Curse Your Sudden, Yet Inevitable Betrayal

by Sndwurks (David Buresh) on October 21, 2011

There is a spoken contract at my gaming table which dates all the way back to when I first started Dungeon Mastering. Characters brought to my table are a part of a story that we, being the players and I, are telling. Characters do not cease to exist while their player is absent. If you cannot make the session, arrangements can be made to either have your character elsewhere for the adventure or played by another PC for combat and the like. While playing another player’s character has been addressed already in this blog, there is another aspect to this contract which I make clear to my players.

If you are not enjoying your character, feel free to bring in a new character. If you are not having fun at my game, feel free to leave it. I will not think less of you. Your old character, though, they now belong to the story. And they will invariably die or turn evil.

The origin of this seemingly strange rule of mine comes from a long-running Ravenloft game I ran in my teen years, during 2e D&D. One of my players, after three sessions of playing their Thief, decided that he would rather play a Cleric. He approached me after the third session to talk about it with me. As the party was currently playing through the module The Night of the Walking Dead, and were about to go through its climax, I told my player that there would be an opportunity for him to give up his character in the next session. During the next session, as the PCs confronted the villain of the module, the villain made the offer of “Join me, and you will be rewarded greatly.” The player took the bait. He joined with the villain, transformed into a monster, and managed to escape in the ensuing battle. And thus was born the Red Shadow.

Over the next two years, the party would face many enemies, but none they hated more than the Red Shadow. They would chase him from city to city, domain to domain, and drop everything else the moment they caught wind of his trail. Red returned the favor, often striking in ways that would frame the PCs as murderers and monsters. While they never got to the final confrontation with the Red Shadow, the lengths towards which my players would go to pursue him taught me a lesson. Just as the bonds of the party dynamic are founded on the trust and friendship of the players, the betrayal of that dynamic cuts deep. When it is another player who betrays that dynamic, there is still the pressure of the out of game friendship to keep it from getting ugly. The moment that character passes into the hands of the DM, however, the players become invested in destroying that personal foe.

There are more reasons beyond simply the party dynamic to favor the former PC as an antagonist. PCs can be very often fully fleshed out, and have hopefully expanded the story by their presence in it. By keeping the character in the universe of the game, the DM preserves a narrative cohesiveness. The party likely knows what drives that character, and can better predict his maneuvers. Likewise, that character knows what drives the PCs, and can be a far deadlier threat in that way. Finally, the former PC villain could easily be a sympathetic antagonist through this understanding, and might even be more of a tragic character than a villain who was never an ally of the PCs. For such villains, there might even be the possibility of redemption, which can sometimes bring an even greater satisfaction for the PCs than destroying them.

Not every PC who is set aside is suited to becoming a villain. While a Paladin can fall into wickedness, or a fell bargain can go awry, there are some characters whose role in the narrative is better suited to being the hero. While these characters can certainly make useful allies for the party, they can serve a better narrative role. One of the necessities of drama is the appearance of danger. Whether the danger is actually present or not holds more relevance to the mechanical systems of the game. The appearance of danger, however, is a key narrative tool to heighten the drama of a situation. One of the best ways to give the appearance of danger is to kill someone the PCs associate as being on their level in front of them.

For a former PC, a vague death in the background is wasting its potential. A heroic, or even anti-heroic, death in front of their former party members goes a long way to establishing a situation as being dangerous. The DM must, however, avoid making this death a dues ex machina, or a hand waving of success. Doing so brings too much narrative focus away from the PCs and is bad storytelling. Also, without the direct confirmation of seeing the character death, the threat will fail to seem as dangerous as it needs to be. While there are some DMs who use killing a PC in the party to establish this level of threat, using a former PC will demonstrate the same level of danger without having to cost the party the resources represented by that character. Furthermore, if the former PC was a friend of the party, this gives them the opportunity to avenge their fallen foe. In overcoming the danger that destroyed their former party member, the players get to feel that they have accomplished something worthwhile.

The final catch on this statement, however, is that the two invariable outcomes are not exclusive. If the former PC becomes a recurring villain, the PCs will be driven to defeat them. For many villains, this means death at the hands of the party. By killing the former PC, the remaining party members have brought that chapter of their narrative to a close. Conversely, a former PC who dies in front of their former party members may not have their story end there. If the party decides to have them returned from the dead, refusal or retirement is often appropriate. However, in certain circumstances, such as the body being lost to a villain with some necromantic talent, or where the former PC died as a result of the party’s actions, bringing the former PC back from the dead to become an antagonist can get one twice the mileage of this method. However, if one chooses to go this path, do so sparingly. While death or betrayal can provide a heightened level of drama, doing both to any given character more than a few times weakens the narrative strength and the emotional impact of this method.

Related reading:

When players at your table cast aside their old characters for whatever reason, what do you do with the exiting PC? Do you keep them around as NPCs or do you remove them completely from the story? Have you ever brought them back as a villain? How did that work out?

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1 Megan October 21, 2011 at 11:06 am

Our rogue left the group, but it happened at a convenient time. The rogue had a somewhat “piratey” backstory, with previous experience on ships, and we had just finished a quest and were headed across the ocean to a major population hub. We let the rogue stay with the “sailors” and in the city we picked up a couple new players who had just decided to join the table.

We’ve also got a different way of handling absences, we generally just don’t play if anybody is absent, which at times results in several weeks in a row without DnDing.

2 Wolfgrim October 21, 2011 at 11:40 am

In the last campaign I ran, I managed to bring together the best players I knew and created “the fantastic five” so to say. Among this group was a player who had often played classic tanks, in particular a minotaur fighter. This time around he decided to play the opposite, he decicided to play a human wizard around the age of eighty. Robes, staff and pointy hat he had become an asset to the party. Choosing powers that have effects rather than great damage, he created puddles of grease and generally set up terrible combination attacks (on the recieving end). As the wise old man he was able to bring everyone back to their senses through logical and diplomatic discussion, he kept the entire game on pace. Always with a goal he was single handedly able to keep everyone in-line. The group had become so use to his presence that they didn’t buy flint & tinder or torches. The rest of the group also decided that they didn’t need to keep watch, as the wizard could just cast a ritual to watch the camp for them. The session that the wizard could no longer attend was devastating for the group. They had rested in the local tavern. As they approached the chamber of the wizard and knocked on his door for several minutes they became worried as to what I might have happened. After breaking the door down, the group found the wizard resting, he would forever be resting as he had passed away in the evening. Once the body had been dealt with, by the inn keeper, they left with sorrow in their hearts. That night they realized they didn’t have any flint, tinder or torches. After destroying their tent (by accident) and forgetting to set up watch (in turn getting robbed) the group was never the same. The loss of their comrade had destroyed their moral and put a spoke in their tactics.

3 William October 21, 2011 at 12:14 pm

In my home campaign the players are reaching the climax of Paragon and are about to find out who has been pulling their strings for the past 17 or so levels and finally strike back, and start resolving some of the plot threads they’ve left dangling over the past 2 years. The problem is that I have a table where 4/6 players recently switched to new characters to either find something new to play, or because they felt the character no longer had a large enough stake in the quests. The only problem is that those four characters have been with the game since the start of heroic, and have integrated themselves VERY well into the plot. I did the reasonable thing (in my mind) and asked if they would be willing to come back to their old plot centric characters if I let them freely rebuild and they were pretty happy. The only problem is I now have 4 hangers on I need to deal with. My original thought was to have them killed off in the arena fight, and then have the old characters show up and bail out the remaining two. But instead maybe a betrayal which would give me some a Dragon (in the trope sense, not the literal sense) for the BBEG. I didn’t realize until I read this post that I didn’t really have any liutenants for him or a way to introduce some bad guys the party would really love to hate. Now I have everything I need right at my fingertips.

4 rabbitiswise October 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm

As a DM and a player i like the every 5-6 levels offer of joining the dark side. That way its a built in excuse to switch players and add drama to the story, since the characters after awhile will know that one of their allies will be offered a chance to betray them…
Hey if it works for Vader…
I also like actually using the betrayer to advance story and give the PC’s an exciting off shoot to the story, a storyline they feel even more attached to than the ones the DM comes up with..

5 Sunyaku October 22, 2011 at 12:04 am

My players are just starting to do this– they recently reached level 4, and one or two of them are interested in trying out something new just as a change of pace. The crew recently founded an adventuring company and guild hall, so the obvious thing to do with their old characters is let them hang out and “run the store” so to speak. Then the only challenge is to figure out how to “plot in” their new characters who will, most likely, join the adventuring company as well.

Once a player has multiple characters within the guild, each adventure becomes a bit “final fantasy-like” in that the players can assemble a party based on the challenges they think they might face.

I also find it interesting that my players have begun hoarding treasures and “trophies” in their guild hall, rather than selling them… so I wonder if they will start to equip themselves from the guild vault based on the challenges they might face as well.

6 Steve V October 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I just did this a year or so ago when one of the players was moving out of staet and could no longer play. I had set up this big grand finale for the player which left their character in a state of presumed death to the rest of the PC’s. Eventually it came out that the character had lived, but ended up being possesed by this evil artifatc – the PCs knew this artifact was evil but used it anyway -, which in turn had sucked the souls of some very evil NPCs. SInce the PC was a Changling, it was interesting because I had the various souls in the sword taking poossesion of the body and shape changing the body into their old appearance. For awhile, the PCs were trying to figure out how these evil NPCs that they had witness die, had come back to life to torture them. It was quite fun and a bit devious on my part, I think. It definitely took the party quite some time to figure out what was truly going on. They have yet to solve the whole issue, though.

And on a sidew note, yeah! A Firefly reference! Yes, I am a big geek.

7 Chlar'r October 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Not sure why NPCs always have to be villains.
Allies and associates are pivotal good storytelling as well.

Xanth novels, for example, where by the time the 2nd and 3rd generation of characters become the foci of the story, the heroes who have become parents and grandparents are now background and supporting characters.

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