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Build Resilient and Evolving Villainous Plots

by Mike on 2 May 2022

Chapter 16 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master describes the use of fronts as a way to move campaigns forward through the goals and progress of its villains. This concept comes from the Apocalypse World and Dungeon World RPGs but works very well in our D&D games. A "front" may be a natural disaster or supernatural phenomenon but most often it's a sentient villain.

Here's an example villain from my Eberron game.

Villain: Leto Skalle. An oni and former member of the Daask, the monstrous nation ruled by the hag sisters known as the Daughters of Sora Kell. Leto is now a member of the aristocratic society known as the Aurum.

Goal: Build a second Weapon of Mourning. Leto wants his own Weapon of Mourning to control his own destiny. He could use it to take over the Droaam and have the Droaam added to the Treaty of Thronehold to make the monstrous state "official".

Steps Required

Evolving and Resilient Plots

Of course, during our game, the characters likely thwart some of these steps. What happens then? What happens when the characters acquire the Tome of Cul'sir? What if the characters blow up Leto's big dragonshard? What if they grab the location of Clawspire before Leto Skalle does?

Our villain's steps must evolve. The villain's plot needs to be resilient. One way to make a villain's plot resilient is to give each step a backup step. What can they do to keep their plan moving even when their steps are thwarted?

If the characters blow up Leto's dragonshard, he knows that the Daughters of Sora Kell have another. He can negotiate with them to get it. Not ideal but doable.

If the characters grab his Tome of Cul'Sir, he can work with the quori to steal into the world of dreams and find the information he needs there.

If the character capture the location of Clawrift, Leto can hire Emerald Claw necromancers to rip the location from the spirits of the dead.

Resilient villains engage in resilient quests. See the three of five keys quest model as an example resilient quest.

Failure is an Option

Or maybe Leto just loses. Certainly the characters might succeed in destroying a villain's plot. That's why we have three villains. When one villain gets thwarted, two others move their plans forward and maybe a new villain appears.

When a villain is thwarted, they might make one last desparate plunge. Maybe they have an all-out attack against the characters. Maybe they conduct a last desparate move. Or maybe they just lose! Arrested and shamed on the front page of the local newspaper.

Don't Force the Plot

Avoid villainous plots so fragile that we have to force the plot forward even if the characters thwart it. Avoid having villains steal the keys back from the characters without any hope that the characters stop them. Villains may make such a move, but the villain's failure to acquire what they hope should be an option.

A Campaign Driven by Villainous Quests and Character Actions

Villainous plots evolve every session. Our villains are not static entities sitting atop a throne waiting for the characters to show up. They're doing things. Their minions excavate million-year-old superweapons and research ancient spells in hellish towers. The characters see this stuff and counter it. The villain evolves. Their plot evolves. The story keeps going. Some villains die. New ones rise. Three villains, each with their own goals and quests, build a complicated interwoven tapestry leading to fantastic adventures. Weave the tapestry and watch it evolve every game.

Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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