Okay, Now It's Personal: Conquer the Players, Not the World  

Posted by Spenser Isdahl in

While reading this post about creating inspiring RPG villains on The Spirits of Eden today I began thinking about what kind of villains I've found to be most effective for my players. The part that struck me was at the end of the post, speaking of the goals of the villain:

"I like to concentrate on smaller goals. Not take over the world – take over a Nation maybe, or hell, even take over a company. Not destroy the world – destroy a certain race, or a certain individual."
In my experience, this is definitely the way to go when crafting a villain. When creating a campaign, it can be very tempting to have the Big Bad be some sort of world-altering, mind-shattering power who threatens existence as we know it, but this leads to two problems:
  1. Campaign Promises Become Impossible to Deliver
    Setting huge goals for your villains means huge goals for the campaign. As the campaign progresses, the idea, the myth of this villain will become so overwrought that you, the DM, will be hard pressed to satisfy the expectations built up round the villain within the boundaries of the game.
  2. Big Goal Are Impersonal
    Sure, big goals are scary on an intellectual level, but few, if any, of your players are going to have any frame of personal reference for large scale conflicts such as world conquest.
Superficially, using the "small goals" paradigm when setting the aspirations of the villains in your campaigns can seem underwhelming. After all, who wants to chase a petty thief when you could be steeped in the blood of demon armies of the Abyss? Certainly, big goals have their place in roleplaying games, but this is one area where bigger is not always better.

While big villain goals have a certain escapist appeal, allowing the players to act out fantasies of changing the world in profound and immeasurable ways, small villain goals serve a much different purpose.

Thinking Small Forces Creative Thinking

With big goals, it's easy to say the Big Bad has amassed an army and is ravaging the countryside and leave it at that. Scary? Perhaps, with the right amount of mutilated corpses to accompany it, but not original. Thinking small forces you, the DM, to think not only about what the villain is attempting, but also how these goals fit in with the big picture and why the PCs care. While this usually means more work for the DM upfront, but pays off later when your PCs don't get bored and decide to go hunting for commoners.

Small Villains Adds Versatility

If a certain villain turns out very compelling, you can always upgrade him or her to bigger and better goals, but it's hard to downgrade a villain without it feeling like a deus ex machina to the players. If that half-devil barbarian overlord end up being tedious and un-fun, more often than not the campaign will simply peter out. If, on the other hand, that barbarian starts out as a local ruffian, you can throw him out as soon as he gets boring. This strategy also allows the players to get to know their enemies as they grow, making the inevitable climactic battle all the more satisfying.

Personal Identification

Most importantly, small villain goals have the distinct benefit of being analogous with the personal experiences of the players. This factor is enhanced in many cases by the fact that the DM and players are often close friends, meaning that the DM is generally aware of which villains will tap into the experiences of his players. This has the potential to engage the players in ways that big villain goals cannot; whereas big goals provide fulfillment of escapist fantasies, small goals work by sucking them into a situation in which they can act out their fantasies of vindicating wrongs enacted on them. This leads to a much more psychologically satisfying conclusion.

This entry was posted on November 11, 2009 at Wednesday, November 11, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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