Hello all! And welcome to Always Split the Party! I’m Jim, the DM, and today I’d like to talk about NPCs. Specifically, minor villains, or non-recurring baddies. Before that, I’ll give a quick recap of our last session.
The heroes entered the Valley of the Five Kings, searching for a small village, where they hoped to learn the location of a long lost tomb. Finding the village destroyed and the villagers killed, they set out to find the perpetrators, which they did; a tribe of kobolds, ruled by a mad priest, had descended upon the peaceful town and killed all who lived there.
The heroes tracked the kobolds to their village, some miles away. After some initial recon, and various minor adventures, they advanced into the village and parlayed with the kobold priest, who promised them that he would show them the way to the tomb they sought if they would kill a rival kobold. This kobold, named Kezzit, had left with many of the tribe’s warriors and females after disagreeing with the priest on whether they should slaughter the tribesmen.
The heroes agreed, and so they tracked Kezzit to his small camp, where, instead of killing him, they made a deal with him to kill the priest who had ordered the slaughter of the tribesmen they had been seeking. Going along with their plan, Kezzit joined them, and they headed back to the Kobold village, where they challenged the priest and his loyal winged henchmen. After a fierce battle, in which both Andariel and Selena nearly perished, the heroes and Kezzit slew the priest and his henchmen. Learning the location of the tomb from Kezzit, the new kobold chief, they made camp, preparing to descend into the depths in the morning.
As you can tell, the most important part of this session was the conflict between the kobold priest and Kezzit. The players chose to ally with Kezzit, and for good reason. The priest was designed to be nasty. He was smart, but obviously manipulative and cruel. It was clear to the players from the beginning that he needed to die.
In designing him, I wanted to create an NPC that the PCs would definitely dislike, and probably try to kill, without directly removing the option of allying with him. In doing so, I had to make certain characteristics that my PCs could latch onto and dislike. (It’s amazing to me how often the PCs will manage to get an NPC they don’t like killed, even if he is an ally.)
The characteristics I chose were self-certainty and arrogance, couple with an obviously false obsequiousness. Mixed in was a little amount of irrational fanaticism for his god, displayed by his overuse of the words “heretic” and “prophet”, as well as the use of phrases like “the will of the Dragon” and such. He was a mix of religious zealot and sycophantic advisor, and the mix produced an interesting little character. But not one I figured would last long, or would pose a really serious threat to the PCs, at this point.
And here I come to an interesting question: how much work should one put into crafting a “throwaway” villain? Should he be a fully fleshed out NPC, with hopes, fears, virtues, and vices? Should he be given all the attention a regular “recurring” villain is given?
Sort of, yes.
“Surely you jest, good sir,” You shout, interruptingly. “If he is a throwaway, only to last one or two sessions, why bother? The PCs are going to kill him and move on. They probably won’t even give him a second thought.”
If you would let me finish, I was going to say yes, this guy is probably going to be dead very soon. Most likely by the end of this session. And that’s okay. He’s meant to be a throwaway. You don’t have to write out an entire story of his life, or figure out his level progression to 20th level. He should, however, have realistic motivations, traits, and characteristics, and should be realistic in his dealings with the heroes.
He should be all these things because there’s a chance he won’t be dead at the end of the session. The players might fail to kill him. And if he isn’t dead at the end, then he has just become the best kind of villain there is: the unplanned recurring villain!
No other villain type can beat this gem. Any planned villains must somehow be made personal, or the players will feel nothing toward them. This can often be difficult for a DM, and requires some storytelling gymnastics. However, the unplanned recurring villain requires none of that. He is already personal to the heroes, and in some way resulted from their own actions.
If you make a “throwaway” villain, 2-dimensional and flat, and he happens to survive, you have missed an opportunity. Every “throwaway” villain should be give the opportunity to become the greatest of villains. It’s up to us DMs to give these villains that opportunity.
Now I’m not talking about railroading the players into letting a “throwaway” live. Nor am I talking about that close cousin of railroading, the old “he didn’t actually die in the fire” trick which is almost worse. I’m talking about the very real chance that the PCs will not kill the villain, for whatever reason. That the PCs might let him run away, or choose to parlay with him, instead of killing him, is not outside the realm of possibility, or at least it shouldn’t be. And you need to be prepared for that possibility. It’s your duty as a DM.
That’s it for now.
Happy Gaming! And remember:
Always Split the Party!