Foes: Villains as Chia Pets
By Cape Rust
I once read an article that stressed that villains need to grow as a campaign or adventure progresses. I have found that by following this advice, you can start to develop villains who feel real and are compelling. I advocate asking the player what their goals are for their characters, and there is no reason you shouldn’t do the same for your villains if you are running the game. It becomes much easier to breathe life into a villain if you have a basic back story developed for them and at least a few goals and motivations in mind. You don’t have to write an entire novel about a villain, but by touching on the basics, you will save you and your players’ time during game play. Like the amazing Chia Pet, villains need sustenance to grow.
At the end of last week’s article, I mentioned that villains should not be all-knowing; they should have limited knowledge based on their location and access to information. In fantasy or low-tech games, information is severely limited, but in a world like the one I am using in my Serenity game, info moves fast… real fast. Those of us living in the here and now know that unlike “Mr. Universe” from Serenity, we simply can’t monitor all of the news all of the time. Let’s look at the Skull as an example.
The Skull is a smart guy, but he has a family and a pirate fleet to run. How much time does he really have to follow all of the news? Personally, if I don’t hear it on the radio driving into work or see it on the front page of my preferred web browsing protocol, then it isn’t news. Like the Skull, I have a family, but my regular job only happens Monday thru Friday from 8 to 5. Piracy, on the other hand, can happen at all hours and if you are running a pirate fleet, that is a huge commitment. I don’t see the Skull getting in much tabletop gaming!
Part of a villain’s or NPC’s growth is directly related to how much information they have or are exposed to. The Skull might research information in a sector where one of his raids was going to take place. This is just common sense. So how would he know what the players were doing two weeks ago on a planet that has two comms units, one of which only works on the third Sunday during a lunar eclipse? How would a minor functionary working for the “man” know the entire composition of the Skull’s fleet or the location of the Brown Coat sympathizer headquarters? Now as the plot develops and the different actors start following the players, they will gain better situational understanding and can try to predict the player’s moves.
As far as growth goes, try to associate a villain’s skill levels with major events in your game. If you have five major events, then you should think about your villains skills and knowledge during and because of those events. Players will always do exactly what you have not planned for them to do, but if you take a few minutes after each game session to figure out what is going on with the villains, you will be surprised how easy it is to grow them in a realistic and fun way. This growth activity can satisfy the need that some GMs have to run a PC-like NPC. For those of you who might suffer from that horrible affliction, I would recommend actually rolling for the success or failure of some of the NPC’s or villain’s activities.
Here is an example: The leader of the Brown Coat Sympathizers is trying to figure out who else is after “the package”. Based on his skill set and a few modifiers for good equipment, roll the dice. If he fails, he still won’t know and might even ask the PCs when he encounters them. If he does find out, he might choose to engage one of the other factions or villains to get more information. If you go this route (which is loads of fun), take note on the results and if they don’t work out the way you want them to, don’t worry too much about it. All of this is happening behind the scenes so the players will never know.
Some GMs will actually handle this in front of the players. I have done this a few times and while it is fun, it causes quite a bit of plot twisting away from the table. Another very effective way to realistically grow a villain is through cut scenes. White Wolf is good at encouraging Storytellers (GMs) to include short cut scenes that might describe what other people say the villains are doing. It is fun and it is a great way to drop a few hints to the PCs or throw in a few red herrings.
Here is an example: The “scene” cuts to Raven. She is digging through the computer to get more information on the PCs. She comes across an obscure news story about one of the PCs famous relatives and the GM rolls in front of the players. Raven fails the skill check and doesn’t make the connection. A few sessions later she tries again, but this time her skill modifier is better and she passes the roll. She might use this information the next time she meets the PCs or she might keep it in her back pocket. This adds some realism and is fun for both the GM and the players.
As you plan your game and your villains, remember to advance them as the players advance. Give the villains some goals and/or themes and try to map out where they will be skill-wise by the time the adventure reaches certain milestones. Doing this will create more work for the GM, but the payoff is amazing! Even with behind the scenes rolling, you will be able to avoid placing your villains in god mode and your players will appreciate it, even if they don’t know it and you as the GM can sit back and watch those villains grow like a Ch, Ch, Ch, Chia Pet!