I am not much of a wrestling fan. I used to watch the WWE (when it was still WWF) as a kid, but I outgrew the interest in it and went on to other things, but there have been some things with it that I have seen lately that have me wanting to talk about it.
When you look at Wrestling, they get their viewers caught up in the storylines of the wrestlers, wanting to know who is going to be getting into a grudge with who and so forth. Back when I used to watch, I remember various partnerships being created, working for a while and then being broken up over some slight or another to further the solo careers or to create a feud that got people interested in the next big event. You can learn more about how it is done, and how the WWE has changed things up in this video by John Wick.
Following the same vein, and expanding it a bit more is this Gnome Stew Article. It talks about how you can use the booking ideas in an RPG, and the comments like the one from Valadil talks about how to build up your villains. I talked a bit on the Evil, Just Do It post, but this goes further and builds on the idea of making it personal. Getting the players interested in seeing this happen because the are captivated with the idea of what is going on.
How can you present them with things to grab their attention and hold it? Well, traditional advertising techniques are a great way to start. A quick internet search gave me a few sites that cover basic techniques like this one and it has a lot of what you’re going to be looking to come up with ways to make these people connect. This is how you deliver the pitch, getting people interested in what you have to say. What you provide, on the other hand, usually comes with more based on the style of rewarding playing on their behavior, using various psychological triggers.
A lot of the types of challenges provided to keep the players interest are based on the type of players that you are working with. Robin’s Laws of Gamemastering talks about 7 types of players, and you can make classifications of various ways to fit your own viewpoints, such as the threefold model. All of these give you an idea of what may interest your players and thus what sort of options you want to use to challenge them. You wouldn’t want to give a combat type a conspiracy puzzle with no one to directly attack.
Tailsteak mentioned in his comic Leftover Soup that to get players involved, one of (if not the best way) is to make things personal. When villains were introduced in film, they were your traditional Snidley Whiplash types who would be over the top in tying women to railroad tracks and kicking the dog. They were overselling the part to make themselves known as the villain. However, modern audiences are more educated and know how to tell who the badguy is and thus want to see more detailed villains.
The RPG Athenaeum talks about other such tips to make the NPC conflict built up in some ways as well, and you can see a number of examples of it in popular media with TVtropes article It’s Personal. It can be hard to make this sort of idea work without figuring out how to tailor it to your campaign, as you can see in some of the examples listed above, but then that is what this is here for. I will try to spark some ideas to help out.
By giving the players this villain, you have given them a stake in your game. They have a goal they want to see overcome. It doesn’t have to be a specific villain, since it could be an establishment like in the Leftover Soup example, or to use a TV show I loved as a kid and I had used from time to time for RPG ideas, The Odyssey, a Canadian TV series, where it started off with a kid in a world with no grownups who had to survive and overcome challenges to get to ‘The Tower’ and meet Brad. There was buildup of the various bad guys through the presence of their mooks known as ‘The Monitors’, as well as various propaganda and other such things. This built up the situation to an almost epic confrontation, especially when you consider these were half hour long episodes and there were a dozen before ever getting to the Tower. You just need to figure out what thing to put in this antagonist role, usually something that will stand in the way of PCs achieving a goal or fulfilling a need. Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Max had to deal with Aunty Entity to get what he wanted because she was the one in power and he needed her help in getting things.
Children’s movies like Disney are full of these examples as well. Let’s look at the revival of Disney Animated first, with Princess and the Frog (Tiana wanted her restaurant), Tangled (Rapunzel wanting to see the lights, Flynn wanting to be rich), Wreck It Ralph (Ralph wanting to be more than the bad guy), Frozen (Elsa’s fear of her powers). Each of those had a goal the main character specifically wanted and was being challenged or denied through an obstacle they couldn’t directly overcome. As such, to find a solution to their problem became their quest. We see this in older Disney movies too, with Bolt trying to find home, Treasure Planet with Jim seeking adventure, Atlantis with Milo wanting to prove his grandfather was not crazy, even as far back as things like Aladdin, Belle and The Little Mermaid doing things they did out of love; Aladdin fell for Jasmine the moment he saw her, Belle started out of love for her father and gradually fell to love the Beast, and Ariel with her love of the unknown world. The challenges that came in their way kept them all from achieving these goals in direct ways, requiring more than a simple aggressive charge through ‘Might Makes Right’ approach, though it did get through some situations from time to time, such as the villager fight in Beauty and the Beast.
Developing a good personality will get your villain the attention they need, things like making them racist/sexist, making them condescending or other sorts of various negative personality traits will rub the players the wrong way. Then you need to worry about making them last. To make a villain that can last, give them a reason why they can not be directly attacked by the party. Diplomatic Immunity, like Dr. Doom or the bad guys from Lethal Weapon 2, makes a great stopping point since the players would be the bad guy if they were to become aggressors. Powerful friends and/or money is another good one, since the NPC can always have people to fall back on to make coming after them a problem. It’s why people don’t go after members of the powerful houses in a town since they own the judges and police. Someone in a position of power, with more powerful higherups, be it a secret agent for a government organization or an enforcer; just look at Donald Morgan from Dresden Files and Miko Miyazaki are good examples because they would not believe the target was any good when dealing with them. That led to conflict every time they butted heads It was like looking at Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. There is a good discussion about Les Miserables and villainy discussed in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode ‘For The Uniform’ as seen in a poorly made clip here, best I could find. I like some of the scene because of the ideas it has about villains and conflict. For example, Sisko mentions to Dax (in what I think plays like a great DM talking to DM) “in the best melodramas, the villain creates a situation that forces the hero to sacrifice himself for the people, for the cause, one final grand gesture”
Of course, you have a party with different backstories if the players wrote them, and at least different player interests in things in the story. Sometimes, what you want to do is come up with an ensemble cast. Superhero groups have that when they come from established backstories, like the Avengers and the Justice League. Each has their own villains that pop up from time to time and the group must face off against. A good example of how your story can change paths with the development of a few different major adversarial groups can be seen by the video game Seiken Densetsu 3, also kown as Secret of Mana 2, for the SNES. There were three main bad guys; the Masked Mage, the Dragon Emperor, and the Dark Prince. Depending on the main character you take and the choice of two partners, your story is influenced some by their chosen villains. By having a stable of villains to draw from, you can have different plot paths the players can take and different directions of your story, and they can sometimes be done quite easily as they flow from the scenarios in place.
Don’t forget, you don’t have to make every badguy initially be a badguy. Some of the best villains started off as good and then made a Face Heel Turn. Have an NPC journey with the group for a while only to find some reason that they struck off on a different path. Perhaps it was someone the PCs saved, perhaps it is a GMNPC that is accompanying the characters from time to time to add some extra firepower or some other feature, such as keeping them under supervisor or just the fact that the PCs are going the same way. Once the PCs bond with the NPC and the NPC pulls their own weight and contributes, having an occasional one become an enemy can make things even more touching for the players. They have all these memories of how the NPC worked with them and now they need to fight them.
You know what your PCs want, or at least should have an idea. If you don’t get an idea just by listening to the in game chatter. ask them what they want to do, both in and out of game. In game, you can give them branches to the plot lines. Sometimes, you can do this without them knowing that they all lead to the same conclusion like a Lone Wolf gamebook or the later Telltale Games interactive stories like ‘Walking Dead’ and ‘A Wolf Among Us’. You start the game by introducing BBEG 1 who wants to destroy the world. Then partway through this, the group runs afoul of BBEG 2 who is out to gain power for themselves by any means necessary. Once you derail that part of BBEG 2’s plan, you bring back BBEG 1 as a focus and perhaps have players run into BBEG 3 who is going after these characters to make a name for themselves. This is the Levitz Paradigm again as we saw in my first Gamemastery School post, it keeps them going on multiple storylines and thus finding ones that will grab their interest after one they were interested in ends. Soap Operas will do this a lot too, because they need storylines to run for years, after all.
Of course, the players don’t initially know these villains are going to be big deals when you bring them out. They just think they’re small challenges if you play them right and don’t always make them reoccurring, just the occasional ones they like and perhaps one or two they don’t to keep them guessing. When a villain becomes reoccurring you can begin to hint to what their true purposes are. As an added bonus, you can have them working towards similar goals for different reasons and decide to team up or have one end up serving another, knowing or unknowing, willing or unwilling. Maybe they were misled, maybe they were under duress as someone close was captured or would be in danger.
So, we started talking about fight promoters to keep the viewers interested in seeing how the fights they have to pay for will be and we ended talking about making things personal for players, or at least their characters. The promotional techniques give us a scenario, something that the players want to see how it will play out, the techniques of challenging them give you interesting ideas to throw at them to get to the resolution goal, and making it personal is the one that’ll keep them coming back for more. Maybe even letting them see an occasional a Heel Face Turn as they redeem a villain.