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I've recently had an idea for a one-shot game (in my own homebrew system that I've been using for a while) where I collaborate with a player to make things more interesting. My plan is to make it look like an old-fashioned dungeon run. The party, who is supposed to be made up of already well known heroes, is hired by a local noble, meets up in a tavern and goes to clear out the dungeon. The enemy they are supposed to clear out is a powerful necromancer cult.

However I plan to take the party's wizard aside and suggest to him that he plays a fake character. In reality he is a powerful and ambitious member of the necromancer cult. His master suggested to lure in well known heroes to turn them into powerful minions. The wizard likes the idea, but in addition he considers this a great opportunity to kill his master so he might lead the cult.

I plan to give the wizard an item he can use to revive a killed party member as his minion. I hope that this creates a setup where while the party does a regular dungeon run, the wizard has to balance out weakening and supporting party and cult while he plots to murder one party member to gain an ally. This ally would learn what's really going on, thus becoming my second collaborator.

I'd like to let things play out from there, either the party discovering the plot and killing the wizard or the wizard killing his master and making the party his puppets are outcomes which are bound to be interesting.

However I've heard a lot of bad stories about PvP in pen & paper games. People breaking friendships over murdered characters and really heated arguments. While there was some PvP before in groups with these people in them, no one ever got killed.

How can I prevent players getting angry at each other when it turns out that some are out to kill the group? Are my worries unfounded? Or is this entire adventure a bad idea?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you played with these players before? If you know them, have you played non-rpg board games with them? There is a history of hidden objective board games that might give you indication of how they'll react to backstabbery. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Dec 11 '19 at 22:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Can party betrayal be done successfully? \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Dec 11 '19 at 22:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Odalrick please put that information into an answer if you want to help OP (and include the proper support). Answers don't belong in the comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Dec 12 '19 at 19:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've heard of a scenario where the guy who hires the party to take out the local dragon is himself the dragon. He's walking them into a trap. It's kind of like fast food delivery... for dragons. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 16:05

12 Answers 12

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In all seriousness...

Don't do it

There isn't a way to spring this on players without hurting feelings.

If you do want to do it then...

Set the Expectation Beforehand

GM: Hi everyone. I'm thinking of running this oneshot game. There is a complication - there's a hidden traitor, much like tabletop games Avalon and Betrayal at the House on the Hill and so on. What do you think? Interested?

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, but maybe don't spoil the betrayal part and simply warn them that there will be GM-guaranteed PvP with player deaths included, please take a moment to consider if you agree to play this oneshot game. Also consider reverting any deaths that happen during the game and maybe let them keep the xp/rewards. \$\endgroup\$ – Bernat Dec 12 '19 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Bernat This is to be a one-shot, according to the question, so nothing to worry about re: permanence of death, loss of xp, etc. IMO, that's the only way it could ever work out well. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 12 '19 at 20:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ While these are valid recommendations, can you support them by citing experience, e.g. your experience or someone else's that you know of where something similar has been tried? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 12 '19 at 20:19
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Just tell everyone up front

I usually start PVP-games, or, really, any game, with a pre-character-creation talk about what is and isn't okay in the game, how I'm resolving the major rules contradictions and underspecifications that are applicable to most every character, and what players should expect from the game. In a game where I wanted to do this, I would say something like:

Not all the information I tell you will be true; it will be based on what I think your character should know given whatever skill and/or attribute checks you are using and your prior actions. For example, I might tell you that the inkeeper of the Red Flagon is a jovial middle aged man, when actually that's the innkeeper's assistant. I also might draw attention to useless or harmful information, or describe important characters in a way that makes them blend into the background, in accordance with NPC attempts at deception or being beneath notice

Similarly, not all the information you tell each other needs to be true. You can feel free to make characters that do not portray themselves honestly, and even to work at odds to the party if you feel like. Be aware that other players don't have to believe your lies or other deceptions, and will likely kill you and take your stuff if you, for example, play a Chaotic Neutral Changeling Rogue and treat them like blind idiots. It's expected that you keep information you are keeping secret from other player's characters also secret from said players, and that attribute checks, attack rolls, and saving throws will be used to resolve conflicts between player characters' attempts to do things, just like they are used to resolve those conflicts between PCs and NPCs.

As the GM, it's my responsibility to remain a largely impartial party in this game. You can't misinform me about your characters' actions or motives or whatever else, because I dictate how those things play out in the world and my being misinformed will just make your character ludonarrative actualization dissonant with your expectations. Because of this, it is generally a good idea to let me know, discreetly of course, what you are planning ahead of time if you are planning anything particularly crazy. I won't tell anybody else, at least until the campaign is most definitely over-- it's my responsibility to keep your secret plans secret out-of-character as well as yours.

If you need to tell me something discreetly, you can (insert system you are implementing for this here). This sort of game usually ends up with PCs getting attached to non-player characters with irreconcilable philosophical conflicts and then fighting each other as a double-sided metaphor with their character conflicts mirrored in the larger societal conflicts even as those societal conflicts are mirrored in the relational conflict. Hopefully everyone is ready for that. Any questions?

Normally in PvP games I GM sandbox-style. That means that, while I might suggest to a PC building a Wizard they might like to be a secret agent for a necromantic cult and join in with a party I had already going to stop said cult, I wouldn't expect them to say yes or to stick with that plan when it looked like the Paladin (or whoever) was catching on. I also wouldn't expect the party to stick with the mission based just on being hired by a noble, especially if they got payment in advance and were newer players. If I cared about the plot you are describing actually happening, I'd have to get player buy-in on being a party, and I'd have to do that while also allowing for party-breaking murder scenes and free-for-all combats and all of that. That would be hard, and I'd probably come up with some MacGuffin excuse why everyone needs to be here now, and why leaving isn't a realistic option for anyone at the start of the campaign.

I have also run this exact scenario emergently in a PvP game without the aforementioned requirements.

  • The neophyte necromancer rapidly decided the party was the best thing since sliced bread, what with the supply of corpses, not asking any questions about the necromancy, lack of backstabbing for his spellbook, full share of the loot, and rapid EXP gain. In the final confrontation of the dungeon, when the master necromancer went to do the big reveal he cast counterspell, smugly said "I really have no idea what you are talking about", and then cast fireball (he had levelled from 1-5 over the course of the dungeon). Then the fighter beat the master necromancer to death with a greatsword+extra attack+action surge, the rogue intimidated the remaining newly-uncontrolled undead (not part of the contract), and they left with the loot and never talked about it again.

What I'm saying is that intraparty PvP in PvP games doesn't normally happen with experienced players except for ideological reasons. The dude who's trying to murder the party is just being stupid if he's doing it for money or magic; there is almost no more dangerous opponent than an adventuring party of your peers. It's just safer to go pick a fight with a dragon instead.

With inexperienced players, it's totally different, of course.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In your game the player of the "mole" character decided to triple-cross his master to join with the party? Awesome! And oh so typical of a traitor. \$\endgroup\$ – Codes with Hammer Dec 12 '19 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @codeswithhammer3 I think it is a triplecross if he betrays the party and goes back to become the cult leader after the former leader was defeated. Otherwise it is just the normal double. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Dec 12 '19 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well said. All of the things that someone might consider a problem (PvP, player death, wealth hoarding, being disruptive to the world, etc.) aren't inherent problems to the game, but are actually just conflicting goals for the table. Discuss what the goals and expectations are. If your players say they won't enjoy it, you have your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Dec 12 '19 at 21:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ "get everyone started as a party" is easier than you seem to think. You just add on to the requirements "You're all starting out having accepted a mission from noble X for Y money to go thwart necromancer cult Z, as a party. I expect you to come up for in-character reasoning and explanations for why you've each done that, that will hold together at least up to the first fight or so." Also works well if you talk with each of the players individually, and find out if one of them specifically wants to play a traitor before you specifically try to sell somebody on it. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Dec 13 '19 at 20:21
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I assume you are not sure of your players about this, because you are asking this question. First of all, no, do not betray the trust. There's a very good chance some will get upset. Well, unless you want to weed out the players who get upset, to create a group which enjoys this kind of shenanigans without warning, then this is one way...

To make this work, every player needs a hidden agenda. Also, they should probably know that most of them will fail with their initial character and/or agenda, and they will then get a new agenda (possibly a new character too if original is gone). You have to manage the expectations, when failure is inevitable for some of them.

You probably need mostly pre-made characters to make this good and make the hidden agendas fit. The agendas could be very different, and since players only know their own agenda, they would easily assume others had similar agendas, so there is still room for plot twists and big surprises. Also the hidden stuff doesn't have to be fair and balanced, but it should seem to be, or there might be player discontent about being handed a "fake" character which was never meant to be successful.

But your original idea of just one player and you knowing what kind of game you are playing, while others will get surprised... Very risky, don't go there if you have anything to lose.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "To make this work, every player needs a hidden agenda." +1 \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Dec 12 '19 at 12:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Paranoia but played with PHB, DMG, and Monster Manual... \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 12 '19 at 20:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @zeissikon Ha! Except this is a homebrew system, according to the OP. So any number of elements or mechanisms could be incorporated from Paranoia. \$\endgroup\$ – WakiNadiVellir Dec 12 '19 at 20:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ooh, you could give every player the same hidden agenda, but not tell them that the others have the same hidden agenda... \$\endgroup\$ – Jasper Dec 13 '19 at 16:02
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Pen-and-paper roleplaying games do not make good systems for representing PC-versus-PC conflict, especially deception.

These games assume that everyone speaks aloud their actions as they do them, which means that all the players at the table can hear what everyone is saying to the GM. If one of the players is secretly working against the rest, then either they're talking about that out loud (which makes it really hard not to metagame), or else they're communicating with you secretly (which is slow, and is boring for the rest of the group, and also will seem really suspicious).

To avoid having all the secret note-passing instantly reveal who the traitor is, you'll have to ask everyone at the table to do secret note-passing, which will be slow.

(source: I ran some Paranoia games at one point that did a lot of secret note-passing, and it never worked very well.)

Many players find that the fun of these games is in cooperating with each other and making silly jokes at the table, and if you cut off communication then you lose all that too.

If you want to play a hidden-traitors game, my suggestion is to find a board game that explicitly has a hidden-traitors mechanic -- anything from Resistance, Avalon, Secret Hitler, Bang, all the way up to Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica.


Other comments have noted that you're proposing a betrayal of trust here -- you're proposing to let the group think they're playing a cooperative game, and then abruptly reveal that they're not doing that at all. This is very true, and it's another good reason not to run a game like this. But the main reason not to do this is just that it doesn't work very well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that the question does not mention DnD. \$\endgroup\$ – FerventHippo Dec 12 '19 at 10:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Online RPGs are often already text based, and people do those all the time... \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Dec 12 '19 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I GM a long-running GURPS campaign online using Tabletop Simulator. When I, or my players need to pass secret messages, we use Steam's text chat, and no one else is ever aware. Secrecy is easy to maintain online. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan_L Dec 12 '19 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that secrecy is easy to maintain online. Is this question about an online game? It looks to me like a pen-and-paper game. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Dec 12 '19 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually, plenty of TTRPGs handle PVP just fine. A lot of Traditional ones are designed with cooperative parties in mind and so don't work, but if you look at indie games like Apocalypse World as a prime example, there's no reason the characters can't be trying to kill or injure each other for the majority of the campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Dec 19 '19 at 14:08
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You Basically Can't

In the simplest of terms, this is a violation of trust inside the game (one of the characters is a ringer), linked to a violation of trust outside of or above the game (one of the players is a ringer.)

That may seem like an overly dramatic, weighty term-- after all, it's just a game, right? Sure, it's just a game, but it's a game where people often invest substantial affection into their characters, and take things personally. Especially when there is a pre-existing assumption of teamwork, which is an assumption you are fostering by hiring the players as heroes who are members of a team. That makes you complicit in the violation of trust as well as the player you select as ringer.

So what you're asking for is a way to prevent people from getting up over, or taking personally, a violation of trust.

You might get players who are okay with it. You very possibly might not. And if you don't, there's very little you can do about it after the fact.

You might, as this answer suggests, soften this by getting buy-in in advance. But this will almost certainly lead to a game with a different feel, as the players focus more on each other than the dungeon.

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I ran a secretly PvP game about 10 years ago. At the moment where the true nature of the game became obvious (before any actual fights or deaths), I had several players buy in and get all excited. I also had one player just completely stop. She was stunned. She just sat there and disengaged. I ended up needing to stop and talk to her in a separate room. After a bit I thanked her for coming, apologized, and she left. I realized I had made a serious mistake.

In your situation, you might end up with all your players excited and having a good time. You might also end up betraying your players like I did.

Alternatively, a strategy I’ve had great success with is giving all of my players in a one shot a secret agenda. i just give them envelopes to secretly open at the start of play with custom agendas based on their character concept. Play remains cooperative, but there are opportunities for each character to achieve the secret goals and for other players to figure them out and stop them. Anything that would result in a death or permanent bad state for one character gets narrated by the GM in a short “epilogue” at the end of the session—similar time what you see in video games like DragonAge. Players seem much happier to have their characters die horribly when it’s narrated to them after the game play ends.

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I will say this: I played D&D once and only once in college years ago. It was my first time, and one of our players and our DM planned a similar situation out. After we had beat a very challenging fight and we were camping to rest, the wizard in our party murdered and looted us all. I had gotten a really awesome loot drop and was excited about it, and now I had nothing. I never played D&D again and as I recall only the wizard ever played with that DM, again.

To summarize, the backstabbing ruined the game for me then and forever. I wouldn't try it unless you know everyone is 100% on board. If you do it without their knowledge you risk the chance that the group doesn't play with you again, and I don't recommend doing it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Can you clarify what exactly your answer is recommending? It sounds like you're saying "don't do this", but right now your answer is just telling that story without directly making your recommendation clear. Your experience would be a good way of supporting your recommendation if you do make that clear. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 12 '19 at 20:20
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You can very easily do this with excellent results for all players but not in Dungeons and Dragons or similar role playing games. People invest emotionally in their characters and any death can sometimes trigger very negative consequences in the real world. Even if the death is due to gross stupidity by the player it can be upsetting.

The role playing game to use is called Paranoia. To quote the Gamemaster handbook "You know the thing people say about carrots and sticks? Paranoia is a game made almost entirely of stick. It is a game designed to mash characters into paste."

The players are issued with a set of clones so that death is not permanent. Characters can and do die, usually at the hands of other players. Players can advance in the game by achieving goals or discovering the traitor(s) in the party. Catch is everybody in every party is a traitor so identifying any traitor is rewarded. Although this is a traditional role playing game system, the computer is your friend.

Must admit I played Paranoia in the 1980s and I receive a tiny credit in the current set of books.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 14 '19 at 7:27
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Playing this at a game convention may be a better option than playing it with your core group, and with pre-made characters.

I've played RPGs at many conventions. Sometimes I've used characters from continuing campaigns that I've gained emotional attachment to, and others where the character was a one-shot play. I would take far greater risks with the one-shot character than with one where I had built them up over time. Players at conventions may know each other, but they are generally acquaintances or out-right strangers and not friends. Giving someone the role of betrayer can be an easier pill to swallow in this situation.

This being said, don't be surprised if the betrayer doesn't actually betray the party. You never know what the players will decide to do.

I liked @Dana's suggestion of giving everyone their own secret agenda and narrating a recap at the end.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 14 '19 at 7:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ People signing up to play a game expecting it to be a cooperative dungeon crawl and then finding themselves backstabbed by another player are not unlikely to end a convention game angry at the GM for orchestrating it and the PC for doing it. This is not something to do without being upfront about the game having secret and conflicting PC agendas. \$\endgroup\$ – Quentin Dec 15 '19 at 7:26
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Don't do it but...

If you really want to do this, I recommend do not do it as a one shot, because the player won't have a chance to revenge, and they will feel betrayed. What I suggest is to make the necromancer capture them for some crazy plan, make him a npc after, then they can plan a escape and a revenge. The necromancer player should create a character who has been captured while ago.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! You can take the tour as an introduction to the site. Can you elaborate a bit more on this? Have you tried what you are proposing? How did the players react? Good luck and happy gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Dec 13 '19 at 15:15
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I think something like this could work well for a one-shot, and could actually be really interesting, memorable, and fun if done well. You really can't have the player murder the other characters without animosity -- unless perhaps you're playing something like Paranoia, where a) such things are expected, and b) the dead players get to reboot; but you could probably pull off a "traitorous character" element.

You need experienced players, and especially the player running the traitor needs to be a solid player. In fact, I would take it a step further: The "traitor" isn't really a player, he is co-DMing the game with you. He can't think like a player, who is trying to achieve his own goals, because that wouldn't be fair to the other players. Like any DM, this player has to be extra scrupulous about separating personal knowledge from character knowledge.

They are NOT in it to win; they are playing a villain. Like you, their task is to help created a fun game for the players. They don't succeed if their character succeeds; they succeed if the other players defeat them and have fun doing it. (Possibly their character survives to fight another day as an NPC villain....) You have to make this very clear to that player, and it needs to be a good enough player -- probably a sometime-DM -- that they understand the difference.

You also have to be very careful about the reveal. If one night he just up and kills them all in their sleep, this is fun for nobody. The traitor probably needs to be "accidentally" revealed. I would play this as something where all through the game weird things keep happening. Somebody tipped off the bad guys. Somebody sabotaged their plan. Who could be doing this??? AHA! It was you! There has to be a dramatic moment of revelation where he is exposed. This may even be the ultimate "boss fight" at the end of the game. Surprise, he's actually higher level than you all thought he was -- high enough to challenge the whole rest of the party.

This would also take a good bit of planning, because like any DM this player needs to be very familiar with the scenario. They won't be able to ask you a lot of questions mid-game as a normal player might; they will just have to know certain things. You might arrange certain "cued events" that secretly tell them that some background event has happened.

A lot of people have suggesting that you have to give the players a heads up. I'm ambivalent about this. At most you might suggest that there's something unusual or experimental about this game, but don't say anything beyond that. You're just trying something new. But to be honest, I'm not sure I would even do that (and I like the idea enough that I just might try it some day). But I do see others' point about certain players possibly feeling betrayed. Hmm....

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I can actually see a scenario where you get to the "boss fight" and the traitor is fighting alongside everyone to wrest control of the Powerful MacGuffin from the villain. They kill the boss, the traitor puts on the MacGuffin and turns to face the party. "Muah ha ha ha... you were all very useful to my plans. Time to die." \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 16:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps a better reveal is that at a crucial juncture in the plot, they bed down for the night and the traitor leaves in the night with an important item that they recently acquired...? \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/8749/… \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/24388/… \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 17:51
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Make it a dream

This requires some thought on how to introduce and play it, but it can be done. It's also up to you how obvious this is for the players and the characters.

We did this kind of thing a long time ago. Can't remember if there was any "event" causing it, but from the character's point of view everyone all of a sudden woke up in a completely different body with different abilities, which everybody had to figure out at first. When the adventure/dream was over, everyone woke up, got their XP and some small skill from the character he was during the dream.

Of course this can be done in a far more subtle way, although I think you should give at least the players some hints. Dreams are weird, so why not let some weird things happen. Make some (unimportant) ability checks arbitrarily easy or hard. Take that dwarf for example: He's a horrible singer, but of course he's annoying absolutely everyone with his "performances" all the time. All of a sudden the bard (and only the bard) - who hates dwarven songs the most - actually feels the urge to join in rather than to run a way or quickly grab some improvised weapon. Everything's possible in a dream and there's no harm done...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 14 '19 at 7:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ "...and for some strange reason, you can all fly." ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 15:51

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