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My group has been following a premade campaign that has a decentralized plot structure that relies mainly on adventurers "finding their own adventure". This means that while the campaign provides ample worldbuilding information and premade side-quests, the campaign has no clearly defined antagonist or central plotlines. Normally, in a group focused on exploration and combat this wouldn't be a big deal, however in my group there's been a general feeling of dissatisfaction at the current lack of plot progression, as well as the lack of a main antagonistic force.

In order to help develop a centralized plot, one of my players recently came up with the idea of his PC secretly acting as a twist villain. The basic premise is that they would conduct certain actions between sessions in secret (i.e. assassinating certain NPCs, instigating strife between factions, etc.), such that the other players would have mysteries to uncover, as well as a means of driving change in an otherwise stagnant story.

In order to prevent the player from gaining an unfair amount of agency and spotlight, the following would be enforced:

  • The PC will not become "the BBEG". That is to say, they will never become the primary antagonistic force in the story. They will never work fully in opposition to the other PCs, but will follow goals that the other PCs may view as acts of evil.
  • The PC's villainous acts will serve to develop a larger storyline. The PC will only be privy to information pertaining to their own actions; the player of said PC will not be aware of the overall direction of the story.
  • The player has agreed to relinquish control of their character to me (the GM) in the event that cooperation between them and the rest of the party becomes impossible.

I've heard that PVP generally has a negative connotation and I have some concerns with the idea of a player having an elevated degree of control in the storyline, mostly related to spotlight issues. However twist villains appeal to me and I think that the other players will appreciate the resulting narrative shift.

RPG.SE has a vast array of experiences and I'm certain that this scenario has occurred before. I'm hoping to draw on that experience to help answer the following question: how can I handle a PC wanting to be a twist villain?

  • What steps can I take to ensure that this doesn't come across as an act of favoritism?
  • How can I prevent this from turning into an instance of "My Guy" syndrome?
  • Are there any pitfalls of this choice that I may want to avoid?

Preferably, I'm interested in answers that ensure that the mystery surrounding the villains identity is preserved, while reducing any potential in-real-life strife.


Contextual points to consider:

  • The group has historically responded well to story-driven adventures. Roleplaying abilities are generally strong and players expect the presence of heightened drama.
  • When we started this campaign, we were aware that the campaign was more open-ended than others we've played in the past. It was selected as an experiment of sorts; needless to say the experiment has proven somewhat unsuccessful and everyone involved is aligned on the fact that the campaign requires a stronger storytelling backbone in order to remain interesting.
  • Session Zero has already occurred and this sort of behavior was never fully discussed. Players are aware that their PC's goals will not always fully align, and that PVP may occur, but we haven't discussed the possibility of players being fully villainous.
  • Players are aware that they may receive more or less narrative attention based on their choices and the direction of the story.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to make sure I understand your goal here, you do want to allow this and you're looking for potential pitfalls regarding that decision? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 9 '20 at 18:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch yes at this point I'm interested in allowing this \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Nov 9 '20 at 18:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not entirely clear to me (unless I missed something), but I presume other players won't know out-of-character that this player's character is villainous? And obviously not ingame unless they find out. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Nov 9 '20 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am rarely the one to point this out, but I'd like to remind answerers that we're looking for answers that have some degree of experience to back them up. I myself have pages-- chapters, even!-- of thoughts on the subject, but not enough practical experience to answer on my own. (That said, I skimmed the four existing answers and they all have at least some experiential back-up-- some more than others-- so I am not calling anyone out. Just a note to the future.) \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Nov 9 '20 at 23:39
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I've both DMed surprise villain PCs (two of them!) and played the surprise villain PC myself, over multiple D&D 4e campaigns. Based on those experiences, I recommend the following:

Ground Rules With Your Villainous Player

Before starting on this plot, lay down some ground rules with your villainous player based on your group's tolerance for various "degrees" of villainy. For example, if you think your players might like the narrative idea of a villain PC, but don't want PVP, then one ground rule is that your villainous player can be a villain but must never instigate PVP. Similarly, if there are taboo topics at your table, such as torture, your villainous player must agree to never broach those topics, even in villainy.

If you're concerned that your villainous player will (or does) suffer from My Guy Syndrome, however, I strongly recommend against letting them play a villain PC at all. It's very easy for even the most well-intentioned MGS player to succumb to their syndrome and cause problems. Consider this player's past table behavior and whether they've shown signs of MGS. If so, it's likely not worth the risk. On the other hand, if they have a history of working with the group in the interest of a fun and exciting story for everyone, they're an excellent candidate.

Foreshadow, Foreshadow, Foreshadow

@mikeq's answer recommends telling your players up front about your surprise. This is a good general suggestion if you're about to do something narratively that you aren't sure the players will enjoy. Based on your additional contextual points, it sounds like this might be something your players would be interested in. So there's a middle ground between telling your players everything (and ruining the surprise), and hiding everything (and risking an unpleasant surprise).

Foreshadowing, if you aren't familiar with the term, is a "clue or allusion embedded in the narrative that predicts some later event or revelation." In other words, it's a hint at the direction of the plot which you can use to gauge your players' reactions to the planned twist. Now, especially in a tabletop RPG, you need to be ten times as blatant about your foreshadowing as a typical movie or novel - your players are holding a lot more in their heads and it's easy to miss a single subtle clue. Work with your villain-PC to establish lots of potential foreshadowing options, such as being away mysteriously right at the same time an NPC winds up dead, or mysterious letters arriving which the PC hides from the other party members, or notable but ambiguous evidence left behind at the crime scene (E.g., your villain-PC is a tabaxi? There's cat fur at the scene. Suspicious, but not definite proof).

Mind Your Players' Reactions

This is a shared responsibility between you and your villainous player. Both of you must watch your players' reactions closely to all the foreshadowing you drop. I say this is partially your villainous player's responsibility because when I played the villain-PC, I spent quite a bit of time monitoring my fellow players' reactions to the hints I was dropping. If I dropped what I thought was a vital hint and got absolutely zero response, I would often drop another hint, just to make sure it was picked up on by someone. On the flip side, it's also your villainous player's responsibility to make sure they aren't hogging the limelight. You as the GM have some responsibility here as well, but given how many other responsibilities the GM has, you need your villainous player's full support.

You're looking for hints about how well the other PCs will take this news. If your players eagerly latch on to your foreshadowing hints, and speculate enthusiastically about the mystery villain's identity (bonus points if they actually suspect each other and seem to like the idea), great! Carry on. If, instead, your players express doubt or concern about the possibility that this villain might be one of their own, then abort mission and start over. Which leads into my next point:

Be Willing to Bail

The nice thing about TTRPGs is that you as the GM can change the direction of your plot as much as you feel is necessary for the whole table's enjoyment. If you foreshadow this twist and get a strongly negative, or even just lukewarm, reaction: reconsider. Discuss it out of game with your villainous player, to make sure you're both on the same page and seeing the same reactions consistently (i.e., that it's not simply that the other players aren't picking up your foreshadowing). But make it clear to your villainous player before you start that if the other players don't seem to like the idea, you're going to retcon it away. Similarly, be ready to pull the plug if the villainous player starts coming down with My Guy Syndrome, or breaks any of the ground rules laid out before starting.

I've fortunately never had to retcon a villainous PC, but I've had to retcon a few other things which ended up not working out the way I wanted, and it's always better to do so than to push forward with an idea most or all of the group doesn't enjoy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer and the last point is key. The couple times I've been in this situation (one as the evil character and one as the DM) it was important to understand that if the table wouldn't have fun, we shouldn't do the thing. Giving graceful options for the player to bail is also important. That can be as simple as depowering the "evil" player compared to the team or as complex as giving the evil player the goal to turn each PC to their cause (wittingly or not) rather than killing them. \$\endgroup\$ – raithyn Nov 10 '20 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent, thanks. It seemed in the D&D family, but I think the setting does matter. Consider, at one corner of the field, the Amber DRPG.... \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Nov 11 '20 at 6:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Accepting this answer as it contains the most practical information for anyone set on implementing this. Great answer! \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Nov 11 '20 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ For what it is worth, the awkwardly phrased bounty message applies to this answer. I misunderstood where the message would appear. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Nov 11 '20 at 19:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Novak Thank you! It's something that has brought my table a lot of fun, so I'm glad I was able to give you new insight. \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Nov 11 '20 at 23:09
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You've told us:

  • your group is playing in a premade campaign that doesn't really have enough plot
  • your group is unhappy because there's not enough plot
  • one of your players is proposing to make their character secretly-a-villain in order to generate some plot

It seems to me that your problem is not "how can I handle a character being secretly-a-villain?" Your problem is "how can I get my campaign to have some plot?".


It sounds like you're already aware that letting a character be secretly-a-villain is risky. In my games, when I've allowed one character to be secretly-a-villain, it turned out pretty badly.

Here's my story: I ran an adventure in which one character had a demon inside him, and if it went unbound, he would turn evil and rampage. At one point the demon went unbound, and the player turned to me happily and said: "Now? I rampage." I immediately recognized that letting him rampage properly would lead to a TPK for the party and a Bad End for the campaign, so I improvised some rampage mechanics for him that didn't do anything effective, and I think the whole table was disappointed with how it turned out.

Here's a story where something very similar happened. A secretly-a-villain player writes:

I know NOW that I wasn't totally meant to destroy the party THIS TIME. Had the Paladin dead to rights (webbed, grappled by a Drider) at the business end of a Disintegrate spell, when the DM looked at me and went, "Huh. Sorry, I can't allow it."

Phrasing that more abstractly: when you allow one of your players to play an evil character, you are giving them narrative license to try to wreck your story.

The player will try to generate story outcomes that the other players won't like -- either directly killing other players' characters, or merely preventing them from accomplishing their goals. And then you'll be forced to adjudicate the situation. You'll have to decide which of your players gets stuck with an unsatisfying outcome where their character fails.

If you really want to do this (and my advice is: seriously don't), you need to think really carefully about what you're going to do, when the villain character attempts to do something that will make the rest of the group fail and lose. Will you let them do it and end the campaign with a defeat for the group? Or will you invoke DM fiat, like in the two situations above, and tell them they're just not allowed to do that?


Here's my recommendation for your adventure: don't start messing with secretly-a-villain characters. It wouldn't solve your problem very well and in fact you would then have two problems. Instead, alter the campaign and introduce an NPC villain. You could introduce a villainous organization, or just a recurring villain who's really hard to kill permanently. That will solve your group's problem, and it will also remove the reason why your player wants to be secretly-a-villain.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I cannot strongly enough recommend not making a player secretly a villain, especially not when you're already partway through a campaign and haven't planned for it in the slightest. \$\endgroup\$ – RevanantBacon Nov 9 '20 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I guest played a secret traitor in an ongoing campaign. I followed these rules: "I should not attempt to kill PCs except during specific times and for specific reasons. I shall not play to "win". I will attempt to achieve my goals without killing if possible. I will not complain if the GM tips the scales in favor of the non-traitors." It worked out very well, even though they still jokingly call me traitor. :D I think having a regular player getting assigned that role will leave a sour taste. I was able to achieve my goal before getting decapitated, but it gave the campaign a good plot twist. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Nordh Nov 10 '20 at 15:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ The way I have heard about it working was by telling the secretly-villain PC that his goal is for him to die as epically as possible without killing the party and a predefined small number of sessions at most. \$\endgroup\$ – David Mulder Nov 11 '20 at 12:19
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Discuss it among the players first.

Surprise twist villains always sound really interesting in theory, but in practice they tend to backfire explosively when mishandled. I've been in campaigns where this happens. I've run (and ruined) my own campaigns by trying this, even when I thought I was being careful and clever. Of course it's not impossible to implement a surprise villain without breaking the game or alienating the players, but it's very risky and it warrants some level of out-of-game communication.

As you mentioned, your session zero didn't cover any rules for handling PVP which means antagonistic play isn't currently part of the social contract. It was acknowledged that PVP may occur, but not how it would manifest and what the boundaries are drawn. You may have players who really don't want PVP, and may feel betrayed (as real-world players, not as in-game characters) when suddenly their cooperative adventure turns into a a hostile PVP scenario, and they realize they aren't playing the game they signed up for.

From your perspective, you may be worried about spoiling your big surprise. But there's nothing inherently bad or good with plot twists. If you are concerned about risking player group cohesion, then perhaps maintaining the players' experience should take priority over trying to surprise them.

By communicating with the other players about your plans, you can accomplish 2 very important things that can help you execute your intended villain plot. First, when you give the secret villain character special attention, the others won't mistake this as favoritism. Second, they won't think the player is breaking the social contract by acting against the party.

Of course, giving your players a heads-up and asking for input doesn't necessarily mean revealing all your secret details. The discussion should give just enough forewarning to the players that you and this particular player are doing something secret with the character. You should probably mention the following:

  • The player wants their character to secretly engage in some villainous activity, but not in direct opposition or in a way that would result in PVP.
  • You want everyone else's in-game characters to act as though unaware of this information.
  • You think this is a good idea because it advances the plot in an interesting way.

Then listen to what the other players think about this proposal. If they're all on board, then you may just be able to pull this off. Maybe they'll be open to PVP and you can discuss terms of engagement that supports competition between characters without hostility between players. Otherwise you should reconsider what kinds of twists and secrets you want in this game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Nov 10 '20 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree that by not mentioning PvP in a s0, it is automatically off the table. It is just that: Not mentioned. Nobody thought it worth mentioning, so likely there aren't strong opinions one way or the other. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Nov 10 '20 at 17:03
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What you are describing doesn't sound like a twist, but rather a secret. Treating it like a twist may be problematic

I need to point out upfront that, while I have written many twist outros for PC characters, I've never had to actually execute one. What I do have good experience with, and what I believe is most relevant to this situation, is setting up and executing plot twists in general. The major issue is that twists are difficult to do well, and difficulties around a PC's involvement in one pale in comparison to that.

A proper twist in a plot is what happens when, after new information is revealed, that information gives a different context to events such that what seemed to be true about the plot before clearly no longer is: the twist demands that events the audience has observed and thought they understood before be looked at in a new light with new implications.

It's that reflection on old events that makes it a twist. Otherwise, it's just new information. I cannot emphasize enough that revelations are not necessarily twists. Eventually you can end up in a situation like "that's not a twist. That's a completely different movie about a talking dog voiced by Dolph Lundgren!".

And that's where it sounds like your game is right now. This PC will be fully involved in all aspects of full-party play, is not working against the party but rather is pursuing their own goals for their own reasons, and will have access to extra plot information but can't share it and still won't know what's going on in the story. Further, their secret role in the plot will likely be tangential enough (as they won't oppose the party or become the BBEG) that the reveal will explain what has happened in the story, but won't require revision of any previous understanding of events. That may be a denouement, and even a good one, but it's not a twist.


OK, then, let's twist! But how?

My approach to twist-style stories is to work out the following:

  • What is the twist intended to be?
  • What does the planned course of events in the campaign look like with knowledge of the twist?
  • What would a plausible, internally consistent story for those events be like without knowledge of the twist?
  • How can PCs be connected to the apparent (that is to say, twist-less) storyline?
  • How can PCs be guided towards the seeming explanations for the clues they find while not easily leaping to the true explanations?
  • What details can be presented to emphasize the impact that revealing the twist has? Or put another way, what can be done to maximize the contrast between the players' pre-reveal understanding of the story and their post-reveal understanding?

From what I've read in the question, the twisty PC working for a bad guy as a second job in their off-time, while not altering the rest of the party's activities at all and without becoming a significant antagonist doesn't sound like it can satisfy the bullet points. That may be part of the twist, but isn't enough on its own. It's the difference between

We've investigated seven murders. The victims were killed by someone, and it turns out... it was Ted! On Carol's orders! Now we have to deal with Carol and maybe Ted also, so that's what we'll be doing for our next quest.

and

We've investigated seven murders, and the evidence pointed towards Sarah. We dealt with her, but it turns out that the killer was Ted all along! He framed Sarah on Carol's orders, because Sarah was preventing Carol from executing her Ultimate Evil Plan but Carol didn't dare move against Sarah on her own. We thought we were solving the crimes and helping the city, but we turned out to be unknowing accomplices in the crimes and brought the entire world to the brink of doom!

It takes a lot of planning and work to prepare and execute a story like the latter in an even remotely fair way, and a huge amount of effort and skill on the twisty PC's part to pull it off. Specific, pre-planned events with specific, pre-planned details are much, much easier than improvising.

A player wanting a twisty PC might be OK (I don't think that every player can handle it well), but the twist elements still need to be present: the reveal still has to be meaningful, the PC's actions still need a superficially satisfying, innocent explanation, and the twist has to re-cast the PC's actions in a new light. Those seem hard to do with all of the constraints listed in the question at once, so relaxing some of those may be the best advice I can give in allowing a twist to revolve around this PC.


An applied example

I'm running a campaign right now with a planned plot twist: the PCs have met a major NPC with a private army who is involved in what is, at minimum, a triple-cross in pursuit of a secret goal. Working with him is meant to seem easy and rewarding, but probably at least somewhat villainous. Working against him is meant to seem noble and difficult, but almost certainly heroic. The twist is that the NPC wants a large-scale military conflict, and doesn't care at all if his army wins or loses, or even what the fight is about. Regardless of whether the players choose to join with the NPC or oppose him, they will be advancing his secret plans. They have chances to figure out what's happening in advance but are unlikely to learn the truth until it's too late. So let's look at my checklist for this example:

  • What is the twist intended to be?

    The NPC has evil plans on a scale the players are unlikely to consider so early in the game, and has arranged events such that (almost) no matter what the players choose to do in that plotline they will be helping him.

  • What does the planned course of events in the campaign look like with knowledge of the twist?

    The NPC needs a lot of people to die violently, in a relatively short period of time, so that he can become immortal. He wants immortality because he's made a deal with a devil, and if he never dies he never has to pay his end of the bargain. He has been covertly stoking military tensions in hopes of starting a war in which his army can participate, but his goals don't require outcomes which might be expected (like his forces surviving, or his nation winning the war).

  • What would a plausible, internally consistent story for those events be like without knowledge of the twist?

    The NPC seems like a simple warmonger, building conventional military strength to impose a military hegemony on the region (with him in charge). There are lots of fine-grained details that support this reading, but it's a common enough setup that it will be easy to get my players thinking on this track.

  • How can PCs be connected to the apparent (that is to say, twist-less) storyline?

    Lots of campaign-specific ways, which go outside of the scope of describing how I'm trying to incorporate this twist.

  • How can PCs be guided towards the seeming explanations for the clues they find while not easily leaping to the true explanations?

    They've been traveling with the NPC and his army for a while and have observed clues firsthand. They will find that quests (major and minor) put them in the path of this plot until the first major arc of the campaign is finished. They have several reasons to find working with the NPC attractive, and lots of reasons to oppose him. The details about what he's really up to are on less obvious story paths and other NPCs will generally be certain that the mundane conquer-the-continent plan is what's happening. This is valuable because they will articulate goals and give out quests which support that interpretation.

  • What details can be presented to emphasize the impact that revealing the twist has? Or put another way, what can be done to maximize the contrast between the players' pre-reveal understanding of the story and their post-reveal understanding?

    The PCs have met soldiers in the NPC's army, good and bad, and might care if they live or die. Either way, they are also being encouraged to form opinions about the polities in the game and might care about who comes out on top of an ordinary military struggle. Finally, the NPC's real goals will greatly advance the end of the world. My aim is to provide opportunities to care about individuals, societies, and the world itself to emphasize how evil the NPC truly is, and how selfish and destructive his schemes are. Ideally, they will be horrified at how deftly manipulated they were, and this will drive future conflict with other manipulative, ethically-not-awesome NPCs as the campaign progresses.

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I would say, if you can GM it and he can play it really well, in the sense that it would be consistent and make sense for what's already known about the character and situation, that the character has their own agenda and is up to things that make sense, and has a reason for being in their position/relationships with the other PCs, etc, that it could be great... BUT that does not seem to be the case, or you would not be asking this question in this way.

If you can at least think of the reasons why this would not make sense and be consistent, then you might explain those to the player.

Like Dan B, I think the glaring larger problem is that there seem to be no developing situations or adversaries. You call that "plot", but from my perspective as a GM who runs dynamic campaigns, I suspect that framing those things as "plot" and "central adversaries" and not seeing/recognizing those things in the premade adventure, you and the players are not ending up with a sense of developing situations and adversaries... because you are all used to them being artificially planned and handed out, instead of found naturally during play.

Some tips:

  • Pretty much all worlds and situations can have lots of "villains" and situations if they have people in them. Whoever the authorities, outlaws, and people who crave wealth and power, or who are just nasty people, are in the world, can potentially be villains, adversaries, opponents, etc., to the players, even ones they randomly encounter or notice (or who notice them) while they're walking through a town.

  • In any situation, think about the NPCs, whether already opponents or just bystanders, who might take advantage of that situation in ways that may get the players' attention. Thieves, people who inform on what they observe of the PCs, and combat opponents who don't just fight to the death but flee and get away (possibly snagging something from the PCs if they can first) or live to fight another day, can/will all get player attention and curiosity and become "recurring villains" of a sort.

  • Mention incidental details a lot, to conjure for the players that the world is an interesting place with consistent/real details, and allow the players to choose freely to investigate or ignore any of them.

  • Don't over-explain or make too obvious what NPCs/situations/things in the game world you have detailed in advance or consider to be significant, or why things are the way they are. Just tell them what their PCs observe, including unimportant things, so that it's up to them to choose what to investigate or interact with. Act as if it could all be fun and interesting to mess around with. If you make it obvious what's planned and significant and what's not, it can make the world seem bland and uninteresting.

  • Notice and respond to what the players choose to investigate and interact with, and indulge those interests. Develop them and things like and related to them between sessions. In that way, the players can naturally discover and let you know what they're interested in, and find interesting things, and before you know it, related situations and interesting antagonists tend to emerge.

For example, I was running a simple wilderness monster hunting scenario, when the players randomly encountered a group of savages in ambush. The party had a standard practice of scouting carefully as they traveled, so I set up the situation on a sketch map and rolls determined they spotted the ambush at a distance. I made reaction rolls and the players decided to go talk to the savages. They didn't share a language but were friendly enough, and I did not meta-signal to the players that this was a random encounter. They decided to try to get information from and about the savages (of which I had nothing prepared, so I improvised). During the conversation, the players decided to try to trade with the natives, and found the natives had some scavenged minor valuables that they didn't value much. So when the party returned to civilization to resupply and heal, they also stocked up on things the natives were interested in, to trade with them. Then they went back and found the savages, by which time I had developed the savages and figured out how they related to the hunted monsters and other tribes, etc, and the situation developed more and more from there, following the players' choices and interests.

Another possible idea that I've seen work well with players who embraced it: You might have the player, or some other person not with the group, become an "adversary" player, not playing a PC in the group, but choosing what some other agents in the campaign are up to.

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