Utmost Evil: How To Make Strategic Use Of Villain Scenes
From Phil Nicholls
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #701
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Utmost Evil: How To Make Strategic Use Of Villain Scenes
- Examples Of The Villainy Scene Recipe In Action
- Last Word From Johnn
A Brief Word From Johnn
Roleplaying Tips Goes Monthly For Awhile
RPT#700 was a huge milestone. 16 years and 3 million words of almost-weekly newsletters. Whew. I decided to pause after that issue, take a step back and relax a bit, and assess things.
Because I was getting burned out from producing the weekly format. It was starting to feel like a grind to put the 5-7 hours each week into the newsletter. I hadn’t planned on reassessing after #700. But people around me were noticing my dropping energy levels and calling on me to rally somehow.
So I am switching to a monthly publishing schedule for awhile.
I’m going to relax a bit this summer, catch up on some Murder Hobos campaign planning, and start tackling a bucket list of RPG stuff I’ve been aching to get to. I originally posted my bucket list on Campaign Mastery years ago (years ago!), and I’ve barely dented it. And it’s grown a lot since then.
Return of Friday Gems + Random Thoughts
Part of this recharge process is to Fill the Well, as Betty Edwards calls it in her awesome book, Drawing on the Artist Within.
So while unencumbering myself from the newsletter format and overhead for awhile, I’ll be exploring new ideas and resources, which I’ll be sharing with you by email and on the blog as inspiration strikes.
This includes the return of Friday Gems. If you are new to Roleplaying Tips, I used to send out 1d4+2 links that I thought you’d find useful or inspirational for GMing. So look for those emails in your inbox during the summer.
I really appreciate your patience as I work through these changes. What’s always worked for me when combating fatigue and burnout is to get creative. To explore new things. And to learn new stuff.
And while the newsletter will be going monthly, I will still drop an occasional note in your inbox to say hi and share these new creations and explorations.
Thanks very much for your ongoing support and for reading my writing. Long live RPG! (And have more fun at every game!)
Utmost Evil: How To Make Strategic Use Of Villain Scenes
[Comment from Johnn: You’ve heard of the 3 Act Structure? Or the Hollywood Formula? Or the Hero’s Journey and Monomyth? Well there’s a Russian version different than those. And Phil is taking us through its highlights. Today he digs into villains! It’s great to learn new storytelling structures, even linear ones, so we can add their best ideas to our GM Toolbox.]
As noted, this sequence is too linear for a GM to use as a framework for their campaign. However, several of the individual scenes provide GMs with useful encounters within an ongoing campaign.
The next scene to consider is Propp’s eighth: Villainy. In this scene the villain performs an evil act. For such a simple-sounding scene, it serves many functions within the story. This establishes the character of the villain, and motivates the hero to act. Once again, the villain is being proactive, and this scene represents the high-water mark of the villain’s agenda.
At Your Table: A Villainy scene is another regular tool for your campaign. Propp suggests this as part of the opening sequence for a campaign. The Villainy scene establishes the tone and stakes for a campaign. Now the opposition facing the PCs is clear.
Motivate your PCs by connecting this scene to the Heroes. Shan the Undying is not attacking somewhere on the other side of the world, he is attacking the kingdom where the PCs live. Or, he attacks the neighbouring kingdom, making the homeland next in line. If the PCs all come from a farming village, then the Villainy scene shows crops burning and livestock destroyed. If the PCs live in a city, then show the last days of a siege, with skeleton warriors storming the walls.
In short, the Prologue must resonate with the PCs, even if they are not being attacked directly. The campaign stakes should be a clear motivation to the players. The villain is on a collision course with the heroic PCs, and the Villainy scene makes clear what would happen if the villain wins.
The Villainy scene is also a useful encounter during the main part of the campaign. Essentially, this scene is a more confrontational version of the Reconnaissance scene discussed in the previous article. In a Reconnaissance encounter, the focus is on roleplaying and social conflict. The Villainy scene is an action encounter, which usually translates as a combat scene.
The contrasting style of these two types of scene creates an interesting effect on the players. They both bring the conflict with the villain back into the spotlight, reminding the PCs what they are fighting for. However, the emotional impact differs.
Ultimately, a Reconnaissance scene frustrates the players. No matter how satisfying the banter, there is still a sense of the villain toying with the PCs. Even if they win the social encounter, no cutting remark is ever likely to thwart a villain’s grand scheme. The sneering, taunting villain can provide a good surge in motivation, but the players feel an equal measure of irritation and frustration.
In contrast, a Villainy scene leads straight to action. Victory here is a direct setback to the villain, even if it is just depleting his army. Another step in the grand scheme has been thwarted, which puts the PCs that little bit closer to victory. players will feel a greater sense of achievement here.
Types of Villain Encounters
So, a Reconnaissance scene increases player tension, and a Villainy scene can release it. The effect of a scene upon the players suggests which of the two similar options you need to run. If the players seem frustrated, then throw some Villainy at them, and watch the action release player tension. Likewise, if the plot seems too simple, and players grow overconfident, take the wind out of their sails with a Reconnaissance scene.
Once again, there are several ways to integrate a Villainy scene into an ongoing campaign. Here are some options:
- Villainy as Prologue
- Villainy as Motivation
- Villainy as Exposition
- Villainy as Countdown
- Villainy as Pacing
- Villainy as Catharsis
- Villainy as Focus
These seven options divide into two categories. The first four present ways for the GM to convey story elements to the players. Here an important story development is embedded within the scene, typically as information for the players. Each involves actions of the villain, but the how and the why of such a scene matters to the overall story.
In contrast, the final three examples are more meta. These are ways to use a Villainy scene to control the flow and feel of a gaming session. Scenes used in this way have less of a story impact, and more of a gaming one. Much as the GM is creating a thrilling story, the role also requires the GM to entertain the table. The final three uses of a Villainy scene focus upon the mood of the players and the direction of the game.
Villainy as Prologue
This is Villainy as imagined by Propp, a classic early sequence showing the background and motivations of the villain. Portray the central themes of the campaign in this scene. The villain uses their iconic tools to directly achieve their goals. This is Sauron sending out armies of orcs, lead by Nazgul, to destroy and enslave. Whatever appears here is going to be recurring themes throughout the campaign. There can still be surprises, but the central features of the campaign are all present.
Villainy as Motivation
While the prologue presents the general tone of the campaign, and tools of the villain, it might not be personal enough. Sometimes, it takes a threat to loved ones to motivate the PCs. A Villainy scene can provide this personal motivation, if it targets the PCs or something they hold dear.
This instance of Villainy follows closely on the heels of the classic Reconnaissance scene. Now the villain is aware of the PCs and the threat they represent. Or, another random act of Villainy is too close to home for the PCs to ignore. Sauron’s ringwraiths enter the Shire: it is time for the hobbits to act.
Villainy as Prologue provided a general picture of Sauron and his threat to the whole of Middle Earth. However, the hobbits only find they have a personal stake in the matter when trouble reaches the Shire.
Villainy as Exposition
Over the course of a campaign, the focus is frequently upon the actions of the PCs. Meanwhile, the villain is pursuing nefarious schemes in the background. Rather than tell the players of these developments, the GM can present a scene of Villainy as Exposition. This delivers information in a more natural way, and gives the PCs an opportunity to disrupt these plans, while still pursuing their current quest.
For example, the ambush of Easterlings in Ithilien allows the hobbits to observe Sauron’s plans, yet remain focused on their personal quest. In a similar scene, the GM presents a “random encounter” to reveal all manner of information to the players.
Ambushing a patrol or intercepting a courier offers many opportunities for exposition as a result of an action scene. After the action, maps, messages, or physical clues convey vital information. Failing that, there is always the classic scene of interviewing a captive. Alternatively, the PCs could stumble on a band of raiders or free some captives. None of these scenes take the PCs away from their current quest. Yet, they allow the GM to present a broader campaign update, or news from distant parts of the land.
Villainy as Countdown
The basic format of this scene is the same as the Exposition scene: the PCs stumble into the forces of the villain. And once again, the outcome of the scene is fresh information for the players.
The difference, however, lies in what this information conveys. A Villainy as Countdown scene is direct evidence of the villain’s progress towards completing a scheme, and thus the limited time remaining to the PCs. Use this scene to ramp up the pressure on the players.
Now Sauron is besieging Minas Tirith and the time for side-quests has passed. There is just enough time to complete one final quest before hurrying back to lift the siege. This Villainy scene ramps up the pressure on the players and catapults the campaign into the climax.
Villainy as Pacing
Alongside the story benefits of a Villainy scene, it is also a tool for the GM to control the pacing of a session. Most RPG rules have elaborate action rules, primarily combat-focused. Thus, a strong action scene consumes a sizeable chunk of time.
The astute GM therefore uses this feature of action scenes to control the overall pace of a session. If the game is moving slowly, then cut the impending lengthy Villainy scene. However, if the information it contains is crucial to the plot, then swap the Villainy scene for a Reconnaissance scene. The roleplaying Reconnaissance scene will play out faster, and allow the game to return to the scheduled timings.
Conversely, if the PCs are cantering through your planned encounters, then a lengthy combat scene acts as a roadblock. This delays the progress of the PCs, and gives you a longer session. The exact effect varies according to your chosen set of rules. However, it is always worth having a Villainy scene or two in reserve to give you a flexible method of adjusting the flow of a session.
Tolkien presents a good example of cutting a Villainy scene for pacing reasons. When the Rohirrim are riding to the siege of Minas Tirith, a strong force of orcs block the road. Had the session been running quickly, then the riders of Rohan would fight these orcs in a thrilling, and lengthy, battle. Instead, Tolkien’s players had been tardy, perhaps teasing Eowyn about her disguise and threatening to expose Merry. Thus, this battle is replaced with a roleplaying scene with Ghan-buri-Ghan of the Wild Men, who leads the Rohirrim around the orc ambush. The session can then end to time on a cliffhanger, as the riders reach the Pelennor Fields.
Villainy as Catharsis
Sometimes players just need to let loose and kick some butt. Other times, the story has been intense, and the players are emotionally drained by developments. Or maybe real world developments have dampened the mood at the table, and you just need to have some mindless carnage. For all these situations, the GM needs a scene of Villainy as Catharsis.
As before, this is an action scene where the PCs directly confront the villain’s forces. However, the GM should build the scene as a vehicle for the players to have fun with their characters, not as a serious challenge. Make good use of minions or mooks, those opponents present in large numbers yet pose no real threat to the PCs. Cutting through a swath of minions will make the PCs look cool and the players feel happy.
If a horde of mooks is not enough, then add a minor lieutenant to the mix. Ideally, this should be a buffoon-like NPC, or perhaps one who was a thorn in the PCs’ sides earlier in the game. The lieutenant need not be a major combatant, although more powerful than the troops she commands.
A similar scene appears in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn unleashes his undead army against the corsairs. After the horror and tension of the Paths of the Dead, the easy combat against the corsairs presents a moment of catharsis. This is especially clear in the film version.
Villainy as Focus
The final way to use a Villainy scene is to bring the focus of the players back to the major campaign plot. Sometimes, an initially minor character or event is seized upon by the players and given far more attention than the GM intended. At such times, it is all too easy for the game to veer off in unforeseen directions.
Sometimes, this can be fine. The GM may be prepared for such an eventuality, or is capable of improvising the side-quest. At the end of this unexpected detour, the game may need a Villainy scene to refocus back on the central campaign plot.
Or, the GM might not be prepared for this new direction. Thus, a sudden Villainy scene can help bring the players back towards the central threat facing the campaign. This use of Propp’s Villainy scene is a version of Raymond Chandler’s famous dictum: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
Villainy as Focus requires the GM to have a generic confrontation with the forces of the villain in reserve. A patrol of orcs would be held in reserve by GM Tolkien, or perhaps a pair of Black Riders for the early story. The challenge level ought not be too high, nor is there the need to convey particular story information with this impromptu scene. The important point is to have the scene in reserve, to refocus the table when it has moved too far from the main plot.
An example of a focus scene in Lord of the Rings is the raid by the ringwraiths on the Prancing Pony. As in so many games, the PCs reach a tavern, and the plot goes out the window. If we imagine Tolkien as the frustrated GM, then he has lost the focus of the players.
First Merry and Pippin are downing pints and singing in the bar. Then Frodo tries out his cool magical artefact and discovers he can turn invisible. Many players would now be working out how to raid the bar, if not steal Butterbur’s gold. Gandalf’s player has unexpectedly skipped the session, and the new guy has turned up with a mysterious warrior dressed in black.
Doubtless, the players are also having a debate along the lines of “you look trustworthy”, while the new guy tries to leverage a piece of poetry into establishing his acceptance by the party. Professor Tolkien the GM is chewing furiously on his pipe at this point. To bring the players back onto the main story, he throws a raid by the ringwraiths at the PCs. Strider shows his merit with some awesome perception rolls and keeps the hobbits away from the ambush. Duly refocused, the players decide the Prancing Pony is no longer safe, and head off towards Rivendell with their new ally, ready for the next part of the campaign.
Ways to Play Villainy
The last thing to consider when running a Villainy scene is how to frame the encounter. There are four main ways to inject villainy into your game:
In Your Face
The standard encounter model, where the PCs face up to the villain’s forces personally. This is the classic RPG encounter, but the current narrative might not allow for the villain’s troops to suddenly appear in front of the PCs. When geography or the current story prevents a direct encounter, the GM must consider the following options.
Dreams or vision quests. Dream encounters, if used infrequently, allow for sudden changes of location and tone. Frodo might be in Mordor, but he could still experience Villainy as Countdown as a dream, watching the siege of Minas Tirith.
Likewise, if the PCs are on a divinely sanctioned quest, they could experience a vision quest taking them to another part of the world where they interact with the villain’s forces.
An otherworldly encounter fits the story better if the GM shows the players a deity, or other powerful being, presenting the PCs with this timely scene. This technique is best suited for a scene conveying information to the players, such as the Motivation, Exposition, or Countdown scenes outlined above.
Lesser characters fighting the villain. For those GMs with a less linear narrative, a more creative option is a cut scene featuring lesser characters fighting the villain’s forces. The players take the roles of these minions, and thus feel engaged with the scene. This option allows far greater freedom for the location and situation of the scene.
Most players resent losing their characters in a last stand against overwhelming odds. However, when playing minions, or similar temporary characters, the players will be more enthusiastic. Such a one-shot session, with great freedom of location, directly provides the players with a lot of useful information. When the game resumes with the usual PCs, the players have far more background information, and rekindled enthusiasm for defeating the villain.
Learning about the villain through media. Whether this is newspaper reports, film footage, or a lively ballad, the principle is the same. The players learn about the actions of the villain, at one stage removed.
At best, this could be a roleplaying scene, where concerned PCs question weary refugees they met on the road. At worst, this method is little more than an atmospheric info dump. Long exposition scenes disrupt the flow of a session and lead to player boredom. However, sometimes this is the only way to keep the players informed of events in distant lands. When possible, the GM should use an NPC to convey this information in a conversation.
There are many ways to weave Propp’s Villainy into a campaign. Presented early, this is a classic prologue, or motivation scene. Later in the campaign, weaving additional Villainy scenes into the story reminds players of the villain’s agenda, keeps them motivated, and provides a vehicle for information-laden action scenes.
Clever GMs also use a Villainy scene to control pacing and re-engage distracted players. Vary the pacing of your story with some of the alternate ways to frame the Villainy scene.
Run Propp’s Villainy scene to show the worst traits of the campaign villain, and remind the players of what is at stake.
Examples Of The Villainy Scene Recipe In Action
From Johnn Four
Phil did an awesome job going over Propp’s theory on villain scenes as adventure tools for your GM Toolbox.
I’d like to offer you an example of this in action using my Murder Hobos campaign.
In Murder Hobos: Season I the PCs unintentionally released three demons into the land. A balor leads the trio. A succubus is the balor’s first lieutenant. And Guzfalka the nalfeshnee is his second lieutenant (roughly pictured above).
The balor quests for his lord, Orcus. He is to complete all the steps necessary to summon Orcus’s Ironfire Fortress from the Abyss into the Realms. Orcus will use this bastion of undead and chaos as a staging area to invade the western Realms. Orcus’s goal? Nothing less than becoming Emperor of Faerun.
But first, Orcus needs his foothold, his beachhead. So the balor Malignemeloch has ordered his two lieutenants to seize control of two powerful factions and use their resources to help complete the summoning.
While the succubus Vepraxa charms and manipulates her way into the elemental cults, Guzfalka is scaring and intimidating his way into the Zhentarim.
The players will dictate campaign structure, but I have in mind roughly that PCs versus Vepraxa and the Elemental Cults is Murder Hobos: Season II (the current season). And PCs vs. Guzfalka and the Zhentarim is Season III. Then it’s Balor Malignemeloch and the Ironfire Fortress in Season IV.
Just roughly pencilled in here. Gameplay will reveal where the plot takes things. Meantime though, it’s good to have a general idea of where things might head and to set things up in the campaign today for possible eventualities.
Which brings us to Propp.
As an exercise, I’m going to create for you here encounter seeds for the villain Guzfalka using each of Propp’s Villainy Scenes. That let’s us explore the different scene types and practice thinking along the Russian storymaster’s approach. It also gives me some Murder Hobo campaign materials to file away for use.
I urge you to try this for your campaign too. After reading my walkthrough, try it out for yourself. Pick a villain and work up seven rough encounters, one encounter per Propp Villain Scene type. You’ll get some practice and some game prep done at the same time.
Here we go.
Propp’s Eight Villainy Scenes
What: Construct an Action Scene where your Big Bad Evil Guy performs an evil act and antagonizes your players.
- Establish the role of this NPC in your campaign
- Establish the character of the villain in your campaign
- Emotionally charge players to villain so they follow your hooks
- Stir-up and motivate the player characters to act
- Bring your campaign’s central conflict into the spotlight
- Lead straight to the action
- Big Stakes with possible villain setback caused by PC victory
- Demonstrate the villain’s agenda
Option 1: Villainy as Prologue
Purpose: Reveal story elements.
How: Use Villain’s iconic tools to further his agenda. Wield his minions, resources, or special powers for a specific evil goal or win.
Example: Sauron sends out armies of orcs, lead by Nazgul, to destroy and enslave.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: I need to give Guzfalka resources like minions, modus operandi, and a “brand” so the PCs recognize his fingerprint on things in-game. Perfect – that’s why we’re doing this exercise now, ahead of time, so we can start laying in these elements before they’re needed.
In D&D, nalfeshnee demons have a signature attack – the horror nimbus, which is a scintillating multicoloured light. I’ll make this part of his brand. Zhentarim who’ve switched allegiance to Guzfalka will wear multicoloured arm bands or badges. They are also taught to emulate the demon’s impulses for hatred, despair, and taste for humanoid flesh.
For Villainy as Prologue then, we could have an encounter with Zhent minions attacking and capturing humanoids to take back and feast upon. Some of the minions might even be having a small feast while others attack and acquire more captives. The PCs interrupt this scene and can stop the horror.
In the aftermath, I can point out the multicoloured arm bands and badges. For perceptive PCs, I could reveal how the Zhents they just defeated acted differently than previous Zhents they’ve encountered. These “horror nimbus” Zhents attacked for maximum carnage and delighted in overpowering and intimidating their victims through violence. Normal Zhents encountered in Season I were merchants and manipulators. A contrast for sure, and a good prologue that introduces Guzfalka’s presence as more than just a demonic bag of hit points.
Option 2: Villainy as Motivation
Purpose: Reveal story elements.
How: Make it personal. Threaten something the PCs hold dear. It could be a random act or a specific targeting.
Example: Sauron’s ringwraiths enter the Shire: it is time for the hobbits to act.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: It’s a bit too early to forecast with precision what the Hobos will hold dear in Season III. NPCs will come and go, relationships destroyed and formed. For example, the PCs were making the village of Phandalin a base until the demons destroyed it. Perhaps the Hobos will establish a new base Guzfalka can jeopardize.
One thing that’s fairly certain is the wizard Six will still have his owl familiar, Ash. So, in a Villainy as Motivation encounter, the demon will target and have his minions try to kidnap Ash so he can have a delicious foul entree. One approach might be to lure her into a trap while performing her usual overwatch duty. Perhaps she sees a giant own staked to the ground being attacked by goblins. If she flies down to get a closer look, invisible demons with nets try to snatch her out of the sky.
Option 3: Villainy as Exposition
Purpose: Reveal story elements.
How: The villain pursues nefarious schemes in the background. Expose this to the PCs with a random or non-directed encounter that reveals this information, such as bumping into a patrol or intercepting a courier.
Example: The ambush of Easterlings in Ithilien allows the hobbits to observe Sauron’s plans, yet remain focused on their personal quest.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: One encounter idea might be the PCs stumbling upon a group of Zhent soldiers being given a new brief by a chasme demon. The new orders are to investigate a site scouts discovered nearby.
For now, I’ll leave it at that. This gives me Villainy as Exposition. If the PCs interrogate soldiers or chasme, they’ll learn about the site and glean a clue about why Guzfalka is interested in it (as part of the quest to gather materials needed to summon the Ironfire Fortress). I also get a great hook that leads the Hobos to an adventure site.
I’ll often leave encounters just like this in my Loopy Planning. I’ll use stat blocks from the Monster Manual or from past encounter details on-the-fly to crunch-up the encounter. And the open hook lets me combo any adventure site I need the PCs to visit at that point in the campaign. This is where my Legos approach comes in – I don’t need to define specific pieces ahead of time. The connections often just occur naturally and I drop sites, NPCs, and items in as needed.
Option 4: Villainy as Countdown
Purpose: Reveal story elements.
How: The PCs stumble into the forces of the villain. New information revealed conveys direct evidence of the villain’s progress towards completing his scheme.
Example: Now Sauron besieges Minas Tirith and the time for side-quests has passed. There is just enough time to complete one final quest before hurrying back to lift the siege.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: This one is also hard to predict so far in advance because I do not know what knowledge the PCs will have at this point. But one plot thread going on right now is the discovery of the Henges.
The Henges were built by dwarves ages ago during a war as a way to teleport around the countryside. Perform a ritual, activate the Henge, get taken to a destination Henge of your choice. Unfortunately, even with this advantage, the dwarves still lost the war.
Orcus knows of the Henges. To summon Ironfire Fortress, several Henges will be activated at once on the Winter Solstice using foul rituals. The combined power of so many Henges being operated and tuned together will draw the fortress from the Abyss and bring it into the Realms.
Orcus’s three lieutenants must 1) find as many Henges as possible, 2) learn the unique ritual for each one and how to subvert it for chaotic evil, 3) gather the ingredients (as always, blood and magic where demons are concerned) to be sacrificed on the solstice.
So I am picturing Henges being “turned” one by one so they’re usable by demon sorcerers. A Henge would change in appearance and aura when this happens. And thus, the PCs could witness a Henge being turned this way by a Guzfalka sorcerer. This provides fantastic evidence for Villainy as Countdown. Hopefully the PCs foil the attempt, but they can witness other Henges already turned when I need more Villainy as Countdown encounters. Even more dramatically, they could find previously discovered Henges now warped and twisted, already turned by Guzfalka’s sorcerers.
Option 5: Villainy as Pacing
Purpose: Guide session pacing and atmosphere.
How: A strong action scene consumes a sizeable chunk of time to control the overall pace of a session. It is always worth having a Villainy Pacing scene or two in reserve to give you a flexible method of adjusting the flow of a session.
Example: Tolkien cuts a battle scene with orcs when the Rohirrim are riding to the siege of Minas Tirith. He replaces it with a roleplaying scene where Ghan-buri-Ghan of the Wild Men leads the Rohirrim around the orc ambush.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: RPT has talked about pacing before. Here I think it would be a good strategy to have a pacing scene that speeds up gameplay and a scene that slows it down. Then I can drop either one in the game as needed.
A strong action scene to help create a pacing trough in the story might be a pack of minor demons and cultists leading prisoners to a nearby camp as food/sacrifice/Henge fuel. The number and variety of foes would make for a tactically interesting, long-form combat encounter.
A fast action scene could be a slave camp. A small number of cultists guard as slaves dig into the earth. Optionally, add a caster to increase difficulty without adding more than a couple rounds of combat. The cultists fight to the death as they know what happens if their souls reach Orcus and he is displeased. And the dig? There could be a new Henge buried or not. Or perhaps the cultists were searching for something else. Regardless, lots of plot options for this Lego piece.
Option 6: Villainy as Catharsis
Purpose: Guide session pacing and atmosphere.
How: Set up a battle encounter where PCs directly confront villain forces and let the players kick butt. Make good use of minions and mooks.
Example: Aragorn unleashes his undead army against the corsairs. After the horror and tension of the Paths of the Dead, the easy combat against the corsairs presents a moment of catharsis.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: Here I’d want to establish several known NPCs within Guzfalka’s faction. Then I’d want to set up an encounter with one or more of these known NPCs so that victory becomes meaningful and satisfying for the players. By confronting named NPCs instead of random mooks, the encounter stakes spike, and I can control challenge rating by choosing the stronger or weaker NPCs to populate the encounter with.
So the key here is to introduce several named NPCs in Guzfalka’s faction ahead of time.
Option 7: Villainy as Focus
Purpose: Guide session pacing and atmosphere.
How: Bring player focus back to the major campaign plot. “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Keep a scene is reserve for this purpose.
Example: The raid by the ringwraiths on the Prancing Pony. As in so many games, the PCs reach a tavern, and the plot goes out the window. Merry and Pippin are downing pints and singing in the bar. Then Frodo tries out his cool magical artefact and discovers he can turn invisible. Many players would now be working out how to raid the bar, if not steal Butterbur’s gold. If we imagine Tolkien as the frustrated GM, then he has lost the focus of the players.
Guzfalka’s Villainy: Should the PCs wander off track, I generally let them. They’re experienced players who know my milieus ferment explosively if they let matters slide for long. (Ask them about the time they took a long rest while cultists performed a ritual.)
But if I do need to shepherd PCs, then such an encounter might involve a demon attack. During the battle, the demons trumpet recent victories and smack-talk the PCs. They also reveal a new plot point, such as a nearby Henge discovery.
An encounter like this is mobile and can reach the PCs wherever they veer. It’s evergreen, as I can reveal whatever plot points I want based on the current situation. And it’s always fun roleplaying gloating demons!
Last Word From Johnn
Thank you Phil for providing us a great framework for brainstorming cool encounters using Russian folklore story structure.
Staring at a blank piece of paper or app is tough. Propp’s Villainy encounters give us great prompts to help us create encounters that not only generate action but feed our plots at the same time.
Several ideas came to me as I took one Villain from my Hobos campaign – Guzfalka a demon lieutenant of Orcus – and thought of an encounter for each type of Villainy scene.
Please try this yourself. Take a villain. Write an encounter seed or outline for each type of Villainy encounter. Take ones you like and add them to your prep. Take the ones you don’t like and add them to a Cutting Room Floor doc for later reference – you never know when a bad idea gets a new ingredient to become a great one.