Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster YKTTW Discussion

Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster
He only looks weak, he's actually playing all the sides to do what he wants.
(permanent link) added: 2011-07-02 19:30:22 sponsor: witchdoctor (last reply: 2011-07-26 16:55:32)

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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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Résistance) 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.
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