This week was all about setup. Each campaign has been getting more and more lore peppered over their adventures. A hint here, a small encounter there, clues and crackers abound with hooks into their backstories and possible avenues for future adventures. It's pretty exciting.
But the biggest hint in each campaign is a looming darkness. Something working in the shadows, pulling strings and causing havoc out of the players' view. So far, no one has been affected directly...until now.
Tuesday's crew has been skirting around a general attempting to control more of the continent through vicious force, and were expecting a battle to come knocking on their door. Key characters have been experiencing nightmarish visions of past enemies, alive and dead, and the party has already seen their fair share of forces in motion. This week, they were greeted by a charismatic silk-tongued wizard calling himself Draz Talwar, who interrupted a city-wide council meeting...with no repercussions. The heroes found themselves Enthralled by his magic, only a few of them able to resist, and he proceeded to spin lies and truths to a room of 400 individuals, then simply left, just to show that he could. *1
Wednesday's pirates have had their fair share of plundering, sailing, and subterfuge, but the mainstay of the Age is found in the setting at large. Sometime in the past, the elemental plane of water "leaked" into the material plane, bringing with it streams of wild magic, massive aquatic beasts, and a whole lot of water. This uncertainty in the sea has been equal parts exciting and absolutely terrifying, as no one truly knows what lurks in the darkness... *3
Thursdays have had some pretty epic run-ins with crazy foes, most recently a Beholder Lord named Andrikees. Andrikees uses an eye-beam that transports his victims to a glass-like "display" in the Astral Sea, and he aims to "collect" the world. ...but he's dead now. Believing themselves safe, they set to work helping the remaining citizens, now freed from the Beholder's control, to rebuild the city. Leading up to this moment, one of the players has been actively contacting his patron (it's a Warlock thing) but getting no response. It's strange, but he kept trying periodically all through the last arc. Then, that night, he finally gets an answer in the form of a voice as he dreams...but something is off about his patron. The voice is similar, but not the same, and it seems like he's hiding something. The patron asks for permission, and the player grants it...then proceeds to suffer a massive psychic attack and hijacking. Meanwhile, his allies attempt to free his convulsing body from the psychic connection and a few of them sense something dark hovering over him. The Ranger shoots a divine arrow, usually super effective, and it is instead eaten by the creature, giving it enough power to flow out from the Warlock forming a smoky ball of lightning and darkness in the shape of a dragon's head...*2
So, I'm not a published author. I don't have any credits to my name when it comes to fiction. However, I have learned a few things about villains that work, and villains that don't. In the first year of Game Mastering here at Questers' Way, I can safely say that I've thrown a good many villains/encounters at players that missed their mark in terms of impact, and now in year 2, I happily use the few things I've learned to make them more impactful, dynamic, and thus, satisfying.
1) Show, Don't Tell - this is a rule in most visual fiction. It helps us see elements of a story while avoiding an expositional dump, while also communicating a character's motivations, vices, and/or abilities without overtly TELLING anyone. In this case, it was important for me to allow Draz to be himself; he WOULD charm an entire room, say his piece in confidence, painting the room in his slimy charisma, then leave in peace simply to communicate that HE COULD. That is a proud villain who is well aware of his own abilities, and, might be blinded by them. True, players might have been able to fight and overtake him in this opening confrontation, but not without great risk and a death or two at least. By having this reveal, he communicates easily to the characters, and to the players, his precise level of power and just how terrifying he would be in an encounter. Players are still telling me how intense that scene was; and that's an awesome feeling. A real villain strikes fear into the players, and ignites their vigor to rise to its challenge.
2) Subvert Expectations - there is so much media in the world today, meaning there are certain tropes that exist in most works of fiction; things that we've seen before, and therefore know and expect. Undead creatures are weak against Holy Water, demons can never be trusted, and shopping episodes are always safe. The latter especially was an amazing moment to helm; a moment where the entire table realized that everything that they could have brought to the fight (divine arrows, divine magic, healing, shielding, restoration spells) may not only have no effect, but could actually make the enemy stronger. And now, the players are forced into an uncomfortable space; coming from absolutely wrecking a suped-up beholder to an intimate, intense, and universally uncertain encounter where all of their most powerful options are called into question. Now, they know if they follow what they've done before, they're only going to make this evil stronger, and they're going to need to bring all of their collected resources to bear to fight this thing and all it represents.
3) Theme/Tone is Power - D&D Wednesdays in the custom "pirates" campaign has always been a mixed bag of morally gray characterizations. But this assembly of party members makes sense in what is currently a broken world in recovery; there has been a literal and figurative flood of magic and foreign creatures into the world that has drastically changed the status quo, which helps add to the air of uncertainty felt by all the players as they continue to explore the seas. Often they will come across a weather pattern, a strange creature, or, in most recent cases, a literal god walking across the water. Though they've been taking their time getting to the next plot location, there is a rising tide (ha, puns) of unsettling circumstances. They know something is lurking in the mists to the north, but they lack information. It is fun to continually re-establish this theme of uncertainty in a turbulent world. ...I'll keep you posted as we progress toward the reveal. Until then, all they can do is keep sailing.
So, TL;DR - Villains need to show their power, need to subvert player expectations to push the players off-balance, and the DM needs to wield atmosphere not just as a world-building exercise, but as a means to build momentum. Yarr. Let's go.
Year Two is shaping up nicely. Welcome to the next Arc, everyone. Now gather your party and I'll see you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.