We've covered the two main types of introducing a villain, direct and indirect interaction with the party, and now I want to go over some more unusual methods for bringing a villain to the party's attention. First is what I call the cutscene method, where you tell your players about events occurring in other parts of the world, and the second is the micro-adventure, where your players take on the roles of NPCs and meet the villain through the perspective of commoners before returning to their own characters. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and we'll go over each in turn.
First, cutscene style introduction. In using this method, you need to be ready to monologue for a bit in front of your players. You should be candid with them, saying something akin to "I'd like to have your attention for a moment, to tell you about something important happening elsewhere in the world." You can use the imagery of an actual camera to help with this, saying something like "The camera pans up and away from your group, moving across the land and sea to the town of…" and so on. Keep it short and sweet, you don't want to spend 30 minutes monopolizing the spotlight, and it's better to drop a few vague but important details that leave your players curious and wondering, than to drown them in too much information that isn't relevant.
Here's an example of an effective cutscene introduction for one of my favorite villains, Darth Vader. "The camera pans away from the desert of your home world, up and into the stars above. We see a small ship, badly damaged, captured by a massive imperial star destroyer. Aboard the ship, rebel defenders fight a hopeless battle against overwhelming odds. As the defenders surrender, a towering figure, clad all in black, with a helmet equal parts knight's armor and executioner's hood, enters the ship. His pace is slow and steady, and even his own troops stay well out of his path. He picks up one of the rebel soldiers by the neck, picking him up so his feet dangle in the air as he struggles. 'Where are those transmissions you intercepted? What have you done with those plans?'"
That whole paragraph would take a minute or two to read aloud, and because the scene described is occurring in the skies above Tatooine (in this example, that's where your game would be set), it's also relevant to the the players. You may have noticed this intro is lacking a plot hook, there's nothing in there that compels the players to take action. While you can include a plot hook in a cutscene introduction, it can be distracting and strange to have something the players know influence their characters that strongly. For that reason, I recommend avoiding plot hooks in a cutscene like this, focusing instead on setting the mood and laying the groundwork for a villain the players are too low-level to worry about, for now.
That’s the main strength of a cutscene; establishing a villain who is far beyond the party in strength and who has no reason to care about them. It leads nicely into indirect interaction, with the players beginning to encounter the effects of the villain's schemes, and finally into direct interaction, when the players meet the villain they've heard so much about face to face. This style also works very well when you're dealing with public villains, such as a corrupt king or a conquering warlord, a villain many people in the game world are aware of.
The second unusual style of introduction is the micro-adventure. Here, you again need to ask your players to step outside their characters for a moment, but instead of following an imaginary camera, this time they'll be taking on the roles of NPCs. You could give each of them a small index card with basic statistics on it, or just let them roleplay it out and not worry about rolling dice. For example, tell them they're the militia of a town on the frontier. There have been increased orc raids recently, so they're on high alert. When your villain arrives at the head of an unstoppable army, let the players decide what they do. Do they hold their ground and fight a hopeless battle? Do they try to run and save themselves? Like with the cutscene, you want to keep this short. Start as close to the action as possible, right when the army arrives, and don't spend too much time establishing the NPCs or their hometown. Give each player a chance to make one or two major decisions, then end the scene.
It's up to you whether or not you reward the actions of the players as these minor NPCs. If they lay an ambush, you could make the villain more cautious of ambushes when next encountered. If you do this, however, be wary of encouraging your players to metagame, focusing on how to weaken the villain for when their characters eventually confront them, instead of getting into character and enjoying their new perspective. The goal of this introduction is to make your players feel afraid of the villain and to present them from the perspective of a commoner, not a hardened hero. This is especially true if you’re presenting a monstrous villain to your players, or starting a horror-themed story arc. Most of those stories start with someone wandering into the monster and getting devoured on the spot, rather than them heroically weakening the monster before succumbing.
When you cut back to the party, you can do so right as they hear about what happened. They might catch a bit of a conversation in the tavern about a town recently destroyed by an orc army, or if one of the NPCs they were playing made it out alive, perhaps that very NPC shows up at the door to the tavern, out of breath and barely alive, bringing warning of an approaching army. This style of introduction works best early on in a campaign, especially as part of the very first session. It could be quite jarring to suddenly have a veteran party of adventures be replaced by a bunch of squishy NPCs, but it might also work very well to remind your players that the rest of the world doesn't share their perspective than adventuring is fun and exciting. Monsters are scary.
Hopefully you find these non-traditional methods of introducing a villain inspiring, and if you have your own techniques for helping make a memorable first impression of a villain, leave a comment! For the rest of this week, we’ll be talking about how to establish a villain after they’ve been introduced, including how to keep them relevant and memorable even when a few sessions go by between interactions with them.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team