Welcome back to the Zurn blog! In our last post we discussed tips and techniques for building a good allied NPC - one that the party will both want to work with (why are these guys my allies?), and one that has a purpose within the story (an important background character). In today's post we will be looking at the flipside of the coin: how to build villains and opponents for your players.
We will look at what goes into making a good villain at all levels of the spectrum, and how to integrate them into your encounters. We will using examples from J.R.R. Tolkien, upon whose works almost every medieval fantasy roleplay system owes some debt of gratitude.
Villains: The Antagonists of the Story
Good stories have varieties of villains, each filling a different role to display and develop the abilities of the protagonists. Roleplaying is similar: we want varying levels of difficulty for our players, pushing them to grow by giving them villains who vary in difficulty.
When building a campaign, I think within three overarching categories of villains: grunts, elites, and villains (what gamers would call the "boss" of the dungeon, encounter, campaign, etc.). There is another category of NPC (the "Speedbump NPC," as I like to call it), but we will discuss it in our next post.
1. Grunts: Meat for the Grinder
Grunts are the most common opponents in a campaign. A "grunt" is the foot soldier, guard, ruffian, brute, etc. who is not necessarily a challenge to the players (probably weaker one-on-one compared to the players), but presents the challenge of numbers. If the party is tasked with protecting a village, grunts offer the challenge of, "How do you stop this many people from getting past you?"
On the whole, a good grunt should push certain elements of the party (low-armor characters should find their damage dangerous), but on the whole they will be inferior to the party in their performance (characters who have invested in armor should not fear their damage).
For the campaign that I'm creating, the "grunts" of the campaign are mostly minotaurs, but since the minotaurs have allies with them, there are some lower-Strength grunts as well. They are generally low in Finesse (so the party has mostly traited in parrying and dodging) and they have trouble making high-end magic casters, but they present a reliable target for the party. And with generally lower magical and elemental resistance, there are a host of ways for players to build characters that are lethal to the grunts.
Not every campaign requires grunts. They tend to make the game more fun for those who like killing things (sometimes its been a long day leading up to the session and we just need to slay something), but depending on your campaign they may not be necessary. If a player was building an Al Capone-style campaign where you are law enforcement trying to take down Capone's empire, you might forego grunts entirely and work with a smaller core of elites under one villain (Capone).
But generally speaking, grunts will be the majority of NPCs in a campaign. Use them to test the strategy of your players, not necessarily their mettle. If you are building grunts and they are better than most if not all party members in damage, armor, or hit/evade ability, this is not a grunt: this is an elite, which we will examine next.
2. Elites: Challenges for Players
Elite NPCs are designed to challenge prowess, equaling their skill and pushing them to excel. They are not the main villain, but they sport formidable prowess and ability in an area of potency for a member (or multiple members) of the party.
Elites will take different forms based on what they are designed to challenge. The ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings are an excellent example, as they are a challenge to fighting characters (both in Finesse and Strength), high-Hide characters (have you notice how the great fear in most of their scenes is, "Will they find us?"), and are utterly fearlessness (so long as fire is not involved), so you have to deal with them until they "die": there is no breaking morale against them.
Elites can also take the form of a high-Charm character: if you have players who excel in combat but need some growth in Willpower, the ability to resist a mighty roar, for example, could be a challenge. If I can simply get up the nerve to move within reach of its arms, I could do something useful to aid the party.
Notice how the high-Charm character here could be an enchantress (Lewis's Green Witch from The Silver Chair comes to mind), a nobleman who asks you to do something perilous or against your morals - there are a host of ways to challenge players with Charm characters. The trick is finding one that fits the theme and vision for the mission, and then testing our players in an environment where they can grow and learn.
In the tragedy I'm writing, there are always a troop of elite warriors, specialized in the army to meet a particular need. They may be fighters, archers, mages, healers - something that will cause a problem for the party, but if they are strategic they can best them.
The important distinction between an elite NPC and a villain is that the elite should be a challenge to a single member of the party: if party members work together (combining their strengths, working together to wear down an opponent, etc.), they should be able to topple an elite character, assuming that the party has good synergy.
Where combined party abilities will be tested is against the villain: our primary opponent in the mission.
3. Villains: Obstacles to be Overcome
Villains come in many shapes and sizes. There are villains for a scene or segment of the story (Lurtz the Uruk-Hai from The Fellowship of the Ring movie being a great example of a low-level villain: he's not in the book, because his goal is to be a visible leader for the trackers of Isengard), villains that are tied to a place (Saruman the Colorful), and of course the arch-villain of the story (Sauron, the Lord of the Rings).
Tolkien provides many villains in his tales, and for all the shortcomings of the Hobbit films, I did appreciate how they showed the progression of villains for that time in Middle-Earth's history. We have the Goblin King (who is dangerous, but not that dangerous), Smaug, and in the background the true villain: Sauron (in the form of the Necromancer). Each has their part, and they provide a level of party-centric work to defeat them.
You can (I'd argue, should) also tie villains to levels of accomplishment. In the campaign I'm running (and I can finally talk about this, as my players were able to meet and do this mission!), we have our main villain (Ungrol Four-Horn, leader of the minotaurs), but under him there are lesser captains, each with a different strength that comes to the forefront as the campaign progresses. So while you are constantly at odds with Ungrol Four-Horn, you are also being tested by the lesser villains (and have a chance for a minor victory if you defeat him/her).
The important characteristic for villains is that they should require party unity to defeat. Short of an insanely high roll, if a villain can be defeated by one party member (a high-Charm character beating a fighting character because of asymmetric warfare, like a Con roll), then it is not a villain: it's an elite.
So don't be afraid to aim high when building your villains: make them a challenge for your players. If you have a bard, priest, or mage who boosts the abilities of the party, plan for that so that a party member will need those bonuses to effectively combat the villain. We want our villains to have an answer for any one party member, lest he become just another grunt.
You want your hostile NPCs to be memorable and compelling. Make sure that they have the wherewithal to fulfill their purpose in the story (great or small), both in a combat and non-combat setting (as thankfully not everyone goes immediately to combat), insuring that they present the questions and choices that make the adventure meaningful.
In the campaign I'm designing, some of those questions are harder than others: I cannot save both of these aged scholars from Ungrol Four-Horn, so which do I choose to save? Your villains should be compelling, hitting your players where it hurts to stir them to combat the villain with everything they have.
And thus the most important thing to keep in mind when building hostile NPCs is that you have to first build up something for the players to love. Players will not truly feel the vile nature of your villains until they feel like something they love is threatened. So whether that is their lives or the lives of loved ones (at the most basic level) or something or someone they want to protect (be that an ideal, a village, or the entire elf clan of Cael, in the case of the tragedy campaign I'm writing), build something that they will want to defend. Because as their love for that thing or person grows, so also will their resolve to face your villains.
In our next post, we'll talk a bit about how to setup your villains for their moment through the use of the "Speedbump NPC," a subset of all three of these categories.