May 11, 2010

The Villain Who Wasn’t There

I’ve read various posts asking how to have a recurring villain within a campaign without relying on inexplicable escapes. One bit of advice usually given is to have the main villain not appear with the heroes. Use underlings and other such mechanics. I have just such a situation in my current campaign. As a way to illustrate how this can be done I’m going to show how my main bad guy, Sid, has managed to plague the player’s characters without being killed off. As a warning, there is a fair bit of campaign exposition, but hopefully it is all to make a helpful point.

A quick background filler. The player’s characters are the children of demons and humans. One of them, Stefan, has an evil twin brother, Sid. Sid is working with his father, a demon lord, to overthrown the local region. Stefan was raised by a helpful mage who took the adventurers in as children. On one adventure at a nearby city, Stefan, and the rest of the adventurers, saved the nobles of the city from a rampaging lesser demon. Afterward they went back to their small village, but still hailed as heroes by the city.

Time passed. Eventually the players were forced to leave their village in the face of an advancing enemy army. They went back to the city and “met” Sid for the first time. They didn’t actually meet him face to face but he was interacting and messing with the players without even knowing it. Sid had discovered that people in the city recognized him, and as a hero to boot. His intent was to prepare the city to be taken over when the advancing army reached the city and used this mistake to his advantage. He assumed the identity of Stefan, one of the players.
When Stefan arrived into the city, people were reminding him to attend their party that night. People he had never met were greeting him as if they had known each other for some time. The kicker came when the local militia informed him that the Duke, the ruler of the city, wanted to see him…and then addressed him as Baron.

The players began to interact with all the shady stuff Sid had done in their name. The players were not interacting with the villain directly, but rather with his actions. They uncovered his plot to sabotage the cities defenses by removing the elite guard (by sending them on a long patrol), the siege engines (by “upgrading them”), removing the cities head mage, being named the ruling Duke’s heir and slowing killing the Duke. (They missed the plot to cause the granaries to explode and spread a wildfire.) They began to correct what they had discovered and were soon aware of Sid and his plots. They didn’t like him even before they met him.

Eventually they met one evening in the palace. This was the only direct interaction Sid and the party would have. After offering them a position in his schemes, they refused and a fight quickly broke out. Here I used the only DM Fiat I was going to use for Sid in the campaign. He quickly teleported away and lost the characters. They may not have been able to kill him, but they were able to unmask him and put a stop to several of his plots. The players managed to score a significant success against the villain even though he escaped.

The players next infiltrated the mage’s tower, which they had determined had been taken over by Sid after he had killed the town’s mage. Clearing their way through they discovered his minions all had the power to teleport short distances. The players realized the DM Fiat power the villain had used was not a fluke. This made his escape more palatable. They also disabled a portal that would have allowed the army to appear directly within the city. While they cleared the tower, they discovered information that made them realize Sid had already left the city once his cover was blown and was heading west to the larger city of Bard’s Gate. Even when not facing the villain the players discovered a bit of information that could aid them against the villain.

The players fled the city as it was falling to the enemy army; the attacking army was much too large. They decided to head west and hoped to reach Bard’s Gate quickly, warning people as they went. At the next town they found it in chaos. The mayor and Captain of the Guard had both been slain in their sleep just the day before. They correctly surmised it was the handiwork of Sid. They warned the village, but the villagers would not flee until some of their fellow villagers were found. Some had gone missing and a local hermit mage was suspected. The characters decided to quickly check it out and dealt with the mage, rescuing the villagers. While looting his abode they discovered a letter Sid had left the mage trying to recruit the mage to his cause. The mage had written a letter refusing to join Sid, which the characters discovered as it had been sent yet. It is possible to include a villain even when he has absolutely nothing to do with the current adventure. Simply ask yourself how the villain would interact with the NPCs of your current adventure and see how he would insert himself.

After being side tracked for a few adventures the characters continued on their way to Bard’s Gate. There were a total of three adventures wherein Sid had nothing to do with the adventure, not even in a peripheral way. Letting the players forget about the villain for a few adventures makes his reappearance have more impact.

The characters got back on track and came to the next village on the road to Bard’s Gate. The wooden wall protecting the village had been burned down a few nights earlier. They could see (and smell) the burn damage as the villagers worked to repair the damage. The players quickly realized Sid was still at it. Sometimes just reminding the character’s that the villain still exists is enough.

The players were avoiding towns at this point due to other problems they were having (namely some demon hunters were on their trail), but eventually they had to enter a town to get some information. While within the town they overheard the story of a local horrific incident from a few days earlier. Apparently someone had dug up the remains of a woman from the village who had been dead for the past 6 years. This was felt to be an obscene act and the villagers suspected it was her son, Sigmund. The villagers then mentioned that Sigmund now went by the name Sid. Gaining even small bits of information about a villain can feel like the players are making progress against the villain; making progress against a villain does not require his death.

They were on the lookout for him and made mention that they would deal harshly with Sid if they caught up to him. Sometimes the villain’s minions may be innocent people. My players called this a “social trap” as Stefan looks like Sid and Stefan would pay for Sid’s crimes if he had been spotted.

The characters are now at the gate into Bard’s Gate. Over a year ago, Sid had started his schemes in Bard’s Gate, where he set himself up as a Robin Hood type of criminal. In the past day he allowed himself to be seen and changed his tactics from Robin Hood to out and out sadistic criminal. He did this hoping to set up the characters to take a hard fall if they came to the city. The characters will be dealing with the repercussions of Sid’s actions even though they will not be coming face to face. Will they come face to face? That will depend on whether or not they discover his hidden lair within the city, but it is a possibility. In the mean time, Sid will continue to use underhanded tactics and use the city folk against the party. However, the next time they meet there will be no DM Fiat. There comes a time in every campaign where the villain can die. Too many escapes and it becomes a farce.

What do I plan on doing once Sid is killed? Since he is working with his demonic father to conquer the region, the characters will next face his father more directly. Always have an idea of who the next villain will be. My campaign is designed to end when the characters reach level 30; that is when they will fight the demon that has brought the plane of Chaos to the world and merged the two planes. Will they get that far? Who knows, but I have plenty of recurring villains to plague them on the way.
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