And we're back! Things slowed down to PAX South and the recovery period from the convention, but we are back in action. Let's get back into schemes and how to use them!
Villains in tabletop roleplaying games need to be designed first and foremost to make the game better, but that doesn’t mean they always have to play fair. A villain, if they’re trying to do everything in their power to accomplish their goals, should consider striking on multiple fronts. This is particularly appropriate for Archvillains, who can leverage their individual strength to pursue schemes personally while they dispatch minions to distant goals, but all types of villains can benefit from attacking on multiple fronts. Let’s get into it, and figure out how can running multiple schemes make your villains more compelling adversaries!
I have a few more questions to pose as we explore this topic. First, can the players stop all the villain’s schemes? If the answer is no, such as if all the schemes are happening simultaneously and will resolve very quickly, then you need to be open to the idea of the players delegating or even splitting up. If they contact NPC allies and ask for help, that’s awesome. It shows they care about your game world and are getting invested in the setting! That’s the kind of behavior you want to encourage. In other words, the answer shouldn’t be no, it should be “not without help.”
Having said that, sometimes you want to give your players a hard choice and force them to pick the lesser of two evils. That’s very okay to do, but as a Dungeon Master, you should stay open to unconventional solutions that let the party stop both schemes and really save the day. It’s okay if their grand plan to save everyone fails, but they need to be able to try. Otherwise you’re forcing your story onto them, and that’s not what tabletop RPGs are about!
Next question, is one (or more) schemes a distraction? See if you can fold that distraction into the scheme itself rather than tracking two separate schemes. There’s a great scene in the webcomic Order of the Stick in which a powerful lich is assaulting a well defended city. The defenders see three liches approaching from three directions, and assume that two are fake and one is real. Only when it’s almost too late do they realize that a villain who can create two fakes could easily create three fakes, and none of them are real. The actual lich is invisible and riding a dragon high above the battle. In this example, the scheme is about acquiring or destroying the city, and the distraction is just a facet of that scheme. Fewer schemes means less bookkeeping for you, so it’s good to keep it simple as much as possible.
Finally, does each scheme have a unique goal? Multiple schemes should be an attempt to accomplish multiple goals, and the villain should benefit if only one of them succeeds. If a villain tries to steal a powerful magic item, ambush the party while they’re weakened from a previous battle, and plant an informant in the royal court, each of those schemes benefit the villain in distinct ways. This is a great time to have multiple schemes going on at once, especially because two of them (stealing the item and infiltrating the royal court) take time to accomplish, while an ambush is over and resolved very quickly. Mixing up short and long schemes is a good way to balance having multiple schemes, but be aware your players will feel pressured to resolve the short ones before tackling long ones.
So how many is too many? You generally don’t want to present more than three schemes at once to your players. Three options is a very standard set in games, fiction, and is about the limit on what players can be expected to keep track of. You should also pay attention to your group, and see how they react to being given multiple options. In many groups they will want to do everything, and so will approach the multiple schemes under the assumption they can do all of them unless you tell them explicitly that time is of the essence, or that these events are happening simultaneously. You should also know how often your group meets, because a weekly group can handle a more complex situation than one that meets only monthly.
Running multiple schemes at the same time should be sparingly. It can really amp up the tension in a game, especially if the players are used to feeling on top of all the challenges that have come their way. If your game already has a lot of dangling plot hooks, sidequests, and unresolved opportunities, then be very cautious about adding many schemes into the mix. You can easily overwhelm your players with too many choices and also overwhelm yourself with too much prep work between games. When in doubt, stick to one scheme at a time. Many villains will dedicate all their resources to a single scheme to maximize the chances of success, and that’s why they run one at a time, just in case your players ask. You can also tell them it makes your life easier, and they should understand. While you’re at it, remind them to bring more snacks.
Check in tomorrow for a post all about what happens if the players miss your plot hooks and the scheme goes off entirely in the background!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team