Yes. I’ve just started two new games and I really want to talk about betrayal. (One of them is an Amber game so the whole first night was spent pointing fingers and taking bets on the first to betray). Betrayal is a touchy subject in games. There are so many problems with it… so many reasons it can go wrong and derail your game. But I wonder… why? It’s a topic I find very interesting as a GM and a player.
The normal example is an NPC betraying the party. Usually this NPC is a friend or close acquaintance of some sort – or – a “Plot NPC” who shows up almost for the express purpose of betraying the party. In the first case, the party often doesn’t see it coming and feels, well, betrayed as players as much as their characters. In the second case, the party usually completely sees it coming and the ultimate betrayal becomes an almost procedural trope that feels rote.
My school of thought when it comes to gaming tends to appreciate the first style. It sucks to be betrayed… it really does. When it happens in real life we rarely see it coming, whether through self-delusion or through being truly mislead. When we are betrayed it is often something that blindsides us and the pain is severe and can be long-lasting. I want to feel – as a player – that I’ve been completely bamfoozled when I get betrayed. And honestly, I think such a technique truly does give a strong verisimilitude to the betrayal. The rub comes in the fact that Characters are rarely prone to self-delusion about their personal relationships. You don’t love NPCs the way you love the real people in your life so it’s difficult for a Character to be convinced of someone’s good intentions despite advice, intellect, or intuition. While it can be done, it takes a special player, a special GM, and a special situation – therefore it is often something you can’t count on to be repeatable. This tendency toward examination tends to leave us with the version that involves being truly mislead. And in cases where the player/character is being truly mislead, well, despite what I might want to believe, it is hard to sell this to PCs sometimes. Kind of a “what the ****” situation.
Now, to mitigate this – it is important to make sure that despite the deception of the NPC in question – the PCs must feel that the motives and actions of the NPC make sense in the new paradigm of how the PCs view that person. This requires a reveal – and reveals mean exposition. Exposition is very hard to do well. Harder than even a garden-variety betrayal. Thus, you often need to set up the motives for the betrayal ahead of time… and you have to let the PCs see them. But you have to make these details seem completely innocent, just a part of the background… don’t overplay your hand.
I mean, heck, it’s totally alright if the players figure it out… or especially if only some of the players figure it out. The astute players might even create a rift in the party as some PCs will defend the NPC in question — which might make the eventual betrayal even more exciting…
Of course, in these situations it might actually be more fun to not have the NPC be a traitor and let the PCs actually have that moment when they realize the person they’ve been maligning is actually a stand up guy.
A betrayal, when it happens in your life is a painful thing. And for the players in a game – a betrayal of their characters is a difficult thing to navigate… but like all things in life, pulling off a meaningful betrayal takes practice – to develop a deft touch. But heck, try it out… after all, we’re all friends here, right?