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Now I know how this sounds, but hear me out.

In my campaign, I'm building up one of the lieutenants in the Thieves' Guild to be a Big Bad. However, plot twist — he was being used by another member of the guild so she wouldn't be suspected by the party or the other members of the guild.

In the confrontation with said Big Bad, I want this other member to almost steal the party's glory by killing off the now-not-so-big Big Bad herself, leaving the party in a bit of a grey area, as they have formed some sort of attachment to the other guild member. She will then explain her side and it's up to the party how they act from that point with the new information.

Is this is a no-no for a DM (essentially stealing the party's thunder for dramatic purposes), or is it ok to do, considering the plot?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Which game is this? It sounds like it's D&D since you're using "DM". Is that the case? Which edition? Different games have different answers for a question like this -- they may be superficially similar, but everything beyond the superficial layer can have a more solid answer if we understand the system you're working within. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 2 '16 at 16:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener edited the tags, thanks for reminding me! \$\endgroup\$ – Jamie Brace Nov 2 '16 at 16:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if this is possible to answer without just being a pile of opinions. What would a “good” answer look like to you? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 2 '16 at 16:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I'd like to see some examples of this happening elsewhere, or any reasons (from experience or otherwise) why this is a horrible idea or not! \$\endgroup\$ – Jamie Brace Nov 2 '16 at 16:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anne If this was Paranoia, Fate, Fiasco, or a number of other games, the answer itself may differ. The follow-up advice on how to act around this situation would definitely differ depending on the games. If it were Dungeon World, there would almost certainly be a very exact answer with very specific sorts of advice on how to approach this scenario. The fact it is D&D and not Dungeon World or any of these other games is quite important. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 2 '16 at 16:48
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RAW: You can do that.

"No-no" is hard, bordering on opinion based; as there is nothing in the rules preventing such "no-no"s, so an objective answer would be that RAW, it is perfectly legitimate thing to do. However, we know that isn't your question. You want to know if doing so is in poor taste and ruin the fun.

Question You're Really Asking

It can be a move that makes the players feel cheated if done wrong, or it might be one of those movie moments where all your players explode with "What!?" jaw-dropping moment. If you do it, it has to be done carefully, as Zeiss says.

The question is really about player dynamic. Does your table love the kill or the story? Has anyone complained about other players stealing kills? Have they reacted positively to other twists? Watching your players react in other situations will let you feel out what is right for your table. And, if you get it wrong, you've just learned something. Adam Savage of Myth Busters is famous for the quote, "Failure is always an option."

Story wise, have there been crumbs they just didn't see, that might suddenly make sense? Is there suspicion? Are there any reasons, other than "kill stealing", that you think the players might take issue with that turn of events?

What I'd Do

There is another option, and I think it has more potential story wise. Why spoil the fun. Let the party get the kill. Then reveal later that the "big bad" they slayed was just a dude who had no choice and his family/life/love/whatever was on the line, and he really wasn't evil — now that has emotional sting. The players get both their "kill" victory followed by the cold realization that this thing they just did wasn't so good after all.

I could see your other NPC stepping out smiling, applauding the heros, and then laughing manically as you have served her so well, unknowingly playing right into her hands... etc., etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ ... and now you've set up a new Big Bad (the other NPC) :) \$\endgroup\$ – Doktor J Nov 2 '16 at 19:36
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I don't think there's anything inherently "wrong" with this idea, especially if it's only a one-time deal. If you're pulling this sort of "gotcha suckers!" move every other villain, it might get tired, but done just once (and done right) I think it would be pretty darn cool.

There are two main dangers to watch out for:

  1. The Bigger Bad steps in and kills the puppet after the PCs have been fighting the puppet for several rounds, expending spells and resources as if this were the final fight only to find out it's not.

  2. It makes no sense for the Bigger Bad to kill her puppet when a group of random adventurers were about to do it for her. The players might be confused logically and not appreciate the reveal for what it was.

As long as the dramatic reveal happens before the party has spent too many resources fighting the "wrong enemy," and the set-up is logical as to why the Bigger Bad chose to reveal herself by killing her puppet now, then I don't think you'll have any problems.

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I wouldn't call it a "no-no" so much as a "tread with care." Done correctly, it could be the trigger for a whole new story arc, in which the PCs have to work out their conflicts over whether the puppet mistress is the proper target of their actions, or was on their side all along. Done poorly, it could alienate the players, which is generally a bad thing for the group.

Be sure to sprinkle subtle (and, following RPG rules for investigation, no-so-subtle and multiple) clues throughout everything -- stuff that, at the least, can be looked at one way to mean "Yeah, Miss Goody is helping us do what we're here to do", even though on the other side it might be "How could Miss Goody have known that Big Bad was up to that?" Do that consistently throughout the lead-in to the final battle, and it'll be "Oh, yeah, we should have seen that Miss Goody was behind the scenes" instead of "Wait, where the heck did that come from, and why don't we get our day in the sun?"

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If all this twist does is leave them in a gray area, clueless, it's likely to be poorly received. But if the twist reveals something new, important, and useful, then you can replace the thunder you're stealing with something else.

Give the group something to immediately act on, after this twist. Give them reasons to be motivated to charge into action after a new goal.

Then give them an extra-satisfying victory.

Just make sure that they can anticipate the victory-to-come, immediately after snatching away from them the one they were expecting.

This could be very fun and memorable, but, it's delicate and it could also wind up being memorably un-fun.

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