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I have a situation. My group is heading towards an elven kingdom in pursuit of a plot coupon. Unbeknownst to them, the plot coupon is evil and corrupted and is turning the royal elven family paranoid, seeing plots in every corner. One of the player characters, unbeknownst to everyone (both in- and out-of-character, even her player) is a member of this royal family, so as soon as they enter the country she should start to fall under the effect.

I'm looking for ways to engender a feeling of paranoia around the table - I've thought of passing secret, DM-eyes-only notes about and making significant glances, but I'm really reaching for ideas here (since I think they'd cause more player- than character-paranoia), especially since the whole point is that the other players' characters really aren't plotting anything, just trying to save the king and his family from the madness, Secret Elven Princess just thinks they are.

I certainly don't want real-life, why-is-my-friend-of-five-years-plotting-against-me paranoia, but I'm trying to achieve the in-character sense of irrational mistrust due to outside influence despite there being no in-game justification for it.

There's a whole bunch of character backstory stunning plot twists that are going to fall out of this, so I want it to be good.

TL;DR: How do I make a player think other players' characters are plotting against her character without them actually plotting anything at all?

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I agree with you and with other commenters that inducing out-of-character paranoia is a really bad idea and would not be fun for your player. Anything you do needs to make it clear to your player that the other players are not actually conspiring against her.


If you want a specifically in-character effect, and not out-of-character paranoia: just tell her that her character is feeling irrationally paranoid, and ask her to roleplay that for a bit.

You could say that in private or you could say it publicly at the table; I recommend the public option to minimize OOC tension.

If you like, you could offer experience bonuses for working it into the narrative. (Either just for the paranoid character, or for others as well for cooperating.)


If the above doesn't work for you, another option is to narrate flavor onto player characters' actions.

Jerry: I'm rolling Survival to find us a good camping spot for the night.

DM (to Elaine): You get kind of a weird feeling watching Jerry do his thing. Why'd he pass up that spot over there? What is he looking for? He's smiling slightly as he searches, and his grin seems oddly sinister. Is he plotting something? It's probably just your imagination.

Jerry: Well, I got a 21. Does that get me a good campsite?

DM: Sure -- you find a nice spot on a hill, not too visible, water nearby. Elaine is looking at you a little funny.

George: Okay, I'll take first watch.

DM: (to Elaine) Normally you'd do your meditation while George takes the first watch, but you're finding it hard to concentrate while he's standing behind you with a weapon. He could hit you with that greatsword at any time. And -- I mean, he wouldn't, right? He's George, he's your friend. But you just feel like it would be safer to turn around and watch him.

DM: (to George) First watch passes uneventfully...

(later)

Kramer: I need to go into town to get some shopping done.

DM (to Elaine): Is it your imagination, or did he put some weird emphasis on the word "shopping"? Is he buying something he doesn't want you to know about?

Kramer: I need some silver arrows.

DM (to Elaine): He claims he's just getting silver arrows, but something just feels wrong. It feels... sinister.

DM (to Kramer): No problem -- silver arrows are easy to find, you can buy them for the usual price.

By doing things in this way, you make it clear that the players aren't actually doing any conspiring. The risk is that the players might notice you doing this, and might try to "help" you by narrating their characters doing suspicious-looking things. You might have to directly ask them not to do that.


If your group is into mechanical penalties, you could assign those as well. Maybe allies now count as flankers, or maybe she has to roll will saves vs friendly spells if they happen by surprise.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is almost exactly what I was going to say. I think meta-gaming here is a bad idea. Get the player on board with the idea and let her run with it. Personally I would have the conversation in private. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucien Stals Jan 5 '16 at 4:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ The nice thing about this technique is it gets everyone curious about what's really going on. Making oddness obvious doesn't destroy the mystery, it just hooks the group! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 5 '16 at 19:50
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Blatant note-passing, pming, and other communication at inopportune times

Essentially, you tell a player mundane facts about something character specific whenever the spotlight falls upon the target player. Let's call them Alice and Bob as is traditional.

Alice is discussing things with the King.
The DM picks this moment to pass Bob a note.
"You notice that there's far too many flowers in this room."
Alice expects that the note had something to do with being distracted by the King.

As you've guessed, it's the main way to inspire that paranoia, but it falls to player meta quite easily.

Alice confronts Bob about what he did. Bob shows her the note.
You now have to contain the meta-spoiled situation.

Framing, Impersonation, and Everything In Between

Alice and Bob are well-known adventurers and Alice is the one returning "home". Using this fact, many people know their faces, their personalities, profiles, etc. This opens up the possibility that a sly Big Bad can use this to his advantage and turn the players against each other.

Big Bad disguises as Bob. We'll call him Big Bob.
Big Bob operates whenever Bob isn't in the picture, when Alice isn't watching him.
Rumors spread about that Bob is doing Bad Stuff.
The DM shapes the situations so that Bob doesn't hear a lick of it, but Alice does.

This gives you an Imposter Subplot to deal with, as well as having inspired that distrust between Alice and Bob. This is still vulnerable to meta confrontations, but then again, so is anything.

If anything, the vulnerability of this method makes it better for introducing an Imposter Subplot with unified objectives within the whole party. "One of us is being framed, we have to stop the culprit." A good way to play it off, if you get caught.

Psychological Metagames and You

Player paranoia itself is a metagame with vast reaching psychological consequences. It's often best when the paranoia is directed at you the DM as you can control it.

If a player gets paranoid with you, that's the plan. Mission accomplished. You've got your player thinking critically about not a single person, but the entire world that their characters live in and anything that could endanger their character's lives.

If a player gets paranoid with another player's character, it won't stop at being paranoid at their character. Alice's and Bob's Cold War conflict could follow them into the real world. Trust gets broken very easily and it's hard to rebuild.

Transparency

Out right tell your player that their character gets bad feelings about things that are otherwise mundane. They're feeling really off about the fact that Bob made their food, something's wrong with it. Let them check for poison. Let them go pour their own bowl of soup. But let them know, it's all in their character's head. Let them roleplay it.

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To start: ensure your players are comfortable with maintaining in-game secrets. Build it as there are secrets each in game character knows that isn't shared with the other players.

For an example in how to engage in this conversation, consider the round zero episode of Titansgrave, starting at 17:49.

Carry it forward: to build proper suspense and the accompanying reactions, motivate your players to keep their characters secrets until narratively appropriate. Bring them into the story building aspect of the campaign, allowing them to have some agency in how the secrets they know become revealed.

In creating the possibility of secrets, you can start the hook dropping for secrets that none of your players know, such as the elven characters true origins. Each player will expect some strangeness is associated with a secret someone knows.

Additionally, provide a red herring that can justify the elven characters affliction. In an early encounter, have her attacked by a mysterious thing that could impart a disease/curse effect. A bit after, let her know, in a secretive fashion, that she is feeling some effect.

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