by Mike Shea on 4 February 2013
It's tough to keep outstanding villains in the minds of our players. We tend to bring them only physically and in the direct position to be killed before anyone ever gets to really know them. There are other ways to integrate villains in your game and make them well known and well hated by your players. Today we're going to look at some ways to keep your villains ever-present in the unfolding story of your game.
Of all the villains we might have met in video games recently, it's hard to beat Handsome Jack in the action RPG game Borderlands 2. From the introduction all the way until the last bullet fired, Handsome Jack defines "presence". This is a villain we love to hate. Throughout the game, that hatred changes from annoyance to revenge to even feeling a little bit sorry for him. His character has quite a bit of emotional range and, in turn, changes your own feelings towards him.
The presentation of Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2 is a fantastic model to follow in your #dnd games.
None of this would have worked if Jack hadn't hacked your comm-link right from the beginning and kept in touch with you throughout the rest of the game. It's unlikely that our D&D games have many comm-links, but there are other ways we can make the personalities and actions of our villains known.
We might tend to avoid cutscenes in our D&D games. We might fear expanding the views of our players beyond the perspective of their characters. Cutscenes, however, might be a great way to expand our players' view of the whole game beyond that of their PCs.
Between-game emails with a short bit of flash fiction can clarify a villain's actions or personality. As our game progresses, so do the plots and plans of the villains, something we can describe in these bits of flash fiction.
You can also use cutscenes directly in your game, describing scenes outside of the point of view of the the characters. Keep them short, however. Your players probably didn't show up to hear you tell them a story you made up before they got there. You might even time yourself to make sure you don't monologue for too long.
Use short narrative or emailed flash-fiction to describe the actions and progress of your villains.
We need look no further than Lord of the Rings as an example of the villain as intelligent item. A magic sword containing a slice of the malevolence of a demon or a magic crystal tied to the villain's psyche are great ways to make villains practically a member of their band. The game Diablo 3 has a great set of quests involving the skull of an old wizard seeking its reformation through the actions of the party. Throughout these quests we get bits and pieces of the wizard's history and motivation before he manifests and we put him right back into the ground.
Following in our villain's wake can be a great way for the PCs to understand the former actions and progress of our villain. Interviews with witnesses or explorations of devastating battlegrounds are great ways for the PCs to meet our villains second-hand.
There are a few traps we might avoid when involving villains in the lives of our PCs. Avoid the villain's narrow escape. It's often overused and rarely fulfilling to our players. If your villain is about to face the PCs, be prepared for that villain to get curb-stomped.
The unbeatable villain is one way to prevent this but it results in the same problem — an unfulfilling confrontation. Either one of two things will happen. Your players will realize that the villain is unbeatable and get bored or your unbeatable villain will be beaten. You generally don't want either option.
A good villain is more than its statistics. A good villain presents itself into the lives of our PCs in many ways; through actions, results, reputation, curses, and dreams. How will your villain make itself ever-present?
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