|Pitch-black schemes hatched in pitch-black depths, by ArchAngel73|
Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, Part 11-Villainin’
A good friend of mine once said, as I was busy explaining to him my outline of Prototype’s plot in a manner that made its story appear, at the very least, competent, that…
‘Villains are important, dude. They like, make up for half the game.’
Needless to say, this was the sort of casual use of ABSOLUTE NARRATIVE WISDOM that occasionally grips my friends mid-conversation that just stuck in my brain and gave me the burning desire to elaborate on.
Of course, my constant attempts to bring back this spark of cosmic epiphany to my friend, failed; the bastard, after dispensing his bit, had left me to do the heavy lifting.
That was two years ago.
Two years full of drinking, failed campiagns and a very short skit where I pretended to be a Buddhist Mummy, but that’s another story altogether.
During that time, I went through a phase were I began to look into the role of a villain in a narrative, but something always eluded me, when it came to RPGs. I would always try to come up with new, interesting, elaborate characters but they’d either never truly get the chance to show off their own complexity and nefariousness, or they would be dispatched by the players in lightining-quick fasion.
To add insult to injury, those villains would also be quickly forgotten by the players, never once leaving a lasting impression. All the work I had put toward building this epic antagonist would just get chucked out the window the moment after the characters had already unraveled his guts.
But did I give up? Did I despair? Did I break down and cry?
|No. Yes. A little bit. But I was mostly very, very angry.|
It took me a while before I began to realize exactly where and how I had been going wrong: I was dealing with my campaign villains in the same way I would deal with villains in a story, or a videogame or even a series. Not once, during my attempts at creating a roleplaying narrative, did I ever stop to think that what I was trying to do was forcefully insert a videogame end-boss in a scenario where you can pretty much do anything you please!
Keep in mind, however, that this revelation happened AFTER one of my previous posts, where I had already stated my opinion on developing villains for your rpg campaign. I had not admitted it at the time, but the examples I had used were based off the few successful attempts I had pulled off, unbeknownst to me. Now armed with my new-found knowledge (via the tried and true method of trial and error) I give you…
THE SHAPESCAPES GUIDE TO CREATING A COMPETENT RPG CAMPAIGN VILLAIN (COMPLETE WITH ACTUAL REFERENCE)
|Introducing V’Shan Oorok, Usurper of the Venusian Throne.|
Step One: Decide the Villain’s importance
A villain’s role (beside the obvious one, which is being antagonistic to the players) is to act as counterbalance to their every action and victory, as well as to be an actual living, breathing goal for them to overcome (via copious application of plasma bolts to the face).
While this is pretty much the purpose of a campaign’s villain, it is nowhere near a proper definition, nor does it encompass every aspect of his role. So before we move any further, you need to ask yourself this:
How much of a shit do I give about my villain’s purpose and function? Is he really the person who’s responsible for all the events that have taken place thus far? Is he going to be directly involved in the characters’ every predicament? Hell, is he even going to show up at any point and if so, how often?
Once upon a time
|When people had the balls to admit that prestige classes were a horrible idea|
The villain was a cookie-cutter block of stats with an evil laugh track, serving the purpose of a space shooter game’s end boss. His function was to show up, stir shit up and then die in an apocalyptic showdown, without any regard to his personal development or his place within the world.
For the purposes of this article, let’s call this type of villain a Sauron.
But later, as pop culture and roleplaying games progressed, people wanted more out of their games. As the settings evolved, from bare-bones kick-in-the-door dungeons into sprawling worlds, filled with all sorts of wondrous things. Really, it was only a matter of time when those villains would just not quite cut it.
Saurons don’t hold water to most campaigns I’ve either run or played through, mostly because players won’t just go with ‘he’s EVOL’ as an answer. They will ask questions and they will want to know more about him, besides the fact that he can breathe fire or that he has 12 levels in Sith Lord.
Hell, in some of the games I’ve been through, there wasn’t even any villain! Sure, there was a plot or a few intelligences pulling the strings but you wanna know who the final boss was?
|Okay, her name may have been Aziraphael, the Unyielding sword of the Lords Above, but you get my point.|
The point was, there was no villain to serve as an end boss, because the magnitude of the disaster that was approaching and the plots that were being weaved were so great, the players ended up locking horns with just one agent of said powers.
Let’s call these kinds of villains Luthors.
Remember: before anything else, the villain is just a tool in your hands, there to serve the story. But how important is he to you, actually?
So before you move on, you need to think: what do I need this villain for?
For the sake of argument, I am going to be using V’Shan Oorok in context, as both a Sauron as well as a Luthor villain in the following examples:
V’Shan is intended as a 50’s space opera style villain. He is the Usurper of the Venusian throne, an all-around evil dude and the current lord of the planet. When the characters reach Venus in a manned experimental craft and find themselves stranded in the Vupar Tholus of Venus (where they proceed to get into an impromptu spat with a company of his personal guard), he considers them to be the Earth Aliens of legend, come to overthrow him.
V’Shan’s role in this example is that of a typical Sauron Villain: his sole purpose is to antagonize the players, to send his agents to try and murder them every week and to occasionally clash with them, building up to a final confrontation in his capital city in the Lakshmi Planum.
In this iteration, V’Shan remains the Usurper of the Venusian throne, but his villainous agenda is far more subtle. In this version, he is not interested in controlling Venus, or even to maintain his position. Instead, he is merely a man in charge of greedy, narrow-minded warlords, nobles and mad scientists, whom he has manipulated into securing himself into a place of power then let them do with the planet as they please.
In this scenario, V’Shan is a creature of mystery, barely ever present before the final stages of the campaign. Instead, the characters get to know him through his actions, the ferocity of his henchmen or the terror in the common man’s eyes at the very utterance of his name.
Step Two: Define the Villain’s Goals
|And when I have finally defeated Neo, I will make everyone like me and NEVER BE LONELY AGAIN!|
What does your villain want to do with his life, exactly? Well yeah, okay, he might want to become the One True King or as unto a God or (if you’re a lazy fucking slob) the richest man on Earth but how will he accomplish that? Hell, what is he going to do afterward?
A good villain has a properly defined goal that’s easy for the players to understand and want to antagonize. A GREAT villain has a goal that could be described as reasonable, or even sympathetic.
Were things somehow different, then maybe the characters and he could have been friends.
|Right-on, machine-brother! Death to meat-kind!|
The cliché that nobody really sees himself as the bad guy holds far deeper layers of meaning. A villain, keep in mind, is not just a dude who twirls his mustache and eats orphans because the Internet went down. It’s just a person who opposes the players’ goals but also has motivations that have driven him to pursue these goals in turn.
And besides that, the villain has a life beyond his constant attempts to become a deity. Maybe he has a wife and kids, or even a country that needs to be governed. Perhaps he was an adventurer like your characters, who just couldn’t handle the Kool-Aid of responsibility.
There’s also the chance that he’s just terrible at his job and has caused the ire of others because of his unwillingness to compromise. Maybe, like the Nazis in Indiana Jones, he is fighting a lost cause and only braving these obstacles for the sake of his Regime.
So, back to our example:
V’Shan has wrested control from the Emperor of Venus by virtue of his cunning and might. He has earned the Throne of Venus and maintains his control not only thanks to the might of his armies, but also by controlling the planet’s greatest water supply, situated beneath the capital. In this iteration, the alternative to V’Shan’s rule is certain death, Should his armies fail to maintain his power.
But how did he rise to power in the first place? After countless years of fighting in the plains of Venus, V’Shan (who rose to the rank of Lord of the Armies with his own two hands), decided that he deserved more than just a sizeable pension and his very own house in the country. Believing himself a better-suited ruler than the current Imperial Dynasty, he wants to make Venus a world that dances to his own tune, building a perfectly orderly society from the ruins.
V’Shan was always a man in power. Noble born, thirteenth in succession to the Venusian Imperial Throne, he always knew that he was destined for greater things, but not the hoi-polloi of the Courts or even the maddening din of battle.
Turning his attention to the Unspeakable Sciences, V’Shan chose to give up on his title and become a Techno-Monk of the Amber Order. His genius and ambition allowed him to soon rise through the ranks and discover the lost technologies of Venus and the Ancients’ Forbidden Geometries. Soon enough V’Shan had in his hands the power to control men’s minds, but also the blueprints to an unstoppable army, created to wage war against the Universe by his ancestors.
By using his powers, V’Shan coerced the military and the noblemen to rebel against their masters, using slaves and workers as well as the planet’s most brilliant minds, to put together an army that will soon crush the Universe in his name.
Step Three: And he does all this how, exactly?
|No, him being a wizard doesn’t count|
He’s born of Djinn and mortal woman. He’s a robot. He’s rich as fuck. He’s got superpowers. He’s from the future. He was a woman, all along.
These are wafer-thin explanations for setting up your villain’s capabilities, abilities and skills. They might hold up for barely two sessions before the players decide to look into the villain and he collapses under scrutiny, crushed by the weight of his own bullshit.
While RPG campaigns aren’t exactly perfect environments for you to establish a narrative, they aren’t really an excuse for you to sit on your ass and roll dice all day. If you want your villain to have some actual depth, then you need to get some more mileage out of him.
If he is the current leader of a sect of evil wizards, then he must have risen to power, which means that he’s a stone cold bastard. If he’s inherited such power, then maybe he is used to it, but unfitting. If he’s come from the future, then maybe his high-tech superiority is going to last until he runs out of Uranium D-Cell batteries.
My point is that sooner or later, your players will begin asking ‘How does he do this shit?’ and you’re going to have to answer. Not by providing exposition, but by handing some explanation through his henchmen.
By doing this, you also provide limitations to him, which allow you to define his capabilities and make for far more interesting stories. If your villain is, say, a dark god, then what’s stopping him from afflicting your characters with the plague and watching them as they waste away? If he is the Secret Master of the Earth, how come he hasn’t brought down the combined forces of the planet’s most powerful armies on your ass?
Maybe he can’t, but why? It sure as hell isn’t because the characters are so damn awesome that every attempt has failed. When you have iunfinite resources at your disposal, then no band of sad psychopaths with superpowers is going to be enough to stop you.
There are two ways to work around this problem: one, is by giving the impression that the villain is stronger than he is (without him actually being so) and two, by introducing the characters as a threat to him, instead of the other way around. Example:
V’Shan, despite being the ruler of Venus, has not yet solidified his control over the planet. Pockets of resistance still remain in his domain, which constantly attempt to strike at his centers of power and kill key officials, thus weakening his grip on the world.
Even his officers have begun to go astray: some of them, finally relieved of the yoke of the Imperial Dynasty and thinking themselves free to pursue their own goals, begin formulating their own plans of conquest. It’s only a matter of time before their ambitions evolve into a conspiracy, thus threatening his rule.
Lastly, V’Shan himself may not really be the leader he thought himself to be: his battlefield experience may have made him Venus’ most brilliant tactician, but the logistics of running a planet-wide empire escape him. He sees the characters as a viable distraction from his duties, unaware that even as he builds this week’s new unstoppable death-ray canon, his treasury has already run dry and mutiny is brewing in the capital.
V’Shan does not care. The appearance and actions of the players have barely even registered as a blip on his radar. He is indifferent to their fates or their role toward ending his rule. His plans, far deeper-running and nefarious, cannot be allowed to be disturbed by a group of uppity Earth Aliens who clash with his incompetent officers.
In fact, V’Shan will not even begin to realize the players’ importance until they stumble into one of his hidden factory-cathedrals and discover his war-machine prototypes, destroying it in the process or perhaps even disrupting manufacture. Suddenly, V’shan realizes that this group of bastards hs found a way to directly deter the realization of his ambitions and decides to destroy them.
But at this point, Venus is in open rebellion and the players appear to have the upper hand. V’Shan’s forces are in disarray or scattered in the mountains fighting the rebels, leaving him with just his wits and his few remaining mechanoid servitors to destroy the Earth Aliens before they find a way to thwart his plans.
Step Four: Who is this man with the laser sword?
|*sigh* “He’s so dreamy…you said he was single, right?” “Jodie, people say he drove his wife mad” “Mmmm, angsty!”|
With your villains’ nature, goals and capabilities in mind, you need to consider what he does that drives him. What is it that makes him want to be who he is? Dead brother? Girlfriend killed by the mob? Tiny man with a Napoleonic complex?
Either way, your explanation cannot just be ‘he’s an asshole’. At least, not without some proper context. Even Voldemort (who is pop culture’s most iconic asshole to date), hailed from a broken home and had an abusive childhood. Villains may not consider themselves bad guys, but there must have been something that made them so fucked in the head.
One of the most interesting and memorable villains I met in a tabletop campaign was Nomok the Iron Lord. While in himself he was not much of a villain (a horrible bastard who just wanted to destroy every nation in the continent according to the wishes of his dark gods), the most memorable bit about him happened almost right after our showdown:
Imagine the scene; a bunch of adventurers, having stormed the Nomok’s keep and torn it apart in a near-apocalyptic showdown, finally confront the bastard and our group’s paladin sticks a sword in his gut. Nomok collapses and as we’re looking around his chambers, we find…
|His wife, brandishing a sword, coming to her husband’s aid.|
Of course, we reacted immediately and she was cut down in barely a turn by our group. We hadn’t had time to find out who she was, until Nomok broke down crying at the sight of his wife, brutally murdered by the madmen who had come into his castle and killed his men and him.
Wanna know what the son of a bitch did, after that? He dorve himself into the paladin’s sword and died. And we stood around, looking like a bunch of assholes.
Nomok may not have been much of a villain, goals-wise, but I won’t forget the son of a bitch anytime soon.
With that in mind, let’s go back to our example…
V’Shan has done terrible things in the name of his former masters. For them, he has killed and pillaged and performed genocide in the name of maintaining order. While he does his best to hide it, he knows deep down that he is a war criminal of the lowest sort.
It was his resentment for his former lords and the state of the world that drove him to take over the planet and attempt to restore order. But his idea of order is far from what Venus needs now. Where he sees the necessity of a regime maintained by brute force, the planet needs a leader to unify its peoples. Where he sees the death of his subjects as the only alternative to his rule, the people of Venus see the Earth Aliens as their prophesied messiahs.
V’Shan’s closest associates also see him as a hero and would gladly die for him. Like him, they have fought in the wars and know that the world needs change but like him, they cannot see beyond the confines imposed on them by their military careers.
Some people also love V’Shan. They see him as the sole beacon of order in a world that has long since slipped into mere anarchy and want to maintain that order, either for their own political sakes, or simply for the sake of enforcing peace.
V’Shan’s will is no longer his own. While V’Shan had never truly been a good man to begin with, his ventures into forbidden science soon reached a point where even he could not stomach. Coming into contact with the forgotten machine-intelligences that dwelt in the planet’s core, V’Shan attempted to seal them off but ended up losing the battle and his mind, as well.
Now, all that is left of the Usurper is a sliver of his former self, its actions dictated by the machine-intelligences. His closest friends and associates, who had realized this change early on, know that he desperately wants to be freed from his torment and have done everything in their power to save him, but have failed so far.
Meanwhile, the last slivers of V’Shan’s mind still linger, fighting the machines. He wishes to go down fighting and he will need the aid of the Earth Aliens, to save his world and the rest of the Universe from annihilation.
Step Five: Make it Brief
|Nobody came here for your character study…|
With all this in mind, you should know that this article dictates the content of the villain, but not his presentation. The presentation of a villain is a whole ‘nother beast, but you know what? It’s really simple to pull off:
Keep it brief and make sure that in no way does it overshadow the players.
‘What?’ I hear you ask ‘so I just went through all this development shit for nothing?’. Well the short answer is YES. The long answer is YES, BUT…
You see, an RPG campaign does not work like a usual narrative. Unlike a movie, a book or even a vidyagame, you do not have the time or the freedom to expand on your villain or the world and even if you did, you do not have the inclination. Matter of fact, what you have is just a small window of opportunity to present and build said villain perhaps once every gaming session.
Which means that you need to work around this shit and make the most of it.
Your players will not sit there and take shovelfuls of exposition to the ear, while some dude (plot-relevant or not) waxes poetic about the villain’s role, goals or backstory. They won’t even deign to sit there and take it, while your Villain disgorges exposition, choosing instead to take their chances at killing him instead of talking it out.
Before you start bitching about it, take a moment and consider: would you put up with such a scenario, were you in their shoes? Of course not!
So try and deal with your presentation subtly and indirectly: provide exposition through notes, stories and gossip. Make sure the players know the Villain’s name early on and hear of his exploits. Make sure their enemies call out his name. Get them to hate him one scene at a time.
Be patient, be methodical and pretty soon, they will be cursing his name in their sleep.
One last thing…
Step Six: Eschew Villains
|This looks like a Tuesday...|
On the other hand, perhaps a villain is not required in your narrative. Maybe your players are just naturals at stirring shit up and getting themselves in trouble and people out of trouble. Maybe, as you think up your campaign’s premise, you realize that no one person could be held responsible for the entire mess.
Or maybe, just maybe, you want to try something different.
Campaigns without villains aren’t exactly unheard of. Call of Cthulhu deals in monstrous beings that cannot even comprehend the characters (what with them being so small and insignificant, barely registering as sentient, never mind threatening in their eyes), Exalted’s setting is just overall shitty and requires some emergency mending and so do most othern contemporary RPG worlds. No one person or organizations are set at the forefront as the ones behind the mess. Things are just plain old shitty and the world needs people who can make everything better.
This might sound like the rambling of a hipster GM, hard at work stroking his own cockles while smoking a bong, but in fact it’s not: it’s just an alternative approach to designing a campaign, switching your point of interest from the Dark Wizard of the Week to Your Players Against the World.
Come at me then, you big blue cunt…
That’s not to say it’s any easier to pull off, though: if anything, this is a veritable challenge, that requires you placing your emphasis on developing the setting’s problems, assigning solutions and then finding the way to tie them all together in a big old knot for the players to cut through!
It takes patience, time and above all, a lot of balls to pull off but goddamn is it worth every second!
A big old thank you to fellow nerd Einai Mpelalidiko for his advice on approaching this matter and turning the original incomprehensible draft into the article you see today.
|Your beer is in the mail, dude.|
Apparently publications are like buses. You wait for one and then three come along at the same time. I had 3 stories of mine published in 3 days in a row, so you might excuse my burning desire to tell everybody!
First, a big ol’ Thank You to the good people at Fiction Vortex Magazine, for accepting my short story, Nth Chance. Any of you aspiring writers out there should check them out, since they are just starting out and are aching for awesome new material (not to mention they’re a pretty cool bunch altogether):
Second, Aphelion Magazine just had another short story of mine published. It’s about a boy who discovers he’s no longer real:
And lastly, to the awesome crew of Dark Fire Magazine, for accepting my short story about cursed fortune cookies and their pretty intelligent feedback (and above all, their patience):
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