All posts by indelikatt

I'm just this girl, y'know?

Game World Building 101: “Hello. My name is Destrine Star’Rune, and I’m an Elven Alcoholic.”

NPCs are whomever we make them. The possibilities for the range of intelligence, humor, psychological issues, and so on are endless. Yet again and again we see characters that are stereotypes.

Swillbinge the Dwarf just downed his tenth tankard of ale. Five more and he’ll start to feel it, but he’ll be too busy mumbling in his heavy Scottish accent to care.

Thugg, the Half-Orc in the party, is right there with him though. Those nine mugs of ale were needed to wash down the entire turkey he just consumed (bones and all). Without the party’s help though he wouldn’t have the intelligence, or good graces, to pay his tab.

Klepto McBardy, the Halfling, is finding it all great sport. His songs and tales are filling the room with laughter…while his nimble fingers fill his pockets with “things he’s keeping safe”.

Only A’loof’n Pr’tenshus remains unamused. The Elven wizard barely glances up from her heavy tome as the party finds itself in a tavern fight with the highlord’s minions. With a reluctant sigh, she closes the volume and rolls initiative.

Even if I hadn’t identified the characters above by race, could you have guessed correctly based on their description? I bet you could. So why do these generic NPCs (or, worse, PCs) keep appearing?

We could start pointing fingers, at Tolkein and others, for making things this way. But, unless you’re playing in Middle Earth, who dictates the standard? It’s the DM’s world and it’s up to each of us to decide what works.

Try taking a step back and examining the mechanics of the race. Dwarves have darkvision so it makes sense that they evolved (or were created) in an area with no light. That fits the tradition of a race that lives in caves and mines. Such an environment also fits their stocky build; their low center of gravity helping them on shifting slopes.

But how are they making all this ale they are supposedly so fond of drinking? Not many barley fields a mile underground. And the Scottish accent? Well, there’s no “Scotland” at all but it sounds like it. While the DM might have to use an Earth accent just to keep things consistent for himself, why couldn’t the accent sound African or Spanish or pretty much anything but bad Gaelic?

Halflings? One of my worlds keeps the idea that halflings are socially clever and great with growing things. But, while some are farmers of the traditional sort, many others are farmers of a flower used to make narcotics. Using their agricultural skill, and a societal bent toward Evil for a change, the halflings rule a drug cartel that few want to cross. The halflings can be as clever with ways to deliver pain to their enemies; a swerve on the stereotypical Halfling creativity.

Of course, the whole point is to avoid stereotypes altogether. Not all Halflings should be good-natured Rogues or, for that matter, sadistic drug lords. In our own world we seek to eliminate racism and racial stereotypes. The same enlightened approach should be employed in the game world. But, just as there is a basis as to why certain characteristics are associated with humans on Earth, so too can we craft some basis for it on your game world.

The suggestion is to step back and look at the big picture of the world you want to create. Then focus in, designing your races’ nature in a way that fits that view without simply repeating the same old tropes.

You know who can often be the most helpful in this design process? Non-gamers.
Those who don’t play RPGs, and are not even lovers of fantasy movies and books, can have a very unbiased perspective on the whole thing. When you mention “elf”, they don’t think of Galadriel and Legolas. They think of Ernie, making cookies in a tree. Their thoughts, even if they don’t know how to apply them to a gaming situation, might just spark some creative ideas of your own.

Any way you go about it, you will benefit from a game world that feels a little bit fresh, even to longtime diehard gamers. It’s also a bit of a challenge for you as a DM, and that’s a good thing too. The end result is a more vibrant world that still adheres to any game mechanics you use but provides a setting your players are intrigued enough to explore.

“Who ordered the roast basilisk with honey served on a pine plank?”

(shrugs) That’s for you to decide. Maybe that’s a cultural delicacy for the humans in this town? The half-orc isn’t sure. He’s too busy calculating probabilities of success on the party’s next dungeon crawl. Orcs are renowned for their math skills, didn’t you know?

(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N., aka Navarre)

Game Building 101: Downtime and Level Advancement

In a campaign world, the higher level a character (PC or NPCs) is, the less he or she represents the size of the population. For example, it may not be hard to find a 3rd level Fighter in the local town, but if you find a 15th level Fighter, she’s a pretty big deal.

So why is it that in most games (including my own), PC characters rise from 1st level to 20th level in usually a few months to a year of in-game time? Even if downtime is included, it is a random “Okay, you have two months of downtime. Tell me what you want to do.”  Then the game picks up the next session, incorporating some things from the downtime but not having too much effect on the overall game.

The PC says he’s going to research a spell and make a few wands, maybe even build a small wizard’s tower. It happens and, other than a few incidences for flavor, everyone jumps right back to the plot, probably leaving the tower behind.

Part of the reason this happens is because, from a meta-gaming standpoint, the game is too often about the plot. The DM has worked in his secret lair for weeks or months to craft the game so, clearly, the PC is there to defeat the overlord Ensydious Tyrent, not grow petunias in his back yard and take care of his son, Little Jimmy.

Players usually follow the same mindset, which might be part of the reason most PCs have parents and siblings (albeit missing or recent converts to Tyrent’s cause) but rarely have children or even spouses. Who has time to care about a family when there’s a +5 Dancing Sword out there with your name on it?

So the campaign speeds along as PCs jump from one adventure arc to the next, with a smattering of downtime thrown in to add any semblance of realism. Soon enough, the world is saved, the PCs are 20th level, and one of the party even had a single birthday during all that time. While the PCs are probably far above the norm, how does one account for such incredible level advancement in such a short amount of time?

Let’s try a different approach, one that makes the story about the characters and not only the plot. What if the campaign takes, say, fifty years of game time? I think it makes much more sense for a 1st level character who’s 20 years old to be 70 when he finally hits 20th level, not 21 years old.

It should be noted, of course, that fifty years is a long time to a human but “last Tuesday” to an elf. So one has to consider why all elves aren’t in the upper-teen levels as compared to humans.

Maybe the answer is as simple as, while the elf can have a lot of adventures over the course of her life, it isn’t simply the actions that matter. Wisdom is a reflection on our experiences, not the experiences themselves. Elves take longer to reflect and learn from their experiences because their perspective of time is so much different than that of a human.

Over the course of the PC’s fifty years, they will have varying periods of downtime. I will also suggest up front that the term “downtime” should be renamed. The name suggests it’s the less important time used for less important things, ie “not the adventuring job”. But just because a soldier or police officer is on leave doesn’t mean what happens in his daily life isn’t just as important to the entire scope of his life. So let’s call these time periods “intervals”.

The first adventure arc might encompass, for example, levels 1-2. Then the characters might have an interval of 3-5 years where they are doing other things. Whether they are running businesses, working their 9-5, starting a family, or whatever, these things matter.

Likewise, the rest of the world is moving on as well. When the adventuring party reconvenes (for whatever plausible reason) they reencounter the bartender at that first tavern where they all met (and had a brawl because that’s what taverns are for). The barkeep, Bart Ender, having seen years ago that tavern work is dangerous, quit bar tending. Bart went to trade school and got his private security license (with a minor in business management). Five years later Bart is the owner of “Behind Bars”, a security firm that maintains safety in taverns across the region; mostly by keeping an eye on any character found sitting at the shadowed table in the corner.

Maybe a PC has met a fine woman and they now have a three year old son. But the spouse’s father recently passed away, the mother-in-law has moved in, and she is quick to argue that no self-respecting father would go hunt renegade orcs and leave their wife and child at home.

Often, in comics or movies as well as games, these sort of things aren’t included. Part of the reason is that it is, actually, a challenge for Peter Parker to justify his adventuring ways when he has a wife (or if he had a child). But that is exactly the sort of thing that Parker has always done, even where it concerned his Aunt May. And, not only did he still put on the tights, but he is a more layered and interesting character for it.

During the intervals, the DM could have a session or two to cover events and RP that occur during the interval. The PCs are likely split up during this time so it may require shorter individual sessions. But the goal of the game isn’t to get to the end as much as enjoying the entire thing from top to bottom.

Work with the player to help them develop their life; the life they would try to live if they didn’t suffer the call to action that all heroes must suffer. If the PC’s time is spent researching then give them extra ranks in that Knowledge. If they decide to help the city watch patrol for those orcs then you likely don’t want to give them levels, as that would unbalance the group, but they certainly earn ranks in Spot, Listen, and Survival.

Each PC gains some number of Skill points, distributed based on their activities. They also gain RP connections to other NPCs that might prove useful during the adventure arcs. A good DM can easily incorporate the interval activities to the adventures themselves.

Then, after a couple weeks of real time as the players and DM work on the intervals, the PCs will be able to have a more realistic feel to the passage of time when the party gathers once again as Ensydious Tyrent’s forces are spotted in the western marshes. Peace has been a pleasant reprieve for the party but destiny calls.

It should be noted that the DM might have to take a different perspective on how their campaign is organized. A game with impending doom just around the corner doesn’t leave time for many breaks from the action. But, again, I assert that doesn’t have to mean 20 levels of non-stop adventure.

For all the things Frodo Baggins did during his trip from the Shire to Mordor, the time involved still wasn’t enough to account for 20 levels of advancement. If you look at Frodo from when he started to when he reached Mt. Doom, that arc might have been only five levels or so.
So think of these arcs as mini-campaigns that, together, comprise the breadth of the PC’s life. If the focus is on the characters living in a vibrant world, they will find no end of plots (which may even ultimately all connect together).

This cycle of adventure/interval repeats over the lives of the characters. Fifteen years after that first meeting at the tavern, the party now owns their own town and land. But those fifteen years have been enough time for Bazterd Tyrent, son of Ensydious, to grow up and seek vengeance against the party for killing his father years ago.

Decades later, the party (now Lords, Arch-Mages, and all-around heroes) meets in the flying crystal castle of their Fighter’s cloud kingdom. Maybe they will enjoy stopping by the Auld Lang Syne (formerly Bart’s Tavern) for one last drink and reflection on their fifty years together.

Someday, the elves and dwarves in the party will sadly move on, after the funeral of their less-long-lived comrades, still holding much adventure and intervals to come. But that is another story.

Extra: It should be noted that the Pathfinder SRD has information on the use of downtime.

http://www.d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/other-rules/downtime

The rules seem rather too convoluted to provide the sort of story flow I am suggesting. But the concepts might be useful to a DM in handling the mechanics of events during the intervals.

(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N., aka Navarre)

Game World Building 101: Great Orc Parties Throughout History

Many DMs, myself included, enjoy creating their own game worlds. There is a certain satisfaction is seeing a few ideas grow and coalesce into a vibrant game world ready for your players to explore.

 

One of the challenges when creating a home brew world is developing something that is unique enough to stand out while still being familiar enough to be functional. This can be a tricky balance.

 

It would be amazing to have a world with fully functional racial tongues for example. To be able to prattle on in Goblin as you play an NPC would provide an immersion into the game world. But then what happens when your PC’s Ranger decides to learn to speak Goblin? You don’t want to haul out the Rosetta Stone to play.

 

The same is true with world history. The DM needs to know at least enough to answer questions and maintain continuity. If the orcs all wear lamp shades on their heads in memory of Brad’s Great Orc Party of 1472 then the next orc met should either be wearing a lamp shade on his head or have a reason to be wearing a beanie instead.

 

But expecting the player to know all his/her PC would know can be a challenge. The PC might have max ranks in Knowledge, History but the player running them might not enjoy looking through a five-hundred page PDF every time a question comes up.

 

The usual way around such obstacles is that the DM rolls (when necessary) for a skill or piece of knowledge, informs the player at the table, then the player regurgitates it back to the party in-character. This works. But can it work better?

 

One possibility would be to involve your players in the game world creation process. This assumes you already know who your players are going to be and is really only useful for a long-term campaign. But, given players who would enjoy the collaboration, you all gain some advantages from this approach.

 

One advantage is that the player who creates the game world information is going to be as familiar with it as you are, at least up to that point. They know all about Brad the Orc’s party from 160 years ago because they created it.

 

This allows some distribution of work, making it easier on the DM. It’s also more fun because the DM and player get to share time working on ideas. It is more immersive for the player. We tend to be the most involved in ideas that come from our own creativity.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean the player knows all there is to know. He has helped himself, and you, by developing the details of Brad and why his party happened. He knows about the Alpha Sigma Swine fraternity that showed up with the kegs and how his brother Larry made lamp shades the new fashion staple.

 

What the player doesn’t know is that Brad secretly worked for the lich lord, Evilich, who took advantage of the situation to instill soul-controlling effects into the lamp shades. Evilich’s minion, Becky (a most cheerful halfling), owns the largest lamp shade manufacturing business in the land…each lampshade fitted with necromantic magic just waiting for Evilich to activate it.

 

The DM still maintains control over the end result but I prefer to think of it more as “coordination” than “control”. The DM works as the hub for the players to make sure the ideas being developed fit the tone, theme, and necessity of the game world.

 

Similar development can be shared with your players on geography, religion, economics, noble lines, wars, anything you desire. The end result is a collaborative effort where the player feels more at home.

 

His or her PC might be given free ranks in a Knowledge related to what he or she developed, one of the payments for their efforts that translate to a realistic trait for their PC. A player doesn’t have to work on the game world creation, of course, and should never be made to feel less important because of it. But having max ranks in a free Knowledge is a nice motivator for those who do.

 

The primary goal of any game should be to have fun and share time with friends. This is one suggestion on how to expand that time and get the most from the entire process.

 

(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N., aka Navarre)

I Want To Be Lara Croft When I Grow Up

lara crouching

A common question for those young and old is, “Who is your hero?” The answers can vary, from Wolverine for his fierceness or Captain America for his moral code (my boyfriend’s choice!) to Ghandi for efforts toward peace (though the historian in me knows Ghandi had his own issues) and Mother Theresa for her humility and dedication to helping others. Some might name someone they know personally, a family member who rose to great heights in politics or a local doctor known for saving lives. It might even be on a smaller scale…someone might name a parent or grandparent who touched their lives in some meaningful way. Most of us have a hero, and that choice can show a lot about the kind of person you feel that you are.

I was asked this question recently in a quiz from that grand old black hole of fandom and obsession known as Tumblr (not safe work work and occasionally not safe for life). For me, the answer was blazingly obvious. I have a hero, and her name…is Lara Croft.

lara being a bamf

Why Lara? Let me tell you, there are tons of amazing reasons. Let’s keep it to the top five, though, shall we? (some spoilers below if you have not played the games)

1. Lara Croft is hella tough.

lara is tough

In the first set of games (games 1-6), Lara’s biography states that (besides being a precocious teenager and going on an archaeological trip at 16) she survived a terrifying crash in the Himalayas at age 21. She got herself out of the mountains and walked into a village, having survived for two weeks on her wits and ability.

In the redo of the series, starting with Tomb Raider: Legend, the story is tweaked. Instead of being a young 20-something, Lara is 9. The crash, still in the Himalayas, results (though not immediately) to the loss of her mother. A ten-day journey across those mountains landed her in Katmandu, where she phoned her father asking to be picked up at his earliest convenience.

She survived the Himalayas. At age 9. Improbable? Entirely. Inspiring? Absolutely!

She goes on, as she grows older, to become an Olympic-level gymnast, able to soar through the sky (and across our screens) with the kind of grace that is impossible to ignore…if for no other reason than she can swan dive so happily to (repeated) deaths at the hands of us, the players. She layers that elegance over her undeniable strength and isn’t afraid to demonstrate it at

2. Lara is not only tough, but she’s one smart cookie.

Lara_Croft_Book

Remember that story about how she survived the Himalayas? It wasn’t just on toughness alone. With a genius-level intellect, she was able to cross the largest mountain range in the world and survive by learning how to manage her environment. She shows us, fully, that knowing information isn’t the only way you can be smart…you have to be able to take in new bits of data and change your perspective and reactions according to what you learn.

With each adventure we follow Lara on, she has to take in the new information she finds (Mjolnir exists? Whaaaatttt???) and mesh it with what she already knows (details about Norse mythology and why Xibalba is so freaking awesome…and scary) to be able to save the day (by stopping the Midgard Serpent, aka the seams of the tectonic plates)! Granted, this is all from the plot of Tomb Raider: Underworld, but it just happens to highlight the intelligence with which Lara puts together information, and it’s always inspired me to research the things she’s talking about in the games.

Because of Lara, I learned bout Xibalba and the gods One Death and Seven Death. I researched the concepts of monomyths and comparative mythology (referenced, though not by name, in Legend and Underworld) and looked farther into Egyptian, Roman, and South American histories and mythologies. I know most of what she says and does doesn’t have as much truth to it, but it makes you wonder and, if you’re curious enough, it makes you research.

3. Lara is unapologetically feminine…and masculine.*

lara as a lady

Being strong and smart are two things that just barely begin to describe Lara Croft. She can hang with the boys (as well she should, being based on Indiana Jones) but makes no bones about the fact that she is a woman.
In her genesis as a video game character, she was a sex symbol: all small waist, big boobs and butt, sensual eyes, and come-hither voice. In some incarnations found in later games, her bust line expanded…but so did her fierceness. She was more than happy to don a ball gown and attend the opera (Last Revelation), and then rip her nice dress and kick off her heels when dealing with a Yakuza boss (Legend).

Her willingness to wear the dress and the heels and be beautifully feminine and then ditch it all to run around in muddy clothes, shooting enemies and solving the mysteries of the world’s greatest artifacts screams one very important thing: Lara Croft is not going to sit and conform to your gender roles. She makes her own rules and decides what is and is not ladylike…and sometimes that involves shooting someone in the face. Other times, it involves flirting her way out of disaster. Either way, she’s comfortable with herself and doesn’t feel limited to something society tells her she should conform to.

4. Lara Croft has evolved.

comparison

One thing I am a sucker for, at all times and in all places, is character development. If you can show me how a character evolves and grows, even if they go in a really dark direction, you have my attention. That journey means everything to me, and it comes as no surprise (since you’re still reading) that Lara fits that description beautifully.

Her evolution begins as she goes from being a sex symbol to a character girls can aspire to become: smart, confident, capable, and not afraid of being either feminine or masculine (since to her, neither seems to be superior). Just in that, she’s developed into a fully fledged character with a personality and history, some of which we get to play through in the games.

She’s become even more human with the last game, 2013′s Tomb Raider. In the game, we go back to the beginning with a reimagining of her origins. We see the trauma and trials she’s undergone and how scared she is at the beginning, and how she blossoms into a creature that is ever so much closer to the Lara we know: able to fight, able to handle herself in harsh conditions, and able to give as good as she gets.

5. Lara Croft taught me how to grow up.

internal examination

As a teenager, I dealt with a great deal of familial discord. For the most part, my parents were confused by me and I disliked my parents (as it is with most teenagers). The issues went deeper, however, and by the time I entered college I did not speak with my mother often. I could not understand why we were all so incapable of listening to one another like rational human beings, and after a certain point I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Eventually, however, I found the key that began the long road to sorting out my own issues, and within I found the strength and maturity to work things out bit by bit with my family.

See, Lara gets to do something very special even in all her fictional glory. Lara gets to delve into the past and see how things began, to see the origins of the ideas we have today. She has the unique opportunity to get at the root of our cultural ideas and myths and explore how they’ve changed into what we now know. And this idea, this concept that grew out of creating a sex symbol…it became so much more powerful, especially to a young adult who was desperately trying to sort out her own family issues. It became vital, in my eyes, to find the root causes for the discord among those close to me, and there? I found the key to understanding my family.

We all have our hurts and our pains. When things go terribly wrong in families, it’s not uncommon that grandparents and great grandparents on up the line have all sowed the seeds of pain and sadness. I got the chance to step back and to see how the ways my parents treated me were reflected in the ways their parents treated them, on and on back into the family. That understanding was huge in my life because things began to make sense. It never once excused behavior that was inappropriate or hurtful, but if you can understand the reasoning behind the behaviors you can move on and heal much more easily.
 
Lara Croft is quite the character. She’s strong, smart, doesn’t take your gender roles sitting down, she grows, and she teaches. All of these are things I admire most in a person, and that’s why I want to be Lara Croft when I grow up.
 
 
*This one gets a little more complicated to explain, so let me note: I am writing this section going by the traits that are considered by Western cultures to be masculine and feminine. This is not to say that those definitions hold true without argument, as I personally find them to be limiting…but examining how Lara fits and does not fit into these categories will show why I love her for this so very very much.

D&D Campaign Building 101: Villains

If your D&D game is like most, your PCs are probably the heroic types. They put the rightful heir to the kingdom on the throne, save the princess, quell the hobgoblin uprising, and prevent the magical MacGuffin object from falling into the wrong hands.

Regardless of alignment, the PCs will do what they think is the “right thing”. The game is shaped around their perspectives and values.

In many games it is easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Unless your PCs are Evil, there is little denying they will feel compelled to go against the unsavory villains you place in front of them. Your villain is the traditional “BwuaHaha” villain who wants to conquer because he can (eg, Sauron from “Lord of the Rings”).

The advantage of such a villain is that they give the players a clearly defined goal. But the game can seem too much of a by-the-numbers adventure. It is undeniably clear that there is little to do except undertake the adventures necessary to stop the villain (eg, destroy the One Ring).

Such villains serve for only one end: They must be defeated by any means necessary to “win” the game. There’s just no reasoning with these people.

But the peril on the other end of the continuum is a villain who is too reasonable. While villains of this sort are much more layered and realistic, they are perhaps so understandable that they generate a degree of sympathy and willingness to try and work through the issue with them. The game can fall apart because sheer diplomacy and patience may turn the “big bad” adversary into an ally.

The best villains probably fall somewhere in the middle. Magneto from the X-Men series is a villain who is sympathetic in his creation but vicious in his execution. We understand why he is the way he is but we can’t condone his actions because of it.

We may not even understand the reasons behind the villain, but simply be able to assume they must be horrific. Here you get villains like The Joker.

While one would have to assume there is much that would have to happen to a child to turn him into this sort of person, we don’t know what it is. We never get to understand him save for what he presents to us in his psychotic dialog.

So we can’t fully sympathize with him or support his views. Like Magneto, we might care about whatever traumas befell him as a child, but we aren’t privy to them. But like all villains, whether it be the sympathetic Magneto or the wholly diabolical Sauron, it is clear he must be stopped.

It seems we most benefit then from a villain who is neither too one-dimensional nor too easily engaged in socially acceptable discussion. So, that being said…

What Makes a Good Villain?

1) The villain sees the world in a skewed way.

This is true of villains such as The Joker and Magneto. That their acts are villainous can’t be denied. They are probably beyond help.

But their perspective of the world is as intriguing as their actions toward it. Even if we don’t understand their foundation (eg, Joker) we are fascinated by how someone so intelligent and capable, and in many ways like us, could see the world so differently.

We said earlier that the game is shaped around the heroic PC’s perspectives and values. Well, remember that, from the villain’s perspective, they too are doing the right thing.

They may recognize that their actions are not socially/morally/ethically acceptable. But, in their mind, it is always justified.

2) The villain has the power to enact change, and is motivated to do so.

You can’t have an impotent villain. Those people are just philosophers.

The villain has to have the power to fundamentally change the world around him or her. This might be done through minions, devices, or whatever. It may not be direct. But that is power nonetheless.

Therefore, if the PCs are opposed to the antagonist (and are, by definition) then they have reason to fear. If the villain is left unchecked, undesirable things will happen.

3) The villain is often a dark reflection of the hero.

In many cases, the villain represents what the hero might be if they too had the skewed perspective listed in Item #1. This isn’t always the case, but it can make for an interesting contrast.

Harry Potter is a wizard living in the muggle world. He wants to develop his gifts in peace, living the best from both worlds. – – Voldemort was a wizard living in the muggle world. He wants to develop his gifts but sees no peace between muggles and wizards. The first must be controlled/eradicated and the latter must swear fealty to him.

Luke Skywalker is the chosen one, a Jedi destined to bring peace to the galaxy. – – Darth Vader, as Anakin Skywalker, was the chosen one. He was to bring peace to the galaxy but instead he led it into the Emperor’s rule.

Charles Xavier is one of the most powerful mutants on Earth, dedicated to helping mutants and humans to live together in equality. – – Magneto is one of the most powerful mutants on Earth, convinced equality is a pipe dream and dedicated to the institution of mutant dominance. … and, interestingly, there are many parallels between this story and that of Harry/Voldemort.

Batman is a zealot who seeks to protect Gotham City from itself. He believes he can save the society that Gotham represents. – – The Joker is a zealot who believes society is beyond hope. He would hasten Gotham City to anarchy and chaos.

These are just a few examples of the dichotomy so often seen in villains as compared to the hero.

The hero is as much defined by their foes as they are by their own values and actions. These heroes need their villains. So, in crafting a good villain NPC, try building him around the heroic PC.

4) The villain often has a distinctive physical quality

Darth Vader’s respirator makes an unmistakable and recognizable sound.

The Joker has scars that make him resemble a demented clown.

Voldemort had the visage of a snake.

Agent Smith from “The Matrix” had a unique speech pattern.

So it would seem that a really memorable villain may have such a distinctive quality. Then again, it is okay to break the stereotypes.

Maybe the villain is someone so innocuous as to be invisible until it’s too late. No one suspects Harvey, the village dung sweeper, of being the master villain. … but if that was your role in life, maybe you’d want to conquer the world too.

If you want an example of a master villain from the movies, one you never see coming, here’s the one name to remember: Keyser Soze.

5) You (the DM) has to understand your villain in and out. Your players don’t.

The only way you can present your villain as you wish, no matter how simplistic or complex he may be, is to know him.

The villain isn’t placed in the game to be defeated. When writing the plot, think of the villain as if he was the campaign’s PC and shape his actions accordingly.

From the villain’s perspective, it is the player party that needs to be defeated, and for good reason, if things are to end up as the “villain” wishes. The villain will take actions based on his perspectives and values. Likewise, he will react to the party’s actions (or those of others) on the same psychological foundation.

So the only way you can properly write those actions and reactions is to understand that foundation. The reaction of “Curses! You’re trying to stop me. I’ll kill you!” is a generic response. Your villains can do much more if you understand them.

The Joker says he’s a mad dog off his leash. No doubt. But even that mad dog has thoughts in his head.

Might the Joker (in the scenes we don’t see) be found alone, ruminating over everything? We draw our perspective of the world from our reflections of the past. I bet the Joker has a lot to think about.

“The world is a cruel and terrible place [Everything, from Joker’s perspective, confirms it]. We kid ourselves that we can be saved because beneath all those lies we call ‘society’ and ‘law’ there is just a bunch of animals waiting to tear each other apart.

But they are all so blind. They don’t see because they don’t want to see. I have to show them […because, if I can’t, I have no way to justify the kind of person I really am. I have to prove them all to be just like me.]

They look for anything to give them hope that all the truths they know are lies. Their gods. Their Batman. If I can break those false idols then they will have no choice but to admit the truth [then I won’t have to hate myself because we’re all on an equal playing field. In the end, none of this matters and I refuse to live my life being the only one who can accept it.]”

I am only guessing at what the Joker might really think. I can’t know.

The reason I can’t know is because we are following the part of Batman (our hero) when watching the movie. We don’t get to know the villain so intimately.

But Christopher Nolan has to. He has to know his antagonist from the inside out. As DM, so do you.

You don’t have to hand all that over to the players. Nolan didn’t. You only have to give them enough to motivate them to act. But, if you know your NPCs through and through, you now have the ability to give the players as much as you want to form an image of the foe they face.

6) Invite the Villain over for tea?

Some villains can be reasoned with. Some cannot. But, either way, your heroes are bound to try.

Even if the players expect, and secretly hope, to fight the villain, they will likely feel compelled to try and reason with him first. After all, everyone likes to monologue.

Even though Syndrome warned you about this in “The Incredibles”, your villain will deliver his statement of purpose to the players. The players will have their own declarations.

Unless your villain is a machine, a construct, or a zombie looking for a snack, there is usually an initial attempt to talk. It isn’t necessarily so much that the players expect to end the threat this way. It’s just usually how it goes.

What you, as DM, need to know is what happens when the players roll high on that Diplomacy skill check. Although you may not want the villain to back down, it is necessary to have the reactions be reasonable for the villain’s perspective.

Whether the villain is operating from a place of logic or emotion (probably both) they will have triggers that make things go better or worse for the party. Consider if he can be convinced, by any means, to take other action.

Magneto, despite his traumatic childhood, is actually quite a reasonable person. He even became Headmaster once of Charles Xavier’s school, carrying on the work he once decried because of his emotional connection to Charles and his hope that Xavier’s dream could be a reality, despite his doubts.

Reasoning with Sauron? Yeah, not so much.

It is all a matter of shades and degrees. Maybe you want a villain so zealous in his cause that nothing will sway him. Maybe you don’t.

But knowing where he falls on this continuum, based on different approaches by the party, is to your advantage. These are the answers you want to have ready long before your players try to mend things with a hug and a puppy.

Living in Infamy

There’s no “right” way to create your villain. From the most meat-headed ogre lord to the shrewdest mastermind, the antagonist for your players should reflect the flavor of the game you wish to build.

But hopefully this article provides a broader perspective of the possibilities for your villain. If you step back and look at the villains from books, television, or movies that stick with you there must be something to learn there.

Whether you gravitate toward Sauron, Magento, Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, Darth Vader, or Stewie Griffin, all good villains leave an indelible mark on our memories in some way. Hopefully your D&D villain will too, being spoken of by your players many years after the last die is rolled.

(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N.)