Being manipulated by villains

This post came out of a conversation I had on the internet. An endeavor like this feels like I am essentially screaming into the void. Yet, I ended up debating, without hostility, whether a PC could, or should, be tricked into becoming an agent of an evil character. At least that was how I understood the conversation.

This is a well-worn trope in storytelling and TTRPGs. On the site TV Tropes, it is called “Obliviously Evil”. The protagonists are acting in good faith, and agree to work with or for someone who needs their help. Later in the story, players realize their characters were being manipulated to carry out some kind of nefarious activity to the benefit of the unscrupulous employer. This is the architecture for an adventure many are familiar with.

The issue in the debate was the extent to which characters would end up in the service of the evil character. At the outset of this back-and-forth, the discussion really centered around how the characters received the quest. (The context was gaming content for TTRPGs) My “opponent” in the discussion relied on the idea that the characters were motivated by a sense of heroism and thus could be offered missions that would appeal to that sensibility. I disagreed and thought that relying on this singular idea was too reductive because it meant that people focused on satisfying that one ideal. He provided many arguments to support his assumptions, but what was a problem for me was not the scenario. Instead, I found it hard to believe that heroism made everything possible for the GM because it took far too much for granted.

My argument is that in order for this other person’s position to be possible, conditions would have to be present in order for the characters to find themselves in that situation. It isn’t reasonable to assume that a party of adventurers will only chase glory like a school of fish after a meal. By pursuing heroism, this approach is functional if the characters are all narcissists focused on stoking their own egos, rather than on being morally just. Following this path is very presumptuous by a GM, and they’d need to know their group well to be sure that the PCs would take the bait.

All of this is doesn’t work for me. It is my humble opinion that no one should ever ground the plot in one very narrow idea for TTRPGs. If the players aren’t on board, then the whole falls a part. This is railroading if a GM insisted upon this approach.

As I’ve mentioned above, this story works if it meets certain conditions. The characters would have to be ignorant of the environment they found themselves in. The political leanings of the society would have to be unknown to the characters, and this includes any sort of history of the area. From a gaming perspective, the person offering the quest would need to be convincing enough to get the PCs to take on the task, i.e., they would have to appear genuine, and likely have a reward of some sort available. I’d even go so far as to say that a GM would probably need to win a couple of “bluff” checks to properly hoodwink the characters.

Most important of all, the scene would have to be set so that the characters were acting, or believed they were acting in good faith. Anything else and the story wouldn’t work. A simple way of doing this would be to have the evil quest-giver lie by omission and thus dupe the PCs into thinking that they were about to lend a helping hand.

Yet, there’s another assumption here. The players would have to ascribe to a very generalized, and the absolutist idea of what “good” means in order for the scenario to work. What if the players are evil? What if they come from the society they are being asked to serve? In that case, evil wouldn’t matter because the PCs would already be potential subjects of the quest-giver, and serving society, no matter what the consequences, would likely be a positive thing.As can be seen, once the conditions can’t met, the whole thing falls apart, and this of course brings us back to the original point.

The players will need a reason to take on the quest. They’ll need a reason to want to serve. They’ll need to be ignorant of the conditions they’ll be operating under, which makes the characters’ ignorance possible. Heroism is not sufficient in and of itself.

Something that won’t factor into this at all is morality. If the players are being tricked, then whatever they do doesn’t really fall under an “is it a good or evil” debate because they didn’t know any better. They aren’t claiming ignorance either. The PCs simply didn’t know. If PCs receive evidence to reveal they are victims of deceit, and they carry on, that’s evil. If they relent, and begin acting according to their alignment to right their wrongs then they avoid being “evil”, even if they were perceived that way previously. (I’m borrowing heavily from D&D terminology to make this work. I know these concepts aren’t universal across game systems.)

Also, it won’t work to take the stance that the quest-giver is misunderstood. A criminal is a criminal, even if they appear to be kind and generous. The infamous gangster Al Capone was a murderous person seeking to make himself rich and powerful. Even if he did nice things occasionally for some people, he was still a violent gangster. There’s no way of way spinning this into him being a sort of Robin Hood, although he might try to spin his image if he felt it would serve his own ends,. Here are again, going back to needing those conditions required for this sort of story to work.

There are many ways a person could end up serving someone that is manipulative and malevolent. This is a story trope that has been used many times and to great success. Obliviously Evil content for TTRPGs is a must. I’d almost expect to encounter it at some point or another. However, if it’s handled badly, it can be painful for a group. It’s one thing to trick the players into serving someone evil, but quite another to force them. One method will work and one won’t. It’s that simple.


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