Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Your Villain is Suck - Part 2

A continuation of yesterday's piece on presenting better villains in your game sessions.

A recap of the problem:  When the DM is preparing an adventure site, they probably spend the most time developing the boss villain (if there is one) and laying out a bit of back story and motivation.  The DM would like the villain to be memorable; role playing games build shared stories.  But the typical boss villain only shows up at the end of an adventure, a nanosecond before the party unloads on him with everything they've got.

Familiarity breeds contempt.  We still want the party to unload on the villain, but the goal is to give the party enough familiarity with the villain that they cheer about it after they grease him.  It sounds really simple, but the party needs to know about the villain before they can feel contempt.  The goal of these techniques around presenting better villains is targeted at getting the players information.

Yesterday focused on some 1st person techniques to building out a villain's profile:
  • Finding evidence of villainous acts
  • Encounters with henchmen and name droppers
  • Rumors and stories told by bystanders
  • Targeting the characters personally by the villain
  • Direct confrontations between the party and the big-bad
Today we'll dig into the writer's bag of tricks and pull out some techniques that work well in film and literature, where there's a bit more creativity in terms of the narrative.  A DM is a storyteller, performer, and a bit of a writer, too.  Here we go.

Third-Person Techniques
In movies and books, the protagonist may not encounter the villain until late in the story, but the audience is already very familiar with them.  Through 3rd person story telling, we get to see all the horrible things the villain is doing along the way.  In Silence of the Lambs, we watch transfixed as Buffalo Bill kidnaps his victims, and then later when he lowers the basket into the pit - "It will rub the lotion into it's skin…"  The audience usually knows more about the villain's activities than the protagonist, and the audience feels the most satisfaction when the villain finally gets crushed.  As game masters, we can use similar techniques when running our D&D games by using 3rd person "cut scenes" to tease, foreshadow, and flashback in a way similar to movies and books.  Here is an example, picking up with the 'Bargle the Infamous' storyline from yesterday.

Early in the game, the players learn that a nearby farmstead is a smoking ruin, the latest target in the nightly attacks… they investigate.  After exploring the charred homestead, they conclude that orcs attacked the farm in the night; there are clear tracks leading into the foothills.  The DM decides this is a good time for a cut scene to reveal a little more background about what's going on, and to introduce the villain.  Here's how he might present it as a flashback:

Here is some extra information for you as players.  Remember that your characters in the game world didn't actually see it.  The night before, you see orcs come pouring out of the nearby woods, spears in hand, jumping the fences and overrunning the farm.  The entire family of Yeoman Aiden is quickly seized, gagged, and dragged off into the night.  As the last orcs retreat from the farm, you can see a shape floating in the air nearby, silhouetted against the night sky.  The figure looks like a wizard riding on a square of cloth - a magic carpet.  The wizard casually flicks a slender wand at the farm house, and it explodes into flame.  "If only those pathetic humans knew what I have in store for them in my dungeons, they would have pleaded for a merciful death.  Muhaha."  And the scene ends with the magic user banking sharply on the carpet, and catching up to his retreating war band.

What did this accomplish?  The players now know the villain behind the farmhouse raids is a magic user that leads the orcs; he has a vicious wand of fire balls; whatever the wizard is doing with the captured farmers, it’s a face worse than death.

In this case, this scene isn't necessary, it's just dramatic.  A sharp group might ask questions about the nature of the fire at the farm, and discover through player skill that it appears blasted by magical fire.  Inquiries in town would turn up rumors about the town's black sheep, Bargle, who swore to return some day and have his revenge on the peasants that exiled him years earlier.  The players may even learn how Bargle killed the village's favorite daughter, Aleena.

I would recommend keeping cut scenes short and to the point and choose carefully what to reveal.  They're good at heightening the drama or foreshadowing.  Here's another example - Bargle is taking townspeople back to his dungeon, dipping them in alchemical vats, and pulling them out transformed into orcs.  That sequence would be an excellent cut scene to portray later.  It demonstrates Bargle's depravity.  It increases the player's anxiety and creates a sense of urgency - especially if someone they know from the village is in a dungeon cell waiting to be dipped.  On the other hand, if you're an Evil DM, that might be the kind of "reveal" you want to save until later, after they've killed most of the orcs and realized they just slew a bunch of innocent transformed townspeople.  Muhaha.

It's been interesting to see people get out there and declare elements of their DM styles the past few days.  I run a player-driven sandbox, but I'm not above including cut scenes from time to time for drama.  3rd party scenes blur the line between player-driven and "telling the DM's story", so it's worth a warning - they're best used to present additional information after players have already made a choice of direction.  When you pull these types of techniques out of the toolbox, do so with care.

Examples from Recent Play
I've used techniques from yesterday's post and today's post recently in my current campaign, so here are some illustrative examples on developing a villain's relationship with the player to maximize the hostility.  My group has been exploring Castle Ravenloft and had numerous encounters with the big boss vampire, Strahd Von Zarovitch; they really started to dislike him.  In fact, I would say they earnestly sought his destruction; they looked forward to terminating him with the extreme prejudice.

The evidence of Strahd's depredations were everywhere in the village, and they learned more about his atrocities from those few villagers that were still alive.  In their first encounter, Strahd mocked them from a safe distance while commanding dire wolves to attack.  At another point, they had formed an alliance with the mayor's daughter Ireena, and Strahd reanimated the corpse of the dead mayor to attack them with her own dead father.  Later, he was unhappy they were staying at the mayor's mansion, so he fireballed it.  He summoned an earth elemental to smash the burning mansion to splinters and then stomp on the characters.  If the characters had any cornflakes, Strahd would have tried to pee in them.  They had lots and lots of direct and indirect face time with the vampire lord.

I also introduced a 3rd person cut scene.  In an encounter, Strahd polymorphed one of the clerics into a field mouse while the party was out in a large field, changed himself into an owl, caught the mouse running around out in the field, and carried the transformed cleric off to a high tower of the castle for some quality time - Reservoir Dogs style.  The cut scene involved Strahd interrogating the hapless cleric regarding the location of the item Strahd was seeking.  The scene ended with Strahd coldly draining all the guy's life and discarding the empty husk.  It was awesome!  The cut scene didn't tell them anything they didn't know already except that he just wasted their cleric and laughed about it.  "That's it, we've got to go kill this mother-frackin vampire tomorrow."  Mission accomplished.

Ravenloft is an easy adventure for applying this treatment because Strahd is such a multi-dimensional threat, but I use the same techniques with most adventures where there's an underdeveloped villain that needs a little help to cross over into being truly hated and despised.

Would love to hear some comments and reactions, especially if other folks use literary techniques like cut scenes or foreshadowing in their games (or, you know, maybe I'm too much of a hippy LARPer thespian type and should add the drama club badge to my DM profile).


  1. I'm a big fan of literary techniques, although I prefer the semi-interactive cutscene - scrying and spying and watching CCTV and things like that.

    The best villain I've ever run was in a Mage: the Awakening game. Far more powerful than any of the player characters, he could only be beaten if they managed to learn his given name, which would give them some power over him; not as much as learning his true name, but maybe enough to bargain with him.

    They came up with the idea of using Time Magic to explore his childhood, and spent a session in his past, witnessing the increasingly monstrous series of events that revealed how this power-crazed maniac had come to exist.

    Could have just been a boring "Von gonna talk at you now" session had elements of the cut-scenes not started interacting with them, giving them the feeling that they were intruding, and being watched in turn.

  2. Really good point about the Time Magic - the Harry Potter book, Half-Blood Prince, where Harry and the old guy are traveling back through people's memories - perfect examples of using cut scenes to introduce a villain's back story interactively.

    I've got a bit of the World of Darkness in my gaming DNA as well - spent a lot of time running VTM in the late 90's. My group at the time was thespian Goths and had no problem jumping into NPC roles to improvise within a cut scene on the spot.

  3. I dunno about this. I think that it would be better to present information like this as reports from NPCs than as an abstract, omniscient POV, disconnected "cutscene". Get the players used to asking for news, and being asked for news, and present the machinations of villainous NPCs as reports from survivors or the like. In my opinion, RPGs should develop tools for presenting information that are appropriate to the medium, not rely on techniques imported from other media.

  4. faoladh, that's kind of my point. I don't use cutscenes unless I can immerse the players in them somehow. A cutscene is fine if it's the players using a crystal ball to spy on the evil wizard, or if it's the result of their cunning plan to bribe the local time-mage into sending them back to 1920, or whatever - if it's part and parcel of what the players are doing in the session. Like asking for news, it's a means of expositing information as a result of players taking responsibility and agency. They're more invested in the information because they've had to work to get at it and it's embedded in their actions.

    I also use 'cuts' to jump from player to player in scene-based play: things like WoD games where 'splitting the party' is sort of supposed to happen as the characters all have their own lives and problems that co-exist with whatever plot you're trying to push, and which have to be represented in play in order to give the supernatural stuff any sort of cost or downside or humanising element.

    That I use the vocabulary of cinema and computer games to describe these techniques is largely down to convenience. I can say 'cut' to my group of latchkey kids and visual media nerds and they instinctively understand what that means - the focus has shifted, we are now elsewhere, it's someone else's turn. Saying all that in a single-syllable word is a very effective tool, entirely appropriate to the medium.

    Plus, y'know, I run a lot of AFF, the game so cinematic and so inspired by cinema that it calls its encounters 'scenes' and its GM the 'Director'. That was the first RPG book I encountered and it's had a much stronger influence on me than I realised until just now - but it was so accessible precisely because it imported the terms of a medium that I already understood near-instinctively.

  5. Von: Oh, yeah. I was sort of replying to the original post, though. To me, the cutscene is a useful tool for the particular medium of video games, but I don't like it for tabletop RPGs. Your idea of "semi-interactive cutscenes", in which the "cutscene" is given a setting-related explanation, is an excellent idea. My dislike of the "cutscene" technique is in line with my general dislike of dissociated mechanics.

    AFF? I'm not sure which game that is.

  6. Advanced Fighting Fantasy. And sorry - I tend to assume people are talking to me unless they're explicitly tagging their posts with someone else's name, even if I'm in someone else's space and shouldn't make that assumption. Self-centred, I know.

  7. @Faoladh: It's a matter of picking the right tool for the job; it's a true statement that 1st person tools are better in the table-top setting than 3rd person tools (unless you make the cut scenes 1st person by having the player's take on temporary roles as Von suggested). Some of my past groups that had more of a thespian / improv slant loved those opportunities to take on temp roles and ad lib. My intent was to show these techniques are available; I can see folks visiting the Lich House have diverse RPG resumes and have thought about this kind of stuff!

    In Gothic Greyhawk, I can think of two notable cut scenes the past year - one was the time Strahd interrogated the cleric he abducted mentioned above. The funnier one was from the point of view of the henchmen and hirelings camped out at the bottom of the mountain, after the PC's on the mountain top unleashed the horde of 13,000 hungry undead (that promptly went running down the mountain and overran said henchmen and hirelings). They all died, horribly.

    On the other hand, the progress of the zombie war would be amenable to cut scenes, but I'd rather keep the players in the dark until they get first hand knowledge. They only things they know are rumors and reports that have trickled in from refugees (1st hand).