Created By: witchdoctorJuly 2, 2011 Last Edited By: witchdoctorJuly 26, 2011
Troped

Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster

He only looks weak, he's actually playing all the sides to do what he wants.

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Trope
Let's face it, appearances can be deceiving,you think you've got it all figured out and you've got the guy in charge under your thumb. Then this guy comes along who seems like he hasn't a clue what's going on and is only tiny nudge away from doing what you want him to do. But the truth is he knows he's in a very weak position and trying to control people overtly will only get him killed or worse. So instead he pretends to be either really stupid or stark raving mad while he lets everyone think that he's being manipulated by one of their opponents.

This trope can come in one of two flavors: 1) The character in question is in a position of actual authority but plays dumb to play to his loyal underlings' belief that he's fine where he is and can be easily swayed. 2) The character assumes a position that appears weak or un-influential but actually allows him/her to assume a large amount of control over others.

Think Playing Both Sides but taken Up To Eleven. In essence, the character in question has used Obfuscating Stupidity to get all his opponents to do exactly what he/she wants by playing them against each other.

Naturally this trope is likely the trademark of either a Guile Hero or Magnificent Bastard. And if you have a ruler engaging in this then it's very likely that the government or kingdom operates under the Right Hand Versus Left Hand principle. When done well it can make the character a Magnificent Bastard of the highest order, done badly you either make the character as weak as he/she is trying to appear or you end up with The Caligula. It's evenly splut down the middle whether the audience is let in on the fact that a character is engaging in this from the start or if they find out when another character does.

Sub-type of Manipulative Bastard. Compare Not So Harmless.

Examples:

Anime/Manga
  • Nineteen-year-old Emperor Shi Ryuuki in Saiunkoku Monogatari is initially called "stupid emperor" by members of his court disgusted by his complete lack of interest in ruling his empire, and his habit of spending his days hiding from court officials and spending his nights sleeping with other men. When properly motivated, however, Ryuuki reveals that he has a much defter hand for political intrigue than anyone suspected, and that there's a very good reason that he is the only one of six brothers to survive the imperial court long enough to take the throne; he cultivated the "stupid emperor" image as a survival mechanism, and refuses to rule in the hopes that his exiled older brother Prince Seien will return to take his place.

Film
  • Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars counts because he engineers the Clone Wars in order to assume power. No matter which side wins he also wins as he gets emergency powers from the Republic Senate, which he holds on to indefinitely and is also in charge of the Separatists as Darth Sidious.
  • In My Fellow Americans, two former Presidents were battling a conspiracy which led all the way up to the current President. After they exposed the conspiracy and forced the President to resign, they found out the real ringleader had been the apparently incompetent Vice-President, who had used this as an opportunity to get the top job.

Literature
  • Egwene, upon being made Amyrlin Seat, from The Wheel Of Time engages in this trope to avoid being removed immediately when the Sitters realize she isn't as weak as they think. It's one of the first hints that she's a Magnificent Bitch.
    • Rand also utilizes this trope when he points out to Perrin that a split White Tower is in his interests since they are too busy plotting against each other whilst trying to win him over to risk the backlash at interfering with him. He goes so far as to say that he couldn't get away with half of what he does since with a United White Tower he'd be forced to bow and scrape to the Aes Sedai and ask their permission for everything!
  • Governor Grice in For the Emperor; everyone thinks that he's merely a puppet being controlled by the Tau, but he's really a member of the Genestealer cult that thrives in Gravalax's underground, which is trying to play the Tau and the Imperium against each other to soften them up for the coming wave of Tyranid invasions.
  • Emperor Sarabian of David Eddings' Tamuli: the entire court in Matherion was convinced he was either an utter dolt, a harmless fop, or a simple fool easily distracted by his silly hobbies. He reveals the truth to Ehlana, Sparhawk, and the others, and eventually proceeds to overthrow his own government, take proper control of the empire, single-handedly remove all the corrupt courtiers involved in a failed coup, and become a wise and effective ruler. And he has such a delightful time doing it.
  • I Claudius:
    Pollio: Do you want to live a long and busy life, with honor at the end of it?
    Claudius: Yes.
    Pollio: Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I see, you would know that this was your only hope of eventual glory.

Live Action TV
  • Earth Final Conflict has most everyone believing Ron Sandoval is in the back pocket of Taelon leader Zo'or, shackled by an alien implant. The truth that Sandoval's "motivational imparative" hasn't been working since at least the top half of Season 2, he's playing every angle in the conflict (Taelons, Jaridians, human supporters, La Resistance) against one another, and he's letting Zo'or think (s)he's in charge so that Zo'or takes the fall when it all blows up.

Tabletop Games
  • Regent Tepet Fokuf from Exalted spends his time masturbating to religious texts and rubber-stamping any proposal someone puts in front of him. Strongly implied to be pulling a Claudius (see above), as actually exerting any kind of power would get him assassinated and probably trigger a civil war.

Video Games
  • The Viscount in Dragon Age II is universally regarded as a weakling when, in fact, he is one of the few Reasonable Authority Figures in Kirkwall who has kept violence in the city at bay for many years through subtle manipulation and maintaining the balance of power.
  • Emperor Uriel Septim VII from The Elder Scrolls series may count. While he is still The Emperor, his Cyrodiil legions are nowhere near the fighting force they once were and only his elaborate schemes keep his empire from disintegrating into many local kingdoms until his death in part four.

Web Comic
  • Order Of The Stick: Lord Shojo is possibly one of the most triumphant examples to date. He rules a Deadly Decadent Court and more importantly he knows it, and it's implied that it took a few assassination attempts to realize he couldn't just throw his weight around and expect to live very long. Instead he pretends to be old and senile and continually refers to his cat for advice and pretends he gets useful advice from him and is following it. He eventually reveals to Roy that the nature of the Deadly Decadent Court is such that if he acts old and senile and he can do pretty much whatever he wants. It helps that the nobles are actively screwing each other over so much that they assumes he's just being manipulated by everyone.

Real Life
  • Boris of Bulgaria is arguably this as he rose to power he was the target of no less than two assassination attempts and a few years later was reduced to a puppet ruler by a military coup. He subsequently planned a counter-coup that placed him in sole control of Bulgaria. He then gave aid to Germany and got back territory previously lost with Nazi help in exchange for use of a single railway. The end result is that Bulgaria managed to remain completely neutral, in effect, throughout WWII and managed to save the Jewish population in the territories not retaken with Nazi help and emerged mostly unscathed from it as the Allies were reluctant to attack Bulgaria and have them come in to aid the Axis powers.
  • Claudius, Emperor of Rome, managed to stay alive through a series of purges and assassinations during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula by seeming too dumb and useless to be a threat. When Caligula was finally assassinated, he became Emperor (by virtue of being the only man in the family still breathing) whereupon he turned out to be not so dumb after all. This was helped by the fact that he was sidelined by his entire family to the extent that he had more or less given up on running for public office on account of his limp.
  • Oda Nobunaga acted like an irresponsible fool from the moment he inherited his father's domain until his closest adviser committed seppuku in protest. He earned the epithet "Fool of Owari," but he had to in order to survive having several dozen powerful warlords surrounding his tiny fiefdom. The rest of Japan fell for it those who knew were either on his side or dead until the Battle of Okehazama, albeit that may have happened because of one of those warlords falling for it.
  • Abraham Lincoln, used this tactic to some extent to get control over his cabinet, whose members each at least initially tended to think they should be running the show. Later on, he dropped this tactic when it was no longer necessary.
Community Feedback Replies: 54
  • July 2, 2011
    jatay3
    Boris of Bulgaria in Real Life.
  • July 2, 2011
    NaniTheWhat
    King Bumi in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
  • July 2, 2011
    Darthcaliber
    Not sure if this counts but Emperor Palpatine feigns physical weakness to hide his true Sith powers. He doesn't actually need the walking stick he uses in Return of the Jedi it's simply to fool people into thinking he's a weak old man. Luke sure wasn't expecting him to fry his ass with Force lightning. (neither was the audience when the film first came out)
  • July 2, 2011
    TBTabby
    Sounds similar to Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • July 2, 2011
    witchdoctor
    He does actually count in a sense as he is playing both sides since he can't just come out as the Emperor.
  • July 2, 2011
    witchdoctor
    It's a specific kind of Obfuscating Stupidity, this is specific kind of character whereas OS is a trait. It's a subtrope at the very least.
  • July 3, 2011
    localnowhere
    There's an example of this in a Ciaphas Cain novel with the character specifically using Obfuscating Stupidity to play both sides in favor of a third. Governor Grice in For the Emperor; everyone thinks that he's merely a puppet being controlled by the Tau, but he's really a member of the Genestealer cult that thrives in Gravalax's underground, which is trying to play the Tau and the Imperium against each other in what had been a tenuous truce, in order to make the planet an easier target for the incoming Tyranid incursion.
  • July 3, 2011
    NetMonster
    Some of the examples of Obfuscating Stupidity would also fit here. Claudius, for instance, is a well-known Real Life example.
  • July 3, 2011
    Koveras
    The Viscount in Dragon Age II is universally regarded as a weakling when, in fact, he is one of the few Reasonable Authority Figures in Kirkwall who has kept violence in the city at bay for many years through subtle manipulation and maintaining the balance of power.
  • July 3, 2011
    Nocturna
    @witchdoctor: You should point out the connection to Obfuscating Stupidity in the description of the article itself.
  • July 3, 2011
    Grahami
    Hamid Karzai?
  • July 4, 2011
    BlackDragon
    It's easy to forget, but Hitler actually fell under this. He was initially given his 'throne' by a coalition of 'old money' families and industrial barons, who considered the failed painter AND failed revolutionary to be an easily-manipulated but popular figure that they could string along. Boy, were they ever surprised when he (allegedly) orchestrated the Riestag Fire to ensure that he was granted greated power by the Kaiser, and then used his oratorial skill to ride a wave of public support into true despotism. The rest is (very unpleasant) history.
  • July 5, 2011
    Horticulturist
    Black Dragon, Hitler was almost certainly not responsible for the Reichstag fire; he just took advantage of it. Also, he was not granted greater power by the Kaiser, who had been deposed at the end of World War One. He was granted greater power by the Reichstag. Also, it wasn't so much that the old conservative elite in Germany believed that Hitler could be so easily manipulated, it was more that they were desperately hoping that they could maintain some kind of control over him. They didn't really have any choice about naming him Chancellor, since he led the largest party in the Reichstag and it was impossible at that point to form a governing coalition without either the National Socialists or the Communists.

    A more positive Real Life example would be Abraham Lincoln, who used this tactic to some extent to get control over his cabinet, whose members each at least initially tended to believe that they should be running the show. Later on, he dropped this tactic when it was no longer necessary.
  • July 6, 2011
    Aielyn
    The trope name, here, is a bit weak. Can I suggest something with "puppetmaster" in it? Like, say, Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster?
  • July 7, 2011
    witchdoctor
    Yeah, I was mostly going for something that was short and made it obvious what the trope was about. But Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster does fit a lot better, I am open to suggestions if the new proposed title doesn't work for people.
  • July 9, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Regent Tepet Fokuf from Exalted (a tabletop game). Spends his time masturbating to religious texts and rubber-stamping any proposal someone puts in front of him. Strongly implied to be pulling a Claudius, as actually exerting any kind of power would get him assassinated and probably trigger a civil war.

    (On titles, I really have referred to this trope as "pulling a Claudius" before, but that probably only works if you're a Roman history nerd or liked the miniseries.)
  • July 10, 2011
    witchdoctor
    Well we could use "Pulling A Claudius" for an alternate title. But then again Tropers are geniuses and might get the reference. Probably best to play it safe though.
  • July 10, 2011
    hotrods4ben
    I don't like "Apparently" in this title, it sounds like it's the other way around. Maybe "Ostensibly"?
  • July 10, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    OK, thinking about this, I think Apparently Weak/Powerless Puppetmaster is sort of confusing, because it doesn't indicate that the character is in a position that should be powerful, but appears weak because they're choosing to only exert power in unoffical and covert ways. The name sounds like it could include characters like Littlefinger in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who doesn't officially hold any very important position but is still manipulating everything behind the scenes.

    I don't really have any better suggestions, though, unless people think Pulling A Claudius or The Claudius would be clear enough (and I'm doubtful of it myself).

    By the way, I forgot to italicize and put curly brackets around Exalted -- it does have its own page.
  • July 10, 2011
    witchdoctor
    The original title was Allegedly Weak Ruler what if we changed it to Allegedly Weak Puppetmaster? Or how about Deceptively Weak Puppetmaster?
  • July 10, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Those still don't get across that it's someone in a position of ostensible power. How about Deceptively Weak Ruler, though? The "deceptively" pretty much gets across that it's a puppetmaster trope.
  • July 11, 2011
    AlexChurchill
    Most of the examples I encounter of Obfuscating Stupidity are of people who're in power either on their surface level (the stupid emperor who actually knows what's going on) or in reality (seemingly unimportant but actually manipulating everything). I think some effort needs to be put in clarifying how this is related to Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • July 11, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    A subtrope of Not So Harmless?
  • July 11, 2011
    Aielyn
    Why does it have to be a ruler? I took the trope as covering all cases where a character is specifically represented as weak and powerless, but is manipulating everything behind the scenes. Note that this isn't a conventional puppetmaster, who would be hidden behind the scenes entirely, or a puppetmaster working for someone else (like a spymaster working for a king). It may, on the other hand, cover cases where the character is pretending to be the servant or other lesser role, but is in fact the true power within the situation.

    As an example of what I mean, in a case where the character isn't the obvious ruler, consider an early episode of Star Trek The Next Generation - there's a conspiracy within the Federation. As it turns out, there are these parasitic bugs taking control of high-ranking Starfleet leaders... but the true mastermind of the conspiracy, the one who is "leading" the parasites, is in fact inhabiting the body of a secretary (or equivalent, I don't think they specifically state his role, but he's subservient to the high-ranking leaders), and playing that role. But he's not puppetmaster for some other parasite, he's the real power... but he passes himself off as nothing more than a secretary.
  • July 11, 2011
    witchdoctor
    @Aielyn: I hadn't thought of it that way but that could very easily work. I used ruler mostly because I thought this was Tropable was the Lord Shojo example and it expanded from there. I'm also going to probably launch this as a sub-type of Manipulative Bastard as the description of the final sub-type is a description that is very similar to this trope but doesn't exist yet.

    @Alex Churchill: This trope is where the Obfuscating Stupidity is used specifically so that the character can run everything and as a survival mechanism. Obfuscating Stupidity as a whole stands for people who pretend to be dumber than they actually are for various reasons which often include being able to run everything behind the scenes.
  • July 11, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    I really think the version where it's a ruler is a distinct trope of its own. You see it a lot, and it plays out rather differently than versions where the puppetmaster is just holding an ordinary no-power position.
  • July 11, 2011
    witchdoctor
    I guess the real question is which direction do we take this trope. Do we make it about rulers only or do we expand it to include anyone who uses these kinds of tactics to manipulate people?
  • July 11, 2011
    EmbracingShadows
    Chiyo from Naruto is a literal example; she looks like a frail old lady, but aside from Sasori, who's not really human anymore, she's the only puppeteer ninja who isn't a Squishy Wizard.
  • July 11, 2011
    Pyroninja42
    Colonel Obvious here: It's spelled "deceptively", not... however the hell you spelled it.
  • July 11, 2011
    EmbracingShadows
    ^^ That was mostly a joke, she's not an actual example of this trope. Kabuto, on the other hand...
  • July 11, 2011
    Aielyn
    dangerwaffle - the key to it isn't so much that they're in a no-power position, but that they portray weakness when they're really the one in control. Whether it's a king that pretends to be powerless, or a character that pretends to be a servant, the net effect is the same - they portray themselves as weak, in order to hide their true manipulation.

    And while I do agree that there's certain variations specific to the ruler case, I don't think it's a distinct trope, just a category within the trope. So, a type 1 case is where the apparently weak character is in a position of power, but feigns incompetence, whereas a type 2 case is where the apparently weak character has taken a position seen as powerless to begin with (like servants).
  • July 13, 2011
    Monessi
    Orfamy Quest from the Raymond Chandler novel Little Sister might count.

    Possibly Lord Shojo from Order Of The Stick
  • July 13, 2011
    witchdoctor
    @Monessi: Lord Shojo is up there but could you elaborate on the Raymond Chandler example, what does Orfamy Quest do that qualifes for this trope?
  • July 14, 2011
    Mozgwsloiku
    I don't think Vetinari counts. He does have a really big reputation.
  • July 14, 2011
    TBeholder
    So it's The Chessmaster meets Obfuscating Stupidity / Obfuscating Insanity? But "The Chessmaster pretending to be someone smaller and safer" is almost guaranteed.
  • July 14, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    That's...pretty much what I was trying to figure out how to articulate. Most chessmasters pretend to be less powerful than they are, don't they? I mean, that's just good strategy.

    The version where it's a king/emperor of a Deadly Decadent Court pretending to be an easily manipulated fool really seems to me like a very specific subtrope that plays out quite differently. I mean, like I said above, I already had a name for that in my own head.
  • July 14, 2011
    witchdoctor
    @TBeholder: While it is true that The Chessmaster does tend to try to avoid notice, in this case the trope is usually a case of succeed or die. Also, The Chessmaster usually has real influence the Deceptively Weak Puppetmaster doesn't, the only real power he has is in making others do the work for him. The only way for him to get anything done is by playing people against each other. The Chessmaster, if need be, can take a direct approach or at least issue orders to his underlings. The Deceptively Weak Puppetmaster CAN'T he relies on being able to make others think they're advancing their own interests.
  • July 14, 2011
    Allronix
    Earth Final Conflict has most everyone believing Ron Sandoval is in the back pocket of Taelon leader Zo'or, shackled by an alien implant. The truth that Sandoval's "motivational imparative" hasn't been working since at least the top half of Season 2, he's playing every angle in the conflict (Taelons, Jaridians, human supporters, La Resistance) against one another, and he's letting Zo'or think (s)he's in charge so that Zo'or takes the fall when it all blows up.
  • July 14, 2011
    Ryusui
  • July 14, 2011
    Aielyn
    The problem with that is that it implies (in part thanks to The Wizard Of Oz) that the "Chessmaster" is completely hidden, which is not what this trope is about.
  • July 14, 2011
    dangerwaffle
    Wait.

    If we're going with the not-necessarily-the-ruler version, is this really different from The Dog Was The Mastermind?
  • July 14, 2011
    Aielyn
    I think it's unclear, at this point, which version it's going to end up being. But the difference between the possibilities we've been discussing and The Dog Was The Mastermind is that there's no need for it to actually be secret (the viewer can know from the very beginning, even), and even if it is a secret to the audience, there are clues inserted to hint at it all, whereas The Dog Was The Mastermind is effectively a form of Deus Ex Machina, and may even be a case of Stranger Behind The Mask (expect that pothole to turn blue in the next few days).
  • July 18, 2011
    witchdoctor
    So have we actually decided which way to take this? I'd like to get this going somewhat soon but can't until I know which version to go with.
  • July 19, 2011
    GuesssWho
    Isn't this true of most puppetmasters? If they were strong they wouldn't need other people.
  • July 20, 2011
    witchdoctor
    This trope is where the puppetmaster has no real authority except what his opponents give him and so feigns idiocy or insanity so as to appear easily manipulated and thus allowed to exert his power as he wishes. A regular puppetmaster does not need to do this and can directly issue orders without worrying about being undermined or assassinated. In essence, a regular puppetmaster rules by being acknowledged as superior in some way, this trope is about being able to rule because of a belief he is easily controlled.
  • July 24, 2011
    Koveras
    Emperor Uriel Septim VII from The Elder Scrolls series may count. While he is still The Emperor, his Cyrodiil legions are nowhere near the fighting force they once were and only his elaborate schemes keep his empire from disintegrating into many local kingdoms until his death in part four.
  • July 24, 2011
    Aielyn
    Based on my understanding at this point, this is what is key to this trope - the puppetmaster has no actual ability to command anybody. Either they're seen as a figurehead (and thus, usually dismissed as powerless by anyone of importance), or they're not even seen at all as having any sort of power. But as it turns out, this puppetmaster has been masterfully playing everyone in an extended Batman Gambit, pulling all the right strings in such a subtle way as to successfully get the desired outcome without a single person having any clue that the puppetmaster had anything to do with it, let alone having set the entire situation up.

    I suggested it earlier, using Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster. The "Apparently" isn't really all that important. However, "Powerless" provides Added Alliterative Appeal to "Puppetmaster". I should note, though, that "Deceptively Weak" means that the puppetmaster looks strong, but is actually weak. As such, the current title implies the exact opposite of the intended meaning.
  • July 24, 2011
    witchdoctor
    @Aielyn: That is indeed the trope I'm trying to get at, I'm just trying to get all the loose ends tied up before I launch this thing. I'm also open to suggestions for names, I'll go with your suggestion as I can't really come up with anything better right now.
  • July 24, 2011
    Loyal2NES
  • July 24, 2011
    witchdoctor
    So, we've get Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster and Allegedly Powerless Puppetmaster. I'm leaning towards second mostly because it gets across the idea that the character is powerless but really isn't. Any thoughts?
  • July 24, 2011
    Discovery
  • July 25, 2011
    witchdoctor
  • July 25, 2011
    Aielyn
    That's why I went with "Apparently" - the "P" is still there, but it's not quite so dominant as to make it sound awkward. If you say it aloud, you'll see what I mean.
  • July 26, 2011
    witchdoctor
    Ok, I'm gonna go with Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster and launch this bitch because it seems there's very little argument against the trope in it's current form.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable