A Villainous Plot
Design Reversal: How to Build Adventures Using the Villain's Perspective
By Perry W Rogers
I like to run all sorts of adventures types. Linear adventures, where A leads to B, leads to C, are my least favorite of these, because they railroad player options. Mysteries are fun, because the players explore and follow clues freely, which leads to more roleplaying opportunities.
In general, I prefer to run these more organic feeling situations. By organic I mean a situation that morphs as things happen. A moment that feels alive to everyone at the table. Players love it when they feel like their actions are actually affecting what happens in the world. As GMs, we all recognize this, it is what I strive for when I design adventures.
The key to this adventure is to write it from the villain's perspective. It is his plot, and this story is all about him— like the Batman movies of the 90s.
He might not have contingency plans. He might not have an escape plan. But he does have his master plan.
The players will try to figure out what is going on, and thwart it.
As the GM, you will allow them to proceed with their investigations, attacks and other actions.
Your job is to adjudicate the reactions of the villain as the players begin to insert themselves more and more into his schemes.
Treat the villain as a living person who is in the moment, just like the players. He still believes he can succeed, and will act accordingly.
Create the Master Plan
To start, I like to create the villain, his environs and his plans. I put in a lot of energy creating those elements before I proceed to hooking the characters.
I do this because I will be doing a lot of improv GMing as the adventure develops, and more effort here pays off later on. Once I have designed all of that, I thrust the players into the middle of it to see what happens.
Here is the template I use to design this sort of adventure.
A person, a deity or monster has set a plan in motion to accomplish some vile goal the players find out about and must foil to save....
1. Who Is The Villain?
The first step is to develop the villain. Because this adventure is completely based on his ability to plan and react, you need to know a lot about him. The more you know, the better. Consider the following:
- Who is he/she/it? Race, class, gender, quirks, mannerisms. Go deeper than the stat block and create a full profile.
- Where did he come from? His history and background including his rise to power.
- How does he act and react? What is his personality like?
- What does he desire? Power, money, revenge, world domination, lost love.
- How far will he go to achieve his desire?
- What will he not do? This can be more important that it seems at first.
- Where is the money coming from? What is the villain's source of resources to make this plan come together?
- How much local support does he have? Local villagers, monsters, mages, police, military.
- Who is his sidekick/familiar/pet which is at his side at all times?
- Who is his partner/lieutenant/right hand man? This is his most important henchmen in the field.
- Who are the rank and file lackeys?
- Where does he do most of his planning and dirty work? Where does he spend his down time? Lair, hideout, headquarters, laboratory.
Roll out your best NPC design skills on this guy. It will pay off when you see the reactions of your players as they learn about and deal with him.
2. Create The Master Plan
This is where you write out the villain's master plan from beginning to end - the whole thing.
The most basic plan will assume everything goes off without a hitch.
I prefer to write it out as a timeline.
The villain might have contingencies for things to go off the rails based on his intelligence, and anticipation of oppositional involvement.
The better the villain, the better the master plan. Keep it 'real' based on his personality, intelligence and resources.
Treat this plan like a recipe. With the villain's desire in mind, list out the steps he can take to actually achieve that desire.
Then figure out what ingredients he needs to accomplish each step.
Then go back in your plan/timeline and add actions that involve acquiring the ingredients.
Tailor the plan to the villain's personality and abilities.
For example, a villain that can fly or who has minions who can fly will plan more flying type actions. A villain who uses poison will plan more social actions. A villain who fears water will make land-based actions (or use water as his ultimate doomsday weapon).
3. Put The Plan In Motion
Most likely before anyone - including the players - are aware of what is happening, the villain will set his plot in motion.
If you want the players to unmask the plan before it can be put into motion, you will make this step very short.
What are the initial things that happen before anyone is paying attention?
4. The Situation Comes To Light
Someone has finally noticed something is going on, and is alarmed enough to act.
- How is the situation revealed?
- What or who involves the players?
- What is the hook for the players?
- Why should they care?
- Are they being impacted by the plot in some way?
5. Escalate - Up The Ante
The PCs have now become involved. The villain probably knows it, and they may know he knows it. Now the game gets fun for you.
You can try to anticipate and pre-plan for their actions, but the players will likely choose go in a different direction.
Instead, you must begin to react as the villain would react. What counter-moves does he make? Remember the ultimate goal of his plan as you decide what he does.
At this point something needs to happen to instill a sense of urgency in the players. It could be the villain has changed the master plan in some way, sends out thugs to deal with the players, or creates a distraction hoping to lure them away. As Dashiell Hammett would say, "Kick in the door!"
The PCs' actions will result in lost minions, ingredients and resources important to the plan. Thinking as the villain, decide how you will find more, compensate or recover the most important things.
Also, the PCs might acquire allies, powerful items, knowledge and other assets that start to tip the odds in their favour. Thinking as the villain, what can you do to give yourself more power or reduce the PCs' power?
6. The Pursuit
This is the main part of the scenario. Players will make their moves to shut down the villain's plot, and he will make his counter-moves to keep the plan in motion.
This part of the action will be tough to anticipate, because it is an act-react situation.
At all times, remember what you know about the villain, his personality, his desires, his plan and his resources.
You could prepare an encounter or two for this part of the game, but keep things fluid and changeable.
7. The Last Gambit
Sooner or later, the players will have caused enough trouble for the villain that he will realize his plan is in serious danger. At this point he will try one last desperate move to bring his plan to fruition.
This action should lure the PCs to a specific location for a climactic battle.
I think this is best played as a set-piece encounter involving the villain himself in an exciting location like a grand cathedral, atop the Empire State Building, the edge of a volcano.
I like to have multiple things going on in these fights to make things as exciting as possible: minions, ticking bombs, innocent bystanders, the villain himself and his inner circle, dangerous/hindering terrain, blinding rainstorms.
I spend a lot of time designing the ending, because I like them to be memorable. I like to have all of the possible elements ready to go, but am mindful that the organic nature of this style of adventure design can force those elements to change.
8. Escape Plan
Finally, was this guy smart/humble enough to have an escape plan?
Have a logical, viable plan for him to make his getaway if that is your wish.
Do not just pull the old: "Poof! He's gone!" While it works, it's not satisfying for the players.
Also, if you have gone to the trouble of designing an escape plan, it gives the players a chance to figure it out, and foil it.
A foiled escape plan is very, very satisfying for clever players!
Over To You
If you like improv-GMing, roleplaying more than roll-playing, and more real-feeling games, this may be for you.
For years, when people asked me how I plan games, I have answered, "I design the villain, and his plan. Then I stick the players in the middle, and see how it plays out."
These tips have been just a more elaborate, codified version of that statement.