Villains and Plots

I wrote a while back about the way I like to GM. Read it if you like but here’s the short version – I like to be a reactive GM. I prefer when my players take control of the campaign and I just have to occasionally give them a little push. And I really enjoy winging it. I’m a big fan of just improvising whole sessions and seeing what happens.

But I got into a conversation about railroading again the other day (I really hate those conversations – so unproductive) but in this case it wasn’t just about railroading it was about villains. It started with Caine. It always starts with Caine – stupid Amberite.

In the Amber gamebook there is this whole part about how the Elder Amberites are just, you know, that much better than you. And one of the examples involves Caine waiting for the PCs when they arrive somewhere and they’re all like, “How did you find us? We just decided to come here.” And for many players that is not okay. That kind of “Caine is using GM knowledge” is a railroady, agency-killing fail.

I maintain that this is not, in fact, the case. To my mind it comes down to the intelligence and experience of the villain/NPC in question. And as I expanded this thought in my mind I started thinking about all the super-genius mastermind monsters in D&D. Liches, Mind Flayers, Githyanki, Drow, and so many others when you insert the planar creatures into the mix. I mean, just a lich alone might have an intelligence in the 20′s and centuries of experience. The PCs should be manipulated by such a ridiculous creature. Such a creature should be terrifying in more than just combat situations.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a GM was to make a really good villain and then to make that villain have a plan – and have that plan guaranteed of success… except for the interference of the PCs. And this makes perfect sense to me. Ancient devils, powerful undead, super-genius illithids or dragons might be capable of planning at a level that a bunch of 20-something murder hobos just can’t even process. But those murder hobos are probably going to F*** those plans up really good over the course of a campaign.

Is this railroading? Is this taking away player agency? If we are all having fun (and I really do mean all) and we are all creating a story together, does this question even matter?

I guess, to sum it all up, what I’m getting at is this… separate the GM from the bad guy NPC. But let the villains have plans, let them manipulate the PCs, let them get their way for a while. It’s not railroading if the villain really is just smarter than the opposition. A truly smart/powerful villain should get their way… for a while. And then it’s all the more satisfying when it all comes crashing down.

This is something I do a lot. I haven’t had many complaints over the years but I suppose on the surface it sounds like “evil GM badness.”

I don’t know – what do you all think?

4 responses

  1. It all boils down to trust – and I’d trust you to do it well. I’d trust you that despite that being a 500 year old, intelligence 20 Lich King, that if we were willing to do something that was outside its realm of understanding, it would be truly shocked into inaction because the Lich had never possibly considered that reality.

    The problematic area is that while the Lich King above is a cunning opponent that you need to figure out, or simply be the iconic hero that would do what the Lich King couldn’t contemplate – it is too easy for every bad guy to have a Xanatos Gambit for every possible action. And at that point, the only winning move becomes to not play.

    So yeah, when I develop my super old, super intelligent arch villains, I make sure they work through enough catspaws that the PCs can have small victories against lieutenants (cause when you are 500 years old and intelligent you do NOT risk yourself unless absolutely, critically necessary), as well as developing 3-5 beliefs that the PCs can take advantage of, either directly or indirectly. Everyone has blind spots, everyone has assumptions, and even the most intelligent person forgets to check those assumptions after a while.

  2. Sailing the narrow (and dangerous) channels in between sandboxes and railroads: it’s the history of RPGs since the very beginning. These questions will never be settled once and for all. Anyway, I just love it when you say: “a bunch of 20-something murder hobos”. That should be on a T-shirt and I would force my players to wear them during games (because it’s true)! ;-)

  3. “It all boils down to trust…”
    ^ This. 100% this.

    Players need to be able to trust the GM as much as the GM needs to trust the players. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the GM became the adversary to the players. And that’s wrong.

    “…make a really good villain and then to make that villain have a plan – and have that plan guaranteed of success… except for the interference of the PCs.”

    Even more powerful is when you pull back the curtain on the final scene of the second interaction between the characters and said super-genius villain, and witness the dawning realization on the player’s faces that success of said villain’s second plan hinged solely on the character’s involvement and interference… that’s what makes a villain memorable, personal, and worthy of a group of hero wanna-be murder hobos (I too love that descriptor.)

    Though, as also referenced above, situations like this need to be done with a subtle and light touch lest the players stalemate due to a Xanatos Gambit. Every plot or plan by even uber-villains should have means of being thwarted. And I certainly don’t advocate making a comprehensive and closed list of those means.

    Instead, let the players be creative – if they come up with something they believe should prevent ultimate disaster, and they’re invested in the chance, let them attempt it. Why rob them of the glory of devising and enacting such a plan? I’m not additionally advocating that all plans should succeed, but all plans should certainly have a chance to be successful, and/or limit the impact/result of the villain’s master plan.

    But again, it boils down to trust.
    Do your players trust you?
    Do they know you’re invested in seeking out fun and a good story with them?
    Or do they see you as an adversary to be overcome?

    Finally, let random chance be your most valuable tool. Recognize that planning can oftentimes get in the way of a great happenstance and players tend to be more imaginative and innovative than you. Use that. Because sometimes the best villains have an unplanned and unseen thread the players discover that you hadn’t intended, but naturally evolved.

  4. That’s why I like gaming with you so much. :)

    There’s only a metric ton of reasons the villain could have been there, only a load of resources he has that they don’t. This seems more like the players feeling frustrated and powerless than railroading.

    You can’t avoid railroading if the definition is that broad. By introducing anything into the game that the players don’t control, you could be called out for railroading. Most players I’ve played with want a story or path laid out for them to follow; the best players I’ve played with are much like the ones you prefer, people who take the reins and are proactive in their adventure.

    A great villain should seem sufficiently powerful, at first. If the villain isn’t much to deal with, it cheapens the victory of the hero. If the heroes just mosey their way to defeating the villain, it wasn’t much of a story was it?

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