My long article for this week is a reprint of one I wrote for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter. This weekly email is required reading for GMs, combining some great articles with frequent tips from readers. Subscribers share their experiences, allowing you to learn from the collective experience of so many GMs world-wide.
This text appeared in RPT issue 645, under the title “How to Make a Villain-Based Plot Engine.”
The Villain-Based Plot Engine.
Humans are creatures of habit, and it is too easy to write repetitive plots. Your players will tire of the same plot time after time. You need to create a selection of varied plots for your campaign.
The heart of a plot is an antagonist taking an action against a victim: somebody does something to someone. Of course, the victim may respond with an action of their own, and so the story spirals onwards. Plot and counter-plot eventually build together into an epic tale.
Here is a technique to create a custom villain-based plot engine. These three tables will bring your setting to life, creating active factions pursuing separate agendas. This tool creates an endless string of varied, challenging plots for your game.
List the Villains
To create your custom-tables, begin by making a list of all the villains from your setting you want to use in the current campaign.
Step 1: Start with your grand plans for the campaign, and note forces opposed to the Heroes. These villains, both individuals and organisations, are your primary antagonists.
Step 2: Your world will have many evil forces lurking within it, and these broader foes can also appear on the Villains Table as secondary antagonists. Look for GMCs with ambition, who lead armies and guilds, individuals who want more power, or crave gold.
Step 3: Any published adventure or setting you want to incorporate into your campaign will have names you can add to your Villains Table.
Step 4: Mine character backgrounds. Your Players will thank you for weaving their stories deeper into your campaign world.
Step 5: Shades of Grey
Dedicated villains are obvious antagonists, but there are other options. A wider selection of entries in the Villains Table broadens your range of plots. The presence of an antagonistic, unaligned faction complicates any plot.
For example: if the Silver Scales seek to assassinate the Queen’s Steward, then the Heroes have a subtle problem to address. Simply storming the Guild House of the Silver Scales would push this group of merchants towards an alliance with the villainous Red Brotherhood. Yet, the Queen’s Steward must be protected.
By blurring morality, you give the Players more to think about. How the Heroes deal with the Silver Scales determines the future allegiance of these merchants.
Step 6: Good Guys gone Bad
Further complicate the Heroes’ lives by including allies on the Villains Table. Now the moral issues facing the Heroes are much harder. This plot features brains and political intrigue above swordplay. The Players must carefully consider their options: a welcome change of pace after endless combat.
You now have a long list of villains suitable for the Villains Table. Next, you must decide how to fit these villains onto your table.
Use probability to maintain the desired focus. The central villains from your setting should be recurring problems for the Heroes. Therefore, ensure these villains occupy the higher probability slots on your table.
The sample tables presented here use two sets of numbers to illustrate the effects of varying probability. The flat probability row uses a single d6, while the variable probability row uses 3d6. The most likely outcomes on the 3d6 table occur in the centre of the table.
Table 1: Villains
The positions you choose for the villains on the table affect their chances of being rolled, which gives you control of how often they appear in your campaign.
When rolling 3d6, the most likely outcomes will be 10 or 11. Place your central campaign villains on these numbers, ensuring their regular appearance in your game. If there is only one central villainous organization, then place the group on 10 and the leader on 11.
Enter lesser members of this central organization on the remaining numbers between 8 and 13. Or, add any other villains you want to meet frequently, such as the nemesis of a Hero. This completes the simple d6 table. The d6 Villains Table is ideal for the plots at the start and end of a campaign, when you want the story focused around your central villains.
To complete the 3d6 Villains Table, add midrange villains into slots 5 to 7 and 14 to 16. These could be villains from published adventures you plan to use, or other figures from the backstories of the Heroes. You could also include neutral antagonists in this range.
The final slots on the table are for antagonists you wish Heroes to encounter the least. This covers numbers 3, 4, 17 and 18. These are great places for allies who have turned against the Heroes, or light-relief villains such as a comedic kobold chieftain.
Table 2: Actions
Create plots where the antagonist is on a clear collision course with the Heroes. Attacking, stealing and kidnapping actions all drive a campaign forward. Passive actions such as watching, waiting or following only create dull plots. Remember, these plots are what the villain tries to do in the game. The goal of the Heroes is to stop these evil plans.
List the most dynamic actions in the centre of the 3d6 table, where they are more likely to be rolled. Consider the type of game you want to run, and place suitable actions in the middle of the table.
Does your central villain enjoy blackmail and intimidation? Then place those actions in the high-probability slots. Special abilities, organizational resources and a villain’s personality can all suggest entries for the Action Table.
If the villain has a signature modus operandi, then repeat that entry to increase its chances of occurring.
Table 3: Victims
Finally, the Victims Table is the reverse of the Villains Table. Ideally, the Heroes protect their allies from the foul plans of the campaign villain. Follow similar steps to the ones used to populate the Villains Table. The identity of the allies of the Heroes will arise from your setting. These friends and patrons appear in the central slots of the 3d6 Victims Table.
Other possibilities include family members, mentors and anybody from the Heroes’ personal histories. Religious, political and mercantile groups from your setting also make good victims.
There is great potential in varying the selection of targets. The politically neutral Silver Scales make for interesting victims. If the Heroes thwart a plot by the Thieves Guild against these merchants, then the Silver Scales may turn into valuable allies.
Putting it all together
To create custom plot tables, you need a list of potential antagonists, some sample actions, and a selection of victims.
Here are three example tables, each of which uses d6 or 3d6:
|4||Sisters of the Holy Light|
|5||Captain Ballatine of Caernport|
|6||The Azure Blades Mercenary Company|
|7||Glanok the Troll|
|2||9||Kalluk Red Blade|
|3||10||The Red Brotherhood|
|5||12||Zandor, Master Thief|
|6||13||Mazella the Green|
|14||Cult of the Broken Dagger|
|15||Sassdric of Mortavia|
|16||The Silver Scales|
|17||The High Steward|
|5||Declare war on|
|5||12||Attack followers of|
|14||Destroy the income of|
|15||Burgle the home of|
|16||Firebomb the home of|
|17||Frame for Murder|
|3||Kalluk Red Blade|
|6||Provost Marshal Herreth|
|7||Captain Jerrek of the Palace Guard|
|2||9||The Palace Guard|
|4||11||The High Steward|
|5||12||The Silver Scales|
|6||13||Sisters of the Holy Light|
|14||Bereneth, the Queen's Champion|
|16||The Red Brotherhood|
|18||Zandor, Master Thief|
Using the Tables
Roll on each table in turn, then combine the results to form a simple plot, in one of two formats:
[Villain] attempts to [Action] [Victim] – representing a plan uncovered before execution, requiring the Heroes to stop something before it happens.
[Villain] [Action]+s [Victim] – representing a plan carried out, requiring the Heroes to deal with the action as it happens, or be called in after the event to respond to the consequences.
For example, in version one, “The Red Brotherhood attempts to attack followers of the Queen.” Or, in version two, “The Red Brotherhood attacks followers of the Queen.” This forms the elevator pitch for the next plot in your game. As this plot features the central elements of each table, it would make a fine opening scenario for a campaign.
Tweak this elevator pitch as desired, then add all the mechanical details you need to run a scenario under your chosen rules.
To make a villain-based plot engine simply create custom Villain, Action, and Victim Tables. Choose entries to match your chosen style of game, and mine Hero backgrounds for tailored options. Roll on these tables to create elevator pitches for your plots.
What villains would you include in your table? What are your favourite actions for creating a compelling plot? Have you ever created a plot where shades of morality have complicated Player choices? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
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