Villains and Plots: The Villain AS Plot

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From the moment I started talking about NPCs, God knows how many months ago, I knew – KNEW – that I was going to have address this one. After all, it’s the big one. And, naturally, as soon as the first article went live, I started getting e-mails and comments and messages about it. Last week, when I started talking about Antagonists, I knew the time bomb was ticking. And that’s why I teased this one.

Okay, okay, I’m going to cut to the chase. It’s villains, okay. We’re doing villains. Are you happy?

Villains are something that GMs are obsessed with. More specifically, they are obsessed with recurring villains. I’ve been hearing that one for six f$&%ing years. “When are you going to talk about recurring villains?” “Do you have any tips for creating recurring villains.” And most of all “my players keep killing my recurring villains. How do I keep them alive?” And that’s because GMs don’t GET villains.

Here’s the deal: villains aren’t NPCs. I mean, they are. But they aren’t. But I’ll explain that. The problem is the moment you start treating a villain like just another NPC, they are going to get killed. Because here’s a goddamned truth about D&D: you can’t put an adversary in front of the players and expect them to NOT try to kill the adversary. That’s how D&D works. And D&D favors the players. So if they try to kill something, they will usually succeed. And if they can’t succeed, they will usually get killed trying. But we’ll come back to all of that.

My point, before I launch into telling you how it is, is to tell you how it isn’t. In D&D, villains AREN’T like the villains in superhero comics and movies and books and television shows. You need to unlearn that bulls$&%. And if you want villains like superhero villains, run a superhero game. And if you want a villain like movies and books and television shows, stick with movies and books and television shows. Consider this a warning: this article is going to tell you some things about villains that you are going to think are wrong because “that’s not how villains work.” Well, guess what: D&D is a different ball of fish. So you’d better get used to using different bait if you want to villain it up at the D&D table.

Also, D&D means Pathfinder too. In case that isn’t obvious. Anyway, villains. Or rather, the first half of villains. In this first of two articles, we’re looking at the villain not in their role as an NPC, but in their role as NOT being an NPC.

The NPC That Wasn’t an NPC

So, when is an NPC not an NPC? When that NPC is a villain.

Last time I talked about NPCs, I explained that antagonist NPCs are those that oppose the players goals. And they come in three flavors. First, obstacles are temporary opposition. Accidental opposition. The players goals aren’t actually a problem for obstacle NPCs except that they lead to some sort of confrontation. The guard doesn’t care if the PCs ultimately want to recover the talisman of Do-Hik-Kee. He only cares that the PCs currently need to get into the prison to interrogate the last thief who saw the talisman. He doesn’t oppose their goals, he opposes their current actions.

Second, enemies are antagonists that do oppose the PCs goals. That’s the evil cult whose pet demon, Steve, can be banished by the talisman. They have to do what they can to stop the PCs from achieving their adventure goals.

And then I said there were also villains. But I didn’t try to explain villains. Well, now I’m going to. On the surface, a villain is an NPC whose goals the PCs are motivated to oppose. Basically, a villain is to the PCs what the PCs are to an enemy. See, it’s a matter of action vs. reaction. With an enemy, the players are taking an action and the NPCs are getting in the way. But with a villain, the NPC is taking an action and the PCs are obliged to get in the way. With a villain, the PCs are reactionary. And THAT is how a villain – IN D&D – isn’t really an NPC. A villain is a motivation and a resolution. A villain is an adventure. Or a series of adventures.

Now, I’m not saying that a villain isn’t also a living, breathing thing inasmuch as any NPC is a living, breathing thing. A villain IS a character in the story. They have motivations and goals. And they make choices. Just like any other NPC. But the villain is more than JUST an NPC. The villain is basically a living, breathing manifestation of an adventure.

For example, imagine an evil cult that is attempting to summon the Demonlord Steve so they can destroy the world. They have a goal: destroy the world. And that goal creates a motivation for the players and their characters: they live in the world and that’s where they keep all their stuff, so they can’t let it be destroyed. And also fighting evil cults is fun. Moreover, the cult also provides a resolution. The bad resolution is, of course, summoned demon and destroyed world. The good resolution involves rendering the cult unable to ever summon the demonlord. Either by destroying the artifact of demonlord summoning or breaking up the cult or killing all of its members or preventing the summoning ritual that can only happen on the night of the eclipsed comet that happens once ever thousand years or whatever.

Oh, by the way, remember that an organization is just an NPC with a lot of bodies.

Villain’s goals define the motivation and resolution for adventures. Or plot arcs. Or even entire campaigns. That demon cult business could be just one single adventure, sure. Or there could be a long series of adventures as the cult tries to get closer and closer to summoning the demonlord. And that’s why writing a villain isn’t creating an NPC at all. It’s planning an adventure. Or more.

Motivation and Resolution: The Villain as Adventure

The first step to creating a villain is basically the same as the first step to writing an adventure. You need to figure out the motivation and the resolution. But, in this case, the motivation and resolution are going to be driven by an antagonist’s goal. Now, you can start this process however you like. Some people start with the motivation. Some start with the resolution. And some start with the villain or goal. Just like when you write an adventure.

And honestly, this is the hardest part. And I can’t tell you how to do it. Maybe you want to write an adventure that involves a corrupting devil disguised as an old man who manipulates people into doing terrible things so as to bring chaos to a trade town. I did that once. Or maybe a bunch of thieves are stealing magical items and historical relics. I did that once too. Or maybe you have a cool idea for a fallen paladin whose divine power and faith weren’t enough to save her family who now seeks revenge on the world. Yep.

The point is, you can start wherever you want with whatever bit is in your head. It’s all good. But, in the end, you need three things. You need an NPC who has some kind of a goal. That goal has to create some kind of motivation for the players and their characters. And there has to be some kind of resolution that can bring the whole thing to an end.

My devil, for example, which I ripped a bit from Needful Things by Stephen King? Well, it’s neat that he wants to sow chaos. And that provides a definite motivation. But there’s not a really good direct goal there. And so there’s not a really good resolution. I mean, sowing chaos is a good start. But WHY does the devil want to do that? And how does that lead to a resolution? Well, the reason is to corrupt souls. Devils want people to end up in Hell. But that still doesn’t lead to a good resolution. Maybe he’s after a particular soul. Like, perhaps, the current leader of the town is a lawful, high-ranking member of a church. And ultimately, the devil wants to push him to do something evil. Like impose martial law. Or kill someone. So, he’s sowing chaos and discord to push the priest to take an extreme and evil action to ruin his soul. That leads itself to some resolutions. Obviously, if the priest does an extreme and evil action, he’s corrupted. If the devil is exposed and killed or banished, the plan is ruined. So, now we have goal, motivation, and resolution.

The stolen magical items? Well, that’s barely anything at all. There’s a motivation there: stop the thefts. But that’s about it. Who is stealing the magical items? And why? Maybe a hive mind of cranium rats are gradually enslaving the thieves’ guild, forcing them to steal magical items. And maybe they are breaking down the magical items as materials to open a portal so they can summon the great hive into the city. Once they have enough magic gathered, they can summon a huge and ultrapowerful collective of cranium rats into the city sewers and take control of everyone. There we go: goal, motivation, and resolution.

The fallen paladin? Well, she’s a neat villain. But what is she doing right now? Is she just on a killing spree? Well, okay. She has a goal and that creates a motivation for the players. But how will that be resolved. Either she will be killed, defeated, or reformed or she will keep killing forever. Now, that’s a dangerous resolution because it creates a sort of “endless adventure” scenario. The players can only lose that scenario by being killed. Otherwise, there’s no failure state to the adventure. She just keeps murdering until the players stop her or die trying. So perhaps the paladin’s goal isn’t to murder people. Perhaps she’s trying to turn herself into a lich or vampire so she can live forever because she doesn’t want to face divine punishment in the afterlife for doing the terrible things she’s done.

And that’s important. Remember, the villain’s goal defines everything about the adventure: how it starts and all the different ways it can end. In order for the adventure to be a complete adventure, you need those things. And they need to be concrete things.

The Plan: The Basic Structure for an Adventure

Now, once the villain has a goal, and you have a motivation and a resolution, planning the rest of the adventure – that is to say, laying down a structure and designing (or improvising) scenes – becomes a matter of figuring out what the villain’s actual plan is. And that comes down to a few things. What is the villain doing to accomplish their goal? How can the players learn about the villain’s goals? How can the villain disrupt the villain’s goals? And how might the villain react when the players start disrupting their plans? In other words, the adventure becomes about discovering and disrupting the villain’s plans.

Now, I don’t need to put a whole lot of extraneous s$&% in this section because we’ve been talking about writing adventures forever and a day at this point. And that’s basically what you’re doing. Except…

Except now we come to the reason to even use a villain at all. I mean, if a villain is just an extra layer of adventure writing and you can write a perfectly good adventure without a villain, why use a villain. What does it get you? Well, it gets you something very important: a villain is a dynamic adventure which puts the players in the role of being more active adversaries.

Take, for example, the magic item adventure. The cranium rats have enslaved part of the thief’s guild, right? Now the thieves are stealing magical items. The players are hired to look into the rash of magical item thefts. This is very different from an adventure in which a magical item was stolen and the players have to get it back. Or one in which they have to retrieve a magical item from a particular location. How? Well, when the goal is about retrieving a magical item, the adventure is passive. The players have to track down the item, go to the location, and get the item. There’s a pretty straightforward path to accomplishing that goal. Sure, they might have to figure out HOW to track down the item, but the GM will generally plant clues and leads in various scenes and build that up like a traditional adventure.

But a villain adventure is dynamic and active by its nature. The GM could plant clues and leads, sure, that point to the thieves guild. But the players can also do other things because the villains are active. For example, they could create a stakeout or a sting. They could set up a fake magical item auction, release information about where the items are being stored, and be ready to capture the thieves when they take the bait.

Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic. The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the GM isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing. The PCs might be put on the defensive, responding to the villain’s actions.

By the same token, villain adventures don’t always move in straight lines toward resolution. What do I mean? What I mean is that in a static adventure, the players either make progress or don’t. And eventually, they reach the resolution they want or don’t. End of story. But in a villain story, whenever the players fall behind, the villain probably gets ahead. Instead of the adventure being about going from zero progress to 100% progress, the adventure is about starting at zero progress and either hitting 100% OR -100%, with forces constantly pushing the plot in either direction.

Villain adventures are actually a great place to start learning how to improvise an adventure for this very reason. See, whenever the players take actions in the villain adventure, they potentially create obstacles and setbacks for the villain. And the villain has to figure out how to respond. And that means the GM is in the position of improvising new events – new scenes and encounters – to keep the adventure moving toward one of the resolutions. But, unlike a completely blank slate, the adventure already involves some planning. The GM knows what the villain wants and how the villain can accomplish it. And if the GM also knows who the villain is and what they are capable of, to some extent, it becomes easier to figure out what the villain might do in response. And that response is what keeps the adventure going.

Thus, villain adventures tend to be a bit more nebulous. It’s hard to plan them out in the same way as static adventures. In the end, they follow the same sort of flowchart as any other adventure – they HAVE a structure – it’s just that the GM has to invent at least some of that flowchart and structure on the fly in response to the events of the adventure.

So, how DO you start to plan a villain adventure’s structure? Well, the best thing to do is to figure out what the plot will look like if the PCs don’t do anything at all. Figure out what the villain will do if they remain completely unopposed. Next, figure out how the players get involved in the adventure. What part of that plan do they learn about? And what drives them to stop it? For example, the PCs might be hired to investigate the rash of magical item thefts. Or they might have one of their own magical items stolen. Or a friend or contact might lose something of value. That’s the opening scene. The one that establishes the motivation.

Now, you need to figure out how the players can get from that initial motivation into the way of the villain’s plan. In that magical item theft plot, for example, before the players are even in the position of disrupting the plans, they have to get some information. They have to, for example, end up at the thieves guild. Until they can do that, the villain’s plans are going to continue. See, the players rarely START the adventure clashing directly with the villain’s plans. There’s usually some investigation or activity that has to take place before the players actually end up colliding with the villain’s plans.

Once you know how the players can end up clashing with the villain’s plans, you know what initial scenes your adventure probably needs. It needs the scenes that bring the players from the start of the adventure to the place where they can start colliding with the villain’s plans. And that part usually takes the form of a static adventure. Meanwhile, though, the villain is usually continuing with their own plans, making progress toward their own resolution. THAT’S why you have to know what will happen if the players don’t get in the villain’s way.

Once the players and the villain are set on a collision course, though, it becomes much harder to plan. Instead of planning scenes from that point, it becomes much more important to plan for contingencies. First of all, you need to know the ways that the players could conceivably disrupt the villain’s plans. Second of all, you need to know how the villain might respond to those disruptions. And, to do that, you need to know how the plan can be recovered. And you also need to know what resources the villains have to actively work against the party.

For example, when planning the magical item theft adventure, I would design the initial part as a mystery investigation. That would eventually lead the party to the thief’s guild. And there, they might discover that all of the magical item thefts are being conducted by a faction of rogue guildmembers within the guild. The players might gain the trust of the guild by pledging to help bring this rogue faction under control. Or they might simply strongarm the information out of the guild. Either way, that might lead them to one of the specific thieves carrying out the thefts. And that information is where they can start to interrupt the cranium rat plans. They might follow the guildsman into the sewers after their theft and discover the rats lair. Or they might capture him during a robbery and get information from him. Or they might inform the city guards about who is responsible. They might disband or destroy the thief’s guild. They might increase security on magical items. They might even plant a magical item they can magically track down and allow it to be stolen. Those are all ways the players might disrupt the plans of the rats.

And how might the rats respond? Well, they might simply target the PCs. They might send some thieves to kill the PCs. Or they might set a trap of their own, leading the PCs to a deathtrap in the sewers. If the PCs disrupt or destroy the thief’s guild, the rats might start using other organizations to commit the robberies instead. Maybe they will start using the harbormaster to seize magical items coming into the city. Or the local adventurers guild. If security is increased, the cranium rats might respond by giving some of their magical items to the thieves to help them circumvent the increased security. Or they might accompany the thieves in small swarms to magically disable the increased security and provide additional support. Those are all possible responses.

Depending on how likely I think any of those scenarios are, I’ll plan what resources I think I’ll need. I’ll definitely need some assassins and cranium rat swarms because, one way or another, the PCs are probably going to get into fights. And I will need stats for the thief’s guild members. And a map of the guildhouse. And one of the sewers. And the cranium rat lair. I’ll also need the details of the robberies that will continue to occur until the PCs start causing disruptions.

The Villain as Arc or Campaign

Now, everything above is about how to create a villain for an adventure. Or rather, how to create a villain as an adventure. Or rather how to create an adventure and a villain. It’s kind of tricky to figure out how to phrase this s$&% sometimes. The assumption is that the villain appears, their goals drive a single adventure, and then once the adventure is resolved, the villain has pretty much run their course.

But, honestly, that’s not how we think of most villains. Instead, we tend to think of villains as things that keep cropping up over and over again. And that brings us around to the topic of recurring villains. Well, it sort of does. Because the real issues involving recurring villains will be covered in the second part of this article. Sorry about that.

The thing is, if you really look at it, a single adventure isn’t really about defeating a villain. I mean, sure, sometimes the villain does get defeated at the end. But an adventure is really about resolving a villain’s plan. The villain is trying to accomplish something specific and concrete. The players oppose that. Eventually, the plan is either accomplished or permanently ruined. And it’s important that adventures work that way. Without concrete plans that can be permanently ruined, the adventure can’t really end in anyway except success or death. And that means failure is no longer a viable option.

But just because a villain’s specific plan or goal is disrupted, that doesn’t mean they stop being a villain. And usually, a villain’s goal or plan is the product of longer-term motivation, a desire or drive to accomplish something. The devil wants to earn powerful souls for Hell to elevate his own status and please his masters. Today’s plan is corrupting the priest who runs a town. But whether that succeeds or fails, tomorrow is a new opportunity for a new plan. The cranium rats might fail at this specific attempt to bring their super hive into the world, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try to find another way to do it. And the paladin might fail to achieve immortality, but that doesn’t make her any less furiously vengeful and bitter and evil.

Thus it is not only entirely possible for villains to stick around beyond the adventure they drove, it’s usually preferable. A recurring villain creates a nice bit of continuity for the game, a nice way to connect what otherwise might be completely separate adventures. They create a feeling of an ongoing story. Yeah, an ongoing story in D&D. Imagine that. Further, a recurring villain also comes packaged with some prescribed motivations for the players. That is to say, once you spend some time creating a motive for the players to oppose a villain, that motive sticks around. So, the next time the villain starts some s$&%, the players are predisposed to oppose them again. In point of fact, some recurring villains become so vile and hated that just uttering their name in an adventure is enough to motivate the players.

Fortunately, recurring villains are easy to create. At least, from a story standpoint. We’ll be talking about the HARD part of creating recurring villains in the next part in this series. For right now, pretend they are easy. Even if you didn’t plan on making a villain into a recurring villain, if the villain survives the adventure, it’s pretty easy to just use them to drive another adventure. Just start with the same goal and come up with a new resolution and plan. The demon cult will want to find another way to destroy the world. So next week, they are at it again. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Whatever the f$&% that means.

Of course, that’s recurring villain 101. Assume the villain’s goals remain the same and try to accomplish them again in some other way. The problem is, you can only do that a few times before it gets dull. So, after you’ve gotten some mileage out of the same goal, it’s time to come up with a new goal for the villain. And, usually, by the time you’ve got to do that, you’ve done half the work already. See, once you’ve used the villain once or twice to drive an adventure, you start to gain an understanding of what the villain really wants. The devil wants to corrupt souls, sure. But what he really wants is power and status in Hell. And that means he’s got to impress his superiors. Or backstab his superiors and take their place. The cranium rats want to bring their super hive to the city because they want to enslave the city. And that’s because they want to enslave all of the other races and rule the multiverse, spreading to every corner. The city is just a starting point. The paladin is bitter and vengeful and has lost her faith. Ultimately, her goal is to spread as much suffering as possible. It might start with hurting people she think wronged her. But eventually, she’ll move on to hurting innocents. And eventually, she’ll move on to hurting the world. All of it.

However, the key to a good recurring villain is not just changing their goals every so often and driving new plots with them, the important thing is that the stakes generally have to rise. What does that mean? Well, it means that, over time, the villain should become more ambitious and become a bigger danger to more… more stuff. More people. More places. More things. And bigger things. The devil might start with individual, but powerful souls. But after a while, he’s got to set his sights higher. The high pope of the entire church, angels, a whole nation, a good aligned god, whatever. He might want a promotion at first, but eventually he’ll want to rule hell, and then he’ll want to be a god.

In an ongoing story, the stakes need to rise every so often. And THAT, by the way, is why every D&D campaign has a limited lifespan. And so does every villain. Eventually, the stakes become “the entire cosmos” or some s$&% like that. And once that happens, there’s nowhere else to go that doesn’t feel like a step down. And that’s when it’s time to retire the game.

But shifting goals and rising stakes is not the only way a villain becomes a recurring villain. There are a few other methods that turn a villain into an ongoing campaign.

The Vengeful Villain

Once a villain fails, if the villain can pin that failure on the players, the villain’s goal might become to destroy the PCs. Or something they care about. The paladin, for example, robbed at her chance for immortality, might become so obsessed with destroying the PCs that that becomes her villainous goal. Even when she isn’t driving the adventure, because a villain doesn’t have to drive every adventure, she might use her resources to disrupt the adventure. Essentially, she sinks into the background and becomes an occasional enemy or obstacle. And every now and then, she comes up with a plan that drives an adventure. The vengeful villain can even flip back and forth between being vengeful and pursuing other goals. This week, her plan might be to destroy the PCs. Next week, she might return to making people suffer. In a month, she makes another bid for immortality. And eventually, when she realizes that there’s only one way to escape divine punishment from the god she betrays, she decides to kill her former patron deity. But before she can do that, she needs to make another attempt to destroy the one group of people who can consistently stop her.

The Chessmaster

Another way that a villain can become a recurring villain involves a sort of retroactive decision. That is, it is possible to decide that whatever plan it was that drove the villain’s adventure, that plan was really just a step in a grander scheme. Basically, the villain has some complex, long-term plan that has a lot of steps and moving parts and they are gradually implementing different pieces of it. To pull that off, you need to decide what the long-term plan is. And it also helps, since this might become a focus for the entire campaign, to figure out what some of the other steps might be. Maybe the devil is planning, from the beginning, to become a god. He’s going to need power in the form of stolen souls. He’s going to need an ancient artifact that can steal another god’s power. He’s going to need a victim to steal divine power from. He’s going to need to kill his superiors to get them out of the way. He’s going to need an army of loyal supporters like a cult. And so on.

Now, you don’t even have to do this retroactively. We’re not really talking about building campaigns yet, but if we were, I’d point out that a powerful chessmaster is a great way to build a long-term campaign. Basically, that involves coming up with the villain and their long-term plan, then figuring out some of the steps involved, and using those to build the adventures as the campaign plays out.

The Rogues Gallery

Now, there is a way to use recurring villains WITHOUT constantly raising the stakes and WITHOUT constantly coming up with lots of new goals and WITHOUT also getting boring. You can take a page from comic books and develop a rogues gallery. Rogues gallery, by the way, is a term for the collection of photographs of criminals that police keep for identification purposes. But in comic books, it refers to the roster of villains that have been built up over the years. Batman’s rogues gallery consists of the Joker, the Riddler, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Bane, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Mad Hatter, and many, many others. Spiderman had Venom, Lizard, Green Goblin, Kraven, Mini Goblin, Rhino, and even something named Kangaroo.

Honestly, a rogues gallery is extremely useful, even if you’re not using a villain as the focus for your entire campaign. It’s really just a handy list of enemies and villains that the PCs have encountered. Anyone on that list can potentially be used to drive an adventure or to jump in to an adventure as an obstacle or enemy. And remember again, organizations count as NPCs. A rogues gallery allows you to sprinkle villain adventures driven by different villains through your campaign without having to focus on long-term plots. You can even intersperse villain adventures with other, more normal adventures.

In point of fact, even if you DO choose to make a single villain the focus of an entire arc or campaign, it’s still a good idea to have several plot threads going at once so the villain one doesn’t get overused. But we’ve talked about that before. So, a rogues gallery of people that have opposed or been opposed by the PCs is an excellent source of one-off adventures.

Now, even though you can get away with not raising the stakes too much with a rogues gallery as compared to a standard recurring villain, it’s still a good idea to have the stakes trend upwards over time. The problem is, once you start upping the stakes, you can’t step them down again without wrecking the pace of your game. So, if the PCs start by dealing with minor criminals and thugs and small-time operators and graverobbers and then one of those villains comes out and threatens to blow up an entire city, it’ll feel really weird if the next adventure is about some minor thug again. So, once one of the rogues gallery villains ups the ante a little, the others generally have to. Or else its time to start introducing some bigger villains for the rogues gallery. That’s another nice thing about a rogues gallery setup. You can always add someone new whenever you want without it feeling like it comes right the f$&% out of nowhere.

The Power Behind the Power

And finally, when a villain gets defeated in such a way that they can’t possibly be a recurring villain, you have this little gem. This is also something of a retroactive decision (that you can also make at the start of a campaign). Basically, after the villain is killed or neutralized or whatever, you decide that the villain was really working for another, more powerful, more dangerous villain. The crazy necromancer was part of a cult. The devil was one of several devilish agents led by a duke of hell. The paladin’s fall was orchestrated by the demon servant of an evil god and the paladin was a pawn in a bigger scheme. Again, you need to decide what the bigger, badder scheme was and how the pawn fit into that scheme. But, in this way, you can introduce a completely new villain but make it seem like it was all meant to be part of some bigger, interconnected story. The power behind the power is useful in that it almost always comes with rising stakes.

The Villain as NPC

Now, everything we’ve discussed above treats the villain as a background element, a driver of plot and creator of adventure. And that’s exactly what makes a villain a villain. They drive plots and create adventures. But eventually, one way or the other, the villain is going to end up on camera, at the table, and in the scene. And that’s when the villain ceases to be an adventure and becomes an NPC again. And to handle that…

Well, to handle that, we need a completely different few thousand words. So, we’ll save that for another day.

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26 thoughts on “Villains and Plots: The Villain AS Plot

  1. A query. Upon reading the article for the third time, I have been pondering the idea of “Players as the villains all along” as a campaign.

    Other than seeding some ideas in the players (no, this is not a typo) brains, I was wondering what others would do in this sort of scenario.

    Hell, even knowing if it is even possible without being hokey would be nice.

    • Step 1: Play several sessions of adventure with any normal group of players
      Step 2: Point out all the generally heinous stuff they’ve done in pursuit of some arbitrary ‘lofty’ goal they didn’t actually understand. Point out how their cure was worse than the disease could ever be. (i.e. murdered the slightly creepy guys who hadn’t actually done anything evil because obvy they are cultists, or raided some harmless group of goblin’s cave to get their treasure, killing all of them.
      Step 3: Sigh mournfully.

  2. Great article as usual, I do have one “but”:

    “The problem is, once you start upping the stakes, you can’t step them down again without wrecking the pace of your game.”
    This is something I have trouble with. While I understand that the general trend should be upward in terms of stakes, I don’t really agree that it should *always* be like that. In fact, it kind of pisses me off when TV shows do that. When Arrow tried to pull that “save the world” thing it felt completely out of place for a street-level superhero. Stoping a nuke or saving the world is Superman’s job, or maybe The Flash, not really for Batman or the Green Arrow.

    I don’t find anything wrong with occassionally chasing a small thief or some fend off the goblins as a side adventure after a high stakes series is over. I even feel it makes for good pacing and also allow the players to see how much more powerful they’ve become. Of course, if all your adventures after saving the kingdom are low stakes, it will feel like a downer, but a simple mini side quest here and then or an encounter makes for some good pacing I think.

    • Regarding the “upping the stakes” issue, I have two thoughts:

      1. The story: Angry is right that when the stakes go up, it is very difficult to go backwards. After saving the world from imminent destruction, who cares about the small-town guild hall? My answer to this is to not allow the slope to be too steep. Yes, as the overall story arc progresses and each action has a widening scope of ramification, you as the GM must keep it personal to the characters and limit that inevitable climb to a pace that works for you and your group.

      2. The characters: The other important aspect to this is that the player characters are increasing in experience and leveling up. A group of 10th level characters isn’t going to deal with the small band of independent marauders, like they did when they were 2nd or 3rd level. That’s just boring. By this point, you narrate it and move on.

      These two factors force your story to move forward, but as I said, you’re in control of the pace. Don’t go too slow – you don’t want your players to get bored or feel like they aren’t making progress. Don’t go too fast, either. Don’t progress from saving the burning small-town guild hall directly to the saving the entire material plane of existence. I can think of at least two or three steps in between.

    • I think it’s possible to backtrack in terms of stakes, but you need to do it carefully to keep the feel of the progression. If you start at a point where your first villain is a threat to a few people, then you step up to where the next one is a threat to a whole guild or even city, you can step down to a threat to a few people, but it has to be treated as a smaller diversion. If you take three sessions to deal with a merchant’s underhanded rival, seven to deal with someone trying to murder their way through a guild and then three to deal with a crooked guard captain who’s trying to give a person a hard time, there’s no feel of progression, while if they can use their connections and skills they’ve gained to get through the last in one or two sessions, it serves to show how they’re becoming more capable.

      Also there’s a lot of room between the personal, the small street level stuff and world saving and people don’t tend to use it. It’s entirely possible to slowly work your way up from helping with problems for a few people to a neighborhood to a city to a country, and that’s a lot of material to get through. Saving the world itself feels like a huge leap because it is.

      • Yes, I was thinking it terms of small diversion or sidequest, not a new campaign. That indeed would be silly. I was thinking a small fight that could take maybe 15-30 minutes considering the lvl difference.

        But I’m not really talking about power. I meant stakes. Sure a 10th level party in D&D probably wouldn’t bother with 3rd lvl grunts, I figure, because all I know from D&D comes mostly from videogames. I play HARP/Rolemaster, in which even with a lvl difference every combat can still be lethal if players get cocky and don’t pay attention. But I digress like Angry :P.
        My point(and I’m ASKING even if it sounds like I’m stating) is whether you could run an adventure about a small guild of highly trained thieves, Ocean’s Eleven style. Those thieves would be powerful enough, maybe even 10th level but the entire kingdom isn’t at stake, just maybe the local district. They are not trying to conquer the world or overthrow the king, they are just stealing or murdering around the district and the local guard can’t handle them. The stakes are smaller, the power level isn’t. Or that would feel like a letdown anyway?

        I hope I made myself a little clearer, English isn’t my first language.

  3. Now to talk about what I really want to talk about here…

    As always, awesome article, Angry! Thank you, and I can’t wait for part two.

    I wanted to throw in a couple comments based upon my experiences about villains (as defined).

    In my current campaign setting, I have a sort of rogues gallery mixed with a chess match. But there are some very specific distinctions I want to make:

    My villains individuals, with their own unique motivations and goals. When I created their characters, I paid little attention to the Alignment mechanic. Perhaps because 5e is very loose with this already, but more importantly, I built them from the perspective of their backstory, What were their origins and how were they shaped into what they are now?

    While I’m no student of psychology, my goal was to make believable villain characters, at least in my own mind. Their backstories may never be revealed to the players, and I have to be okay with that. Even so, I ask the question, why does this character want what they want? If I can’t answer, I start over.

    You see, I don’t like characters who are evil just for the sake of being evil. I’m reminded of the 1992 Chuck Norris movie, Sidekicks, specifically Joe Piscopo’s character. Sure, the movie was over-the-top corny, but I have ingrained in my memory the scene where Piscopo was standing on a platform in a warehouse directing his minions to and fro as they carried out his evil plans. I don’t want my villains to be like this. No one, not even the devil, is evil just for the sake of being evil.

    What I have now, in my setting, are several villain NPCs that have their own individual goals and motivations. What’s neat about this is that they are not necessarily allied. Their goals come in conflict with each other. One wants to dominate and rule the world, not to enslave the populace, but to bring balance and peace (in her slightly warped vision of what that means, of course.) Another wants to remove the barrier that prevents apotheosis so that she can become a god with millions of adoring followers. Yet another wants her daughter to become the next queen of the elves (but because of a curse, she can only bear sons… doesn’t stop her from trying over and over, though!)

    From their own perspective, these characters aren’t being evil. This doesn’t mean they don’t use evil means to accomplish their goals. The ends justify the means and all that. The point is these characters aren’t simple one-dimensional archetypes. Everything they do, which includes their interactions with the player-characters, is consistent with what I’ve outlined for that villain. Part of the mystery, for the players, is (if they choose) to discover these histories. With this understanding, the players may be able to “defeat” the villains without actually killing them.

      • I’m man enough to handle a difference of opinions. Maybe I’ve woven too much story into my setting, but the players (in both groups) seem to be enjoying themselves. I’d never put this much detail into a one-off, convention-style game, though.

        Such as it is, maybe we can have a spirited, intellectual debate about our philosophical differences… and you may just prove that I’m completely wrong in my way of thinking. I can accept that possibility, but don’t expect me to go down without a fight.

    • I must admit I’m almost the complete opposite: I don’t really do the “villains with deep motivations” thing in D&D. D&D is a game with clearly defined teams with Good and Evil (or Law and Chaos) written on them, so making the bad guy just be a one-sided baddie who’s just kind of a jerk doesn’t feel bad to me.

      Having said that, D&D isn’t the only game I play, and if the game in question supports moral ambiguity then heck yeah I will add some depth to villains, but even then I’ll stop short of writing really elaborate backstories for them. Just a single thing that believably motivates them to do things that are in conflict with the players’ goals beyond “kind of a jerk” suffices for me.

      And since we’re on the subject of villains and their motivations I must say that the tried and true idea of “the villain was only doing bad things to prevent an even badder thing from happening or somehow keeping an even bigger villain contained” is a favorite of mine, although with that type of motivation in play I find there should be a way for the players to either redeem the villain or resolve the situation in such a way that they don’t accidentally make things worse. Like, it works in fiction, but in a game it’d kind of feel like you’re laying a narrative trap for the players (not that traps are always bad but they’re generally mishandled in games, oh wait, Angry has blogged on this very subject and it was cool and good!) unless you telegraph it to your players and allow for alternate paths to resolving it.

      • I think this gets into a conversation far beyond the written article. It has to do with expectations, willingness to do extra preparation (and the time to do it), context, depth, and probably a lot more factors than I can think of while writing a response on a website.

        What the h#!! do I mean?

        First: I’m not new to gaming and game-mastering. I’m over fifty and I started playing RPGs in my early teens and GMing in High School (mid-teens.) I don’t remember my first experience running a game, nor do I remember all the games I’ve ever run. This is to say that I’m no beginner. I have a lot of experiences, and while many of my games have been great, some have been total dogs.

        Second: With that being said, I find Angry’s advice quite valuable and useful. I’ve learned a lot reading this blog and have incorporated many ideas into the games I am presently running. I’ve also pulled in ideas from other games I played (both RPG and non-RPG.)

        Third: The two groups I’m running presently have high expectations, and for me to give them anything less would be a disappointment. This means I don’t run simple “Go get the McGuffin” missions, my NPCs need to have some level of depth, and, especially, the recurring NPCs, like the villains, need to be much more than common archetypes.

        Earlier versions of D&D were much more regimented with regards to alignment. 5e isn’t. The mechanic is used, but very loosely. Furthermore, I find it difficult to classify the wide variety of personalities I encounter in real life into 9 arbitrary buckets. Impossible. Astrology tries to do it with 12 buckets, and we all know how well that works. (It would be interesting to categorize my NPCs using the DISC profile system, but even that is horribly lacking when making a character come alive.) I find 5e’s background system refreshing, and the more I’ve worked with it, the more useful it’s become for me, despite its inherent flaws and limitations.

        For me, major characters (aka villains) in my setting need to have a more developed background. I need to know their motivations and I need to know how they will react in various situations. I don’t want them to be stereotypical or shallow. At the same time, I want them to be consistent and somewhat realistic.

        I look forward to what Angry is going to say in his next article on this subject. We may agree to disagree on certain points, but either way, it will still have value.

        • Oh yeah, I absolutely agree. I hope I didn’t come off sounding like I was criticizing your way of handling things: if you’ve got the time and energy to prep villains with elaborate backgrounds and personalities and that matches your players’ expectations, then that’s cool as heck. Me and my players just enjoy D&D for light-hearted dungeon crawls and fantasy romps, and for our playstyle villains of the week with one-note personalities suffice.

          Having said that, I can definitely see the potential payoff in having a villain with somewhat more thought given to their motivations and backgrounds, although given the fact that I’m already stretched for time prepping my weekly games I’d probably save that for the major villains of any given campaign arc. Come to think of it, I’m currently in the middle of running a campaign where I’ve purposefully kept the big bad villain behind the scenes thus far (partly to lend an air of mystery to all the bad shit going on in the setting, mostly to buy me some time in actually deciding who the fuck the big bad villain is), so this might be my chance to actually craft a villain who is a bit more believable in their motivations than “let’s burn this shit to the ground!”

          • I get that everyone has their style and I didn’t take your comments as criticism.

            I’m between projects at work, so I have a little time to plan and prepare. Right now I’m working on a new villain, a 16th level Sorceress with White Dragon origins. Last night I rolled and leveled up the character (at home where I can roll dice, not at my desk at work). This morning, I worked on her life history, starting with her ancestry (after writing some unix scripts for my real job!) – she’s the descendant of another established NPC, who isn’t a villain.

            Right now I have some vague ideas on how she’s going to be a true nemesis to the party, but nothing concrete just yet. Though I have an interesting perspective: My entire setting is based upon songs by Steeleye Span, though not in their traditional sense (as in British/Irish/Scottish folk) but taking them out of their earthly historical context and puzzle-piecing them into my own homebrew setting.

            A couple years ago the band release a new CD based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, Wintersmith. I’ve not read the novel (nor any of his work, though it’s certainly on my list!) but using these songs, I can create a well-rounded backstory tailored to my setting.

            If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to check out my forum site, if you haven’t already. (Just click on my name and it will take you there… I think!)

          • Oh shit, now that you mentioned it, you need to read the Wintersmith. Terry Pratchett was a literary genius and pretty much all of his Discworld novels are worth a read, but I have a particular soft spot for his YA Discworld books (of which Wintersmith is one). It also ties neatly into this particular topic at hand: the villain (well, actually more like the antagonist) is a creature whose nature is completely alien to humanity, yet it’s still one with a belieavable motivation. Wintersmith would definitely be my go-to book if I were to cast a capricious god or elemental lord as the villain of my campaign.

  4. A lot of people give advice to new GMs that they shouldn’t plan adventures, they should make the world react to what the players do. So basically they are saying to play villain style adventures. I think this advice is dangerous on it’s own.

    Villain style adventures are great but just because the villain has a plan doesn’t mean the players are going to discover it. A lot of GMs fail to clearly mark the exits and say “yo, dastardly plots are in this direction!” If the players dont know where the scenes are they are just going to be frustrated as hell nibbling ineffectively around the edge of an adventure.

    • That’s one of the difficulties I have as a newbie GM – getting the players to go after the plots I dangle before them. I’ve been lucky in that my players are generally also utter newbies (and, given that this is in a library, a captive audience). If I absolutely had to, I *could* pause the game and explain how this newfangled roleplay nonsense is supposed to work. Thankfully, that hasn’t actually happened yet, but I do sometimes throw monsters or explosions at them if I feel they’re confused over what to do next. I’m not sure whether that counts as railroading.

      • A lot of people, new or veteran, don’t really understand what “railroading” actually is. By many a DM’s own definition, beginning your adventure with “You’re all sitting in a tavern, and some guy walks up to you, screaming about rats in the basement” is railroading because you’re deciding things for your players. But that’s crap. As close as I can remember Angry’s own words: “Railroading isn’t forcing things on players; railroading is the act of taking options away from the players.” Thangs to think about.

        I suggest these two articles if you are new to Angry’s Site and DMing in general:

        http://theangrygm.com/the-shape-of-adventure/

        http://theangrygm.com/coloring-inside-the-lines-linear-adventure-design/

      • If having villains do things that you know the party is going to feel compelled to do something about is railroading, railroading is not a strictly pejorative term anymore. Especially for a new GM and a new party, having villains is strong precisely because characters with acknowledged agency can fill in where the party isn’t sure what to do. That way you don’t have to rely on the party always having a clear plan of what to do next, and believe me, there will be times like that in any game.

        On the other hand, it is a good idea once you’ve established something that the party is going to do to give them a bit of leeway in how they react to it. That way they’re moving again but they’re back into making decisions as their characters. So rather than “suddenly! bugbears!” you could do something like having a villager run up to the party asking for help against a goblin war party massing outside their village. That lets you mix things up a bit more if you aren’t already doing it. Also, if you consistently use one set of enemies, you’ll find that you have to do less and less to get the party to investigate and oppose them.

    • I’d contend that any single piece of advice people give to GMs is going to be bad. Maybe Dickens or Faulkner can write a sentence long enough that it can get across an idea with context, but without the context of why a way of doing things is good and what it lets you do, any piece of advice to do something one way isn’t a big help.

      Villain style adventures are a reasonable starting point for new GMs because it’s a paradigm where plot reactivity is cheap and because it gives you NPCs with strong agency, you can prod the party into action without it being railroading. A more linear adventure requires you be able to lay out ahead of time a continuous path to the end that keeps the party engaged, while a villain lets the GM respond to the party, prod them if necessary, and that’s good especially for someone who’s learning, since it encourages them to have a short cycle between trying ideas for challenging the party and learning from how they went. That’s all good stuff, but you need to say it when giving advice, because new GMs by definition aren’t necessarily going to get your unstated assumptions or the implications of the advice you’re giving.

      • And….this is exactly why I’m okay with Angry’s multi-thousand word exposé on a single subject; it really does take that much to define and dissect a single “simple” subject when in reality, it’s very rarely as simple a subject as anyone thinks.

        • Pretty much. I would say that I wouldn’t necessarily organize things the same way if I were specifically trying to make a guide for new GMs. I think in the context of teaching, there’s a lot to be said for introducing a concept, walking through what it builds on, and then explicitly calling out what it lets you do, but I have no problems with that since the people who read blogs about something aren’t the people who would benefit the most from that formatting of things. For the people who do that, I think that the exhaustive breakdown of a component that Angry does works great.

  5. Any plans to mention the rather excellent 2e Complete Book of Villains?

    PS. the GM Word of the Week podcast on villains was terrific.

  6. Hey Angry, have you played X-Com 2? If not, there’s a counter in the game that keeps increasing and can’t be stopped until you beat the game. If it fills it’s game over, but there are ways for it to be delayed or skipped ahead. Could be an interesting way to keep track of the villains progress.

  7. I’ve always found the best villains to be those who can deliver a credible gloating moment. I don’t mean the stereotypical I’ve got you trapped in the death room, guess I’ll monologue a bit sense. I mean, a point in the story where the heroes have the opportunity and at least one good reason to end the villain right there, but stronger moral or rational reasons not to. And then he takes a moment to rub that in your face.

    Maybe he’s offering you a deal you can’t afford to refuse. Or you’ve already made a deal he technically hasn’t breached yet. Or you need him for something more important, some greater or more imminent threat.

    For recurring villains, it helps not to bank too much on keeping one alive. Have their apprentice/lieutenant/next-of-kin fleshed out and standing by (at least a name, and one thing that changes when they take over) in case something happens.

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