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My players, after having travelled through a big Kobold empire to find a temple, finally encountered the temple, only to find it inhabited by a Dragon. They bump into the Kobold who had been tracking their progress after scouting the temple and being concerned about there being the Dragon.

The Kobold ranger outright tells them that the only reason they were allowed into the Empire to look for their temple is because the Kobolds knew there was a Dragon in the temple (even though they never told them before) and they were hoping to manipulate the players into killing it (the Dragon had set up wards that blocked out Kobolds, so they couldn't do it themselves)

The players proceeded to demand a reward in gold and trade-rights from the Ranger, who said that he could promise them an audience with the emperor and that he'd reward them for helping. Why they think this was a good idea is the topic of a second question I'll be asking.

However, this means that during the next session the players will be travelling to a nearby city to talk with the local Kobold Duke of the province that borders the players' own city (the Ranger has no intention of taking them all the way to the emperor, he has stuff to do) where he will leave the players to discuss trade rights.

This empire is absolutely vast, the players control a small city (about 1000 humans) and they basically have nothing to offer the Kobolds. (Well, slaves maybe, but I don't think the players will go for that) The Duke is also not very interested in giving the players the large sum of gold that the Ranger promised them.

However, he will be very interested in manipulating the party further to do his dirty work and maybe get them killed just for the sadistic pleasure the Kobolds will get from it.

But I'm a little stuck on how to properly portray this guy and his advisors. They are all hateful of non-Kobolds (which is something I can play well enough) but they also have to be manipulative and believable, and that's the hardest part.

The players have not seen the Kobolds do anything evil (mostly because they haven't been allowed in any Kobold town yet) but they're very aware that Kobolds are usually evil, are very xenophobic and that the only one they've really talked to has openly admitted to being manipulative towards them.

As a DM, how do I play an evil noble trying to trick the players into doing his dirty work? I don't want to railroad them anywhere, but ideally I want them to accept his offer out of their own free will and play it such that the Duke doesn't have to pay them much (or anything) in the end.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 25 '15 at 7:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are various modern politicians you could use as inspiration. In fear of an online political debate I won't name any. \$\endgroup\$ – 11684 Mar 26 '15 at 9:57
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Firstly, it sounds as though your players are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for you in that they are being very easily manipulated without much effort on your part at all. But let's talk about manipulation.

Pa-pa-pa-poker face

Manipulation relies on getting people to do something without them knowing exactly why you want them to do it, or even that you want them to do it at all sometimes. Why? Because if they knew your reasons, they most likely wouldn't do it, and that doesn't help you. So lying. Your duke should agree to pay these adventurers anything they want if they do the tasks required of them. And he will lie. Oh will he lie. He will lie gleefully and to their faces, especially if they are silly enough to just blithely believe everything he says to them.

But what if they don't believe him...

Believable lying for beginners!

The best lies rely on two key concepts.

  1. A kernel of truth
  2. An appeal to emotion.

Let's go through them.

1) The more outlandish the lie, the less likely that someone will believe it. This seems like a common-sense thing, but people have a hard time with it. The best way to lie, then, is to distort or stretch the truth. Maybe the kobolds really do fear the dragon and want it dead because it could kill them all. It just also happens that a dead dragon means its horde is ripe for plundering, but the kobolds won't mention that they plan on taking all of that treasure for themselves. Why bring it up?

And an important thing to remember here: if you're playing someone who is actually manipulative, they will not seem stereotypically manipulative or as though they are lying. No long pauses or sideways glances, no hemming and hawing over details, no emphasizing exact wording ("I won't take your treasure." etc.) Lie. Lie right to their faces. Straight faced and unabashedly. It's amazing what people will buy if you just don't call attention to yourself and your weird behaviors.

2) Appeal to emotions. The players must care about some things. A manipulative person can tap into those desires. If your party is obviously in it for the wealth, maybe the duke talks about all the hidden treasure that would be "too much of a hassle" for the kobolds to dig out themselves, but the heroes are welcome to any of it they find along the way. If the heroes are sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged, perhaps the thing the duke wants them to do is causing famine or disease, or is hurting the poorest of the community. "Really, it would be better for everyone if someone stopped it, but darn it I just don't have the resources to." Say anything to get them to agree. That's the point.

You lying bastard!

When the PCs do find out they've been had, there are one of two ways the duke can play it. He can try the "it was a misunderstanding" approach if he hopes to manipulate them again, but more than likely he will just be dismissive. He presumably has a contingency of kobold soldiers at his disposal, an army should be more than enough to take care of any PCs. Into the arena pits they go! (The duke may want to ask for more soldiers from his emperor while the PCs are away. He knows he lied to them and knows that they'll be pissed and knows they were capable of killing a dragon.) Don't make it a big show either. If the PCs call him out for his lying ways, he just accepts it. No reason to care what they think, they aren't kobolds and so they are inferior.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for lying bit. So important! I would like to emphasize in @sillyputty 's answer that lying can never stop. When they come back to claim the prize they might be attacked by assassins or maybe the kobold empire is not, no thanks to the lying, convinced they desecrated the temple... Never stop! \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Mar 25 '15 at 13:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer. I'm not sure if an addendum is required, but just one very-good-at-lying NPC or setup trick by a DM can lead quickly to a paranoid play style. Players will get that they were manipulated, but will over-react and quickly assume that is a standard move in any game by the DM (or even in any RPG). There can be a problem with being too good at this. It's not really part of the OP's question, but is a trap for the unwary. \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Mar 26 '15 at 9:55
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Depends on the dirty work. And it depends on the players. But a tactic that comes to mind is the following:

Make the kobold duke a jerkwad. Refuse to pay money. Order them out. Do something unlikeable.

If they're good at taking story bait and generally have a soft heart, I'd probably toss out a kobold who seems half decent and have the duke dead-set on killing him or generally harassing him. If they talked to him long enough, they'd mutually agree on hating this guy and he'd explain he's got plans. Let them charm those plans out of him. Explain. He wants to do this thing that will do X to the duke. If they come along, they might get X towards their goal, or money or whatever.

Then he'll lead them to [place of action]. They get all heroey up in that joint. He disappears. Or appears at the lead of the opposition.

Turns out he was with the duke all the time. [insert "MUAHAHA"s here]

The kobold duke has deniability, meanwhile. After all, it was just some rogue kobold who hated him and wanted to make a big score. Definitely not one of his minions. No payments. Maybe some patronizing praise.

No railroading, and manipulative as all get out.

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Read up on real life evil rulers such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Ad Amin, Haile Selassie I, Pol Pot, Gaddafi... The list is sadly almost endless. Any one of them would make a fine model for an evil ruler.

Ryszard Kapuscinski's Shah of Shahs and The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat are two fine books about two autocrats, how their control worked, and ultimately how they fell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, Frank Underwood in House of Cards Season 1. \$\endgroup\$ – David Schwartz Mar 25 '15 at 15:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidSchwartz: House of Cards is not real life as it's about a congress that gets shit done. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Mar 25 '15 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the fact that its a successful fiction actually makes it more instructive for roleplay. Often, it's easier to convince people of a fiction than the truth. \$\endgroup\$ – David Schwartz Mar 25 '15 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidSchwartz: That's fair. I was being sardonic and quoting Kevin Spacey. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Mar 25 '15 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you really considering Haile Selassie I as an evil ruler? \$\endgroup\$ – JohnP Mar 25 '15 at 21:30
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Maybe the duke they are introduced to is not the duke. Perhaps it a son or advisor in his stead that actually has no power to make agreements. This fact is withheld until their successful return.

Or at the very least, the duke is murdered while they are away and all agreements he made are null and void under the new ruler.

No lying required, if that is not your thing.

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Beware...

There is a decent chance that a player has thought "hey, aren't kobolds always evil ?' and suspended its disbelief (because the NPC is giving them quests, because you changed a lot about the social order of kobolds, because it is 'PC' to change 'always evil' to 'neutral' ...)

I am not quite sure that there is a way for you to hint the fact that is not a) blatantly obvious and also b) will not end with players a bit pissed. (i.e.: if it was not obivous and I was a player, I bet I'd suspend my disbelief and get burned =P)

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