Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.
This really should have been part of the first post. In the end, a setting is only a framework that supports things happening and gives them a context. Settings build with a specific type of stories in mind are always much stronger in my opinion. And really, who needs another generic Northern European fantasy setting?
At the very heart of the setting is the idea of hardened warriors stalking through dark forests and misty swamps, being on constant watch for savage eldritch beasts and treacherous cutthroat villains. This casts them in the role of monster hunters, mercenaries, or enforcers of the various competing factions. Iron and blood are their business, but they also have to be investigators if they don’t want to become disposable pawns to people smarter and more ruthless than themselves.
The setting is a world in which the important players are the various occult and esoteric societies that are the center of religion and are pulling the strings behind the scenes. There are four things that people are craving for: Political power, eldritch power, spiritual enlightenment, and wealth. And in this world these four things are always going hand in hand. Arcane knowledge and religious revelation are the same thing. An understanding of the nature of the supernatural forces that shape the world and are the source of life. And those who gain insight into it have control over people and wealth. While their motivations may be very different, the means to achieve their goals are always the same for all the different factions. Eldritch knowledge and relics. Like in the adventures of Indiana Jones or countless wuxia plots, everyone is hunting for magic items, the tomes of great sorcerers and witches, and captured spirits that hold the key to greater power.
A lot of this perpetual struggle takes the form of political plotting and diplomatic finesse. But more often than not there will be some need for violence. Which is where the Player Characters come into the picture. They can either be the ones who are doing the dirty work, or the ones hired to protect against it. But in the end, this is not a setting for players to take the moral high ground and be virtuous defenders of peace. All the factions have some shady dealings going on and some tollerance for the more questionable deeds of certain more abitous members as long as they are keeping it out of sight. At the very least, players won’t be able to entirely avoid making deals with people of highly dubious reputation.
There are a couple of adventure frameworks that I see working really well for the setting as I imagine it.
- Competing factions are fighting over a relic that is in the possession of one of them. The task of the party is to either get the relic for their own faction or to prevent it being stolen by a rival group. This is a good setup for a town based conspiracy adventure. Think The Maltese Falcon.
- Competing factions are trying to get their hands on a relic before another group does. This is a setup for a classic straightforward trip to a ruin, tomb, or wizard tower and the exploration of its dungeons. But instead of orcs and giant spiders the players will have to deal with rival search parties and hostile guardian spirits.
- Villages are being threatened by bandits. This is not directly related to the specifics of the settings, but it’s a problem that is thematically very fitting for a setting of this style and honest mercenary work to mix things up a little from time to time.
- Villages are being threatened by hostile spirits. This is the simple setup of such classics like The 13th Warrior, Beowulf, and Princess Mononoke. How this ends up playing out can differ imensely, even when dealing with this setup multiple times. It can include anything from investigation to big dragon hunts and always includes the big question of why the spirits are tergeting the village in the first place.
- Spirits are abducting people. This setup is more of an investigation type that can become highly complex and involve the various esoteric factions having their fingers in it somewhere. It will likely lead the party into haunted woods and the lairs of horrific beast or evil witches, but it might also involve complex conspiracies.
- People are cursed. Another great investigation setup in which the players have to find the source of the curse and the method by which it can be broken, and then have to actually pull it off in the face of possibly very great danger.
Each of these setups can take the form of relatively simple oneshots that are wrapped up in a few hours, or turn out to be huge affairs spanning months. They are also very flexible and can play out completely different depending on the specific circumstances and how the players are approaching things. This should easily provide enough adventure ideas to last for years.
I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.
But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.
Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.
Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.
Recently I’ve been thinking about a sandbox campaign set in the Star Wars galaxy and whether these two things could actually work together in a way that gives them both justice. And I’ve come to believe that yes, it can be done. Though with some limitations, however.
Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of heroes in Star Wars. Rebels, Jedi, and Scoundrels. Of these, I think only scoundrels can actually work as a party for a sandbox campaign. Scoundrels are great because they are inherently proactive. Because they are always looking out first for Number One. They are interested in their own benefit, which more often than not means credits. Smugglers and bounty hunters always have a default goal they can pursue in absence of anything else pressing: Make more money! This puts them into immediate conflict with the law and generally involves messing with pretty violent people. A scoundrel campaign is pretty much writing itself, which is what you want in a sandbox.
Playing rebels is more of a problem, though. The goal of rebels is to take down the Empire through military actions and targeted sabotage. But just going around collecting stormtrooper helmets is not going to do that. There is effectively an endless supply of those. To make a real difference, their attacks have to be part of a bigger strategy and need to be coordinated with lots of other people. Which means that all the big decisions are being made by rebel leaders who have a more or less complete overview of the entire military situation. If the players are getting orders from higher up, it’s not really a sandbox, regardless of how much freedom they are given in the execution of their orders. If they play military leaders than you’re playing a wargame. Doing things you like doing and opening new adventures where you spot them does not work when playing rebels. And neither does it work when playing Imperial officers or troops.
Jedi are more flexible compared to military characters, but they are by their very nature completely reactive. Jedi wait in vigilance until the Sith rear their ugly heads somewhere in the galaxy and then go chasing after them until the status quo has been restored again. This doesn’t really work as a sandbox either. It’s always the Sith or oder Dark Jedi who have the full initiative and drive the plot forward. As long as there are no Sith stirring shit up, Jedi don’t have anything to do that would be proper Jedi adventures. As with rebels, you can give Jedi a great amount of freedom in how they go after their enemies, but they need to be given an enemy to chase after. They can not really start things on their own, which is a pretty big deal in a sandbox campaign.
The galaxy of Star Wars is big. Really big. There are thousands of inhabited planets that are each a full world in their own right. Trying to map all of this in the traditional way is, and in this case literally literally, impossible. But the way characters are interacting with space and distance in Star Wars is completely different from the way you find in Dungeons & Dragons for example.
For one thing, travel between any two places in Star Wars is effectively instantaneous. Various Star Wars RPGs have various charts for distances and spaceship speeds, but if you go by the movies, hyperspace is almost teleportation. In the scene where Luke first trains with his lightsaber on the Milennium Falcon, Han comes from the cockpit apparently just having put the ship on autopilot after making the jump from Tatooine. And the same scene ends with everyone going back to the cockpit because they arrived at Alderaan. And when Anakin is fighting Obi-Wan on lava world, the Emperor has a premonition that he needs saving and gets his shuttle ready. It’s not clear how long it takes the Emperor to fly all the way from the Core World to the Outer Rim and back, but they didn’t bother giving Anakin any medical attention before they are back at Corruscant. Doesn’t look like the whole thing took more than half an hour at most. In addition, aside from Interdictor Cruisers that know exactly where and when to ambush you, nothing can interrupt a hyperspace jump. There are no random encounters in interstellar space. Even if in your game travel between planets takes several days, it’s empty time in which nothing happens. Local planetary travel is also never really adressed. You can get from any one place on a planet to any other place just as fast as you can get to the other side of the galaxy.
A map for a Star Wars sandbox would look completely different than a map for a Dungeons & Dragons sandbox. When you can go to any place in the galaxy almost instantly, distances and relative positions become irrelevant. Instead of going to specific places, you really are going to visit specific people or buildings. On the whole planet of Dagobah, there is really only a single place. Yoda’s home. You could also consider the Dark Side cave as a second place but that’s really it. Corruscant is massive, but as long as you don’t have the specific adress of a specifc person, nothing on that whole planet is of any relevance to the players who have no reason to visit it. Instead of making a map for a Star Wars sandbox, you really need an adress book. People and specific places like cantinas, stores, hideouts, and bases are what makes up your sandbox.
The Other People
However, places are almost always defined by either something that is hidden inside them, but most often by the people who are staying there. There are very few places in Star Wars that are interesting by themselves in the way that great dungeons are in D&D. The stories in Star Wars are always stories of people, not of places. When you prepare a Star Wars sandbox, preparation shouldn’t start by drawing a couple of dungeons that the players can exmplore. The real heart of the sandbox are the NPCs. The villains and the allies. Of course Star Wars has lots of absolutely fantastic and stunning locations, but their purpose is always as a dramatic background for interactions with other characters.
NPCs really are everything in any Star Wars campaign. They are what will make or break the game. And when you make NPCs for Star Wars, always go full out. Hold nothing back. Make them as outragously awesome as you can possibly get. In particular the villains. The villains are what your players come for when playing a Star Wars game and they want, and only deserve, the most awesome ones. Darth Vader and Boba Fett leave pretty big boots to fill, but you should aim that high. If the NPCs are not really that interesting, then it just won’t reach the awesomeness that is Star Wars.
When creating a “world map” for a fantasy setting, I generally find it rather pointless to actually make a map that shows the entire world. Most fantasy worlds aim to be late medieval to early modern in the kind of world they describe and in these time periods much of the Earth was yet unknown even to the people with the most complete maps that existed. Also, an Earth-sized planet is massive and there is no way you could ever actually visit all those places, no matter how many books you write or games you play. At the very most, what a setting can practically make use of, is a region that covers all the major climate zones and ecological environments.
While the distance from pole to pole is a bit over 20,000 km, the north to south length you need for a map that provides all the environments you could ever wish for is much shorter than that. I took some measurements on world maps and the numbers that showed up again and again were all in the range of 3,000 to 3,500 km. Or in fantasy units, 2,000 miles.
It is the distance that takes you from the northern coast of Africa to the northernmost extend of the Baltic Sea. It’s the distance from Russia across all of Mongolia and China to northern Vietnam. It’s from Hudson Bay in Canada to Cuba and from Alaska to Baja California. The distance from Rio de Janeiro to the Falkland Isles.
If you really want the full range of possible climates from the thickest tropical jungles to the permanently frozen artic tundra it’s more like 3,000 miles, but with 2,000 you are already on the pretty safe side in your ability to cover any landscapes you might want to put into your world.
This is a problem that has been bothering me for a week now.
A pointcrawl map is an excelent solution to dealing with navigation in two situations. When you want to go from one known point to another known point and there are only a few possible routes that make sense, and when there is only a limited number of possible paths you can take from your current location. Which is the majority of overland travel. However, while working on the first segment of my next sandbox campaign, I noticed that it’s really difficult to use this method for searching a hidden ruin in a swamp. You don’t know the destination and there are no preexisting paths. The original pointcrawl concept explicitly mentions that real wilderness travel is almosy never blindly going in one direction but always either following a path or heading for a landmark. And I agree with that, so that I have started to believe this is not the fault of the pointcrawl but the fault of the swamp. If I want to handle travel in my campaign as a hexcrawl, then I have to change my ideas of how the players get to the ruin in the swamp.
Another issue that’s even tougher is using pointcrawling inside a huge dungeon that is mostly empty and irrelevant rooms and tunnels. A pointcrawl seems like a good idea to only fully play out the interesting sections of the whole dungeon. The chapple, the lab, the monster pens, the gatehouse, and so on. In a somewhat open castle this is no problem. Players can see the keep, the chapple, the stables, and the gatehouse from afar and chose their destination as they leave one area. But in an underground dungeon that doesn’t work. You don’t know what’s behind a door or corner until you enter the new area. It’s a completely different way people are navigating such environments.
If players are in the gatehouse and have the options to go from there to either the stables or the barracks, then the players have to know that these are the two things they can pick from. Otherwise it’s just randomness that takes them to the next area, not a meaningful choice. In a sci-fi setting this could be easy. Just have signs on the walls that tell you where you can go from here and how you get there. In a cave network or ancient ruin, that’s not a feasable approach, though.
Solutions? I don’t have any. I am still working on it, but so far I’ve made little progress beyond identifying the prolem. But my efforts will continue and maybe I’ll come up with something smart one day.
No, this is not a pun.
I wrote about sandboxes and taking the idea of default goals from megadungeons on monday, and how it finally made sandbox campaigns click for me.
And it finally made me understand how I would properly run a Dark Sun campaign. A sandbox is a perfect match for it. One issue with the setting as described is that all the interesting possible oponents are fabulously powerful. If you want to engage in the current public affairs of Athas, you’re facing immortal sorcerer kings with limitless resources and whole armies of seriously dangerous minions. Yet doing regular bandit killing and caravan guarding would be just way too bland for a setting like this. Even being an ordinary adventurer looking for gold in dungeons would be kinda meh.
But as a sandbox it all makes so much more sense. The default action in a Dark Sun campaign is “don’t die”. When you’re in a city, then the templars of the sorcerer-kings are everywhere and looking to kill or enslave you for the slightest reason. If you’re not in a city, then it’s a constant fight to not be killed by the desert. Sitting around idle is never an option, you are always facing a threat. If you don’t have any specific goal for now, then simply staying alive and free will always keep you occupied. It’s a world that really comes to life through random encounters. Random encounters are not the hand GM nuding the players to do certain things. They are the setting itself being hostile to the players, which really is one of the big selling points of Dark Sun as a setting.
And going on more specific adventures with a defined goal can always be treated as a means to accomplishing the default goal of staying alive. Helping others is not something you do out of kindness, but because they will give you resources and assistance in return, which then can help you to survive the deserts and stay ahead of the templars for a little longer. And in the long term, the players can make allies and gain the friendship of slave tribes or bands of elves, or can call in a debt from thri-kreen. Or even somehow get the gratitude of a clan of halflings. Lunatic canibal halflings who live in the one forest in a desert world that everybody else stays way clear of. As they grow in personal power and gain allies, players can eventually get into a position where they can mean actual trouble for any of the sorcerer-kings. Whichever one of them the players decide to hate the most.
The Tyr Region is perfect for a sandbox, and not just because it’s full of sand. However, given that the setting was created for AD&D 2nd edition and that the really cool concept was quickly turned into garbage by a heavy handed metaplot that had NPCs do all the things that would have been cool for players to do, I very much doubt that this was the intention. But that’s clearly how I would run it.
One thing I am constantly struggling with as a GM is making up my mind what kind of game mode I actually want my campaigns to run in. The linear plotted adventure went out the window years ago, but since then it’s ben an endless back and forth between enthusiasm and disdain for sandboxes and dungeoncrawls, social games and exploration games, ongoing campaigns and episodic one-shots. Which I think ultimately comes down to a disconnect between the kind of narratives I am dreaming of and the realities of running a game with other people. I want Conan, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, but these are all tales written by a creator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters and has full control over the past, present, and future of every scene at the same time. You can not replicate a book or a movie exactly in an RPG. You can only work towards running a game that will look like just as great a story in hindsight.
Of the many possible open-ended game modes to chose from, the two I know I am not interested in are hexcrawls and megadungeons. Which happen to be by far the most popular, or at the very least the ones that have most been written about. But the discourse about these two modes has led to the articulation of a valuable and important concept: Default Goals and Default Actions.
In a game that has a group come together at regular or irregular intervals and ask the immortal question “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”, there needs to be a default goal. If nobody has any special plan, then the whole group should be in agreement to default to one standard activity. Otherwise they just keep akwardly sitting around in confusion and are likely to start wrecking things to get any response to their presence from the game world. In the case of the hexcrawl and the megadungeon, these default actions are exploring new hexes and going to the dungeon respectively. Or simply “explore”. But as Matt Colville pointed out quite correctly I believe, “explore” is not a good goal. Exploration is walking around blindly and waiting for something interesting to fall into your path. It’s still waiting for the world and the GM to give them a task to deal with. Without understanding why, I think this is really the issue that always had me feel very uncomfortable about the thought of running a hexcrawl or megadungeon. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for the kind of narratives I want my games to produce.
My work on the Ancient Lands setting began as an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of tribal societies in a fantasy world that wasn’t as distorted as the nonsense you get about life in “warrior cultures” in movies and books. But while I think that it’s a fascinating subject and some elements of this will greatly help me making the Ancient Lands feel like an actual world, I have come to really appreciate minimizing exposition and player buy-in. Instead relying strongly on familiar archetypes to allow players to correctly guess what is what in this fictional world. However as part of it, I found one solution to letting PCs go on adventures and being indispensible for the survival of the clan, which was to define PCs as hunters for magical artifacts that can help defend the clan against their enemies and hostile spirits. Somehow this got stuck in my mind as the paradigm that all adventures in the Ancient Lands have to be treasure hunts and that all PCs have to be treasure hunters. After all, treasure hunting is what makes characters progress in B/X, so it seems to be a perfect match, right?
But in hindsight I really just handicapped myself with this approach. Without the addition of “return it to your clan to defend it against attacks”, the default goal of “find treasure” is just as hollow as “explore”. But while reading Kevin Crawford’s excellent Spears of the Dawn, I finally came to the realization that default goal does not have to be the only goal. It’s the goal that you can always go pursuing if you don’t have anything else planned right now. I believe the key to a successful sandbox campaign is to make it a hybrid campaign of exploration/treasure hunt and player-initiated story adventures. On their own, neither can stand by itself. At least not in a way that I want to run it. Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options.
A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people”. The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts. The platonic ideal for player initiated adventures always seems to me best represented by the classic Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. There is no quest giver and barely even a hook to get the hero into this adventure. He is just passing through a village when he sees that local gangs are making trouble. Even though the locals tell him to just be on his way, he is intrigued and stays to see what happens next. At this point he has no plan and not even a clear goal and completely plays it by ear, but once he has established some connections to the village it very quickly grows into a complex web of cunning deception and daring swashbuckling that simply is a blast to behold. This is what I believe player-initiated adventures in a sandbox should be like.
But in an RPG, walking down the street until the players run into something that grabs their curiosity is not feasible. If they currently have nothing to do, they need a default goal to fall back on that will keep them entertained until they find something more interesting to do instead. Putting the limitation on character creation that all PCs have to have a drive to look for magical wonders in ancient places seems like a perfect solution for a wilderness sandbox.
When I started doing research about good dungeon design, I made an interesting observation. Pretty much everyone who is writing about the design of dungeons is talking specifically of the rather special case of megadungeons. I can understand the fascination with these massive places that can remain not fully explored even after multiple campaigns set inside of them. But when you start looking into the details of what people are writing about the design, you find a lot of recommendations that I don’t think carry over well into games of exploring multiple different dungeons over 1 to 4 sessions each.
The whole logistics are really quite different and the journey to and from the dungeon takes up a much bigger role in the campaign when the party constantly has to relocate their base camp. Like most advice that is around for worldbuilding, megadungeon advice mostly concerns itself with the really big pictures. But what seemingly gets overlooked is the small scale design of encounters and individual rooms. These are problems that a lot more GMs are having to deal with, yet it seems that nobody really has anything smart to say about this element. As a GM poorly experienced in running dungeon crawls, I’ve been doing a lot of searching for such information, but it appears to be curiously absent.
One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.
I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.
I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.
So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.
One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!
So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.