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Going Epic – 3 of 4

January 27, 2012

So yesterday we talked about building history with characters to establish a series of memorable encounters with the antagonists that would fundamentally create a story line.  We further talked about how creating goals for heroes and villains helped to guide the characters and the storyteller with the things they’ve brought to life.  This all pushes us closer to the goal of the epic campaign story.  But how do we take those villains off the page and make them truly memorable.

I have a bit of a knack for creating real bastards as antagonists.  However, the primary villain in the scenario I’ve run are seldom as loathed as the lieutenants and foot-soldiers of the primary antagonist.  And there is nothing more satisfying than to watch your players express genuine rage at a character that might have just been a simple encounter at one point but has grown to something more… in some cases, much more.

In Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords series, the party that I mentioned Tuesday encountered Gogmurt, the goblin druid. After a brief combat, Gogmurt made a bargain with the party to assist them if they would let him go, and almost immediately betrayed them, leading them into an ambush and flying away in the form of a bird. Did the party let it go?  Of course not.  Every spare moment between adventures, they were searching for Gogmurt.  Seeing this excitement over him, Gogmurt proceeded to use his druidic powers to evade capture (which, as it turns out, are amazing for such a purpose).

I knew I had succeeded in creating a true villain for the party when one member of the group said, “I’m not sure how this world saving thing will turn out, but I’m going to kill Gogmurt before this is all over.”  He had surpassed the primary villain in terms of enmity.  But here’s why… it’s an application of Rule #3

NURTURE YOUR VILLAINS

A good villain has some complexity to them.  Few vie for world domination  and can actually back up that play, so I feel like it’s important to take the goals we established for our villains previously, and get inside the mind of your antagonist to build what their response to their own wants and needs are.  Then, throw in a dash of menace, cunning, or just plain evil, and you have a great start for an epic villain.  Normally, once these goals are applied, a heartless twist is all it takes to push the villain from a faceless minion to an enemy of epic proportions.

Want to get their attention fast?  Have your underling kill the party’s horses, murder a few innocents, poison a well, or spit in their porridge.  You’ll be surprised how personally they take it, especially after he gets away a few times.  Taking down one of these sorts of villains can make a great benchmark or mini-goal and sate the players’ appetite for destruction before the endgame.  Just remember to make whatever actions the villain takes very personal to the PC’s.  Not just trying to kill them (anyone can do that)… we want a villain that is trying to get under their skin.

In all this, something I like to do is to keep in mind that most people don’t believe themselves to be evil.  Gogmurt presented himself in the end of our campaign to be a creature defending his home and its clan, and after being killed, the party’s executioner showed some remorse .  Shades of grey make for good roleplaying opportunities as creatures and classes of various backgrounds try to reconcile their broad conceptions of morality.

But perhaps, more importantly, these villains get to tell their story, and we start to see the adventure more like a movie than a game.  We have a glimpse of the cut scenes that reveal the villain’s motivation, and more than a game gets played, a story is told.

Next week, The Journey – Getting from epic construction to epic delivery

Part One

Part Two

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