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Pros and Cons of using a “Hidden Traitor” mechanic

Recently I have been asked about my Trail of Cthulhu game, where I have introduced some mechanics to increase the tension, horror and atmosphere by implying to the players one of them might be a traitor. Generally speaking, roleplaying games are nearly always inherently cooperative with the players all having their characters work together for a common goal. The idea of adding a traitor into the mix can actually be quite anathema to the way these games are designed. After all, players more worried about their fellows than your NPCs or antagonists can grind the game to a halt.

So when should you decide to add this to the mix and most importantly: When you shouldn’t.

Players being at cross purposes even in a “cooperative” roleplaying game are not a new concept, because there have certainly been many games I ran in the past where inter-party betrayals were parts of the story. In these cases, these were usually isolated incidents where a player had a different opinion on a specific point like if a certain NPC should live or the fate of an artifact. In Trail of Cthulhu however, there might well be an investigator whose working against the party in potentially subtle ways all the way through. This kind of traitor leaves a much more insidious mark upon the game and provides some interesting moments for tension (as the last play trail report should demonstrate), but also some serious risk of grinding the game to a halt.

So first of all, let’s have a good look at some of the inspirations I’ve had for this kind of mechanic from various Board Games. I’m going to pick this recent example from the show TableTop, where they played Dead of Winter as a good example:

In Dead of Winter, the players don’t actually know if there will be a traitor in the group for certain because the player “roles” are distributed at random. This ensures there is a constant level of suspicion and paranoia throughout, which again is exactly what you want in a horror experience. What might have been a straight up cooperative “Survive against zombies” experience, becomes that much more intriguing when you have to wonder what your human colleagues might be up to. Is he shoring himself up with all the food in the grocery store out of pragmatism and trying to help? Or is he trying to make everyone so reliant on his food that a sudden withdrawal at the last moment will devastate the party?

An important question is why would you take a cooperative board game style, but then muck it up by making everyone all paranoid and worried about the other players? The answer is simple: Difficulty. Although I love it a lot, Arkham Horror is a good example of a cooperative board game developing the problem where once everyone knows how to play it, winning is rather easy. After multiple expansions adding new mechanics, areas and tougher objectives it can become a really stiff challenge even for experienced players. At this point though, you’re adding a tremendous amount of mechanics and looking to spend quite a bit of time setting it up in the first place.

With this in mind it’s actually really easy to see how adding a human traitor to a cooperative game has appeal, because potential traitorous allies such as in Betrayal at the House on the Hill or Shadows over Camelot make the game more difficult to “win” for everyone playing cooperatively. It’s a very effective and interesting way to add more difficulty to the game, while not inherently having to make the base game mechanics more “random” or more complex. Additionally it has a curious advantage in my experience of making “losing” to the board more palatable when it was orchestrated with the aid of a fellow human.

Before we get all excited about adding this kind of idea to a long term roleplaying game, it’s important to remember an essential difference: You’re stuck playing a board game with someone who stabbed you in the back for a handful of hours. You’re probably playing a long term RPG for months, sometimes even years. So when you want to do something in your own game here is the absolute first thing you consider: Are your players mature enough to handle it? Generally speaking if you don’t think your players are going to enjoy this concept, find it fun or will take it altogether too personally, just don’t do it. Not everyone will easily separate out the actions of a persons character from the actual player in question.

If your group would be into this and find it a fun, interesting spin on roleplaying then literally everything else about it is solely your responsibility as DM/GM/Director/Keeper etc. What I mean by this is that if the game goes pear shaped because you made the traitor obviously and completely contradict what the party wants to accomplish, leading to a character death or campaign ending incident in five minutes that is your fault. This also means you need to consider how long the traitor should be around in the game: Do they try to get to the end? Or are you setting up the party for a major story reveal or moment at the half-way mark that takes the campaign in a new direction afterwards?

Whoever you make the traitor in the group, unless you’re double dipping on hilarity and everyone is a traitor*, should be a player with certain characteristics. Firstly they should be mature and realize that it’s a really great opportunity to be given by you! It can add immensely to the game and give them an interesting challenge to roleplay. Most importantly, they need to have a very clear goal and guidance on how to accomplish that goal. In other words, you need to be helping that player and working with them – almost like a little mini-DM at the table. This relationship requires a lot of trust between you and that player, so I pretty much only ever work with someone I know really well when it comes to something like this.

You then have a major decision: Do you actually tell the group there is someone working against them directly? In my case, I usually always mention that a traitor is actively working against the party at some point. In Trail of Cthulhu, Masks of the Dreamer I split the party up to every corner of a room and introduced the Trust mechanic. This is also when I revealed that one of the players was a traitor and was conspiring with me to the downfall of the other players. That moment was a huge part of the early part of my campaign, firmly establishing the atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia I wanted to see.

Regardless of your decision, once it’s clear someone is working against the party and you’ve made the clear directly or through clues in game, you will start to cause problems. By far the biggest issue is that players will stop easily communicating with one another, act more independently “EG Split the Party” or just outright be able to come to decisions in important moments. This is where you need to be careful with how you’re writing and presenting the plot to the players. As a general rule, you should ensure that your traitor isn’t entirely at cross purposes to the party the longer you want them to stay in the game. Let’s use an example:

The traitor’s goal is to directly summon a terrible eldritch being of flame into our world known as Cthugha. She wants to do so to begin the glorious conflagration, which will burn our sinful world away to leave a new Ashen Eden behind. From this Ashen Eden will be the rebirth of the world and the prime reward for all of this entities prime servants. Unfortunately there is another cult around that has a similar idea but they want to summon a vile disgusting undying beast of the seas, Cthulhu. Drowning the world in cold lifeless salt water doesn’t seem like the future the Traitor wants and the other investigators aren’t interested in it either. So the traitor works with the investigators to thwart the plans of the Cthulhuian cult, despite just being quite keen to end the entire world herself – just with fire instead of water (and tentacles).

Here the traitor has a clear and easy motivation to work with the other investigators, quite constructively in fact, but harbors a very dark secret. She has an agenda, but here it is your responsibility as the gamemaster to help nudge her in the right direction. Perhaps during their investigations they find tomes or books relating to Cthugha, which the Cthulhuian cultists have confiscated to destroy as heretical works? Seeing these the traitor “Offers” to take the sanity and similar damage to her investigators mind, in order to delve into these books secrets for magic to use against the cult. Eventually with enough knowledge, in what the other players thought was a climactic scene for the campaign she thanks the others for their help, with fire cultists bursting in through the doors subduing the other investigators**!

Suddenly the other players are at the mercy of their former colleague, who mercifully doesn’t choose to kill them and instead allows them to look upon the dawn of the Ashen Eden for themselves. Of course the investigators will then be subsequently burned to death, but that’s why someone managed to remember to bring some lockpicks for the handcuffs they are tied in and escape to thwart that from happening! After this major revelation in the plot, the investigators now turn to the original traitors character and oppose their new – and genuine – threat of the campaign: The Machinations of Cthugha.

The above of course could play out in multiple different ways, but in this case this would be a bait and switch sort of twist. Here the investigators (and by extension players) expected one thing and you use the traitor to subvert that expectation, taking the story down an entirely different track. Of course it’s important to note that however satisfied the traitor is with themselves, their character is now firmly stuck in “NPC” land and they will need to make a new investigator to continue. This is because once the traitor does have a goal or ideal, which is entirely the opposite of what the party wants, they aren’t going to work together anymore. Ideally you’ve explained this to the player of the traitorous investigator well before you’ve got to this point, so she isn’t as surprised as everyone else the character becomes the new antagonist!

Further it should now be the case at the end of this dramatic and hopefully very satisfying reveal, if players start talking about things that happen it should make sense something was wrong. Subtle meetings with strange NPCs, being obsessed by particular tomes or books, making their character unavailable at times where the cult of fire was supposedly about and so on. In other words, your betrayal and the players behavior should add together to enrich the previous narrative the game has created. It will also mean the other players will be more “I knew it! The way you acted in the case of the strange elixir was just too bizarre for someone who was really our friend!”, which is what you want and less of the undesirable “How the hell did this come about? Did you just decide to do this 5 minutes ago?”.

Hopefully you can see from this that a traitor can be a compelling, interesting and potentially positive experience to put in your game. I’m not saying that a traitor is always a good idea as it suits some genres much better than others, notably the spy-thriller and horror genres of Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu like games in particular. When you do decide to do this it can be immensely satisfying and seriously add to the games narrative for everyone involved, you, your players and most importantly the successful traitor (or sometimes how hilariously they failed)! It can help build an atmosphere of distrust and tension, which you can play off for great roleplaying potential.

And of course there is another option. Tell the players there is a traitor among the and watch them go crazy trying to work out who the non-existent traitor is. Just like how in Dead of Winter, where the role cards are dealt randomly ensuring the players never quite know if it is a potential traitor holding out in that grocery store hoarding food….

*As in the wonderful Paranoia.

**If you’re using the wonderful trust die mechanics from Night’s Black Agents, this betrayal might be even easier to justify.