Let’s talk Tyrants. Today’s post is all about those big bad villains who command vast resources (be it knowledge, armies, governments, or anything else of value in large quantities), but are pretty weak in single combat. This makes them easy to introduce, as the players are mostly going to be encountering their minions, schemes, and influence, rather than the villain themselves, but challenging to resolve. It’s hard to make the final showdown satisfying when all that buildup leads to the players confronting an 80 year old human who would probably lose a fight with a housecat. In the coming weeks there will be posts dedicated to going into detail on establishing villains, running their schemes, and designing cool final battles, but today is focused on defining and exploring one of the villain archetypes: the Tyrant.
What makes a Tyrant cool? Tyrants are cool because they have far-reaching influence, which can manifest in many different ways. Take Sauron from The Lord of Rings, for example. He can see anyone wearing one of his rings of power. That’s cool and terrifying at the same time. Used in a tabletop RPG campaign, this mechanic presents the players with a trade-off: use a powerful magic item to gain a benefit right now, potentially saving their lives, at the cost of showing the villain exactly where they are and what they’re doing. That’s a high price to pay, and justifies the villain countering their next move. Mechanics like this are very important, because it puts the emphasis on heroes vs. villains, rather than players vs. the Dungeon Master.
That’s a cool example in fiction, how do we learn from it and come up with a cool Tyrant for a tabletop RPG? One method is to look at the tools available to characters in the world, and find ways to subvert them. Scrying, for example, is one of several divination spells in 5th Edition, and if a villain learned to tap into every scrying spell that was cast in the world, they would gain a serious information advantage. Combine that with a mentor figure who uses scrying to keep an eye on the players while they’re out adventuring, and you have a recipe for an amazing plot twist when they learn how the villain has been one step ahead of them for so long. Then you just need to design a source for the villain’s power, something the players can track down, disable, and potentially turn against the villain, giving them a much-needed edge.
Rather than approaching this from an information angle, let’s look at a few other ways a Tyrant can exert influence on the world. The first, and one of the most common methods, is by having an army. Whether it’s a necromancer’s legion of the undead, a mad mage’s battalion of golems, or a powerful cleric’s summoned celestials, an army can’t be ignored. When an army marches, the players must either find a way to stop it, or get out of the way. It forces decisions to be made, which is a very good thing in a tabletop RPG, and it gives the players both a tangible measure of their success at stopping the villain and something to engage with. When they rout the army, that means something. When they run a sabotage operation to slow the army down, disrupt its supply lines, or damage morale, they’re making progress. That’s an important feeling, and it keeps the story moving forward.
The last option we’ll look at for a Tyrant is political power. This Tyrant is usually not hard to find, but is typically well protected by bodyguards and diplomatic treaties that ensure disastrous consequences should the players simply attack and kill them. These villains are difficult to use in a tabletop RPG because many players will damn the consequences and go for the kill immediately. This is okay, and a villain of this type should be prepared for such an outcome. We’ll take a step outside the realm of fantasy and look at Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis, for inspiration. Lex Luthor directly opposes Superman’s moral code of not taking a life, and he occupies a legitimate position in society as a businessman. In some of the Superman story arcs, Lex Luthor tries to bait Superman into attacking and sometimes even “killing” him (though most villains would fake their death in such stories) so that Superman will become the villain, losing the love and support of the people. If you’re going to implement a public villain like this into your games, you absolutely need to plan for what will happen when the players decide “why don’t we just kill him?” We’ll cover this problem in greater detail in a future post.
For a fantasy example of this kind of villain, look no further than Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. She is perhaps the most hated character, even more so than Lord Voldemort, because she has legitimate legal backing for everything she does. Such villains don’t usually make the best primary antagonists, but can be incredibly effective secondary foes for the party. When they get their comeuppance, it’s very satisfying. Done right, this type of villain requires creative thinking to defeat, pushing the players to find a way to play within the rules and still take them down.
That’s a brief overview of Tyrants as villains. The takeaway here is that Tyrants are most dangerous when they are behind the scenes, and most Tyrants take great pains to remain there. Some, like Lex Luthor and Dolores Umbridge, operate in public, which requires more planning on your part but can put your players in a tricky situation and encourage some inventive problem solving. In future weeks we’ll get into the details of how to do all the cool things we’ve talked about here. Tomorrow’s post is all about Hellion villains, the big, bad, scary types who you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. Sometimes you don’t even want to meet them in broad daylight on an open field. Stay tuned.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team