In celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, this month’s blog carnival, hosted by Nearly Enough Dice is all about Gunpowder, Treason, and Plots. I decided to take a comprehensive look at treason and betrayal as Campaign Mastery’s contribution…

On the face of it, “What constitutes treason?” is a fairly straightforward question to answer. But, as I explained in a previous article (Splitting Hairs: Exploring nuance as a source of game ideas), even the most straightforward of questions can have a wealth of subtle shades that can be exploited.

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The obvious answer: Betrayal Of Oath

I should start by stating the obvious meaning: Treason is the betrayal of an oath of allegiance. An Oath is a sworn promise of fidelity, i.e. a formal promise to be true to the matter being promised. If the language sounds a little archaic, that’s because the concept itself has not materially changed in centuries, and the formality involved has tended to preserve the linguistic terminology used to describe the concept in its older forms.

Oaths are usually delivered in reference to an object that symbolizes deep belief, a symbol that supposedly matters more than anything else to the person making the oath. Quite often, this is a bible or holy symbol, and the promise is made in the name of the deity. The implication is that the oath-taker is asking the aid of the Deity in keeping the oath, stating that his fidelity to all that he considers holy requires him to keep his promise, inviting that deity to witness the binding nature of the promise, and equating a betrayal of his office with a betrayal of his Deity. So it’s serious business, especially in a world where the Gods are demonstrably real and not to be taken lightly. Alternatively, it may be made to a flag or other national symbol, such as the US Pledge Of Allegiance, though this is given less force than an oath made on the bible. An important implication is that violation of the oath will lead to severe punishment; where the oath of fidelity is to a nation, that crime is called Treason.

There’s often a caveat attached that can be useful to the GM looking for story potential in an oath – the promise is often made for fidelity “to the best of my ability”. A person can think they are doing the right thing, when in fact, they aren’t. But that’s just the beginning of the plot potential inherent in the concept of oaths and the betrayal of those promises, and that is what this article is going to explore.

Vectors of infidelity

Let’s start by looking at who Oaths can apply to, or be given to, that could be an element in a plotline. This will establish some of the parameters of plot potential. Since these are all about the delivery of an oath’s relevance to the plotline, I think of these as the “vectors of fidelity” – “vector” implying movement in a specific direction. But, since we’re talking about the betrayal of the oaths in question, this discussion could be better characterized as “vectors of infidelity” – oaths, and the reasons why people might break them.


People can promise to be true to the members or ideals of their social sub-group, and take an oath to that effect. This is often the case within military units or even entire branches of a specific military organization. Such oaths are also often implied or explicit within an adventuring party, and this is one explicit difference between the Lord Of The Rings in movie form and its original literary form. Marriage vows also fall into this category.

And that brings up the first interesting plot potential: Under a semi-feudal system, like those often found in D&D/Pathfinder, citizens often swear loyalty not to an abstract office or to the overall monarch, but to their local Noble as an individual. That Noble is, in theory, bound by similar oaths to his direct superior in the nobility, and so on up until you reach the King or Queen themselves. If a superior Noble betrays his oath, or swears allegiance to someone else for whatever reason, all his subordinates are bound by their oaths to follow him. Loyalty and treason, in civil war situations, are very difficult matters to pin down.

Heads Of State

Alternatively, oaths can be sworn directly to the Head Of State as an individual, or to the office regardless of who happens to hold it at the time. There’s a big difference between the two, when you consider what keeping that oath can require of an individual. Again, if the pledge is to the Head Of State as an individual, then you are committed to supporting that individual no matter what they do, even if they break some oath that they may have taken in accepting their office – a subject that I’ll get to in a moment. In contrast, swearing allegiance to the office can be more convenient if the office-holders change on a frequent basis, but it can put you in conflict with the actual holder of that office if they are corrupt or are seen by you as betraying something that the office represents or requires of the office-holder. What’s more, it’s not always clear which way an individual is interpreting their oath – loyalty to the man in the office at the time, or loyalty to the principles and ideals of the office no matter who happens to be occupying it. This is fertile dramatic ground that has been the subject of exploration since the time of Shakespeare, if not the time of the ancient Greeks!

Heads Of Another State

Things can get even more interesting in an international organizational context. A superhero or paramilitary organization with members from many different countries usually include members who have oaths of allegiance to the head of a state that is different to the head of the state in which they current happen to be located, or even resident. Heck, the same is true for foreign tourists! It’s very easy for such oaths to come into conflict, something that has torn UNTIL apart in the Zenith-3 campaign (notably when the US walked out of the UN because it wasn’t being permitted enough independence of action). A conflict between two moral principles in the Oval Office led to the withdrawal, which then placed a crisis of conflicting oaths and loyalties on every member of UNTIL who derived from the US (almost half of them) or who happened to agree with the moral principle which the US Leadership upheld (half of those remaining, if not more). Want the context? “Is the UN required to recognize the duly- and properly-elected government of a member state even if that government is a neo-fascist “Fourth Reich”?” The UN said ‘yes, but’; the PCs said ‘no, but’; the PCs parent body said “we derive our authority from the UN and its charter, and it has made its ruling clear”; the US Government said “Hell, No!”. Practical Diplomacy warred with Idealism, Morality warred with Morality, Loyalty warred with Loyalty. Of course, the US walkout also eviscerated the UN’s budget, making UNTIL’s peacekeeping mandate even more difficult than it was before, and leading many officers to remain onboard out of loyalty to the organization’s goals, no matter how much they disagreed with the policies of the parent body. Conflict within conflict…

Elected Officials

Most elected officials have to take an oath of office. These oaths can bind them into doing things that they disagree with, morally or spiritually, or at the very least, can end up conflicting with those principles. Doing “The Right Thing” can be hard, even when “the right thing to do” is clear. It can be even more difficult when it is not. Choices like Churchill having to choose between keeping the secret of Ultra – i.e. that the allies had cracked the German’s Enigma code machines – or evacuating Coventry, when it was learned that the Germans were going to firebomb the city. Ultra would not win the war on its own – so how much, how many innocent lives, was the secret worth? The more idealistic and moral the leader, the more difficult these decisions become. Only if Churchill had chosen to reveal the secret, saved the city, but consequently lost the war, could either decision be criticized from any dispassionate viewpoint; absent that outcome, he could never have been sure whether or not he made the right decision. That’s the sort of stress that burns out leaders of governments. And makes for great stories.

Appointed Officials

Similarly, most appointed officials also have to swear oaths, and those oaths are just as binding. However, an appointment can always be revoked, or resigned. Except when it can’t, for some reason! Politics is always as much about perception as reality, and a resignation at the wrong time, or under the wrong circumstances, can undermine public confidence at a critical time. When a nation is at war, resigning a government post is also much harder – morally – to do, and can even lead to charges of disloyalty and treason in their own right. A government should rarely if ever be held hostage to the moral judgment of one official who wasn’t even elected by the people that government represents – but what if that official’s moral judgment is correct, and the government’s is faulty?

An act of treason always involves either coercion of some sort, or the individual placing his ideals and moral judgment ahead of those of the government, rightly or wrongly. It’s entirely possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or vice-versa – and that’s a simple situation. Actions can be both right and wrong at the same time, and so can reasons – and that opens whole new container-loads of worms.


It’s not uncommon for people to pledge loyalty to a cause, usually an idealistic one, no matter how impractical or unrealistic that cause might be. What happens when the leadership of the cause demands that people go too far? What happens if the leadership begins to moderate the aims and objectives of the cause in a spirit of practicality? An oath of loyalty to a cause begins fracturing the organization demanding the oath the instant the oath is made, it just takes a while for the cracks to spread and open up into clear fissures.


Another potential source of activities that can be characterized as treasonous are inherited loyalties. The ‘generation gap’ is generally presumed by most to be a bigger factor in modern times than it was historically, but I dispute that; instead, I simply think that it has more modes of expression in modern times that make the problem seem to be bigger now than it used to be. BY way of proof, consider the following series of rhetorical questions:

  • Can the context of a situation change over time?
  • Can the effect or impact of a situation change because the context of that situation has changed?
  • Can two reasonable and honest men perceive a situation differently because the context and effect of that situation has changed in between these assessments?
  • Does a father’s oath of loyalty bind the rest of his family while he is in charge of the family? Especially in a pseudo-medieval setting like those commonly found in D&D and Pathfinder?
  • Does an oath of loyalty persist unconditionally regardless of changing perceptions of the situation that led to that oath being made?

The obvious answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’. It follows that a father can make an oath of loyalty binding apon the entire family, only to see the situation change to the point where – if he had the opportunity – he would choose not to have made that oath. Nevertheless, so long as he is head of the family, fidelity to his promise demands that he (and his family) do what is required of him in furtherance of that oath – and a son can resent the oath, and personally oppose what it is that he has to do in fulfillment of it, and – since there is no-one else for him to blame – to attribute these acts to the short-sighted oath taken by his father. He transfers his anger about being forced to do things he doesn’t want to have to do into anger at his father. One medieval generation gap, to order.

It follows that as soon as he ascends to control of the family, that son will make a 180-degree turn in family policy, refusing to renew the oath. But if that is too far away, or the acts that the oath mandates are too loathsome to the son in the meantime, thoughts of hastening that ascension will inevitably occur – and that is a recipe for a treasonous betrayal of that oath.

In general, it’s rare for oaths to bind ‘eternally’; there is usually some condition, explicit or implicit, which terminates the promise and permits a fresh assessment of a situation. Sometimes this can be hidden in flowery language “So long as friendship endures betwixt the Houses of L’Orange and Hapsburg”, or “…as long as they both shall reign” or all manner of variations. Diplomats love to sneak these triggers into treaties and like documents because it gives them a chance to weasel out if that becomes desirable or necessary. And they sound very pretty and impressive, too.

But until such limits are triggered, or can be interpreted as having been triggered, a son can come into conflict with agreements that he inherited at birth.

Layers Of Government

You don’t have to listen to too much debate about state-vs.-federal rights to realize that there can be disagreements between different layers of government. The reason is also clear – the smaller serves only a minority segment of the population served by the larger. Both are bound by oaths to that service, and those oaths can conflict. In an extreme situation, this can lead to the smaller layer of government performing actions that the larger considers betrayal, or even treasonous.

The recent government shutdown in the US, where the entire country was held hostage to the principles adhered to by a minority of extremists from within one party on an issue they had already lost comes very close. If the question had been one of international relations, rather than of domestic policy, it could easily have been adjudged to represent treason against the larger level of government.

Few issues are black and white. There’s always room for honest disagreement. Compromise is a practical necessity that stops anyone from going too far. But when one party to a dispute refuses to compromise, there’s always going to be trouble. Another thing that’s absolute? Oaths. Any Oath, under the right circumstances, can prevent or prohibit compromise. Society tolerates, even demands and mandates, Oaths – despite this potential – only because the alternative is much, much worse.

Church Vs State

Obviously, then, any absolute can create conflict with an oath, explicit or implicit. One of the most obvious is in another thorny doctrinal issue in terms of government: Church vs. State, Religion vs. Authority. To what extent is an elected official entitled to foist the views and demands of his theology onto the citizens he represents, regardless of their views on the subject? To what extent is he permitted to compromise his own views and ideals in order to more fairly represent the citizens who elected him? The Doctrine of Church Vs. State in US Politics and Law is interpreted as banning any faith from becoming the official state religion, and is usually interpreted as resulting from wishing to avoid a situation in which the government is forced by a narrowly-defined ideology into choices that are not in the best interests of the citizens of the state. The founding fathers may have thought that this was enough to settle the debate and keep religion out of politics; the ongoing debates about Intelligent Design and Contraception and Abortion prove that it isn’t. Even the Environmentalists, who by embracing a position of shutting down and shouting down all opinions to the contrary, have begun to act as a religion, show the depths to which the conflicts between religion and authority can conflict. Personally, while not a climate Skeptic, I’m unconvinced – and the behavior of the environmentalists feeds my traces of skepticism and fuels my unwillingness to be convinced.

Any ideology, whether religious or environmental or economic, can lead to acts that conflict with an oath – and those are a betrayal of that oath at best and treason at worst. As I said earlier, it’s as easy to do the wrong thing for the right reasons as it is to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way.

Professionals Vs State

That’s any ideology, including the protection of a professional body or group or even of the professionals themselves. Worker’s Unions and Professional Bodies are variations on the same theme. Analogues exist in many FRP campaigns, such as Mage’s Guilds. And oaths of loyalty to the profession can come into conflict with the policies and oaths of the government, to the point where the activities of the professional body can be considered treasonous by the government. For example, if a treaty is not in the best interests of a given professional body, they may feel entitled to block, obfuscate, or sabotage it even if it is arguably in the best interests of everyone else. Experiments that risk the destruction of the world, for example, may be outlawed by the government – but a Mage’s Guild who refuses to accept that ruling may simply sanction conducting those experiments in a neighboring country or territory.

Biological-weapons research would be a modern equivalent that has been used in fiction many times. There are many others that could be turned into RPG plotlines. The development of Daleks or Cybermen from the Dr Who universe, for example.

Ethics Vs Morals

At it’s purest, you can have a conflict between ethics and morality that can lead to someone disobeying a government restriction, or even seeking to undermine that government. A philosophical question that has been endlessly debated without reaching a conclusion is whether or not there can be moral absolutes, or is morality relative? One of the most subtle and thought-provoking questions raised in Starship Troopers is “Is it moral for a group to do something that is immoral for an individual?” I disagree with Heinlein’s logic and hence his answer; anyone doing likewise who found themselves in a position with the authority and capacity to act would be committing treason against a society founded and run along the ideological lines espoused by Heinlein within the novel. (For the record, my answer: It is moral for the group to do that which may be immoral for the individual, in the name of the individuals collectively represented, when the action protects the individuals from a threat greater than that which can be opposed by an individual.” Disaster relief is moral. War against an oppressor or invader is moral. Government standards and regulation are moral. Accessibility to affordable medical treatment is moral. Subsidized education is moral. In fact, lots of things are morally right, even if they contravene an individual’s freedoms, explicit or implied. However, potential abuse and corruption mandate supervision and regulation – so government coverups are not moral. And there aren’t many absolutes involved.

Consider government standards & regulation. They don’t exist to ensure the quality of workmanship or to protect the public completely from risk; they define an acceptable limit of risk. One standard might mean that there is a one in ten thousand chance of something going wrong; that might be acceptable or it might not, depending on how many are exposed to that risk and how often. A tighter regulation might reduce that to one in 100,000 – but drive the price of compliance to a level that places the product out of the reach of the ordinary citizen. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about seat belt laws, or medicines, or air conditioners. So there is a compromise to be made between accessibility of technology and safety. Subsidized accessibility may permit higher standards to be maintained, or may bankrupt the government – if the lower-quality product is also available and the higher-quality product is only made available to those that need that standard of protection, all will generally be well. Is it possible to draft a set of traffic laws that would end all deaths from motor-vehicle accidents? Sure – just ban internal combustion as a means of deriving the power for locomotion. You can’t even charge the batteries on an electric vehicle. No cars, no car-related deaths. But it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and anyone proposing it seriously would be laughed off the public stage. So instead we have laws that act to reduce the risk of being on the road to a level that society has deemed acceptable, and we tolerate the occasional tragic accident as a society no matter how much we may regret individual examples.

Black hats vs white hats: context matters

Here’s a sticky question: is it ever moral for a trusted group to do something while immoral for an untrustworthy group to do the same thing?

Now think about this: American cold-war policy regarding nuclear weapons research says the answer is ‘yes’. Some nations could be trusted with the development or deployment of the bomb – the US themselves, primarily, but others like Britain and France as well – while others could not. Even now, the world stands at the brink of nuclear Armageddon if certain countries or conflicts go too far – India vs. Pakistan, North vs. South Korea, Taiwan and China, Israel and virtually any other middle-eastern country. And no matter how legitimate or illegitimate the grievances may be on any side in those conflicts, the potential for collateral damage in such conflicts continues to argue for a ‘yes’ answer.

But that’s not the only view possible, and anyone subscribing to an alternative perspective may well be placed in a position of committing acts that a subscriber to that view defines as treasonable. That’s the logic behind the convictions of those who fed nuclear secrets to the Soviets, for example. A plausible counterargument might be, “if the US is the only country with this technology, they will eventually become a world dictator. Parity is needed, and Mutually-Assured Destruction to keep fingers off the triggers, and prevent either country from going too far”. And that’s certainly a hard line to refute, given that this is what we ended up with – and the world is still outside my door.

What’s the equivalent in FRP? A Fireball spell? Resurrection? Steel? Something more? Something less?

In the section on Inheritance, I proposed that context alters perception which alters loyalties and ideologies – which can lead to an act of treason against an Oath that was “a good idea at the time.” The situations discussed in this situation show that this must be extended and expanded: Every oath and every act of treason against such an oath has to be viewed in context, and any absolute can lead to the commission of such an act – under the right circumstances, no matter how improbable they may be.

Everyone who takes an oath will have some circumstance under which they will break that oath, or will uphold the oath even when that is the morally wrong thing to do.

Regulations and laws and punishments don’t keep us absolutely safe – they simply confine the risks to an acceptable level. Context matters.

Fidelity to cause

I’ve written already about how loyalty to a cause can lead to the betrayal of an oath made to someone or something else. But another kind of betrayal is the breaking of a promise of fidelity to a cause.

This is a potential that was implicit in the discussion and examples offered of conflicts between professionals and the state. The Mage’s Guild example, for example, puts a mage who learns of the experiments in the situation where he has to betray either his fidelity to the cause of magic itself, or his loyalty to the state. Which one will he choose? While it might technically not be an act of treason, the choice of supporting the ban on this experimentation is an entirely valid one.

Depending on the game, the circumstances, and the specifics, an oath of fidelity to a cause can be bigger or smaller than an oath of loyalty to one’s government. In any game where the fate of existence is on the line, any oath to someone or something fighting to preserve that existence is going to take precedence over a petty national allegiance. The less epic and sweeping the campaign and its concepts, the more strongly national allegiances will overshadow fidelity to any cause. They may not completely overshadow allegiance to a cause – there will always be people who will fight for peace over any other allegiance, for example. And people who will fight to equip the military with the latest toy, no matter what they have to do to to get it.

Any cause, in the right circumstances, can be adjudged more important than an oath of loyalty; whether this is a correct judgment or not, it can be the basis of a plotline.

Fidelity to issues

An issue is something more specific and less generalized than a Cause. Consequently, it’s less likely to involve activities that could be characterized as treasonous; but it can lead to lesser forms of betrayal. An example might be a crime in which the victim gets under the investigator’s skin, leading them to go too far in seeking out or punishing the offender. Less likely does not mean impossible, however; and the Pelican Brief is the story of a case in which greed led to crime which led to something very close to treason.

The Revolutionaries

We’re approaching the end of my list of people who might commit treason, or something that would be considered treason. So I thought I would conclude this part of the article by revisiting a couple of points made earlier in passing or implied without being explicitly described. The first of these is this: any act of revolution is, by definition, treasonous with respect to the administration being overthrown. It follows that the motives for such acts need to be stronger than the loyalty felt towards that existing administration, and there needs to be an urgency or desperation that demands immediate action – avenues of reform must be blocked or too slow. When all these conditions are met, the circumstances are primed for a revolution, or attempted revolution – which is to say, an act of treason.

And there is always the problem of a revolution for reasons that seem just and worthy – that only put a bigger bunch of crooks in charge.

The Reformers

Not that having an avenue of reform open is necessarily a guarantee that treason will neither be involved or required. We’re generally used to reform being a positive thing, or to the term being used cynically to suggest that so-called “reforms” are anything but. There is a third option, however, and those are reforms that improve one situation with such severe side effects that they can become motives for treasonous opposition in those sworn to uphold them; and a fourth option, in which the need for reform is given a sufficiently hostile response that either the proponents of the reform can commit treason to enact the reform, or that the opposition can overstep the mark in their zeal to prevent the reform from occurring.

No change of administration policy or position ever benefits everyone. There is always the question of the minority (or even the majority) who are penalized by a change, and how strongly they oppose it as a result; and for any proposal you care to offer in terms of public policy, there will be the question of who supports it and how far they are willing to go to achieve their ends, however laudable.

Things can get even more complicated when you contemplate attempted reforms that through short-sightedness, flawed logic, or political, religious, or social dogma, will fail to achieve the promised benefits. If you are a supporter of the cause or general principle who opposes the specific reforms mooted then you are tagged with being a traitor to the cause, whether or not your reasons are valid – because zealots will not tolerate any form of opposition. To them, it’s not about how right or wrong you are, but about the fact that you have opposed them.

The Little Guy

There is an implied oath, even if not explicitly required, that citizens will support and obey the ruling body that commands them. But there are laws that ordinary people break regularly, sometimes with reason and more often, without. Speed laws. Running red lights. Cheating on taxes, inadvertently or deliberately. Some folks go further; usually feeling disenfranchised or so opposed to the current regime that they deliberately flout the law. And that in turn opens the door to actions that can be considered treasonous.

Whether or not these actions are, or can be, supported depends an awful lot on the regime being challenged. Take the case of the French Resistance in World War II. Their government had surrendered. The Resistance was therefore committing acts of sabotage and conspiracy that were illegal under the terms of the surrender, and by definition, treason against the appointed government of the day. Because the general view is that the regime they opposed was wholly monstrous and undeniably villainous, these partisans are considered by history to be heroes and patriots.

When the circumstances are dire enough, the little guy can commit what are technically acts of treason. So the question then becomes, under what circumstances is this warranted? Or, more particularly from a roleplaying perspective, are the circumstances arranged by the GM sufficient to justify treason by “the little guy”? How desperate are the people? How grave is their situation? How much hope do they have? How much scope for expression of their discontent, and how possible is reform of the situation? So long as an alternative avenue exists for achieving their ends in a peaceable way, acts of sedition can’t be justified. Take away their alternatives, and some people will start sharpening pitchforks. And even if reform is not possible, the situation has to be both desperate, urgent, and pose a clear risk to the lives of the people before extreme measures are in any way justifiable.

And yet, there is a lot of gray area. Consider the American Revolution. This was, if historical propaganda is to be believed, about the principle of self-rule. Dig beneath the surface, and it’s possible if not likely that a whole range of motivations were in play, some noble and some less so. People are only human, after all. How does this conflict stack up in terms of our justifications? Desperate? Reasonably. Avenues for reform? Attempts had been rebuffed. Scope for expression? Yes – I’m not aware of any interference in the press by the British, more of a casual indifference to the opinions of the colonials. Were the revolutionaries lives at risk before the declaration of independence? That’s a more difficult one. Past acts in opposition to the British may have warranted prison, but even that is far from certain. For most participants, the answer has to be, “not really”. And so, under the established criteria, the Revolution was unjustified. If we therefore conclude that the principle for which they were fighting is sufficient to justify the Revolution, it shows that our criteria are too narrow to answer all cases. So bear that in mind, as a GM, when considering whether or not grassroots elements of a society will rebel to the point of treason.

More Variations of Treason & Betrayal

So there are an awful lot of vectors for infidelity to an oath, a lot of different groups that can commit a lot of different types of treason. And yet, the types of treason described so far are not the entire gamut of possibilities. There are still more forms of treason and betrayal that have to be acknowledged. Some of these may be viewed as less serious than others, while some individuals may consider them more important. Little puts a character under more pressure than forcing them to choose between two different forms of betrayal of concepts or loyalties that they believe in. Many characters, when confronted with such choices, become paralyzed and unable to choose at all; some kill themselves to avoid having to make the choice, while others choose one and then commit suicide out of remorse – even if they ultimately chose the lesser of two evils. Such situations are defining watersheds for the evolution of the character at the heart of the storm; no matter how they choose, they will be transformed by the experience – even if they subsequently try to pretend otherwise.

All of these represent great story potential. They have all been at the heart of dramatic television and movie narratives in the past, and will be again, in the future. And they are all fertile ground for RPGs.

The old girl ain’t what she used to be: Betrayal of history

One of the best places to start is with the question of infidelity to history. There are often good reasons advanced by circumstances in RPGs to hide the truth of a confrontation – the knowledge itself may be dangerous, the people may not be ready to know the truth, there may be a minority who could use the truth to undermine the positive outcomes, or public confidence would be needlessly undermined. Especially in times of war, the truth is a necessary casualty, because the truth arms and advantages the enemy. Disinformation can be essential to the achievement of victory, or the minimizing of the price of victory.

But there is a counterpoint, one which demands that eventually the truth be revealed. Firstly, secrets have a life of their own, and the protection of secrets can lead to crimes worse than those the secret was meant to protect. I looked at that more substantially in The Veil of Secrecy: A truth about organizations in games.

But entirely aside from that consideration, there is another: If the truth is hidden, future generations will find their attitudes and history compromised and distorted by belief in the lies told in its place. That in turn generates myths about the events, and those myths and the beliefs that go with them then form the foundation of future expectations, ambitions, and policies. Avenging a betrayal or an injustice that did not in fact take place, for example. Hiding the truth about a mistake can maintain public confidence in those who made the mistake – but it can also eliminate the opportunity to learn from that mistake. Keep the secret for too long, and it can even be the case that it will not be believed when the truth is finally revealed.

It’s not enough for there to be good reasons for a cover-up (never mind cases where there are bad reasons) – it is always necessary to consider the question of “for how long” and “what will be the price of that secrecy?” Depending on the circumstance and the secret being kept, a betrayal of history can be a far more serious matter than simple treason.

Betrayal of principle

I made the point earlier that the lesson of the American Revolution – or the myth of the American Revolution, depending on how pedantic you want to be – is that Principle can be enough to justify what are technically or substantially acts of treason.

The other side of that coin has to be the betrayal of principle. Is this a worse crime than simple treason? Is it acceptable to subvert or betray a principle if the letter of the law is obeyed? If fidelity to the letter of the law supersedes fidelity to the principle, what happens when the law is inadequate or antiquated? These questions go to the heart of most of the great social conflicts of the last century – everything from copyright infringement to spam and spyware, and will continue to be at the heart of serious legal issues into the future. For example: Is it even possible for the public to make an informed decision when end-user agreements are choked in legalese fine print? Or: Can the law become so complex and convoluted that it is impossible for a non-lawyer to know what it obligates the ordinary person to do – and is that acceptable – and, if not, what should be done about it? Every legal complication is there for a reason, every legal precedent stems from a real case and a real verdict.

Once again, context is everything in these cases. What are you betraying? What are the costs – of fidelity, and of betrayal? Who should have the power and authority to decide?

Muddying the waters still further: How do you decide when principles come into conflict?

Betrayal of an oath to uphold a principle
Still more flavors and subtexts are possible under this heading and deserve to be at least mentioned in this article.

The first of these variations asks the question, How far should people be willing to go in defense of a principle? To the point of treason – or beyond?

How should such individuals be judged – by their peers, by those to whom the oath was sworn, by the public, and by history? If a prosecution follows, despite public belief that the individual did the right thing, is a fair trial possible? Is the verdict a foregone conclusion? If a prosecution does not follow, can’t that be seen as setting a precedent for the violation of other oaths under other circumstances in the future? Is it necessary for each successive judicial rung to prosecute such a case, knowing that they will lose, just to define the scope of what is acceptable? These are difficult questions that get to the heart of an individuals perceptions of right and wrong.

Betrayal of a principle to uphold an oath
Conversely, what of the person who betrays a principle because they are compelled by an oath to do so? The same set of basic questions obtain – how should they be judged? Did they do the right thing? Is it legal to disobey a flawed law? Should it be? Principles are as subject to interpretation as laws – which means they are just as subject to mis-interpretation.

The relative betrayal of principle
Questions of degree are inevitable when discussing this sort of question at any length. How about violating a principle just a little bit in order to preserve a broader principle? What is the order of precedence among principles? Is that open to the individual? Where an individual has been elected to office, does that mean that the people have chosen to agree with his order of priorities in this respect?

There was a series on Australian TV a long time ago called “Hypotheticals“, by Geoffrey Robertson. These placed a panel of notables into a fictitious scenario in which, acting in the guise of an imagined identity, contemporary issues were explored and debated in ways that could never have happened in any other context. Some of these were later collected into books (refer to the Bibliography below the section linked to above) – there are six copies of the first available through Amazon, but they are extremely expensive (the cheapest being US$199.93). They were entertaining, brilliant, stimulating, and uniformly thought-provoking, and – in many ways – epitomized RPGs at their very best. And a recurring subtheme was always the constant tug-of-war between principles, law, and morality.

The confusion of an honest man
The more complicated these questions get, the harder it is for anyone who is neither a genius, a lawyer, or a saint to answer them – and that describes most of the population. These are situations that call on ordinary people to make extraordinary choices, and it’s always easy for even an honest man to make a mistake when he thinks he is doing the right thing. Who needs a villain when you can use a good guy as the Bad Guy?

Using a White Hat in this way doesn’t solve the issue – it then passes the question on to those who are in a position to oppose or stop the White Hat: the PCs. Does that make them the villains? One of my favorite tricks is to put characters in my superhero campaign into the position of having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the moral thing. It doesn’t matter, from my GM’s perspective, what they choose: it will only cause complications and problems in the future. All roads lead to an interesting and entertaining time.

An evolving context

Everything I’ve discussed so far has made the assumption that the right thing to do is always the right thing to do. In the real world, context is continually evolving, and what seemed like the right thing to do ten years ago is often transformed by circumstance and time into the worst choice that could possibly have been made.

Adding fortune-teller to the list of requirements for always having the right answer really puts it out of reach of, well, everyone. Two types of campaign premise can exploit all this: The Time-travel campaign, and thw non-Time-travel campaign.

Time-travel campaigns confront this issue at its most direct. They proceed from the premise that the long view trumps the immediate, and that the impact in 30, 50, 100, 500, or whatever, years, is more important than the immediate impact. One group either has to bring about the required change – or stop idealistic zealots from altering history. These are simply different sides of these same questions.

Non time-travel campaigns deal in the legacies of the past. Whatever was done in the past – rightly or wrongly – now comes home to roost and has to be coped with. There’s a problem that has to be solved, and the PCs are the ones anointed by fate (also known as the GM) to get their hands dirty.

These are the sort of issues that haunt US Government Policy (amongst many, many others) to this day. Thirty years ago (or whatever) they anoint a leader in a particular part of the world for what seemed reasonable and necessary reasons at the time. Now they have to cope with the consequences of that act. You see this as a recurring theme throughout the central Americas and the Middle East. I would be very surprised if Russians didn’t have the same problem and perspective, but this time in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Germany certainly has this problem whenever it confronts the legacy of Nazism. In fact, every nation whose leaders have ever made a political decision will have had to deal with the mistakes of the past at some point in their history, and the vexing question of secrets.

Digging for Answers: The Mole

Some people are expected to make promises that they never intend to keep: spies, moles, and infiltrators. And, as is always the case with such individuals, there is a perpetual question hovering about their presence as to their real loyalties. If someone can become an agent, they can become a double- or even triple-agent. Some people are like an onion, loyalty within loyalty, never revealing their true allegiances. Does the crime of espionage automatically exonerate one of the crime of treason against the people being spied apon? Or is that a convenient legal fiction exploited because treason trials are messy, embarrassing, and frequently public, while espionage often results in no public trial, and no public embarrassment – no matter how much angst and anguish they may induce behind closed doors?

A prior engagement: oaths of precedence

Which brings up a whole new general subject for consideration: Can one oath supersede another? Or are they accumulated like layers of wallpaper – the newest one on show, but the old ones binding the whole surface ‘skin’ to the actual person? Can they be shed like a skin, or do they persist? How do oaths interact?

You can talk about general cases and general principles relating to this question all day, and the end result is still going to come back to the actual and specific wording of the specific oaths involved. Some are open-ended, some are discharged following a specific event or time, and some are – at least supposedly – binding long beyond the lifetime of the individual.

Related question: can one oath prohibit the taking of a second?

An excess of Fidelity

Even if multiple oaths are technically possible, how many masters can one person be loyal to at the same time? The more oaths one has sworn, the more likely they are to come into conflict – which brings us neatly full circle. Is it really a betrayal of fidelity when an act is demanded by one oath and contravened by another?

There are more aspects to this than may initially meet the eye – so it’s a question I’ll come back to in a moment.

Life and Death

But first, let’s wrap up this exploration of variations on the theme of treason itself with what some may consider the ultimate question of fidelity (especially in an RPG): If Life and Death are real than abstract concepts, if they are tangible, manipulable forces, with exemplars and avatars – then must not the betrayal of life itself be more significant than any oath that may be involved? A betrayal that costs someone their life is bad enough, but a betrayal of life itself that risks the end of all?

Layers of Fidelity

It’s entirely normal for certain positions of authority to have to cope with multiple layers of fidelity. To continue the discussion of those layers coming into conflict that I started a couple of paragraphs ago, I thought it worth taking the time to consider some of the situations in which layers of fidelity are taken more or less for granted, and can be more-or-less guaranteed to come into conflict at some point.

Layers Of Government: Modern

Local government. State government. Federal Government – Senate, Congress, and Presidential. Political party allegiances. These could never come into conflict, could they? No-one ever has a personal agenda, or personal political beliefs, that might differ from those branches above, below, or around them, do they? Now throw in industrial connections and sympathetic lobbyists, and laws and lawyers, and a press that is always hungry for a story – the juicier and more scandalous the better, and the propensity for some to pander to the fourth estate, and international relations (depending on the actual positions) – and then expect them all to work together as a harmonious whole. Now throw in a model of electoral interaction that emphasizes polarities and hardline no-compromise attitudes and the concept of voter churn…

Sidebar: What’s “voter churn”? It’s my term, not an official one. Take the two, four, or six most marginal electorates in any given election. Both sides will target them with everything they can spare. Voter churn results when no matter the outcome in one electorate, it is matched by an opposite outcome in another, so that in the end, absolutely nothing actually changes. Which raises the somewhat heretical speculation: could it be that marginality is actually irrelevant, because the results are usually a wash – and that what really decides elections are trends in those electorates just outside of these marginals?

Although I wrote the opening paragraph of this section with the US Government in mind, what’s been written is true to a greater or lesser extent of any nation which practices democracy – from Germany to the UK to Australia to those few democracies that can be found in the Middle East.

Why does it happen? There are two separate factors at work.

The first is that the voters are the same in all levels of government, viewed from the collective perspective of the larger branch of government. That means, for example, that a state that is nominally pro-Republican will tend to elect Republicans to all levels of their representation; but the distribution will rarely be uniform, despite this overall trend. This local government is more pro-Republican or more pro-Democrat than that. This district swings one way, its neighbor swings the other. So you end up in a situation where the majority of constituent elements will have the same trend as the overall, but there will be a minority – substantial in some cases, marginal in others – that nominate leaders from the opposition party, and a smaller minority of swinging electorates. Any political body, viewed collectively, will contain a mixture of people from both sides of politics – and sometimes a few outsiders as well.

The second factor is that those who are strongly aligned with their party’s principles find it easier to appeal to this electoral bias, while those who are politically moderate are viewed as vulnerable by both sides. In seeking the best chance to form government (of whatever level), the trend is to marginalize and drive the moderates out of politics, polarizing the candidates that the electorate is offered.

All of which is background to our primary discussion, which is betrayal, and it’s most extreme case, treason. Let’s assume that we have a city government. The majority of local councilmen belong to Party A, which is therefore said to have won the last local elections in the city. The mayor probably also belongs to Party A, therefore, and the region collectively swings in the direction of A. But there will be several councilmen who come from Party B. The Mayor is expected to represent all the electors in the city, not just the ones that voted for him; nevertheless, his political leanings will place him into conflict with the opposition councilmen, who will generally do their best to block measures they disapprove of (and measures that they do not actively agree on on general principle). So long as the opposition is confined to political debate, there’s no problem; even political activism, though more marginal, is still within acceptable and tolerable limits. But is it possible for an opposition councilman to step over the line, to go too far, to commit what would be considered an act of treason against the city government? Of course it is. Meddling in some other district’s election. Encouraging voters aligned in his political direction to migrate into districts that nominally swing the other way, but are sufficiently marginal to be swayed. Bribery and Corruption. In systems where voting is not compulsory, impeding voters who support the other party. Blackmail, exposing secrets and airing dirty laundry.

If one of these councilmen accepts a bribe to throw the next election, he betrays the people who elected him. It may be less serious than betrayal of country, but the basic crime is still the same; it’s simply a matter of scale.

Nor is that the end of the possible scenarios to be contemplated under this heading. A government can take whatever measures it deems appropriate to the service of the national interest, subject to whatever review and oversight that is deemed appropriate – but what happens when such measures contradict a national ideal? No-one could argue with increased airline security in the wake of 9/11 – but was the interception and eavesdropping of electronic communications a step too far? It certainly flies in the face of American ideals. These are not easy issues to resolve, and I don’t suggest for one minute that I have a magic bullet for the problem. Does the American Ideal itself have to evolve in response to an evolving context? Was the betrayal of the old ideal an act of treason? Is opposing such activities an act of treason? Both could be argued. When national security is involved, the most trivial act can have wide-reaching repercussions.

At this point, and to wrap up this part of the article, I have to draw people’s attention to Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time by Kerwin Swint. It’s essential reference (and very readable) for anyone interested in US Politics, or running a modern-era campaign.

Layers Of Government: Feudal/Fantasy

So, taking elections out of the mix should clear things up, right? Wrong. It makes things worse, because every noble is somewhere on the line of succession. Supporting anyone who is not the current monarch creates the potential for treason. It brings every level of government closer to the ultimate, minimizing those differences of scale. Nobles, as a group, are going to have as broad a diversity of opinions as members of any elected body; some will align one way on any given issue, while others will align with an opposing view. Democratic systems have mechanisms to prevent excesses in any given political direction; regardless of their effectiveness, they have them. If worst comes to worst, the opposition can be elected at the next poll. Feudal systems give the local ruler far more autonomy, and far less restraint. You don’t have to study much European history to come across multiple examples of Nobles in conflict – and the most extreme expression of these conflicts can only be considered treason against the monarch.

Party Politics

Even within a single political party, there are going to be divided loyalties and diversities of opinion. While generalizing a party platform leads to simplicity in summarizing a political philosophy, it is oversimplifying to consider every member of that party to subscribe to that precise view in all things. People are more complex than that.

An individual may disagree with his party platform on individual issues, may subscribe to some views more vehemently than others, may be more radical than his party agenda on some matters. Every individual will be just a little different. You don’t think the Republicans try to pull strings to get Democrats with “the right attitude” assigned to key committees, and vice-versa? You think neither party has ever resorted to nominating a poison-pill candidate to selected committees? If a candidate has an opinion on a particular subject that differs from those of his party, he may be told he is “too close to the issue”. The effectiveness of any government sub-body is eminently manipulable if you look hard enough for a way. How far do such tactics have to go before they are a betrayal of party principle? Of democracy itself? Of the national interest?

Is diverting military funding from one effective measure that would be built in someone else’s state to one that is less effective, but which would me manufactured in your own district, an act of treason? It materially impacts on your nations military capacity? Where do you draw the line?

How about adhering to party policy in the face of demonstrated national need – blocking reforms or changes that the majority have deemed necessary or desirable? The US voted an overwhelming endorsement of “Obamacare” – can the Tea Party’s continued intransigence on the issue, which ultimately led to the recent shutdown, be considered an act of treason? How about if the issue was a military campaign? Or the deployment of an intelligence asset?

On The Bench: The Trends Of Law

Society evolves in response to the opportunities and capabilities given to its citizens and institutions by technological advance. Politicians and laws almost always lag behind. It follows that the constituency of those bodies who interpret and decide the laws of a nation are inherently and perpetually involved in conflict between the socially accepted attitudes of the day and the preservation of past interpretation and precedent. Probably the best-known example is the kerfuffle about file sharing and copyright – and although that seems to have died down of late, it’s only the tip of a very messy iceberg that’s still lurking somewhere in the jurisprudential waters. Heck, the right-to-choose vs. the right-to-life debate still has not been definitively resolved, and that’s been going on for a lot longer than the copyright reform debate.

Legal conservatism is aimed at providing stability and continuity of laws. You can’t have a society where what is permitted and what is not are radically reshaped on a daily or weekly basis and expect that society to be stable. But this also makes it slow to react, and often insufficiently progressive to keep up with social attitudes. And that’s all before vested interests and politics get involved in the debate. Should judges be elected, and if so, how frequently? Or should they be appointed by politicians? Or should they come in matched pairs – a conservative for every liberal?

And all of that generalizes opinions unrealistically – a given individual may be conservative on some issues and progressive or even radical on others.

One of the more interesting books that I’ve read in the last few years was Supreme Power by Jeff Shesol, about FDR’s struggle to get the New Deal through a conservative and ideologically-opposed Supreme Court. There is more than enough capacity for discord between governments and courts to lead to issues of betrayal and oath-breaking.

Military Ethics

Stepping away from the speculative, there are many examples in world history of circumstances leading to allegations of treason (or lesser crimes) against members of a military – everything from fraternizing with the enemy on up. Members of the armed forces are just like everyone else – they will have opinions and beliefs that will vary from one individual to another. At the same time, they swear oaths of loyalty to the state, and to their own military organization, and to uphold their chain of command. Many have strong religious views, common amongst men and women who choose to risk their lives in the service of something they deem to be of greater value than those lives. And sometimes, one or more of those values conflict with respect to any particular situation; and, as I said earlier, any situation involving national security is inherently sensitive. For this very reason. most military organizations hold their men to a higher standard of propriety than is the case with the general public. Disobeying orders in the face of the enemy is not exactly the same thing as treason, but it is another name for the same sort of behavior.

In particular, ideals and morals can lead members of a military to act in ways that are intolerable to the organization; but those same qualities also make for better, more committed and determined officers and soldiers. It’s a witches brew that leads to the occasional catastrophic intersection of circumstances.

The Impact of Dramatic Moments

There have been a number of occasions in the preceding where I have used phrases like “sometimes,” “in extraordinary circumstances,” and so on. It’s rare, even improbable, for things to achieve these extreme outcomes – at least in real life. But that improbability is subject to reality override when we start talking about an RPG context, where the goal is not to emulate “real life” – it is to dramatize the improbable. It’s the GM’s job to create interesting circumstances for the PCs (and hence their players) to deal with. The improbable happens at least nine times out of ten – in an RPG.

RPGs are sometimes described as games of “What If,” but not all what-if’s are of equal interest or equal validity. Some are silly, some are dull, some are inappropriate in the genre or game context. In every game, however, there is at least one constant: the PCs interact in some way with figures of authority in circumstances that are extreme and/or dramatic. And that means that questions of betrayal and treason are universally applicable. Treason is always on the menu.

Fidelity and PCs

We’re slowly closing in on the heart of the subject: Treason and betrayal in RPGs. The very concept of an RPG introduces a dichotomy into the subject: treason & acts of betrayal by PCs, and treason & acts of betrayal by NPCs that affect or involve the PCs in some way.

Black and White: Pulp

Some genres reduce choices to black and white, at least in theory, and this simplifies and clarifies. The most interesting pulp campaigns are those in which NPCs may exhibit a full range of moral tones, but with an exaggerated high-contrast, while the PCs see the world as black and white and react accordingly. This concept permits the PCs to instantly take action without complex moral debates (most of the time) while placing them in something that has at least a passing resemblance to the complexities of the real world. It is this capacity to get to the heart of issues of right and wrong that makes the PCs (and selected NPCs Pulp Adventurers) different from everyone else, clearing away the clutter and letting people get down to business while the sophisticates are ham-strung by their need to process moral complexities and shades of grey.

In this genre, treason and betrayal of any sort are equally bad. They mark one as a villain, not to be trusted, and hence an enemy of the PCs – most of the time. It follows that betrayal and treason by a PC in the pulp genre is not permitted, in fact, not even possible – not without them going the whole hog and becoming arch-villains. There’s not a lot more to say on the subject, really – so let me throw one last thought at you and move on: consider Captain Kirk to be a Pulp Hero in a science-fiction setting. He ticks every box…

Black and White: Superheroes

Not far removed from the Pulp genre in the respect is the superhero genre. But, for the first time, morality within the PCs is not completely black-and-white, and most characters are a high-contrast blending of the two. White can be tinged with gray, black can be slightly pale. And the issues that can be presented can be infinitely more complex. There is enough complexity and moral diversity possible that some forms of betrayal and treason cannot be wholly ruled out – in particular, cases where the betrayal seems like the right thing to do at the time. Here, it’s the public perception of the PCs that is black and white; the reality is not quite so clear-cut. Nevertheless, they are supposed to be heroes – and that makes any form of treason or betrayal an extreme event. Not impossible, but it’s not going to happen very often.

Black and White: Fantasy – Us Vs Them

Things grow still more complex in most Fantasy gaming, but there are still areas that are generally regarded as black-and-white regardless of an individual’s morality (and its possible summation as an alignment). One of those areas tends to be party unity – the most serious act a player can perform in a Fantasy RPG is usually a betrayal of his fellow PCs. “I don’t care if you are the party thief – you don’t steal from the other PCs!” “But I was just roleplaying…” How often has this sort of behavior come under scrutiny? Long enough for most veterans to be tired of the subject, that’s for sure.

Black and White: Fantasy – RPGs & The Gods

I’ve made the point several times in other articles that in a world where the Gods are manifestly real, only a fool disobeys them – especially when they lay down a “Thou Shalt Not” or two. Now, if the Gods in your campaign don’t manifest so directly, or aren’t really the moralizing type (Greek world? Roman world?) then there’s little or no problem. People are what they are; get over it and get on with it. The less those conditions hold true for a campaign, the bigger the question looms.

In some respects, a fantasy game with an afterworld and judgment of the dead is the other side of the coin to the superhero/pulp hero equation – because here it’s not the PCs who are reducing every moral decision to black and white, it’s the judge of the afterworld. Pursuing that thought can lead to an entirely different perception of the mortal-immortal interface…

For this discussion to be valid within this section of the article, we have to pose the question: what could drive a PC to betray the Gods? It’s not going to come up very often, and it’s going to be in pretty extraordinary circumstances when it does, but it is possible, especially if mortals have idealized perceptions of the Gods, who in reality have feet of clay.

Things can get murkier in a hurry when you’re dealing with one or more pantheons that do not present a united front. What do you do when your character class has a patron deity, and your race has another patron deity, and the city you are in has a patron deity – and they get into a knock-down drag-out about something you are doing?

Black and White: Fantasy – The Paladin Dilemma

There is one character class that is still supposed to see things in black and white. And like a solo superhero in a world of gray morality, sometimes it’s a vey bad fit. You can take everything that I’ve said in the section on RPGs & The Gods and square and cube it so far as Paladins are concerned. But to counterbalance that, and make a Paladin’s life even more difficult, there is – or at least should be – a political aspect to the role. Paladins are directly akin to Knights, at least conceptually – and Knights are at most a stone’s throw removed from Nobility – and that means politics. Any campaign with a Paladin as PC that doesn’t have him hip-deep in politics is missing a bet. And as soon as you start talking politics, you’re into all the territory that this article has thrown your way.

Fidelity and NPCs

There are lots more NPCs than PCs, and that means there’s a lot more scope for treason and betrayal of all kinds. Fortunately, there are shortcuts that permit a broader assessment of the possibilities.


Enemies committing treason? There’s no surprise in that, is there? But this is a potential that cuts more than one way; there are more possibilities than might immediately meet the eye. Why not an enemy committing treason by coming to the PCs with a warning about something an even worse enemy is doing? An enemy opposing the PCs out of principle? An enemy betraying a cause because he is required to do so by an oath? There is a whole gamut of ways in which an NPC can commit treason and have it involve the PCs. And that’s when the treason really takes place; why not someone who should be an ally but who is an enemy because he thinks one or more PCs has committed treason or some other serious form of betrayal? Or who thinks that everyone of a PC’s class – social, political, character – can’t be trusted, because of a past incident? Someone who is so desperate for revenge that they are willing to commit treason themselves in order to achieve it?


Things get even more complicated when the party accused (or guilty) of betrayal or treason is an ally of the PCs. Played properly, this puts the PCs in the position of having to choose between their own integrity and their friendship with the ally. But the possibilities don’t stop there. Is the Ally friendly to the PCs in hopes of making restitution for a past mistake? Does the ally perform an act of betrayal or treason to rescue the PCs from a trap that has been set for them? There are as many ways of interpreting or integrating an act of treason as there are types of possible relationship between an NPC and a PC. It’s just a matter of selecting one that will have “interesting” repercussions for the PCs…

Passing Strangers & Fellow Travelers

Having dealt with both enemies and allies, there’s only one major group of NPCs left to consider: everyone else! These are cases where the treason or betrayal doesn’t directly involve the PCs, though it may be proximate to them, and they may be swept up in the consequences. They may discover it, or simply find themselves at ground zero, or have to deal with the fallout. Once again, there are as many possible stories as there are types of betrayal.

Fidelities in Conflict

There is some groundwork that can and should be done when the GM starts contemplating a plotline revolving around fidelity or infidelity of any sort, but there are too many variables to offer a comprehensive guide, and this article is more than long enough already! So this is going to offer one recipe for placing Fidelities in conflict as an example how-to and leave the broader picture for each GM to fill in his own way, using this as a template.

  • Step 1: Establish fidelities & values – This step is about identifying what the PCs are loyal to, and what values they hold. This is to ensure that they will relate to at least one of the participants.
  • Step 2: Exemplify with archetypes – If a PC is not to be a primary participant, you need to create exemplars to represent the most extreme viewpoints or values that are going to be involved in the act of betrayal that you are contemplating.
  • Step 3: Map the context and circumstances – Next, you need to work out what the circumstances are going to be. There are two requirements here: justifying the betrayal, and ensuring that the PCs are front and centre for the resulting firestorm.
  • Step 4: Place them in conflict – When all is ready, place the values in question into conflict, and then have the perpetrator make his decision. Until this occurs, there has not actually been a betrayal, just a set of circumstances in-game that could conceivably lead to one.
  • Step 5: The PC is the pivot – Finally, put a PC squarely in the middle of events, as per the plans layed in step 3. This could involve someone coming to the PC and asking for their help in committing an act of betrayal or treason for what seems to be good reason, or it could place the PC in a position to discover the treason, or any of the other possibilities discussed so far; the key point is that circumstances mean that the outcome and consequences of the betrayal will pivot on what the PC chooses to do about it (or not to do about it).

This is a fairly straightforward example of mapping out a plan to integrate a betrayal into a plotline. There can be many others, but the basic steps remain similar, if not identical.

The Ultimate Question: Treason against the RPG itself

One final thought to plant in the minds of the readership before I wrap this article up: Just what constitutes a betrayal of the game itself? Some would say cheating at the game table. Others would talk about Metagaming, or Railroading players. From my perspective, these can be bad – but in some cases, can also be positive, even justified under some circumstances – so they don’t rise to the level of treason against the spirit of the game. No, in my opinion, the ultimate treason is deliberately setting out to sabotage someone else’s fun at the table. That, to me, is the ultimate case of treason in RPGs. Fortunately, it’s a very rare event…

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