Monday, December 19, 2011

RPG Carnival November 2011: Tricks and Traps, or how to think like a Villain

As a follow up to my November RPG Carnival post, I will now take my turn to reflect on how I go about Gamesmastering Villains in my Elthos Campaign.  But first a hat tip and thanks to all the posters from the November RPG Carnival, all of whom helped me to clarify some of my thoughts here.  It’s tricky business to play Villains well. We have the usual conundrum of the split between the two semi-incompatible objectives of RPGs. On the one hand we want them to produce interesting stories. On the other hand we want them to be quite fully a game, with game-rules, and the possibility of winning or losing. These two objectives are not always going to be able to be met because in some cases players will do something, even something smart perhaps, but be unlucky and still lose the encounter. That, usually, is considered “Bad Story”, especially by the Players involved. But it’s a game, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. So what makes this tricky is that the Gamesmaster is the Opponent to the Players, and his Characters are sometimes (often) the Villains of the story. Some Villains are dumb, but some are smart. And in a lot of good stories Villains are not just smart, but super-genius types. And that’s the where things get really tricky indeed. How do you Gamesmaster a Super-Genius, or regular genius, or even ‘smarty pants’ Villain both fairly in terms of game rules, and yet also with some sort of “Villain’s flaw” that is what usually gets the heroes out of trouble in traditional adventure stories?

Tricky to Gamesmaster.

In my case, I try to play my campaigns oriented quite a bit towards the ideal that the goodness of the story will come out of the Players interactions with the world in Role Playing, and the foundations of the World as developed in the back story. Beyond that, I try to play it out as any Gamist would. I stick to the rules, and don’t fudge the dice (except in very rare cases where some result really makes no sense at all). The way I do this is a multi-step process.

Mapping the Terrain: I ensure that I know what the map looks like, keeping in mind movement, and escape routes, to and from important locations in the campaign setting.

Arch Villain
Mapping the NPCs: I ensure that each NPC is a full character, rolled up, with skills and equipment, personal motives, and immediate as well as long term objectives. I play my Villains like I would play any Character I have in someone else’s game. They’re not props for Player Characters just to mow down. They’re My Characters in the game. However, they are not perfect, nor are they all powerful. I make sure to distinguish always between what I know as GM and what THEY know as Characters in the world. They never know nearly as much as I do, and that serves to ensure that quite often they make the wrong guesses as to what the Player Characters are up to. I do this for all the NPCs involved. If there is a chief Villain, with a handful of loyal retainers, and an army of thug-servants, I will roll up the Villain and his loyal retainers individually. For the army I will roll up one example of different types and just multiply those guys. So the army may have 100 members, but really only three or four types; the big thug (most of them), the little wiry guy (handful), the mystics – ie; spell caster (one or two), and /or cleric types. That way for the entire mass I really only roll up at most 8 or 9 characters. Everyone gets equipped.

Playing the Villain: Once I’ve rolled up the NPCs, I then know that I have in hand a full set of game-rules specified antagonists to work with. I can toss them into the mix, or hold them back as reserves as the Villain sees fit during the course of the game. The way I play them is just the way I would play any traditional war-game. When the Players make a move, the Villain makes a move. We go back and forth. I periodically also roll to discern what kind of reaction the NPCs may have to a change in the status of the current circumstance. For example, in the last game session the Players were in a basement cellar having subdued the three guards there and were in the process of freeing their captive friends. At that moment they were also being invaded by some sort of spectral force in the far corner of the room which had created a black shadowy miasma and was in the process of devouring one of the NPCs who had been subdued. Also at that moment the Villains arrived to swap contraband for the captives. When the secret door to the room opened for them they found the scene quite horribly different than what they expected. The chief Villain, of course, did not go herself to the room – why should she? She lingered back down the corridor in another room to await news of a successful transfer. She sent instead her minion, and several foot soldiers to carry out what should have been an quick and easy exchange. But when the Villainous party entered the room and saw that all of their guys were tied up, the prisoners had been freed and were already escaping out the door to the upstairs, AND there was some sort of hideous dark miasma taking shape as a black knight reaching downward toward a stricken comrade… they rolled a reaction check. A roll of 1 would be very favorable for the heroes (they flee), while a roll of 6 would be very unfavorable (they attack the heroes regardless of the danger). Rolls in the middle would represent confusion and indecision on their part. They rolled a 1, and immediately began retreating.

That’s how I play my Villains in terms of game mechanics.

Now I would also like to add that from a story perspective, in an effort to keep the story being “good” rather than “wtf – sucky”, I try to always keep in mind that my Villians are all individual Characters with their own, often competing, agendas, and occasional severe personality flaws. For example, one Villain is a doctor whose extreme pride caused him to pursue a line of research that has lead to some very bad consequences for those around him. But he does not care, so focused on the research he is doing “for the benefit of humanity”, he feels that the ends justify the means. To add a bit of a twist, in his particular case, it is very possible that he may be right about that. Another Villain is a cold blooded bastard who is only interested in his own advancement, and is perfectly willing to use anyone or anything to get what he wants. He very often, however, acts perfectly reasonable, and polite, and even considerate to others in order to either get them to do what he wants, or gain information he would otherwise not be able to obtain. As long as those in his power do what he wants, he is inclined to treat them well, knowing that this is the best way to ensure they continue to go along with the program. As soon as they become less then cooperative, or inconvenient, or fail him, then he goes all Darth Vader on them, and that’s that. A final example is a young lady, another Villain, who is herself not so bad a person, but is trapped in a web of other Villains from which she has no means of escape. So she does all of the nastiest things to those who oppose her will, but has on occasion, when she felt it perfectly safe to do so, let some people evade the deadly conclusion to which they may have been assigned, if, and only if, she happened to feel that they were sincerely good or innocent people. Then she would secretly let them escape with some sort of instructions to flee the area and never let anyone know how they got away. Risky for her, but it is her one remaining tie to the realm of goody-goody-two-shoes, so she sticks with it.

Setting Traps:  And now a bit on traps and how my Villains think about them. First off, traps have to be commiserating with the resources available in the setting. Villains are constrained by available funds, and don’t usually like to waste a lot of money on crazy complicated traps unless they have a good reason to do so. Second, the traps have to serve the correct purpose.

Classic Trap
Sometimes traps are intended to protect an item, or a person, or an area from any intruder, and are meant to kill, kill, kill. Those are the worst traps because their intention indicates that the have two qualities that are difficult for Player Characters to deal with. One, they are set up to surprise, and two they are set up to instantly kill. Often the terrain is arranged in a way to channel the intruders to the trap, and also are arranged in a way to ensure that the intruders can not escape. That’s the plan. Smart Villains know how to do this sort of thing.

Sometimes traps are meant to ensnare the intruders. This kind of trap can be a net falling from the ceiling, or a pit in the ground, or sliding iron doors that blocks all the exits from a room. These kinds of traps are designed to allow the Villain to interrogate the prisoner(s) later. Often in this case it is not the trap that should be feared, so much as the interrogation.

Some traps are designed to slow down intruders, or position them for attacks. Such traps might be caltrops on the road in front of the castle gate, making it hard for the heroes to maneuver or escape while arrows rain down from above. Or an oil slick in the center of a room releasing slithering poison beasties from holes in the walls. Or perhaps something as simple as a sandy patch between two cliffs upon which are hidden spearmen. The point of these traps is to hamper the heroes, either for capture or for killing, depending on what the Villain ultimately decides is best.

In all cases I will determine how a trap works in relation to the game mechanics, though not at all necessarily in terms of real-world mechanics (though I do tend to prefer to know that as well – in case the Players poke around at the thing and may be able to come up with a counter mechanism). What I mean is that I know what dice to roll, and what the rolls result in. This way I can play the traps fairly at the time they are sprung, and I don’t wind up spontaneously adjudicating that something “works” when it really shouldn’t, or fails when it really should work. I try to avoid that like the plague because it’s not very sporting to Gamesmaster traps and then fudge them at the last second. If my Villain is going to bother investing the resources into building a trap, then as Gamesmaster I owe him, or her, the courtesy of designating how that trap’s game mechanic works. If they want to up it’s capability, I make them spend more resources on it, depriving them of something else they may want. Most traps have a simple die-roll that determines if it works, and another to determine its effectiveness. For example the poison needle trap has one roll to see if it hits, and a second roll to see how much damage it does.

Real-game example from the latest campaign:  If you’ve been keeping up with my blog game-test story you know that over the past few game sessions my players have run into a Villain who has been lurking in the underground doing some mad-scientist stuff. He has an even more shadowy security chief who happens to be responsible for ensuring that any intruders are trapped, killed, punished, or co-joined to the “Great Work” at hand in some way. He, of course, has his own personal objectives, too, most of which center on his becoming the master of the martial arts world. That's his schtick.  He's a villain in the classical sense.

Our heroes of the “AAA Group” have embarked on a mission to rescue another adventure group (the Hagglesmiths) who had been captured while exploring a tunnel leading from the creepy old Dunn’s Bridge Tower basement into, as it turns out, the Five Crows Tavern cellar across the street.   In their first attempt to rescue the Hagglesmiths the AAA Group invaded the dungeon complex through a secret door that was accessible through the sewer system. They at once found themselves in a secret study, very elegantly furnished with brass lanterns on the walls, a beautiful desk and liquor cabinet and a luxurious Persian rug. They broke into the desk with a crowbar and stole a letter they found inside, and then raided the liquor cabinet, downing swigs from a bottle of the fine brandy and taking the bottle with them. Wishing to explore further they placed the desk in front of the fine double wooden doors and placed liquor bottles in precarious positions on the desk top so that if anyone came into the room the glass bottles would fall and the shattering sound would alert the party members of the intrusion. They then explored further into the dungeon discovering a secret laboratory in which they found a half-living “Replicant” of one of their own members of the party. They fled through the secret door when they heard footsteps coming down the hall.

Later, in their second attempt to rescue the Hagglesmiths, they found the same study a second time, but this time they came in from Tower basement, and discovering the secret corridor to the study, and entered it a second time through the double doors. Now at this point our Villain was well aware that someone had invaded the study and stolen the letter the prior morning, which was very important to his employer's operations.  The letter contained valuable information that caused him to want very much to get it back, preferably before anyone had a chance to read it.  Needless to say, the situation set my Villain’s mind working. These are the conclusions my Villain was able to draw:

Whoever did this was an amateur who needed a crowbar to open the desk. The intruder stole a bottle of excellent brandy (missing from the cabinet) indicating a preference for fine spirits. The intruders took the Replicant Jeremy from the laboratory. This too was a serious breach that may require repair. The letter was either kept sealed or opened and read, in which case the Doctor’s operation may be compromised – requiring an immediate alteration of plans, and possible abandonment of the facility. Whomever did this might return to further explore the laboratory, either alone or with the Authorities, who would likely include the Mayor’s Police Force. Only one of the five brigades within the Police Force are known to be adamant crime-stoppers, and that is Barnstormer’s Brigade - the odds of his brigade arriving are not great.  Lastly, there have been some meddlesome kids poking around in the past few days, ever since the doctor invited Jeremy into the Tower to create a Replicant assistant from the tissue sample he obtained while helping to heal the cut on the kid's leg. After that a group of four kids broke into the basement and were captured. These turned out to be members of the Adventurer’s Guild (admitted under the influence of truth-drug) and their name is "The Hagglesmith Horde". Then the study was broken into from the secret door to the sewer system. A quick check confirms that some kids, including two Hobbits, where seen nosing around at the Five Crows Tavern trying to get information. Conclusion: Another group of kids, likely also from the Guild, invaded the study, stole the letter, and the brandy, and were likely to show up again in an effort to locate their friends the Hagglesmiths.

Based on these observations and conclusions my Villain decided to trap the room. His objective was to ensnare the intruder in a way to allow him to force them to return the letter. A deadly slow acting poison with only one possible antidote that he has would do the trick. He decided to poison needle the desk with the Necrotic Blood of the Black Lotus, a fatal slow acting poison to which only he has the antidote. As an added measure, and to drive the intruder into his waiting arms, he then trapped the cabinet of liquor bottles with a fire trap. Pulling the nice brandy decanter in the front pulls a string that tips over a bottle pouring the liquor, ignites a match and drops it to the Persian rug which has been soaked with a flammable substance. After five seconds the double doors would slam shut. This should, he felt, do one of two things. Most likely the intruder would inspect the desk before refreshing himself with brandy. Hence he would be poisoned, and desiring brandy to quench the pain, thus, igniting the fire. This should cause him to try to escape the room, and then slam the door behind him shut.  Or, if he, or they, get caught on the other side, so be it. My villain is not adverse to poorly executed traps that accidentally kill the opponent.  He's that kind of guy.  And since he figures that the letter may well be already a moot point and may already in the hands of the Guild Masters. But he’s also a sporting gamester and is willing to let the intruder prove himself by leaping through some hoops to survive. If so, he will have passed a crucial test, and may possibly be worth co-opting into his operations. On the condition, of course, that during the interrogation the intruder proves suitably smart, and without too much trouble ultimately co-operative and open to the idea.  If not, an grizzly end awaits.

Well, sure enough, the AAA Group made their way through the dungeon, and found the elegant study once again. The needle trap was sprung by Ishcandar as he attempted to break into the desk a second time. His finger having turned black, Lido kindly offered to dampen the pain with a swig or two of brandy. The fire trap was sprung and they both leaped from the room into the corridor. This alerted my Villain that the trap had been sprung. He readied his minions and sent them forth. Sure enough it did not take too long for them to locate the errant Hobbits and return them to the lair. Playing it cool my Villain commenced with the interrogation, and by a combination of remaining cool and relaxed, giving little information about himself, and offering refreshments including truth-drug laden brandy, as well as an assortment of delicacies, as well as subtly phrased threats regarding the untoward effects of the poison in Ishcandar’s finger… he eventually obtained all that he wished to know, as well as an agreement that the hapless Hobbit would go to the Guild and retrieve the letter. Only then would the antidote be given.

And of course, I don’t make my Villains perfect, and I make my other NPCs, who are the good guys, just as smart, and just as flawed. And so the mix goes on.

And this friends is how I play my Villains in the Elthos Campaign.  You can read the read the entire Game-Test Campaign Story in chronological order here:  Elthos Game-Test Story.  For the above mentioned Villain & Trap look for "The Hagglesmith Rescue" Parts III and IV.   Enjoy!   :)
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