Yesterday’s post covered the three main types of schemes you’ll see in Tyrants & Hellions, and today’s post is all about breaking down what makes a scheme strong and what makes a weak scheme… well, not strong. Strong, in this case, means the scheme is fun, engaging, and interesting. The goal of this post is to give you some further insights into the design process of villains in Tyrants & Hellions and give you some tips and techniques you can use in your game when you’re making your own villain. Let’s start with elements of a good scheme, easy things to do that make a scheme fun and interesting!
A strong scheme has multiple points of engagement. Ask yourself when designing a villain’s scheme, “when are my players going to try to stop this?” If your villain is sending an army to attack a city, the most obvious points are either your players trying to take down the army before it attacks the city, or helping defend the city during the attack itself. If you focus on an epic scene involving the players defending the city like Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings, and they choose to engage the army on open ground, you’ll have to scramble to keep up. Now, players are always full of surprises, but with a little advance planning you can prepare for some of them.
A strong scheme has a purpose. I emphasized this in yesterday’s post, but it bears repeating here. A scheme should be happening for a reason. You don’t want a villain who attacks a town for no reason, they should gain something from it. It can be abstract and personal like satisfaction or revenge, or it can be tangible and material, like resources or territory. As long as you can answer the question of “why is this happening?” you’ll be in good shape.
A strong scheme advances the story regardless of whether it succeeds or fails. Generally, if a scheme succeeds, the villain just moves on to the next one. But if they fail, the villain should have a response ready. That response should not be to mock the players via a magical sending, and it really should not give away the details of the villain’s next plan. I’m looking at you, Azmodan in Diablo 3. Does the villain fall back and lay low, regrouping before they try the same scheme again? Do they lash out in anger, committing all of their resources in an attempt to strike before the defenders recover? Some villains might be powerful enough that they can keep attempting the same scheme again and again until the heroes strike at the source.
A strong scheme ties into the villain’s personality. What I mean by that is a good scheme should allow clever players room to gain an advantage over the villain, and let the villain gain an advantage over a foolish party. If the scheme is led by a villain’s lieutenant and the players capture him, perhaps they can learn something of the villain’s weaknesses. Of course, if one of the villain’s traits is that they have unwaveringly loyal minions, anything the players learn is likely to be a lie and lead them straight into a trap. If the villain leads her schemes herself, perhaps the heroes can wound her or deal lasting damage that will weaken her when they finally fight. This ties into the previous point about advancing the story with each scheme, but it’s also important to present the schemes in a way that matches the villain.
A weak scheme doesn’t lead the players anywhere. A good scheme gives them information to act on, or at least piques their curiosity enough to get them to start asking questions. If zombies attack the town, and the zombies are led by a necromancer, your players might not ask “was that necromancer working for someone?” unless you put a letter on the necromancer that explains he is being paid for his service. That is a very blunt example, so let’s go with something more nuanced. Once the characters have gained a few levels and made a few friends, they’ll likely be in demand. If they get called away to deal with something (like a zombie attack) and return to find that in their absence, something much worse has happened to their home (with only a name on the last survivor’s lips to go on), that’s going to make them hate your villain. That’s a good reaction. And while they have very little information to go on, they have a starting point and the motivation to start asking questions.
A weak scheme focuses on the small details instead of the significance of the actions. If your villainous schemes involve manipulating the political landscape of your world to alter restrictions on pottery imports so the villain can make a killing in the newly expanded luxury market… your players might not care. If your villain is getting rich so they can buy the resources they need to build a doomsday machine, your players are going to be more interested. Perhaps the method they’re using is the aforementioned pottery scheme, but if your players know the stakes, they’ll take a greater interest in the minutia. This is even more important with small details that are normally compelling, like if the villain is murdering puppies. Of course your players will want to stop the evil puppy murderer, but unless they have a reason for doing that, you are going to get some weird looks from your friends at the table. Also, your villain won’t be very compelling.
Those are some of the guiding principles behind the schemes you’ll see in Tyrants & Hellions. While anything can happen between the time of this post and the release of the book, just writing them out here has already got my gears spinning and the ideas flowing. I hope they do the same for you! Tune in tomorrow for a post all about running multiple schemes simultaneously without confusing or boring your players!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team