Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

The plot of every vintage James Bond movie resembles a role-playing scenario based on an investigation and events. A hook like the theft of an atomic bomb sets Bond into motion. In an investigation, he chases leads from one situation to the next. The events come when the villains’ agents attempt murder, usually while Bond pilots a gimmicky vehicle or skis downhill.

Lloth and Drow at Gencon

Event-driven adventures aren’t really about events; they’re about villains. Unlike dungeons or the classic situations, I described in an earlier post, event-driven adventures stem from dynamic villains working to achieve some goal that the players feel compelled to foil. “Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic,” the Angry GM writes. “The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the game master isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing.”

To prepare and event-driven adventure, plan villains instead of events.

Villains require three elements:

  • a goal
  • a plan to reach their evil ends
  • assets that can help bring their goal

Every villain must have a goal. For bad guys, the usual aims include power, vengeance, and, in Dungeons & Dragons, to harvest souls for ultimate power. Any of these goals make the foundation of a sound villain, but more evocative goals can make more compelling foes. Strahd Von Zarovich aims for power and vengeance, but he also wants to win a woman who would rather die than return his love. She does, more than once. Such depth helps make Strahd a classic.

Every villain needs a plan to gain their desires. In D&D, they make plans to conquer kingdoms, bring worshipers to dark gods, and so on. Those plans shape adventures.

In a typical D&D game, most players will act to oppose signs of evil, especially if thwarting evil would also bring treasure. The game builds on such calls to action. But plots that affect the characters directly make more compelling conflicts. Look to the player characters’ bonds for inspiration. If a wizard in your game seeks arcane knowledge above all else, then a plot that threatens to burn an ancient library would provoke the character.

When some DMs develop evil plans, they imagine a timeline of how the plan advances if the players fail to intervene. Such plots can continue all the way to the moment when Dendar the Night Serpent devours the world. But the game depends on the players meddling, so steps 13 and up rarely show at the table.

A better plan starts loose and develops through play. At first, the players may only see signs of evil.

An offstage villain can develop into a compelling foe. “One of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn,” Courtney Kraft of Geek and Sundry writes. “Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power.”

As a tool for introducing villains to a campaign, I like the concept of fronts. The idea comes from the games Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Dungeon World by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, but the concept’s best lessons apply to games like D&D.

Fronts abstract villains. “Each is a collection of linked dangers—threats to the characters specifically and to the people, places, and things the characters care about. It also includes one or more impending dooms, the horrible things that will happen without the characters’ intervention.”

Game masters planning fronts imagine grim portents that expose a villain’s progress toward a sinister goal. You reveal these portents to raise tension, or when players need a call to action. I liken fronts to weather fronts, because with both, you spot a coming storm in a distance. The early portents start a slow burn without necessarily calling players to action.

The game rules describe another sense of the term. “‘Fronts’ comes, of course, from ‘fighting on two fronts’ which is just where you want the characters to be—surrounded by threats, danger and adventure.”

In a campaign with multiple potential villains, grim portents help introduce the group. Such warnings suggest villains without much preparation. See what captures the players’ interest, and then develop the foes behind the portents. The players’ response to multiple portents can help shape a campaign’s direction.

Too many fronts advancing too quickly can make players feel overwhelmed and under-powered. Much of the fun of D&D comes from a sense of potency, so second fronts work best on a slow burn. They suggest an active world full of peril and opportunity.

The players’ actions to thwart the villain will eventually force a reaction. Perhaps the enemy slays someone the heroes recruited as an ally or captures some magic artifact the heroes need. Suddenly, the adventure comes alive as the players face a dynamic foe.

Villains need assets that help advance their plans. Most D&D villains start with monsters ready to fight. These assets range from faceless mooks to lieutenants colorful enough to overshadow their boss. Think Odd Job or Darth Vader. In more nuanced scenarios, the villain may bring allies with their own goals. Such friends of convenience can bring depth to an adventure by making adversaries that the heroes can turn to their side, or at least against the villain.

To build an event-driven campaign, dungeon masters need to imagine a villain’s assets, plan, and goal. But you don’t need a final, personified villain. That creation can wait. Waiting to develop a lead villain can even bring some advantages.

When DMs invest time in villains, they start to dream of recurring enemies who appear though the course of a campaign and escape alive.

In D&D, villains don’t recur like they might in a book or movie. The game strips away plot armor. As soon as recurring villains appear onstage, the players will attempt murder. Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.

In D&D, recurring villains work behind the scenes. Players learn of their hand through their reputation, their servants, and the accounts of would-be heroes who fled for their lives. The characters may thwart a plan, but the recurring villain’s goal remains to inspire another, more diabolical ploy. Each scheme needs to escalate the stakes. At level 1, a villain’s first plot might act to corrupt the kindly, village cleric. At 3rd level, the entire village becomes the target. In a campaign, some of the plans may succeed, raising the conflict further.

In an episodic campaign, keeping the lead villain undefined can help set a recurring villain who resonates with the player and even develops a record of beating the heroes.

Whenever players confront a bad guy, think about making the scene an audition for the role of ultimate villain. In most episodes, some agent of villainy will work a plan, fail, attempt escape, and perish. But sometimes, the players suffer a setback, and the villain escapes or even succeeds and complicates the characters’ lives. Consider promoting that enemy to the big bad. Justin Alexander advises, “The real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the ‘big villain.’ Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them.” If someone survives or prevails, you have a villain the players can hate. That enemy may need more power for a lead role, but the game is D&D. Just back a winner with a dark pact, evil artifact, or battle-ready servants.

By preparing active villains with goals, plans, and assets, you can prepare adventures that follow an arc that resembles a pre-planned plot. But you prepare without assuming what the players will do or how the game will advance.

 

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One Response to Event-driven D&D Adventures Aren’t About Events; They’re About Villains

  1. Simon says:

    “Sometimes DMs can engineer an escape without railroading, but usually villains just survive a round or two.”

    IME some of the most long lived and effective villains are the ones who don’t try to fight at all – when PCs attack, they flee. It can be really hard to stop a wizard escaping if he has no interest in killing the PCs.

    The usual reason D&D villains die so fast is that they are set up as end of dungeon boss fights – either they win & kill the PCs, or the PCs kill them. It does not have to be that way.

    As well as the immediately-flees villain, in some games a noncombatant villain works well, especially with non-chaotic-evil PCs. Eg I had success with an Arasaka Corporation executive as a Cyberpunk-world villain; even when captured the PC couldn’t justify killing him. If a villain would rather talk than fight, many PCs will oblige. This is especially effective if the villain has redeeming or sympathetic features and is more Neutral than Chaotic Evil. An enemy general or executive is better than a serial killer or Orcus high priest for this. In a James Bond game, use eg a GRU Soviet General who likes and respects the PCs, not a madman trying to destroy the world.

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