Yesterday we talked about introducing a villain through direct interaction. Today we’re going to talk about indirect interaction! This category is very, very broad, because it includes everything from a goblin boss dropping the name of your villain as his excuse for raiding nearby villages to the sky raining fire and cultists proclaiming that your villain has returned to remake the world in their image. In both cases, the players are hearing about the villain, and seeing the impact of the villain’s influence, but they don’t actually meet, see, or otherwise interact with the villain directly.
One of my personal favorite indirect introductions of a villain is The Mule from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In the books, galactic civilization is slowly recovering from the collapse of the old empire. While the titular Foundation works to rebuild, they’re following a plan that dictates the general behavior of humankind on a grand scale, for they believe no individual person could have an effect on the entire galaxy. Then, things start going wrong. Armies are defeated, or turn against their leaders, swearing allegiance to “The Mule”, a mysterious figure who no one has seen in person.
Our villain, “The Mule”, is later revealed as a telepath with great psychic influence, capable of convincing almost anyone he meets to join his cause, which would make a direct interaction between him and the main characters of the book either a very quick end to the story, or a disappointing showdown in which some flimsy excuse prevents the heroes from being affected. For villains like this, indirect interaction is the name of the game. The Mule communicates through messengers and other avenues that don’t require his physical presence, which serves the dual purpose of concealing his true powers and maintaining his status as a symbol. Villains that are not physically imposing or impressive may favor this technique.
This is essentially a complex way of using a very simple technique for indirect introductions: namedropping. In one of my personal campaigns, I introduced a villain named Purgos as the leader of a faction called the Silver Ones. A tribe of goblins described how the Silver Ones would raid their camps and had taken several of them underground, and the translation errors between the goblin language and the common tongue made exact information difficult to ascertain. This sparked their curiosity, but also some disinterest, why should they care about this Purgos? And who are the Silver Ones? It’s important to give your players some information, here the bit about kidnappings. Even goblins don’t deserve to be stolen from their friends and family, and that was enough to convince them that Purgos should be dealt with.
Earlier in the campaign, the characters had acquired a small floating orb that emitted light and would float close behind anyone who commanded it to follow them. They found it useful, so they kept it with them. On a whim, they asked the goblins about it. The goblins freaked out. They said the silver orbs are “Eyes of Purgos” and they are “very, very bad”. Now the players got legitimately spooked, because suddenly Purgos went from a distant threat to someone who had been watching them. It became personal. It further established that Purgos has a reach greater than just kidnapping goblins. Eventually they uncovered a few more clues: the Silver Ones are ghosts, Purgos is a Lich, and they need to track down her phylactry if they want to defeat her permanently.
The latter part of this is getting into the topic of establishing a villain after their initial introduction, which we’ll be covering later this week, so let’s get back to the intro. An indirect introduction maintains an air of mystery for the villain, encouraging the players to explore, research, and try to learn more. It typically also encourages them to avoid direct confrontation, but very gung-ho players may be motivated to seek out a villain who dances around in the shadows and face them head on. That will generally backfire, but it might go well if the villain isn’t expecting it. We’ll cover confronting villains in a future series of posts, and offer some advice for how to deal with it happening before you (or the villain) is ready for it.
To summarize, a good indirect introduction has three key elements: the villain’s name, one of the villain’s schemes, and a sense of the villain’s scope (which also tells the players how urgently they should confront them). The villain’s name is obvious, though it can be a nickname, title, or anything else, the players need some way to refer to the villain (short and sweet is best here) so they can remember who it is when they meet them several sessions in the future. The introduction should also include some element of one of the villain’s schemes, because the players need to know what the villain is doing to figure out how they should respond. This can be as simple as telling the players the villain is robbing banks, kidnapping nobility, or raising an army. Finally, you need a sense of scope. Did the villain rob one bank in one town, or this is a coordinated crimewave that’s drained the coffers of three different nations? In general, the bigger the scope, the more urgent this plot hook will feel to your players. It should also generally match the party’s level, with higher level players finding out about bigger schemes that only they are equipped to handle.
That’s a quick look at indirect interaction as a way to introduce a villain in your game. Tomorrow’s post will cover a couple of unusual methods for introducing a villain, and then we’ll finish up the week with a pair of posts on establishing a villain once you’ve introduced them!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team