit of her side objective (even though you picked one that they'd generally support). For instance, the daughter comes to one of the PCs and says "I know you'll support my ambitions, but my mother thinks you'll side with sinister Duke X. Please forgive her if she goes too far trying to persuade you!" \$\endgroup\$ – Blckknght Jan 20 at 18:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ What kind of rolls do you think they'll have to do? Will she try to magically coerce them (beyond what you described in the question)? Or are you thinking of things closer to her "rolling diplomacy" against the PCs? I ask this because it's easier to explain that she "just has a passive magical compulsion effect" than hiding casting mind affecting specifically at the PC \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jan 20 at 18:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Blckknght I recommend amending that to your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Jan 20 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:01
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Don't roll for plot

There are lots of quality answers on this post but I'm going to try to address an issue that you mention in several comments. You said:

I'm concerned my players might see through it when they inevitably have to do certain rolls around her due to her skills, such as her Charm.

I'll challenge the "inevitably" part of that statement. You are the DM, players dictate their actions and you decided on the outcome. Roll only if required.

You are correct that continually rolling deception and charm checks behind the screen will raise suspicion. Even non-genre-savvy players will notice if you start playing one NPC different from all the rest. Instead, set static DCs for insight and perception checks against her, probably DC25 or higher if you don't want her to get caught. If the players/characters try anything that might see through her disguise, let them roll against this. Never ask them for the roll, if they don't think to check her out then you have already succeeded.

Something I try to live by when running games is: Never roll if you aren't prepared for both outcomes. This means that if your plot requires the players succeed at a certain point or it will ruin the whole session, they succeed, no roll required. It also means that when the NPC has to pass that stealth check to leave a foreboding note next to a sleeping PC, they succeed, don't bother rolling.

Hindsight is a natural 20

Do evil people constantly do large evil things? No, they do small everyday things that add up to an evil whole. A clever villain knows not to show their hand too early.

Craft your NPC such that no single action of their can be called into question on its own, but after the reveal the players can determine the clear path of evil actions. Some things you can try along this line:

  • Help the PCs in combat, but once it's over feign a serious wound. Depriving the party of healing resources.
  • Send the poor beggar boy off to a 'boarding school' at their expense. Post reveal they will realise this was code for slavery.
  • In the lead up to the reveal, offer to enchant some weapon or item the party relies on. Savour the look on their face when the betrayed fighter reaches for his sword only to realise he willingly gave it up the night before.

Whatever you do you need to ensure that nothing the NPC does raises the eyebrows of your astute players. They are a master of hiding their true nature and their morals are beyond reproach. Szega's answer on playing her as almost two completely different NPC is great. The well-mannered noble could never be connected with the devious crime lord.

Personal Experience

I'm not going to reveal how I've done this as a DM as the campaign is ongoing and I don't one of my players stumbling onto it. However I have also played in a game with a great DM that did this well.

It was a game of Shadowrun and the NPC in question was our boss (quest giver) Abby Road. At the start of the campaign the GM needed to show that Abby was far stronger than us. He didn't even bother rolling for attack or defense, we couldn't hit her and she couldn't miss us. (I'm not suggesting this by the way but it made the point.)

Initially all our missions were for good beneficial things for both us and our crew. Retrieving supplies, stopping rival crews, freeing the innocent that sort of thing. As the campaign went on there were a few missions that seemed questionable, but we trusted Abby because she looked after us from the start. She had gotten us out of a few bad scraps before and would never hurt us.

Time went by and our missions became even more suspect, we were breaking into important peoples home to steal documents, planting false evidence and destroying weapon shipments. We assumed this was a building tension in the world rather than the advancing machinations of a nefarious villain.

I will admit that I was a little suspect of this seemingly benevolent leader, but I was the only one and some of it stemmed from a personal disagreement my between my character and her (she gave me a beatdown early on) rather than actually knowing she was dodgy.

Eventually at the end of the campaign we came to a confrontation against the leader of the city that she had secretly been plotting to bring down with our help. In the reveal I turned against her and my party as they took her side and it lead to an epic final session.

The point of this story is that using these techniques the party were so convinced she was on the right side that even when it became clear she wasn't they still sided with her.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. We're really trying to get these questions to be Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and not just "advice I just thought up" and it really helps. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk Understood, I thought I had covered it by saying "i do this in my campaign" but forgot to add the results of how it worked out. I'll try to remember to use proper examples in future. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jan 25 at 2:57
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Misdirect from the villainy using unrelated flaws/quirks.

You don't necessarily need to make it so that the players don't find the Countess suspicious. You just need to make sure they're not suspicious that she's evil or working against them. In my experience with similar "stealthed villains," a good way to achieve this is to hide the villain's true evil behind one or more overt flaws that the players will be too distracted by to notice. In other words, misdirect the players' suspicions.

The following are some example character traits you could consider giving the Countess in addition to her true traits and motives. Each is intended to lull the players into assuming she is simply a flawed person with whom it would be fine to associate, not a villain with evil intentions.

  • An obsession with a cause the party can sympathize with. If she expresses an over-the-top disdain for a rival noble or an opposing cause to the extent that she seems to fall into fits of madness at the mere thought of it, the players may see her as somewhat single-minded and misguided but ultimately be sympathetic toward her and overlook her more subtle villainous motives if the subject of her ire is something the party can get behind.

  • Hedonistic tendencies. There is a long literary tradition of depicting villains as hedonistic, but hedonists are not exclusively associated with villainy, so there is some ambiguity in the trope. If the Countess appears to be overly concerned with pleasure, food, music, company, keeping up appearances, fashion, or the like without expressing overtly unsavory desires like pure evil, the players might assume that she is merely intended to be a stereotypical out-of-touch noble, not an evildoer.

  • A penchant for untoward advances. This is a fairly overused and reductive trope for female villains and is probably the least palatable option, but if the Countess is romantically or sexually aggressive towards one or more party characters, the party will probably assume that that is intended to be her primary gimmick and will overlook the unsettling tendencies as merely unsettling, not an indication of thinly veiled evil.

These are just a few ideas, but I can summarize them as follows: make her quirky enough that the players assume she's merely quirky. At worst, they may assume she's merely mildly villainous instead of good, but they won't assume she's evil.

An anecdote from one of my campaigns.

I used this tendency to great effect in a D&D 5e campaign based on the PlayStation RPG Xenogears (mild spoilers follow, so skip if necessary).

Arguably the main villain of the game is a woman who appears early on as a subordinate character always in support of overtly evil villains yet eventually becomes the final boss of the game. I preserved this reveal at the table by accentuating the character's vanity and unsettling sexual tendencies (which, in-story, is a bit more justifiable than the "sexualized villainess" trope usually is because the character is literally an embodiment of reproduction). The players interacted with her frequently and often brought her up as a quirky nuisance, but they didn't notice she was the main villain and mastermind of the campaign until roughly the last 5 sessions of the 30 sessions in the campaign, when it suddenly dawned on them how much they should have suspected her all along. She ended up being the most-hated villain in any of my campaigns.

Note that I'm uncomfortable in general with the overly sexual characterization of evil women, but tropes can be utilized and subverted when appropriate. I do not want to characterize this answer as pushing this particular flaw as the only one that will work for your Countess. It is simply one option that I did use to great effect.

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I do not think this question, as asked, has any one correct answer. There are countless story-telling techniques that could be used to mislead your players in this way, and not all of them are system agnostic. For example, this type of interaction would play very differently in a system where players have little input or agency in regards to the plot (D&D/Pathfinder for example) than a system where players have a large amount of influence over the plot (like Polaris or other collaborative play systems).

Furthermore, I have seen this trope used at many tables over the years to mixed results. Sometimes the reveal goes over very well and the players are invigorated and impressed by the unexpected plot twist. The majority of the time, however — in my experience — this sort of reveal flops. It leaves the players with a sense of frustration at the unexpected villainy and a lasting distrust towards the GM and their NPCs (a distrust that is sometimes persistent even in other games run by that same GM).

With all of that said, if you are still interested in using this trope, I can at least answer the question What are the common pitfalls I can avoid when my players trust an NPC that turns out to be a villain?

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Don’t Overcommit to this Reveal

This is probably the mistake I’ve seen the most regarding this “secret villain” trope. Indeed, I’ve made the mistake myself on more than one occasion.

It’s easy to become attached to a story point that you’re just sure is going to wow your players, and just as easy to become frustrated when those same players just won’t play how you imagined they would. In the case of this trope, that might mean that despite your best efforts your players are still suspicious of this Totally Innocent NPC TM and this can lead to valuable time at the table being consumed by arguments and assurances that this NPC is Definitely Not Bad TM with the ultimate result being that your entire table is now highly suspicious of your surprise villain. L

So, if a player is suspicious, allow them to be suspicious. Don’t think your reveal has to surprise everyone at the table. If one player/character looks like a conspiracy nut while everyone else in the party is playing along it can actually make the reveal stronger as the lone player gets a satisfying “I knew it!” moment.

Have a Backup Plan

In case your villain should happen to be discovered earlier than anticipated, or your party be distrusting without cause, be prepared with a follow-up. If this twist villain is meant to be the primary quest-giver, be sure that the players have some motivation to play along with the quest, even if they no longer trust the quest-giver. If the villain is supposed to function as a sort of “final boss” for the current story arc, be sure that they have an escape plan in case your players try to attack them early.

In short, prepare as though players will not trust your character and plan around the consequences of this mistrust.

Be Prepared for the Fallout

If everything goes well and most of your players fall for the twist villain, you’re not out of the weeds just yet. Depending on how much the player liked this character, they may be elated that they finally have an excuse to kill the twist villain, or they may be devastated to discover that someone they cared about is suddenly their adversary. When received well this can lead to some great role playing opportunities. Received poorly this can result in some or all of your players having trust issues that could potentially span all games you run for them (this I know from experience).

If you’re going to have a surprise villain understand that your players may not react well to the reveal, and you might end up doing damage control for a while to repair broken trust.

Final Thoughts

It may seem like I’m being overly negative towards such a simple narrative device. Although my evidence is only anecdotal, I’ve been a part of many tabletop games over the years and I’ve seen more instances of this trope going poorly than going well. If you know your group well and you’re sure this will work out, then the advice in my answer can be largely disregarded; if, however, you are unsure of how your players will react, it might be best to leave this particular trope out of your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I upvoted this answer as the most useful, as, in addition to providing advice, it also points out what I consider to be the most significant potential pitfalls in the idea. \$\endgroup\$ – Narf the Mouse Jan 26 at 23:46
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Your players are quite genre-savvy.

This means that the system is not really important, because this would be an Out-of-character feeling.

Find out what would be identified, in-genre, as a charming and reasonable ally.

Have your villain conform to those expectations, at first.

In other words, have a villain that knows how to behave in a way that people in this world recognize as trustworthy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk I'm too bad at identifying in-genre hints to have tried this, but it follows logically from what the OP posted. The problem is that they are genre-savy and they identify the person as "evil schemer". It follows, directly, that the NPC shouldn't behave as an evil schemer in that genre. While you made me realize this is a poor answer for our format, I still believe it works - I just can't test it because I'm bad at this sort of things. I therefore invite anybody who really and successfully tried to add their own experience to this post. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Jan 26 at 18:32
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Players, even genre savvy players, tend to like and trust people who have helped them personally, especially at their own expense, and especially if they're willing to break rules in order to grant that help. The trick is to find out what the players really want help with, not what they merely ostensibly want. Put noticeable and visible obstacles in the way of her helping the players. Then have her help them anyway.

What is frustrating to your players? I found that frequently, my players were frustrated that no one they talked to could give a straight answer, because the NPCs either didn't know what the players wanted to know, or because the NPC had an agenda. The moment they found someone willing to give a straight answer, especially in a world where there's pressure not to do that, they fell in love.

But your campaign and your players may find something else to be frustrating. Maybe they feel like they aren't getting the material support they need to do their jobs. In that case, the Baronetess could cut through red tape for them. Maybe the players are at a loss for what to do, and the Baronetess can offer direction. Whatever it is, it should be something the players, not the characters, really want in the game.

Once the help is offered, trouble should come down on the Baronetess because of it. The players should be given a guilt trip about this if you can. The players should hopefully help the Baronetess at this point, out of their own free will (and guilty feelings). Once you start helping someone, on purpose, without being directed to, you will naturally feel more inclined towards that purpose.

Make other people accuse the Baronetess with obvious false accusations. Let the PCs feel comfortable, justified, and heroic for defending her. It's hard to suspect the victim when you are making yourself the shield.

Combined, your players should feel like you are setting up an "Us vs Them" storyline. When the rug is pulled out, and "us" turns out to actually be "them", you'll get the shocking reveal you are looking for.

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Play her as two NPCs

How would a truly good NPC behave? One that has a genuine romantic interest in the PC. One that has wholesome pastimes like painting and flower arrangement or whatever.

For a real person with terrible secrets constantly clawing at the back of her mind, putting on a facade is quite difficult. Luckily, they are portrayed by you, the GM. You are already putting on the face of all kinds of people. Just invent a different NPC, a "second face" to the villainess. One who has interests and aims that facilitate the true goals, but are in themselves a-ok.

"I want to trap and enslave him" becomes "I want to be alone with him in a quiet place"

"I need to spy on these guys" becomes "I want to know these heroes better"

And so on. When you pull out her "true face", things should be already too late for the PCs. If only one PC is witness to it, you might want to play that scene secretly, with only that one player present.

On rolling dice

Let them make checks if they want. If her act was so transparent that 5 minutes of light conversation would make it crumble, she would not be where she is. Let the difficulty of the checks reflect that. Skill checks like sense motive or insight, even if successful, might not give enough information. They are basically just looking at someone curiously. While she might think "I want to slit his veins and watch him bleed", even a successful skill test might only give "The Countess' eyes linger on your muscular arm for a bit".

And if the party is able to do more than look curiously, she should also have protection from the most common magical ways of seeing through her. Unless magic is extremely rare, she must have the resources to obtain the necessary items or services to avoid the occasional mind reader. Even if the presence of these items or spells is detected, for someone with a political position in a court full of intrigue this could be quite natural. She might even directly confirm that she has such protection.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:01
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"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" Sun Tzu

The Central American Cichlid has a very interesting hunting strategy. It pretends to be dead and lets its prey come and try to eat its corpse. Once the prey has let its guard down, the Cichlid attacks.

Have the countess get your party to help her eliminate a slaver rival, or even better a portion of her own slave trade. Who would hire people to destroy part of her own business empire? Have her be as helpful as possible to the party. Reward them with currency and/or property close to her. Have the King speak well of her. 4 or 5 highly respected city folk can give good credit to a NPC. Use clergy that the PCs would trust the word of.

Have another NPC try to infiltrate the party and have the countess expose them as an enemy and save them.

Kill the party with kindness from the countess. Then kill them slowly. Kill a PC/NPC in their sleep and frame PC. Do this within the King's city so the PC has to be detained for the duration of the investigation. The Countess can vocally plead for the release of the PC to further show she is on their side, while at the same time arranging the detained PCs demise in jail.

For a short term solution, go with the "damsel in distress" routine. Have someone fake attack her and have the party save her. Then she can hire them as bodyguards for a short while until they find the perpetrator. That would also serve as a good introduction.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ These are great long-term solutions, and the whole "Have her get the party to help shut down parts of her own slave trade," idea was actually already going to be part of the story, so that works well, but I also need a short term solution for when she walks up to the party since at least one of them will be rolling saves against her Charm skill and (if they drink the spiked drink) the love potion. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Jan 20 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not trying to take away from your narrative, but Charms and Love potions are going to cause more suspicion. If you must, do it at a location not affiliated with the Countess to help detract any suspicion her way. You can also just roll their saves for them in secret. That is a perfectly normal DM thing to do. \$\endgroup\$ – Semada Jan 20 at 15:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well as far as the Charm and Potion go, those will take place at the party, which will be at the king's palace, so that's that out of the way. As far as rolling for them in secret, true. I have just gotten so used to not doing that for my players over the past year of having campaigns with them that it kind of slipped my mind. Thanks for the reminder there. \$\endgroup\$ – Sora Tamashii Jan 20 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:02
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You've set yourself to an impossible task. If your players are rolling defense against an NPC, particularly in the case of being Charmed by them (and thus losing control of their character to some degree), then they WILL be suspicious of them and interpret that as a hostile act.

If you want to avoid suspicion, you're going to have to recast your plans to avoid having them roll defense against her.

The simplest way I can think of doing that is to make the character Charming them not her... A lady in waiting, or relative, or whatever. At the same time, do something to make your NPC seem weak. Have the PCs rescue her from some concocted danger. Have her swear she's in their debt.

What's important here is to make sure to redirect their suspicion away from her, so they see it as a case of a corrupting advisor they can eventually vanquish. Play up their villainy over time, including putting the main in repeated "serious" danger. Of course, the advisor was loyal all along, which will be part of the big reveal.

You'll need some plausible reason why the attendant can't be easily gotten rid of, so the npc can say they just can't believe their own daughter, a priestess of purity (or whatever), could be involved in such nefarious business! Eventually reveal some plausible reason for this betrayal, so the PCs feel they understand the relationship and don't keep digging for deeper answers.

Bonus points if you can make the attendant somehow useful to the PCs in fighting some other foe.

Final note: a satisfying big reveal isn't entirely out of the blue, it's okay if they have some suspicions. Key is to make other suspicions more alarming, to let the players feel they know what that character is about, and to make her useful to them.

Even that last point must be done delicately: the more attention you pay to a character, the more they'll pay.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:01
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Regardless of what else you do, be prepared for the possibility that your players will catch on. If you make it difficult to figure out that your baroness is evil but the players do so anyway, you should have a backup plan in mind that lets you keep your story on its rails.

This backup plan should involve rewarding your players! Maybe the inevitable boss fight against the baroness is easier because she can't be as prepared. Maybe the players are able to set up a trap for her that lets them defeat her nonviolently. Maybe the players can talk her down. Maybe they have a chance to sneak through her mansion and her stuff before the confrontation with her.

One way to make this happen is to think about what the most important moments you're hoping to see in your campaign are. You probably have metaphorical railroad tracks (whether hard or flexible) that lead your players to those points. Consider planning out an alternate path for your story to go down if the players discover your NPC's plot that temporarily takes the story in a different direction. Ultimately, this path will take your players back to the same important plot points, this time with some advantages they wouldn't have normally.

If you do that, then you can do everything in your power to hide the baroness's plot. Then, if in spite of that your players still figure out who she really is, you don't have to resort to being heavy-handed or throwing out your plot. Instead, you get to reward your players, take the campaign in an interesting direction, and still keep control of where the story is likely to go.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:02
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You can demonstrate to the players that she is a benevolent person by making her do good deeds in front of the players. Make it more political and harder for players to dismantle entrenched traditions. She can help them by providing support and money.

I don't do detect evil or good in my setting. I allow players who have detect evil to detect intent of the person at the current point in time. It's like a more general sense motive.

She can donate to charities that help newly freed slaves. She can publicly support the King's actions on edging out slavery. She can assist the players in eliminating her slaver competitors. She can do her slavery activities under a false name or multiple layers of associates.

*Edit for personal experience.

I know in the games I GM, I use these simple techniques to create a realistic and immersive experience of betrayal and corrupt politicians. It's how some smart bad people appear good in real life, they do good deeds. In my games, the players discover and peel back layers of intrigue before they discover the connection between their supposed ally and the "evil". But then in the end, they realize they are just a pawn in a game. Their strings pulled by another, thus through their emotions they create another big bad after taking down their ex-ally that they vow vengeance. 10 sessions later, they end up being the "big bad" due to their destructive actions. They would eventually succeed in their goal only to realize what they have done. Therefore, opening a path/quest-line of atonement. However, will they be forgiven, find atonement or will they be hunted down and put down like the rabid dogs they have become?

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm confused about this citations notice. I didn't publish a book... What sources are they looking for regarding my personal experience? \$\endgroup\$ – drunkenvash Jan 28 at 16:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Scroll to the top and see the comment about Good Subjective, Bad Subjective which bears a link. Also see rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8696/…. On subjective questions, we don't just want random unsubstantiated advice, we want things that have been tried. You can demonstrate that with personal experience, citing other's experience from books/blogs/whatever, and so on. But "I say you should do X" and "I say you should do Y" and having voting just be an uninformed popularity contest isn't how we help folks. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 28 at 18:15
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First let her lie, but have her lie about something completely different. One of the best ways to misrepresent an NPC's motives is let the players catch her in a lie for a secondary motive. Players rarely treat NPCs as multidimensional. Once they know she secretly supports X, they tend to forget she may have a position on Y. Make her multidimensional.

Sure, she supports slavery, but maybe she supports equal rights for women, or really hates a local religion that is secretly an evil cult.

I had a campaign with a priest who was only somewhat proficient in deception but due to a lucky roll was able to lie about being part of a kidnapping cult (he was the head) But then later one of the players asked him if he knew anyone who might be capable of such a crime, and he rolled too low to lie and say no. But the players were unwilling to push a priest that hard about this while standing right in front of a confessional and they already knew there was two different churches in the town. So what was going to be my final confrontation turned into a big game of misdirection where the players practically attacked another innocent priest. (made worse as the first priest had sent a monster to ambush the players at the other church making them even more suspicious.)

Maybe she helps the king maintain power until she can take it because she sees the king as her best chance to take said power. Weakening the king will weaken her own power politically when she takes the position. Thus, she helps crush the king's enemies. This works even better if she has reason to believe the PCs are the king's enemies and you make sure the PCs know this. Few things distracts suspicion

She may want to usurp the king but she wants the kingdom to do well, so have her support the kingdom even when it does her no benefit; she wants to rule the kingdom, not its ruins. She may even like the king and agree with many of his ideas. She is playing power politics, not principles and ideology. Things like whether something is right or wrong will not matter to her if it can advance or harm her position. She is not evil for evils sake, she is doing evil or good things because in that instance it is the best way to get what she wants.

Keep in mind that how you describe the charm will matter a lot. Maybe the charm makes the players hear what they want to hear; maybe the affected PC hears her words as if she is terrified and in desperate need of protection. Make it seem like the affected PC is the only one that succeeded on their Insight check. You can use meta to build better narrative.

Lastly, have her use intermediaries. If she is the head of a secret organization, she is unlikely to act herself when she can use disposable intermediaries to do that work instead. Don't just use several; the fewer people that know they work for her, the better. Why have her dose the player character when she can have a one of the king's maids do it, especially if it is one she is blackmailing through an intermediary? This works really well if she acts as if the potion affected her as well. People tend not to blame victims.

The most unsuspecting betrayal I have ever run combines most of this. It was a woman working to overthrow a kingdom, she was courtesan who was minor aristocracy but but had solid ambition. But she had been captured by demon worshipers a while traveling. The players rescued her and later when they got a audience with the king actually brought her with them, which got her the in she needed attract the prime ministers attention, so she could worm her way into the politics. She ended up as the players liaison with the kingdom, the players lived in the kingdom but not in the capital, but as they got more powerful and became minor lords they needed a voice in the council (there had been no actual king for generations). Because she was controlling the flow of information between the players and kingdom she could massage the information to get the players to do what she wanted. When the players learned the truth, (right after she became prime minister after having used intermediaries to kill the previous one) the players were completely broadsided. They had really trusted her, they had even given her one of their magic items because it let her communicate with them at a distance (it also let her communicate with her allies). Everytime she made her position stronger the players saw it as her making their positions stronger. She was genuinely helpful to the players and actually grateful, but she was not going to let any of that stop her.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Please add any personal experience or citations that would help someone evaluate the usefulness of this advice. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jan 25 at 2:02

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