Weaponize Your Villain’s Secret

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1152

RPT GM Dale S asked me for help with his adventure’s bad guy and plot:

Hi Johnn,

Would you mind wading in with any thoughts on my villain’s objective?

The local gnoll clan and their unusual allies are attacking a small walled human frontier settlement.

This is a nighttime ‘storming the barricades’ kind of assault and the opening scene of my new VTT run D&D story.

A hill giant is hurling rocks, the gnoll shaman is bringing spell support, and an ogre is leading the main gate assault. (The gnolls are divided in loyalty as the shaman is corrupting the clan from within to the unwitting service of Baphomet).

A scrawny thief has stolen something from the gnoll shaman and the attack is to get his loyal trackers inside the palisade to recover it.

What did the thief steal that was so important to the gnoll shaman to lead his clan against the humans in a full on assault?

I am leaning toward an item that would clearly identify the shaman as serving Baphomet, rather than Yeenoghu, but it would need to be something more involved and evocative than simply an unholy amulet.

The shaman is opposed for dominion in the clan and the majority of the gnolls are true to their demonic father. Being outed as a heretic would ruin his day.

I would love to read what you think.


The Secret is to Leverage the Secret

Hi Dale!

Great question. Here are some rambles, take ’em or leave ’em.

The shaman has a secret.

Here’s a cool thing about secrets: no one can know about them.

Shocking! Heh.

But the more people in the circle of Those Who Know, the greater the risk to the secret-holder.

So that becomes a Faction in your game, even if it starts with just one member.

Get Clarity on the Situation

You’ve set up an awesome Situation here.

We get curious about it and pull out interesting bits for our plotline and potential GM Moves.

The game afoot now for our shaman conspiracy becomes gameplay moments that let you widen the circle.

We’re not the shaman’s friend here. We want his life to become terribly interesting now that he’s been cursed with the GM’s spotlight.

So we have an impulse or GM Move for the Faction: spread the secret.

You grow this Faction like a precious seed. You give it soil and water it until gameplay destroys it, gives it an arc of power, or shoves it into the corner to photosynthesize.

The Faction will have self-interests.

For example, any potential defections from the circle of Those Who Know would have to be dealt with.

And existing members will have different levels of trust for each other. They probably plot against each other to ensure their own safety and goals.

The Faction becomes a Plot Factory for you, which is what we want from a Situation.

We can now understand the shaman’s predicament.

He cannot tell his whole tribe the secret. It puts him at great risk – from his tribe and his fellow conspirators.

Therefore, he must give his tribe an alternate reason for the attack, other than the thief stealing something, to protect The Secret.

You now have the perfect Plot Seed: Gnoll Shaman (Villain) + Assault on Enemy (Conflict) + A Secret (Reward).

The Cover Story

Let’s think about an alternate reason for the assault.

Perhaps the shaman bribes his tribe. He says there will be great reward if the attack is successful. Something other than food.

You mentioned the secret represents a religious conflict. Baphomet versus Yeenoghu.

Villains project their evil onto others. So we could say the shaman calls a crusade against the Baphomet heathens over yonder hill.

The shaman might be feeling insecure without his amulet. A crusade gets him brownie points with Yeenoghu. And he can dedicate it to Baphomet in secret.
You mentioned the amulet might not be sufficient for your needs, but I think the MacGuffin could become central to your plotline.

Our Logic Bomb here is tying the amulet to the shaman. The plotline needs evidence of the shaman’s divine betrayal.

So we say the Amulet of Baphomet must contain proof it belongs to the shaman. That’s part of our Story Crucible.

What could that proof be?

Now we have clarity.

If we can tie the amulet to the shaman, as you suggested, our plot crystalizes.

We understand the party’s Mission now.

And it’s a secret, so our Room V: Reward & Twist has just been solved.

Perhaps it’s smell. Gnolls could have an advantage to smell the amulet, that’s normally worn under layers of shaman garb, and unmistakably know who normally wears it.

Great. Now we have the seed for our clue trail we drop into our story.

Potential Discoveries are:

  • The thief
  • The amulet itself
  • The gnolls have keen sense of smell
  • The gnolls identify each other by smell
  • The shaman is so smelly some PCs might even be able to identify him by smell alone

(Discoveries are part of the 5 Room Dungeon Canvas I unveil in the Adventure Building Master Game Plan.)

From our brainstorm list above, we have some fantastic guidance on encounter seeds and roleplay.

Our Adventure Plotline

I like to fill my adventure plotline out like a 5 Room Dungeon.

5RDs have mythic story structure baked into them.

Run your game like 5RDs, and you instantly inject story structure.

For our gnoll shaman of Baphomet desperate to recover his stolen amulet and bite the thief who knows his secret, we could have:

Room I: [Entrance, Guardian] => Main gate assault

Room II: [Roleplay, Puzzle] =>Breakthrough, where is the amulet?

Room III: [Trick, Setback] => Quest for the amulet

Room IV: [Big Conflict or Story Climax] => Shaman & Thief

Room V: Treasure & Twist => Amulet is Shaman’s

We’ve got a good plotline now.

It’s Your Turn

Based on the outline you gave me, Dale, this is the design approach I’d take.

Turn your plot into a 5 Room Dungeon to make it easier and give you clarity.

We’ve got a reverse heist going on now, which should be fun to GM and play.

Your amulet now functions well as the MacGuffin because it’s a GM weapon — it’s a source of power for the villain but also their weakness.

We see there’s potential great Faction gameplay.

And there’s a conspiracy for the larger picture.

Say the shaman successfully gets the amulet and keeps it away from his tribe, but the players save the town from the assault.

From your players’ perspective, they won the Mission. High fives!

But there’s a larger plot afoot with the Baphomet crowd.

What will Baphomet do to those who slay or capture his promising new leader?

What will the shaman do if successful and he can return to his diabolical ambitions?

What will the players do if they whack the shaman and learn there’s a larger tribe or clan out there sure to want revenge?

I hope these thoughts help, Dale!