Outsmart Your Players With 3-Step Villain Plans

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1167

How do we outsmart our players? It’s all their brains against ours. Surely the odds are against us.

However, here’s a neat trick we can perform to make our villains smarter and our adventures more cunning.

We look at the possible plots and actions our poor villain might take and group them into three buckets.

Each bucket forms a major step toward the villain’s victory.

Quite often I’ll pick the buckets first, and then fill them with appropriate evil actions. But sometimes I’ll brainstorm a list of actions and accomplishments and then pile and file them into three groups that make sense.

I call this approach 3-Step Villain Plans. And I just produced a tutorial for it in the Adventure Building Master Game Plan, which will be opening up again early this year.

This thinking is also similar to 3 Round Combat plans. Abstract to grasp the whole picture, then detail specifics for the win.

Our goal today is to figure out three buckets that, when completed, will bring our wonderful villain ultimate victory.

3-Step Plans For the Win

Why would we do this?

Well, we get several wins:

  • It’s a simple AI we can set-up to help us compete with our players’ big brains
  • It makes our planning a whole lot easier
  • It makes our prep faster
  • It gives us fantastic flexibility because we’re thinking in big terms, so minor setbacks by those pesky adventurers do not defeat us
  • We’re keeping it simple so we can let the players make it complicated

And note that you can put as many sub-steps in our buckets as we like. We just group them into three buckets or phases for the reasons above.

The 3-Step Plan Approach

To create a 3-Step Villain Plan think about what major achievements the villain needs to effect total victory.

They need to [get this] to [do that] to ultimately achieve [the thing].

We then fill each bucket or Step with tasks for minions, evil deliverables, and diabolic ingredients. It is here where our 5 Room Dungeons and adventures take place!

So rather than trying to boil the ocean with a complex and detailed plan sure to fail contact with the characters, we instead focus on the major things our nice villain wants to accomplish along with any ideas on how that might happen.

Then we wait for gameplay and react to party choices.

Between sessions, we update our buckets with any new ideas and based on what’s working and what’s not.

In this way, we have a flexible, easy, yet effective path to villain victory.

Below are three buckets I often build for my 3-Step Villain Plans.

There’s nothing fancy here.

It’s pretty simple.

Yet, I hope you see how this approach leaves you with a great game plan that’s easy to prep and stays flexible as gameplay wends onward.

Step I: Foundation

In this phase, our kind villain gathers resources needed for victory.

They might need specialist minions (assassins, spies, CEOs, etc.), an elite unit of guards, an army, and so on.

They might need special ingredients such as all the pieces of a magic item, 47 dragon eggs, and the deed to a mine.

This stage also involves setting up key locations. Headquarters, secret ritual places, ammunition dumps, or military staging areas.

The great thing about our bucket method here is we can add ingredients during the adventure as we think of them.

For example, if the players destroy the headquarters under construction, the villain can react by starting a new one, thus making your game dynamic.

Another boon: the villain can suffer partial defeats at the hands of the player characters and this does not derail our adventure.

“Those jerks might’ve stolen the dragon eggs, but I’ve still got my army!”

Step II: Impending Doom

With Foundation laid, our resourceful villain has what they need to begin the next phase of their evil plan.

This phase can also be run concurrently with resource gathering, if you like. Strike while the iron is hot.

I call this bucket Impending Doom because our beloved villain begins to wield the resources they’ve gathered.

This creates ripples, portents, and suffering.

These signs alert the characters to something greater afoot.

The party might not even know there’s a villain in Step I. They were busy dealing with early machinations siloed by weak stage bosses.

Now they confront more powerful stage bosses who conduct raids, commit sabotage, and activate agents who’ve infiltrated key organizations and governments.

To the players, it looks like many different fires that must be put out to save the region.

Step III: Execute

We now enter the final phase.

Our lovely villain is ready to pull the lever and win their finest victory.

We must presume the players have stopped several evil plots by this point.

So the beleaguered villain’s desperate. They might even be considering one last risky action to win it all.

However, we still have several villainous resources we can bring to bear as laid out in Foundation or possibly acquired during Impending Doom from agent missions.

We should also apply maximum pressure on the party at this point.

Relatives or even entire communities get threatened. The water supply’s poisoned. The army besieges the last hold of Good. The villain holds the final piece of the magic item. The ritual begins.

In this Step, the villain Executes their final actions to achieve win-state.

Can the PCs stop them and save the world?

Give It a Whirl

Open up Campaign Logger or grab some pen and paper and think about your villain.

Even if mid-campaign, we can create a 3-Step Plan to polish our adventure and add clarity on what opposes the player characters and why.

If stuck, try my steps:

  1. Foundation
  2. Impending Doom
  3. Execution

Fill each bucket with actions the villain and their minions can take to complete that Step. Then turn your favourite actions into 5 Room Dungeons to play out.

Update your 3-Step Plan between sessions as your GM Fog of War recedes further with each party victory or defeat.

Try this method out and let me know how it goes!

For a few more tips, check out Quick Plot Design: How To Create A Villain Plan First Draft.