I am currently running a campaign where, in one of the main story arcs, the villain is a rogue(assassin) with the charlatan background. He a very charismatic man who already commands a fair amount of respect and power having lied, cheated, and murdered his way into a position of nobility - his alter ego. In reality he leads an organized crime ring, and has an insatiable thirst for power. Meanwhile the surrounding kingdom has gone to war on a front far from the city in which the villain, and my players, live. The military presence is thin, the guardposts are empty, and the villain is not the sort to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Over the course of the campaign the villain plans to use his crime ring to destabilize the government of the town from which my players conduct their operations. Meanwhile his alter ego will be attempting to win the heart of the people, promising to stabilize the region and keep them safe. In the final stages of his plan he will sell out the criminals he commands, who are oblivious to the connection between his identities, and assume leadership of the region in a populist uprising which the depleted military is unable to prevent. It will be up to my players to keep him from assuming power, or otherwise take him down.

Leading up to the end-game big reveal I want to drop in a few clues that the "noble" is not what he seems. The clues should not be so heavy-handed as to give away the villain's plot on their own, but should hint to my players that something is amiss, and is probably worth investigating. I don't want to let things spiral out of control without giving my players the opportunity to stop it. How can I foreshadow the villain's true identity given this context?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The nobleman's middle name happens to be "Palpatine", for no particular reason. \$\endgroup\$ – Monty Harder Feb 20 '17 at 22:27

Give the villain a fake dark secret. If he seems suspicious, the PCs can investigate and discover his "horrible secret" of being addicted to drugs, or be secretly a member of some group that's marginalized in this society, or have a bastard child he doesn't want discovered.

The PCs may just have pity on such an upstanding person with an element of weakness, but even if they do reveal the issue to the public you can either have his privilege make up for the flaw in the eyes of the people, or have his reputation only slightly tarnished but have it recover due to him displaying contrition.

The players should feel even more betrayed and shocked when it's revealed that he was so much worse than they expected.

I had a similar, if inverted, thing happen in one of my campaigns: I used the classic "lost demigod posing as a helpful questgiver" trope. But I layered it so that the draconic demigod was posing as a silver dragon who was in turn posing as an elf named Silver. When the players discovered that the elf was "really" a silver dragon, they stopped digging any deeper despite other clues. The eventual reveal -- that Silver was the demigod Azzah -- was very successful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this a lot. Figuring out that the villain is from humble beginnings and has assumed the role of a noble to help the people - he believes he is - without giving away his true identity adds a nice depth to his character at the same time it raises some eyebrows. Is it worth pursuing further? That's up to the players ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 20 '17 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've used this approach to great success. In my experience, it works even if the fake dark secret is so obvious it merits no investigation. If the players believe the NPC is a drug addict from the moment they meet him, they'll assume all of his suspicious behavior is due to that and that you're just including it to make him seem well fleshed-out. Once the twist is revealed, they'll suddenly begin to re-contextualize his behavior and reevaluate their assumptions \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Feb 21 '17 at 0:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel this answer - implanting a red herring - covers the most ground given the context of my intended storyline. The example is quite helpful, too. Accepted - and thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 21 '17 at 15:34

Don't make it the prominent figure.

I don't want to come across as mean, but if your "good guy" existed in any game I was playing, I would immediately be suspicious of him. Every DM has done the bait and switch trope.

If you want to make it difficult, make it somebody far less exposed and obvious. And don't make it the politicians aide either. Make the rogue his scribe or something. That way he's in a position to handle extremely important documents while simultaneously staying out of the lime light itself.

On top of that, you could even have the rogue directly controlling the good guy's actions in their entirety through use of a magical item like a Rod of Rulership (albeit, a limited one that has a tighter scope). You can even make the reveal in keeping with your plans, but make it have even MORE impact when the party brings down the "good guy" politician only to discover that he's been under somebody else's influence the entire time.

As for difficulty in discovering this: The party would have to actively intercept documents issued in this person's name. They would need to closely examine the documents for tampering. They would need to research the person's background and find out their motives. All in all, the evidence would be there, but it would be VERY difficult to discover it all without intensive work.

Above all though, if you make it the guy who's front and center, there won't be a reveal. It will be expected. I wouldn't even mention the scribe that often. Maybe have him show up once or twice during discussions with the politician so he can have something signed for approval, and then he leaves while showing great deference. You want this to be hard, so it shouldn't be obvious at all.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Offense is for those who can't take criticism! I'll take this to heart - it is a good argument for some revision, though in my case maybe not much. I've done a good job of RPing the villain before his moves are made - the party loves him, and I think I can keep them wrapped around his finger while things unfold. Of note: I have a fair amount of experience, but this is my players' first time playing a tabletop RPG, so the tropes aren't quite as transparent. \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 20 '17 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh good. That'll make it easier for you. The same thing I wrote here can still apply, just use his scribe as the go between and even set him up as a fall guy if necessary! \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Feb 20 '17 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ While it's true that this is a common trope, it's frequency in fiction is in part due to the fact that it can result in an excellent story (and a memorable game) when done well. If the OP is confident in their ability and their players' pliability, I wouldn't discourage them from giving this a shot. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Feb 21 '17 at 0:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Conduit If you're happy with the villain being front-and-centre, have the scribe be a fall guy in a double-fake-out. When revealed, the villain can claim to be acting under the Imperious Curse-Er, I mean Dominate Person. The scribe either conveniently has such an item in his possession that he was using on behalf of the villain or possesses it for his own reasons and is also a known minor villain 'being given a second chance' by the real villain. Misdeeds in the scribe's past will sell the fake-out better and make for a more credible fall-guy. \$\endgroup\$ – bp. Feb 21 '17 at 7:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @bp. that actually works quite well. The villain has a unquestioningly loyal right-hand man who acts on his behalf while helping him stick to the shadows. The villain's desire to rule is greater than his appreciation for that man's loyalty, though - he'd have him take the fall the second it appeared the PCs were getting too close. The man would probably even do it willingly. \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 21 '17 at 15:38

I've run and played in several campaigns which have successfully featured betrayals and secret motives (by both PCs and NPCs) as key narrative moments. I think Gregory Avery-Weir's answer is spot-on if your goal is to keep both the characters and the players completely in the dark until the reveal. For completeness, I would like to point out that there are a few other options for how to handle this situation. These may or may not be appropriate for you, depending on your group's play style.

Option one: keep the characters in the dark, let the players in on the secret

If your group focuses on collaborative storytelling over competitive gaming, if your players don't have trouble maintining a boundary between in and out of character knowledge, and if you don't mind giving up the shock of the big reveal, this option has some advantages. There's no risk of screwing up by dropping too big a hint. There's no risk of having the twist feel like it comes too much out of left field if your hints are too subtle. Most importantly, this approach allows much more intricate storytelling because the players can have their characters dance around the secret until it becomes narratively appropriate for them to figure it out.

If you choose this route, there are a few ways to give the information to the players. You can of course just come right out and tell them, either the whole secret or that this NPC is more than he seems. If that feels too direct, you can drop heavy-handed hints that rely upon narration, out of character knowledge, real-world allusion, or genre-savvy.

Option two: make solving the mystery the goal of the arc

Alternately, if your group really likes problem-solving and overcoming (or failing to overcome) challenges, you can gamify the whole plot. Begin by dropping subtle hints, and make them progressively bigger as the story progresses. Leave a few different trails of breadcrumbs and a few red herrings. When the PCs discover your NPC's background, trigger a confrontation and the next part of the story.

If you choose this option, be prepared for the PCs either to fail to figure everything in time, or for them to figure it out much more quickly than you anticipated. In the former case, just do the big reveal, make it dramatic, and let them deal with the fallout of their enemy's plan succeeding. In the latter, give them the satisfaction of total victory, let them realize how big a catastrophe they've averted, and move on to the next arc.

Option three: give the players but not the characters the possibility of solving the mystery

This is essentially a hybrid of the previous two approaches. Speculating as to what's coming next is left as a meta-activity for the players, but even if they succeed their characters don't have all the information to piece it together. I've never personally tried this approach, but I could imagine it working somewhat like fans theorizing about the upcoming twist in their favorite TV show. If they're right they get the satisfaction of having seen it coming, but if they're wrong they get a thrilling surprise.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like option two, which can work nicely alongside Gregory's answer (see my comment there). Difficult to handle tactfully, perhaps, but also grants the best balance between suspension of disbelief and player agency. \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 21 '17 at 1:37

Something I haven't seen mentioned, but that can work pretty well:

Don't decide who the villain is ahead of time

This is a super useful tip that I got from this article in The Alexandrian - introduce your players to a selection of NPCs, one of whom is the villain, but allow the dynamic of their interactions with those NPCs to decide who are the likely candidates. The players' suspicions or willing trust will give you golden opportunities to create a memorable enemy based on those relationships. If it isn't going to be someone they have interacted with socially then they can be that one enemy who eludes them in battle- it doesn't matter which one it is, the one who got away is the one who later turns out to be the big bad. This way you get to have interesting twists, power plays and mysteries without having to know everything ahead of time, which means that when your PCs go completely off track and do that thing you absolutely weren't expecting, it won't break your carefully constructed plot. The only thing you need to be careful about is that when the big reveal happens, it makes sense in the context of all their interactions with that character.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I love The Alexandrian. Good advice, but things are already in motion... I'll definitely be giving this a shot with one of the parallel arcs, though! \$\endgroup\$ – Conduit Feb 21 '17 at 15:32

Here's a thought ...

Have several long-term NPCs. Per Glenatron, you could leave it open who is the villain, or you could decide ahead of time. The key point is -- the PCs need more than one suspect.

They can interact with a variety of powerful NPCs, each one accusing one of the others of being the mastermind. Some are sincere, others are trying to frame their foes (it's beyond awesome if some enemy "frames" the big bad for a crime he really did commit!).

So in addition to fighting the villain's machinations, the PCs may find themselves having to clear the name of the other NPCs. You can get some delightfully complex intrigue going this way.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Having more than one NPC trying their hand at politic seems like a good way to protect your villain from too much foreshadowing. \$\endgroup\$ – Simon Oct 12 '17 at 21:12

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