[RPG] How to handle a PC wanting to be a “twist” villain


My group has been following a premade campaign that has a decentralized plot structure that relies mainly on adventurers "finding their own adventure". This means that while the campaign provides ample worldbuilding information and premade side-quests, the campaign has no clearly defined antagonist or central plotlines. Normally, in a group focused on exploration and combat this wouldn't be a big deal, however in my group there's been a general feeling of dissatisfaction at the current lack of plot progression, as well as the lack of a main antagonistic force.

In order to help develop a centralized plot, one of my players recently came up with the idea of his PC secretly acting as a twist villain. The basic premise is that they would conduct certain actions between sessions in secret (i.e. assassinating certain NPCs, instigating strife between factions, etc.), such that the other players would have mysteries to uncover, as well as a means of driving change in an otherwise stagnant story.

In order to prevent the player from gaining an unfair amount of agency and spotlight, the following would be enforced:

  • The PC will not become "the BBEG". That is to say, they will never become the primary antagonistic force in the story. They will never work fully in opposition to the other PCs, but will follow goals that the other PCs may view as acts of evil.
  • The PC's villainous acts will serve to develop a larger storyline. The PC will only be privy to information pertaining to their own actions; the player of said PC will not be aware of the overall direction of the story.
  • The player has agreed to relinquish control of their character to me (the GM) in the event that cooperation between them and the rest of the party becomes impossible.

I've heard that PVP generally has a negative connotation and I have some concerns with the idea of a player having an elevated degree of control in the storyline, mostly related to spotlight issues. However twist villains appeal to me and I think that the other players will appreciate the resulting narrative shift.

RPG.SE has a vast array of experiences and I'm certain that this scenario has occurred before. I'm hoping to draw on that experience to help answer the following question: how can I handle a PC wanting to be a twist villain?

  • What steps can I take to ensure that this doesn't come across as an act of favoritism?
  • How can I prevent this from turning into an instance of "My Guy" syndrome?
  • Are there any pitfalls of this choice that I may want to avoid?

Preferably, I'm interested in answers that ensure that the mystery surrounding the villains identity is preserved, while reducing any potential in-real-life strife.

Contextual points to consider:

  • The group has historically responded well to story-driven adventures. Roleplaying abilities are generally strong and players expect the presence of heightened drama.
  • When we started this campaign, we were aware that the campaign was more open-ended than others we've played in the past. It was selected as an experiment of sorts; needless to say the experiment has proven somewhat unsuccessful and everyone involved is aligned on the fact that the campaign requires a stronger storytelling backbone in order to remain interesting.
  • Session Zero has already occurred and this sort of behavior was never fully discussed. Players are aware that their PC's goals will not always fully align, and that PVP may occur, but we haven't discussed the possibility of players being fully villainous.
  • Players are aware that they may receive more or less narrative attention based on their choices and the direction of the story.

Best Answer

I've both DMed surprise villain PCs (two of them!) and played the surprise villain PC myself, over multiple D&D 4e campaigns. Based on those experiences, I recommend the following:

Ground Rules With Your Villainous Player

Before starting on this plot, lay down some ground rules with your villainous player based on your group's tolerance for various "degrees" of villainy. For example, if you think your players might like the narrative idea of a villain PC, but don't want PVP, then one ground rule is that your villainous player can be a villain but must never instigate PVP. Similarly, if there are taboo topics at your table, such as torture, your villainous player must agree to never broach those topics, even in villainy.

If you're concerned that your villainous player will (or does) suffer from My Guy Syndrome, however, I strongly recommend against letting them play a villain PC at all. It's very easy for even the most well-intentioned MGS player to succumb to their syndrome and cause problems. Consider this player's past table behavior and whether they've shown signs of MGS. If so, it's likely not worth the risk. On the other hand, if they have a history of working with the group in the interest of a fun and exciting story for everyone, they're an excellent candidate.

Foreshadow, Foreshadow, Foreshadow

@mikeq's answer recommends telling your players up front about your surprise. This is a good general suggestion if you're about to do something narratively that you aren't sure the players will enjoy. Based on your additional contextual points, it sounds like this might be something your players would be interested in. So there's a middle ground between telling your players everything (and ruining the surprise), and hiding everything (and risking an unpleasant surprise).

Foreshadowing, if you aren't familiar with the term, is a "clue or allusion embedded in the narrative that predicts some later event or revelation." In other words, it's a hint at the direction of the plot which you can use to gauge your players' reactions to the planned twist. Now, especially in a tabletop RPG, you need to be ten times as blatant about your foreshadowing as a typical movie or novel - your players are holding a lot more in their heads and it's easy to miss a single subtle clue. Work with your villain-PC to establish lots of potential foreshadowing options, such as being away mysteriously right at the same time an NPC winds up dead, or mysterious letters arriving which the PC hides from the other party members, or notable but ambiguous evidence left behind at the crime scene (E.g., your villain-PC is a tabaxi? There's cat fur at the scene. Suspicious, but not definite proof).

Mind Your Players' Reactions

This is a shared responsibility between you and your villainous player. Both of you must watch your players' reactions closely to all the foreshadowing you drop. I say this is partially your villainous player's responsibility because when I played the villain-PC, I spent quite a bit of time monitoring my fellow players' reactions to the hints I was dropping. If I dropped what I thought was a vital hint and got absolutely zero response, I would often drop another hint, just to make sure it was picked up on by someone. On the flip side, it's also your villainous player's responsibility to make sure they aren't hogging the limelight. You as the GM have some responsibility here as well, but given how many other responsibilities the GM has, you need your villainous player's full support.

You're looking for hints about how well the other PCs will take this news. If your players eagerly latch on to your foreshadowing hints, and speculate enthusiastically about the mystery villain's identity (bonus points if they actually suspect each other and seem to like the idea), great! Carry on. If, instead, your players express doubt or concern about the possibility that this villain might be one of their own, then abort mission and start over. Which leads into my next point:

Be Willing to Bail

The nice thing about TTRPGs is that you as the GM can change the direction of your plot as much as you feel is necessary for the whole table's enjoyment. If you foreshadow this twist and get a strongly negative, or even just lukewarm, reaction: reconsider. Discuss it out of game with your villainous player, to make sure you're both on the same page and seeing the same reactions consistently (i.e., that it's not simply that the other players aren't picking up your foreshadowing). But make it clear to your villainous player before you start that if the other players don't seem to like the idea, you're going to retcon it away. Similarly, be ready to pull the plug if the villainous player starts coming down with My Guy Syndrome, or breaks any of the ground rules laid out before starting.

I've fortunately never had to retcon a villainous PC, but I've had to retcon a few other things which ended up not working out the way I wanted, and it's always better to do so than to push forward with an idea most or all of the group doesn't enjoy.