Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Do We Need Villains?

On this podcast Zak is asked what his favourite villain is. There is then some discussion of what makes a good villain, and the interviewer postulates that in a game, "the villain is the plot"; or, if I understood him correctly, a game is all about how the players react to what the villain does.

That's all very strange to me, and it got me thinking about villains in my games: in short, there aren't any. It's just not how I set things up. I start off with a big list of NPCs and they have their own motivations, goals and relationships, and some of them are very bad, but none of them are really villains in the narrative sense. They're not opposed to the PCs unless the PCs do something to piss them off or go out of their way to set themselves up in opposition to them. (In fact, in D&D in particular, the notion of a Big Bad Evil Guy never made any sense to me: this is a world where there are 20th level Lawful Good paladins, gold dragons, and kirin running about the place, right? So why would any BBEG even care about what this gang of 1st level no-hopers is doing? And why would those no-hopers have to get involved in the first place?)

But that's just in short; in practice, of course, villains emerge spontaneously through play, because if there's anything players are good at, it's doing things that piss off powerful NPCs. Once the game begins and the PCs are doing what they do, it is more or less inevitable that some NPC or other(s) will end up being "the villain" by default. This is as true of dungeoneering-type fantasy games ("Oh, we just pissed off the evil wizard") as it is of cyberpunk-type games ("Oh, we just pissed off the sinister faceless megacorp") as it is of SF ("Oh, we just pissed off those aliens"). In other words, villainy is something that comes about from the game, not something that is there from the start. It's bottom-up, not top-down.

That got me thinking further: is it, perhaps, inherent in role playing games there has to be a villain somewhere? That if there is not a villain from the start, ultimately the actions of the players will necessitate one emerging, unless they literally sit around doing nothing all day? Can there be any genuine interest without a villain existing at least as a corollary?

28 comments:

  1. Since I am mostly running Superhero games lately, I am not sure that this approach applies to my game. I need villains, as do my players.

    Villains give Heroes a focal point and something to do between smashing meteors about to destroy the Earth and saving innocent people from Volcano eruptions. Someone must be up to something that benefits themselves to the detriment of others. Superheroes stop them.

    Now one really cool concept that my friend and Champions RPG guru Will came up with is that the so-called 'villains' of his setting are not there for you, the PCs. That is, they are not designed for or motivated by (with rare exceptions) a need to fight the heroes. They are doing what they would be doing whether you existed or not.

    Many (most) do not see themselves as 'villains', although they may be aware that their activities are considered criminal by the governing body and law enforcement officials of their given locale.

    Heroes are, to the 'villains', an annoying and potentially plan-ending obstacle that gets in the way of their well thought out plots. However, the villain is not the plot himself. No, the plot comes from what the heroes (that is, the PCs) decide to do about villainy.

    If Professor Particle intends to use the Large Hadron Collider to open a warp portal to a parallel world where his deceased wife (the creepy criminal mercenary Madame Macabre) is still alive and YOU the PCs never investigate the prior incidents, he still does it.

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  2. Heroes cannot be everywhere at once. If we follow the city creation rules for D&D 3.x there's not really a lot of NPCs running around to help protect the world save for those you as a DM place. That could mean there are a dozen NPCs running around the Capital of every nation at epic levels... Or that the Villain is the one large threat.

    The Villain as leader of a conspiracy/order/organization concept definitely makes sense to me. The 'evil' of our world (criminal enterprises, terrorist cells, Evil Empires) have a figurehead, a single focal point. Pol Pot, Capone, Bathory... These individuals are the faces and names that we place on eras of history, and their effects on the world can be felt today. Now think of Szass Tam, Strahd, Vol... Evils that are legends (even if it is in their own time).

    Sometimes the 'Villains' are bogeymen, some are forces of nature. But there is some impetus, something to break the inertia of the campaign. Personally I like the idea of a strong enemy per arc, similar to episodic television.

    Slainte,

    -Loonook.

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  3. the most memorable villain I can think of from my own games was definitely an emergent one, a character I didn't think much about initially. He was just a low-level operative in a larger organization, but the fact that he escaped the party and then held a grudge and came after them repeatedly made him grow into a really memorable character. And he was never a cackling BBEG, just a 3rd/4th level MU.

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    1. Absolutely right. The best villains emerge from play and are therefore meaningful to the players. You can't plan for it, you have to recognize it and then roll with it.

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  4. Part 1 of 2:

    RPGs don't need villains, but your group's particular play style may go more smoothly when there is a villain, or it may not. It basically comes down to the narrative vs sandbox style of play. If you want a narrative, and because most popular RPGs' rules focus mainly on combat, then the struggle that the heroes overcome is usually based on killing someone, and for there to be a climax to the story, there should be an ultimate person to kill. That person is the villain.

    In an RPG that is less focused on combat, or where the focus isn't on killing people, the climatic struggle need not involving killing anybody, and thus no villain is necessary (though one may still be present, depending on the plot).

    In a sandbox style RPG, the DM may or may not design a villain from the outset, and new villains may or may not emerge as a result of the players' actions.

    > this is a world where there are 20th level Lawful Good paladins, gold dragons, and kirin running about the place, right? So why would any BBEG even care about what this gang of 1st level no-hopers is doing? And why would those no-hopers have to get involved in the first place?)

    There are many ways around this: (1) The world is big, and there aren't enough 20th level Lawful Good paladins to go around. (2) No, there aren't 20th level Lawful Good paladins, at least not right now; sure they existed back in the annals of history, but they've long since died of old age, and now we have nobody to save us when a dragon suddenly showed up. (3) the BBEG doesn't care about the heroes, he's just killing everyone in villages because it's part of his master plan. Oh, and the one of the villagers killed is one of the PC's sister, who has now sworn vegeance. The PCs are hunting down the BBEG, but the BBEG probably won't even notice these guys until they make a name for themselves (e.g. once they hit level 15), which may be many years later. (4) There's no level 20 paladins, but there's a level 15 paladin, and he saves the one of the PCs' sister from death, but is unable to save the village. He tells the PCs and NPCs that it's no longer safe here and they should travel north/east/south/west to another village and start a new life there. Things don't go as planned, and they PCs get into trouble, gain experience and level up. When they hit level 7, they meet the level 15 NPC paladin again, who notes "Wow, you guys have grown a lot since the last time I saw you. Say, you want to help me rid the world of evil?" The PCs are railroaded into saying yes, and now the NPC paladin sends them off on missions. One of the missions goes wrong and they're transported in an alternate universe. When they finally escape and come back, they find that the BBEG has grown more powerful in their absense, and the HQ that the level 15 NPC paladin was manning has been destroyed, and the level 15 NPC paladin is on the brink of death. Luckily the PCs are now level 18 due to their adventures in the parallel universe, and the level 15 NPC paladin says "You're our only hope. Go kill the BBEG."

    And so on. These are just off the top of my head; there are lots of ways to justify the PCs fighting a BBEG, and some ways are more easily implemented than others, depending on your playstyle (e.g. how far ahead do you plan your narrative, how much railroading do your players tolerate, how good are you at hiding the railroading, etc.)

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  5. Part 2 of 2:

    > is it, perhaps, inherent in role playing games there has to be a villain somewhere? That if there is not a villain from the start, ultimately the actions of the players will necessitate one emerging, unless they literally sit around doing nothing all day? Can there be any genuine interest without a villain existing at least as a corollary?

    No, imagine a non-combat RPG, where the PCs are just ordinary, everyday people. The conflict could be dealing alcoholism, or railing against a patriarchal society, or just inner conflict because the PC's in love with two people and can't decide which one to go with. Unless you allow labelling abstract concepts as villains, then I'd say there are no villains here, just conflicts.

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  6. My experience has always been that making RPG "villains" (of similar import to long-term threat as in static fiction) is hard. In books or movies, you can make a villain that lasts past his first appearance because you have control over what the protagonists will do. It's a rare group of players that won't immediately direct all of their resources to obliterating a threat that is obviously a villain.

    So to make one workable you have to plan way in advance to set it up so either the players don't know who to go after directly, are prevented from doing so due to strong setting limits, or he's justifiably able to get away every time they catch him. And as soon as it become apparent that the villain is causing them a lot of grief, the players are going to chafe at any of those restrictions and find a way around them (or cry railroading if they can't).

    Strangely, in my current campaign (a city-based Paizo module series), I've had some amazing success introducing "villains" that are basically frienemies of the PCs: the players know they're not nice people, but they're not doing anything directly against them, and meanwhile they're happy to give minor favors to a group of heroes that could obviously be a problem if antagonistic. So, when the players eventually decide the villains have done something that justifies taking them out, they'll at least have a decent bit of backstory rather than taking out the villain on first meeting.

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    1. The mistake lies in thinking a villain must be recurring to be a good one. So what if the PCs obliterate him? Congrats to the players for having their stuff together enough to pull it off. Then it's on to the next adventure or challenge...

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    2. But then what differentiates a "villain" from an arbitrary level 1 goblin that gets killed within the first turn of combat?

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    3. That goblin might not die, might run away and tell other goblins of the party's tactics and composition. If he survives two fights maybe he becomes a sub-leader, maybe he feels like a recurring villain and you didn't plan it. It's all in the dice.

      I think what Anon was getting at is, if the dice show that the villain dies, let the villain die, regardless of what you wanted or planned.

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  7. And relevant to Nebu's post. I'd honestly term a "villain" that's much higher level than the PCs to "force of nature." When the players know that the villain is currently way more powerful than them in an absolute sense, you lose the "man, we need to /get/ that guy" element of the relationship. The players know that they have no hope of doing anything but thwarting the villain's minor plots that you've been nice enough to peg to their level. They are unlikely to think of him as a villain until they're higher level, much like they don't think of a hurricane as a villain: it's just a thing that causes bad things to happen that they couldn't affect even if they wanted to.

    Which really comes down to the difficulties inherent in setting up an internally consistent world with strong level scaling and attempts to make sure the players are able to find level-appropriate problems to deal with. In any situation where there's a high level villain and low level PCs start wrecking his low level plans, eventually he should just send out some higher level minions to take them out rather than waiting for them to chew up his ranks to gain enough exp to challenge him.

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  8. No, imagine a non-combat RPG, where the PCs are just ordinary, everyday people. The conflict could be dealing alcoholism, or railing against a patriarchal society, or just inner conflict because the PC's in love with two people and can't decide which one to go with. Unless you allow labelling abstract concepts as villains, then I'd say there are no villains here, just conflicts.

    Isn't this is just a campaign where the PCs are too weak, cowardly, selfish, or ignorant to fight the villains?

    It seems to describe normal life. Are there no villains in this old world of ours?

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    1. Well, one way to look at it is like this:

      Maybe there exists villains in the real world (Hitler? Stalin? George W. Bush? etc.) But "here" and "now", where and when I personally am alive, they don't really have a large effect on my life. If I were to write an autobiography, I probably wouldn't mention those people.

      I've had conflicts with people, e.g. my parents, significant others, friends, coworkers, employers, etc. But I wouldn't consider them "villains" in my life.

      So in an RPG that mirrors real life, surely there exists people like Hitler etc. somewhere in the world, but perhaps they have such little influence over the conflict that the PCs are trying to resolve that it would be misleading to consider them "the villains" of the RPG.

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  9. I think the answer boils down to this:

    If you believe story is part of the game setup, then you have villains. If you believe story is what you end up with after play is done, then you don't.

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  10. I think that is why I eventually came up, in the interview, with the answer that God is the best villain. That is: whoever set up this brutal world where no-one can act without inevitably moving into discord with someone else, _that's_ your villain. The fundamentally oppositional metaphysics of the setting (and its representation) is the best villain.

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    1. Or maybe the dice are the villain.

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  11. A lot of gamers believe their campaigns must have a Sauron, or an Eclavdra.

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  13. I am going to run my next campaign like this. That's a really good methodology.

    What I've normally done is simply had a single NPC who I try to play as an evil character "behind the scenes." But I have been getting tired of grandiose villainy.

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  14. "That got me thinking further: is it, perhaps, inherent in role playing games there has to be a villain somewhere? That if there is not a villain from the start, ultimately the actions of the players will necessitate one emerging, unless they literally sit around doing nothing all day?"

    If by that you mean "Is it inherent to RPGs that the players will eventually piss someone off?", then yes. There may be games without antagonistic confrontation, but I don't want to play in them.

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  15. Who says paladins or anybody survives to level 20? John Carter, the strongest fighting-man on a planet full of fighting-men is level 13...

    The villains don't necessarily have to oppose the PCs directly to make trouble for them. He can sack or occupy towns, set up tolls or taxes, confiscate weapons, etc. Anything that annoys them will get him on their radar, but he doesn't necessarily have to know who they are, at least at first.

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  16. Whether or not an NPC is a villain really depends on how the PCs react to him. What if the PCs decide "hey, let's join him"? Setting an pre-determined villain against the players in a typical(???) D&D game is like telling them that the PCs are by default the Heroes and must travel the railroad track towards ultimately stopping his Evil Plot (ho hum)...

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  17. I agree and follow the same approach in practice. There are no villains, just a) interests in conflict with the party and b) characters with low moral standards. a) and b) do not have to be the same.

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  18. A game needs obstacles, and it's cool for those obstacles to have faces and personalities.

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  19. I do the opposite trick. I uses to establish a mayor NPC that the PC don't meet directly, but it have a specific agenda that looks evil; I let a thousand of clues suggesting that some vile acts are being performed by the main Villain. Eventually, in the last chapter, the PC meet him, and the NPC does a magnificent bastard declaration, suggesting that it is not evil but he is working against a worst evil. Eventually, half of the PC will take side with him, and the other don't, so we have a grand battle with PC in both sides.

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  20. I think villains develop as a result of players' desires. If the players desire something and someone else stands in the way of that, the obstacle becomes a "monster" and if it can't be stamped out it becomes a "villain". If the players can get what they want by avoiding the "monster" it never becomes a "villain".

    This is entirely separated from morality. I'm not saying it's right or common, but it's what I've seen from my players and it jives with reality in some cases. For example, maligning the leader of a political or religious opposition group, or the group itself. Or settler / conquerors maligning the natives.

    It's the basic "we're good and they're evil" but the strength of the vilifying propoganda correlates well with the amount of trouble the target causes you. If he drops his pants and gives up immediately, the target might not ever acquire "monster" status.

    People argue "X is better than Y" or "Y sucks" in part because they feel that Y threatens their X. They vilify Y. Maybe they're invested in X and if they accept that Y is better they'll feel the need to move and change (and admit being wrong), which is uncomfortable. Maybe they feel the popularity of Y will draw support from X and so must put it down. Surely not the only reason people argue, but I think it is one.

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  21. I agree with adam, and more!

    A classic forge-y suggestion is that there must be opposition, whether from characters or inanimate things, that this opposition should probably be set up by another player, and that the form the opposition takes says a few things about the things that matter in the game. That's why loads of these 2003-2009 ish games have "conflict resolution" and push towards certain types of conflicts.

    Opposition to characters is one of the big ways that conversation and co-creative stuff happens in rpgs, (leading questions being another as you pointed out, noisms) where each player is strongly playing off each others ideas and trying to understand them. This applies just as much to trapped dungeons as it does to devious villains, it encourages you to listen to certain things, and react to them as they are. Notice how much a travelog differs in interest from a dungeon description; the countryside is surroundings you might be interested in, the dungeon is a villain that you need to understand.

    Some games skip through "opposition via rocks", and fastforward till "real" conflicts happen, like Dogs for example, where you keep going through things till you get to "someone" who wants to stop you. Not neccesarily an evil person, just someone who's in your way.

    Equally, other games skip through social opposition when it comes up and get back to inanimate or combat based opposition.

    So one way for the GM to forground certain things they are interested in is to make villains that embody them, and conversely, players can ask for a world full of opposition that matches certain things they want to do. And if the dice come out in that kind of conflict and add cool twists, so much the better.

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