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Three of a Kind: Traitor NPCs

Ever play poker? You might be dealt three of a kind, but you are never dealt three of the same. One eyed jacks, suicide kings, and the Black Mariah all stand out from amongst their peers. “Three of a Kind” is a series that is all about providing you with three distinct versions of an NPC archetype for you to use in your game as well as some tips on how to use the archetype itself. So ante up, because you have nothing to lose in this game!

Heroes and villains come and go, but traitors live on in infamy! The traitor does not just turn her back on the cause – she takes its secrets with her to the enemy’s camp! As a GM the traitor NPC can serve multiple roles. A traitor can add to the drama and tension of a story. The traitor can also serve a tactical role when he undermines the defenses of his former comrades. The traitor is a classic role in fiction that any GM can use to add some intrigue to the game.

Time to look at our cards! Here are three types of traitor NPCs for you to use in your game.

#1 – Just Plain Bad

This traitor has the simplest of motives. She sells out her friends for money, power, or something else of a similar and base nature. Perhaps she just wants to be on the side of the “winners”, or she wants to humiliate the PCs whom she is secretly envious of. It does not really matter, for in the end her motives are petty and self-indulgent. She is a traitor simply because she was never really dedicated to the cause in the first place.

#2 – Forced Into Treachery

This traitor wants to remain loyal to his cause, but something of even greater value to him is threatened by the enemy unless he does their bidding. Perhaps the enemy has materials that they are using to blackmail the traitor with, or maybe the traitor’s loved ones are being held hostage. The important detail to remember here is that the traitor is both the offender and the victim. This presents the PCs with a dilemma of their own: punish the treachery or help their suffering comrade?

#3 – On Your Side

She is a traitor like the others. She might even have motives similar to the others. There is one major difference though, because this traitor is defecting from the enemy camp to come join the PCs in their mission! Her reasons can range from noble to purely selfish ones, but she has information and skills that the PCs can use to their advantage. Whether or not the PCs trust her though is for the players to decide.

GMing Tactics to Use

The most important consideration for a GM when introducing a traitor NPC into the game is when will the actual betrayal take place. Timing is everything in this case. A good rule of thumb is that the less significant the NPC is to the story the sooner the betrayal should occur. Likewise the more significant the NPC is to the story the later the betrayal should occur.

Having that betrayal come to light at just the right moment is crucial to playing the traitor NPC. The impact of the betrayal from a tactical point of view is not nearly as important to your game, because good players can roll with those kinds of punches all day long. But if the NPC has earned the PCs’ trust over a long period of time (or has long been the recipient of their scorn in the case of traitor #3) then your players are going to have a bigger reaction to the revelation of the traitor’s true nature when it takes place.

Have an idea or two for what will occur if the PCs discover the traitor’s secret earlier than planned. My personal approach depends on the quality of the PC’s evidence. A mere hunch that an NPC is a traitor even if that hunch is correct is not going to help the PCs very much at all. Revealing that hunch to the traitor in the form of a “We’re on to you!” type speech is just going to make the traitor extra cautious in covering up his tracks.

If the PCs have some solid evidence though and can put all of the pieces together let the chips fall where they may. It can be great fun to watch your plan for an ambush against the PCs be reversed into an ambush against the traitor. Good GMs realize that forcing a game to go according to plan is far more risky than it is to adapt to what the players come up with.

So throw a traitor into your game and see what happens, and do not be afraid to twist the archetype to challenge your players even more!

How would you play a traitor in your game? Do you have your own variation on the traitor archetype? Perhaps a favorite tactic or two for dealing with treacherous NPCs? Leave a comment below and share your ideas with the rest of us!

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12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Three of a Kind: Traitor NPCs"

#1 Comment By MadTinkerGnome On January 27, 2012 @ 4:08 am

Great article, looking forward to more of them. It got me thinking about another potential use of the traitor NPC in my intrigue and investigative campaign. If the players have deen duped by the antagonists (or ‘actual enemy’) into siding with them and the traitor betrays them to the other side (‘good guys’) because he or she has an attack of conscience, or is leveraged by the other side (i guess these are the reverse of options 1 and 2 in your article). I think this would provide another clue as to the actual situation the party is in. Thank you for the inspiration.

#2 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 27, 2012 @ 7:32 am

Yay, a new series! I dig the first entry, Patrick, and I’m looking forward to more.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On January 27, 2012 @ 9:03 am

Nice start, hit the ground running. The only issue I see is that once the ideas start flowing you’ll have trouble doing only three categories. Your mention of archetypes immediately had me layering on another three in addition to the motivation layer you’ve laid out for us: Trickster Conwoman simply out for what she can get in that episode, Dark Avenger, out to get even for some past (possibly imagined but there we go into another three categories…), and Self-assured Altruist, thwarting the PCs in order to prevent them doing (possibly unperceived and here we go again) harm.

This article is great not because of the content directly, but because the content sparks productive lines of thought.

This one-from-three format was a very useful technique in the old Unspeakable Oath (A defunct, resurrected and possibly defunct again Call of Cthulhu magazine) scenario seeds too. Three options is enough to spark thinking without overwhelming.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 27, 2012 @ 11:39 am

[2] – Thanks! More articles for this series are in the works.

[3] – I’m glad you like it. This one has been bouncing around in my head for awhile now.

[4] – Thank you. Limiting myself to 3 types is easy, because I do not want to write a novel. 😉

I’m not trying to create a definitive list here. The whole purpose of the article is to inspire others to think of more variants as well as ways to use them within a game. This series is a conversation starter by design. Its success will be measured by what readers add to the original content.

#5 Comment By Razjah On January 27, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

This is a great start for a new series. I can’t wait for the next one.

I really like the simplicity behind this, these categories may not be archtypes, but they certainly get a Gm thinking about ways to use traitors. This will be perfect fro my hardboiled Burning Wheel game.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 27, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

[5] – Thanks for the compliments. I’m curious as to what you meant by “these categories may not be archetypes”? I use the word archetype based on the following definition:

“the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.”
source: [6]

So in this case traitor is the archetype as the model for one who betrays, and the 3 types are the slight variants that deliver a result by using that model.

The reason that I want you to explain your statement is because I was not really sold on the terminology myself. Suggestions for different terms are welcomed.

#7 Comment By Leesplez On January 27, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

Great article. One more factor I would add is the severity of the betrayal. The party’s trusted wilderness guide suddenly gives them up to a group of wilderness bandits is one thing. It’s a totally different situation when the PCs have been spending months (in game, and at the gaming table) working with a city to fight off an infiltration of evil cultists, only to find that city official who’s been orchestrating the whole operation and directing the PCs every action IS a cultist!

Also, it’s worth talking about how and when to plan these betrayals. I’ve found that there are times where I had a completely loyal NPC, yet after doing something like reading this article, I went back and re-imagined everything they did as if they were a traitor. This can often work in the middle of a campaign, and doesn’t require that the GM make a particular NPC destined to be traitor from the beginning (However, sometimes that is necessary).

And as a GM who uses a lot of traitors, I’ve found that my players started to be cynical about any NPC’s loyalty, so I toned it down a little.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 27, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

[7] – I concur that the traitor is a strong spice indeed! Use the traitor sparingly, but when you do the traitor is the star of the show.

#9 Comment By Razjah On January 30, 2012 @ 8:22 am

[8] – I don’t think of these as an archetype because these seem more like categories for motivation. I can’t come up with a more logical reason. The traitorous NPCs as an archetype to me would be more like building blocks.

The archetype would be more like:
– brother of sonless king who wants the crown
– magistrate who only wants to rise in power
– farmer who’s wife is sick and needs the reward money
– spy who is really a double agent

The three categories that you provided are more akin to motivations for these archetypes. I imagine traitor to be the concept, not the archetype, then the archetype has a motivation from your “three things”. However, your explanation does make sense. I think this may end up being a semantic argument. But it was good to think about this on a break from homework.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 30, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

[9] – Ah! There is a miscommunication here. “Traitor” is the archetype, and not the three variations on motivation. The three variations are ways in which the archetype of a traitor can be modified. Does that clarify the terminology and how I am applying it for the series?

#11 Comment By E-l337 On January 30, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

For one of my games, I was considering adding a ‘traitor’ NPC. Well, actually they’ve already been implemented, and given their attitude and the manner in which they were welcomed aboard, really it seemed to me to be an obvious sort of evolution, something that would pay off once it came to be the right time for it to occur.

However, I would add in another variation to your traitor theme, one I think would be quite tragic myself:

-Doesn’t Know Better
This is an NPC who, either due to age or simple lack of mental understanding, doesn’t fully understand just what they have done. Maybe they were asked a few friendly questions, or promised something shiny that made them forget about the dangers their actions presented – and may not fully comprehend until it is too late. An unintentional betrayal is something that can be stopped, but at the same time, also one that is very difficult to detect early on; yet played properly, it can force the players into an extremely difficult position when trying to decide what to do with the NPC in question.

This is a great one to use for children, chatty servants, or the old man with brain damage who has become endearing to the party.

#12 Comment By Razjah On January 31, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

[10] – Yes this makes much more sense now. Thanks, Patrick.