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Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster
He'd have you believe his cat is the real power behind the throne, and that is exactly how he's been able to keep it.

"Paranoia? I rule a city where I have to fake senility just to avoid being assassinated. I took Improved Paranoia like 5 levels ago."
Lord Shojo (pictured to the right), The Order of the Stick

Appearances can be deceiving. Just ask those who unwittingly serve the Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster.

When the game of politics is played with daggers and poison (and worse), sometimes the most advantageous place to be is off the board entirely. Playing the part of the witless, raving lunatic is a useful (and life-extending) tactic when surrounded by murderous schemers: rather than waste their energies eliminating the idiot, they spend their time instead betraying and sabotaging their more obvious rivals, leaving the Apparently Powerless Puppetmaster free to turn the players into pieces in his own game. When he makes a move, everyone assumes it's one of the other players manipulating him. Once the deception is complete, he can act with impunity.

There are two main variations on this trope:

  1. The character is in a position of authority, but plays dumb so that his "loyal underlings" believe he can be easily swayed in their favor.
  2. The character is in a position of no obvious authority at all, but which allows him to exercise influence over others regardless.

A subtrope of Manipulative Bastard. Compare Not-So-Harmless Villain.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and 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.

    Fan Fic 

    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 his original conception, before he was introduced as the Big Bad for the original trilogy in its second movie, he actually was a powerless puppet as Emperor.
  • 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.
  • The Green Hornet: In the movie, anyone who hears Britt Reid speak for five minutes realizes he is a buffoonish Man Child. He is the heir to the Sentinel paper, but obviously Britt is a Rich Idiot with No Day Job who cannot do anything for himself. Then you realize he doesn’t need to do anything for himself: he continuously and successfully manipulates people much more intelligent than him (Kato, Casey and Mike Axford) into doing exactly what Britt wants them to do.

    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 the Ciaphas Cain novel For the Emperor. Everyone thinks that he's merely a puppet being controlled by the Tau, or just plain incompetent, 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.
  • A not-uncommon strategy in A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Lord Varys, the Master of Whisperers, is a lord only by courtesy (the title being applied to anyone who sits on the Small Council), not because he actually holds any lands or commands any men. As a commoner, a foreigner, and a eunuch, he's seldom viewed as a serious threat by the heads of the major Houses, and he has a way of making himself indispensible to whatever party is currently in power, while secretly playing them all for his own ends.
    • Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish uses much the same strategy. He's of the lowest possible nobility, being lord of a rundown keep, a flock of sheep, a handful of peasants and some rocks, but his financial wizardry makes him extremely useful to have around, and potential rivals tend to underestimate him and fall victim to his Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
    • Many Hands of the King are this: on paper they are little more than a particularly trusted assistant, in practice many of them rule in all but name.
    • This is nearly the official policy of the Iron Bank of Braavos. Officially, they are mere usurers: wealthy, but without financial or political power. And that's just what they are, unless you cross them. Then you'll find your funding hamstrung and your opponents supported beyond their wildest dreams if you're lucky, and your throat slit by a Faceless Man if you're not. Smart rulers know that "they own us all, whether we know it or not" as Tywin Lannister says in the show, but smart rulers are the exception, not the rule.
  • In the Mordant's Need novels by Stephen R. Donaldson, this is a trick used by both King Joyse and Adept Havelock. In Joyse's case, he's spent years pretending to be completely senile to test his allies and lure all of his enemies out so they can be destroyed in a single decisive blow. In Havelock's case, while he really IS insane due to a magical accident, he has a number of moments of greater lucidity during which he can make his own moves and support Joyse's plans. Both work together quite effectively, with almost no one catching on until it's too late.
  • Discworld
    • It's suggested that Lord Vetinari was this early on; later his power had become secure enough that he didn't need to. His entry in the first Discworld Companion says:
    "Technically, Vetinari seems to have given in to every demand of every Guild for years, so the Guilds are driving themselves mad wondering why he is therefore still in charge."
    • In Small Gods, two Omnian officials are described as among the more powerful members of the heirarchy, because they're far enough down it that it's still possible to get things done. In particular, one of them is Secretary to the Congress of Iams (equivalent to the College of Cardinals), and if that doesn't sound like a position of power, you've never taken the minutes for a meeting of deaf old men.
  • The Dresden Files reveals in Turn Coat that the Big Bad of the novel was in fact the Council's secretary, who had laced the inks with a specialized mind control potion. Using certain key words, he had control over younger members and could somewhat influence the Senior Council.
    • Its quite clever how he does it. Instead of changing decisions outright, which would've gotten him killed, he influences decisions very slightly to avoid detection. For example, no one would blink when a traditionalist makes a traditional decision, even if that's not what he wanted to do before he got mind controlled. And keep in mind that wizards live for centuries...
  • The figure of Prentin, the mysterious Man Behind the Man in The City of Silent Revolvers covers the identity of one of these, in what is probably the most unexpected cases of The Butler Did It.
  • In the New Jedi Order, Onimi is Supreme Overlord Shimrra's court jester and personal slave, remarkable only for being an obnoxious Cloud Cuckoo Lander prone to lecherous behavior and speaking in Rhymes on a Dime, and who even lives only at Shimrra's sufferance. Most of the Yuuzhan Vong court try to ignore him as much as possible. Which works great for Onimi, since it means nobody suspected that he was actually telepathically controlling Shimrra, and through him, ruling the entire Yuuzhan Vong empire.

    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. However, due to Meredith's influence he can't directly act out, in which case he gets Hawke to try and stem the trouble.
  • 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.
  • The Big Bad of the second Ace Attorney Investigations may as well be the poster child for this trope. Literally everything in the game turns out to be all part of their plan. Who do they introduce themselves as? A perpetually nervous apprentice animal tamer and clown at the local circus. They did such a good job of Obfuscating Stupidity even Edgeworth was fooled!

    Webcomics 
  • The Order of the Stick: Lord Shojo is possibly one of the most triumphant examples to date. He rules a kingdom with an extremely corrupt nobility and, more importantly, he knows it. It's implied that it took a few assassination attempts for him 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, pretending he gets useful advice from him and is following it. He eventually reveals to Roy that the nature of the situation is such that if he acts old and senile, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. It helps that the nobles are actively screwing each other over so much that they assume he's just being manipulated by everyone.
    Shojo: Ever since that day, I have found it easier to let them believe that I am senile and easily swayed. When I ruled in their favor, they assumed that they controlled me. When I ruled against them, they assumed that one of their rival nobles controlled me. I can make the decisions I feel are necessary without worrying about being killed over them.

    Western Animation 
  • In G.I. Joe: Resolute, Cobra Commander admitted to his troops that he played this role in 80s because he hoped it would motivate them "to think". When he realized that it wasn't motivating them to be cleverer henchmen, but instead motivated them to try to take over, he dropped the act and made it very clear to them and the world what a dangerous and competent commander he actually is.

    Real Life 
  • The first historical example of this trope takes place during the founding of The Roman Republic. Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Republic, had feigned dim-wittedness for years to avoid distrust from the King of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (often referred to as Tarquin). Brutusnote , which translates to dullard, expelled Tarquin and his family from Rome, and founded the Republic.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Josef Stalin was originally thought by most everyone to be extremely harmless in his early years in the Bolshevik Party. He eventually got himself put in charge of the Party's newspaper and given nearly unlimited control over the organizational side of the party. He used this influence to get himself promoted to General Secretary where he used this power to appoint his supporters to positions of power in the Party. Lenin eventually caught on and warned people that Stalin was getting too powerful and the entire party laughed it off as a joke. The joke ended around 1930 when people realized that he had become a defacto dictator and that anyone who looked like opposition, or looked like thinking about looking like it, was either dead or breaking rocks in the Gulag. The rest is very bloody history.
  • On a smaller scale, this is how Bill Cosby describes fathers' use of Obfuscating Stupidity to make sure everything works out right in the end. All he wants is to sleep in, but his wife wants him to go down and cook breakfast for the kids. He instead gives in to their request for chocolate cake "since it has eggs, and wheat, and milk! That's breakfast!" Oh, and he needs a breakfasty drink, so they get grapefruit juice. And they sit around the table eating chocolate cake and listening to music and having a ball, at which point his wife comes down and "has a conniption fit" that sounds more like Demonic Possession. After she bellows in rage demanding to know why they're eating chocolate cake, his honest children turn on him, saying he forced them to eat it. So his wife comes to the conclusion that he's utterly useless and can't be trusted with even the simplest task, makes a real breakfast herself, and sends him back to his room. "Which is where I wanted to be in the first place." They are dumb, but they are not so dumb, indeed.


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