Ahh, it’s good to be back!
It has been around a year now since my first article here, indeed my first article anywhere, so it seems only right to revisit my favourite topic, and a particular subject I’ve been looking forward to discussing.
Welcome back you lovely lovely people!
Murder hobos is an affectionate term for player characters. These are people for whom reckless endangerment is a way of life. They sleep outdoors, kill en masse with the most tenuous motivation, and no matter how much money they accrue throughout their career they will never buy so much as a house, or even open a bank account.
But they’re the good guys!
Sometimes your group might want to shrug off the pretence of heroism and dive straight into villainy. For the DM, this can make life complicated, but it can also be one hell of an opportunity for you to (pardon the pun) turn the tables on your group.
Making Villains Cooperate
A group of misguided but powerful individuals are more likely to pursue their own agendas than to cooperate to a common goal. A common factor of most villains is selfishness, they’re out for themselves or their own small group of people, like a family or a populous.
- Dominance: Be it the country or the world, a villain wants to control and possess. Ambition is a powerful motivation but it’s ultimate goal is to obtain power, through military might, wealth, or political positioning. Ambition also tends to feed itself, once a greedy villain gets all they want they inevitably find some new desire which can make for a never ending source of plots to pursue.
- Devotion: Love, respect and fear are powerful emotions that can drive people to do incredible and dangerous things. Parents, loved ones, gods, something greater than oneself, or something vulnerable that needs to be protected can all provide the motivation to move mountains, kill thousands, or cast aside morality altogether. Devotees tend to be at the mercy of their subject’s whims, and so a good NPC can offer excellent plot hooks for such a subservient character.
- Obsession: Revenge, prejudice, envy, a solitary ambition that becomes the sole purpose of one’s life, and if that purpose is in some way compromised or impeded then hell shall be let lose. An obsession is most commonly a personal thing, but if you can find an subject that the party can share, such as a shared antagonist or an object they can all use (perhaps in their own very different ways) it can drive some very focussed quests.
The best way to encourage a group of villains to work together for a coherent campaign is to ask your players to coordinate their character creation efforts, or offer them a question to answer when creating their character:
“Why do you want Shao-Yu* dead?”
“How are you going to conquer the world?”
“What lengths would you go to, to become immortal?”
Alternatively there is always one threat that all “main characters” good, evil or otherwise, can usually rally to: Self Preservation. What threatens the group personally? What threatens their way of life, or the world in which they live? And how would a villain go about preventing their own annihilation? You may even want to consider throwing an apocalypse at the group that can only be prevented by the most diabolical methods that no true hero would touch.
Who’re The Bad Guys?
The obvious option is of course, the good guys! The heroes, the agents of the law and peace and justice, but this can get bland very quickly. If you’re just beating up the same old cops/guards and do-gooders then your campaign will be one long boring jog to the finish line.
The biggest rivals to villains are other villains. Competition can make for a compelling story-line, one that can take your budding crime-lords out of the bottom ranks and knocking-over jewellery stores to owning slums, banks and politicians like their old bosses. That’s when you can introduce the plucky hero determined to tear them back down to size.
Contradicting interests can also turn one villain against another. If enemies are in pursuit of the same object or territory, or if one group’s plans disrupt another’s too often or too severely it can lead to irresolvable differences and out and out conflict. Worse still, team villains with heroes to face your party together for a memorable plot-twist, and a harder fight than they may be prepared for.
You can’t just drop a plot hook in front of an evil group and expect a normal game. Remember that the roles have been reversed, and every method at your disposal is suddenly a viable option for the group as well. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a good group could acquire a band of plucky hirelings, or resort to “absolute-annihilation” strategies to deal with particularly stubborn nemeses, it’s far less likely than the villains doing it by enslavement, terror, and absolute disregard for consequences.
- Minions: A group of subservient peons and an indentured fighting force makes life just that much easier. Be sure to offer players plenty of fodder to grow their ranks, but don’t just let them have servants. Their underlings are people too, and like any NPC should have character, personality and motivation. Not necessarily each individual, but the group as a whole. Do they fear for their lives, are they persuaded by bribery, or have they been converted to the villain’s view of the “new world order”.
A legion of servitors is a hell of a way for your players to accomplish a great deal in a short space of time, but can lead to a few dangerous traps: treachery within the ranks, enemies getting too close by slipping in amongst the ranks, and of course the very real problem of “having to take care of it ourselves”.
- Devastation: Through use of superior power, military dominance, underhanded or unethical tactics, or the use of “ultimate weapons” villains achieve a great deal of carnage in very little time. With their enemies off-balance and fearful the group may do as they please, right up until the good guys get a counter-operation off the ground. Being forced underground by the actions of the players can also make the heroes into far more concerning enemies, liable to emerge from nowhere to wreak terrible vengeance!
- Subterfuge: Subversive methods can only take you so far, but they can get you there without ringing alarm bells. Playing by the rules and gathering power and influence through cunning and deception can make your players very difficult to challenge, especially if nobody calls them out, and if they’re smart enough to leave no clues behind. That said, espionage and infiltration can make some of the most challenging quests, especially when resorting to combat would leave the group hopelessly outmatched, and failure would throw their villainy into the cold light of day.
At some point your group will be forced to say “That’s enough of that” and unveil their master plan, but who knows, they may be able to worm their way to every objective without a drop of bloodshed. They may prove to be the first group to have ever done so.
*I hasten to add, that I know of no one called Shao-Yu.
I love writing these advice pieces, but I am slowly but surely coming to the end of my list of planned articles. So I put it to you! Anything you would like to see from DMing 101? Anything you need help or advice with? Any advice you can offer me (I can always use it).
In the mean time please check out my other site, Quotes From The Tabletop for all the funny quotes and stories that could only ever happen at the table.