The following graphic (scroll down) has been making its rounds on the internet for about a year now. It describes a situation in which a person was playing a one-on-one RPG game online, and was unwittingly actually playing the villain in the DMs live game. At the risk of offending Anonymous, I suspect its veracity is a bit dubious, but the point remains: handing over some of the creative work for your campaign can yield results above and beyond what you could have come up with on your own.
I did a version of this last year, and I believe I did it in response to seeing this very screenshot. (Between reading for the Weekly Roundup, Twitter, and “other,” my RPG inputs are so many that I can rarely trace the genesis of an idea). It was for my Gamma World campaign, and I invited three former group members (recently departed for college) to play the villains. They did know that they were the villains in the campaign. I set up a private Facebook group for us to communicate, and I tasked each of them with narrating a backstory and goal for their villain. Here is what I ended up with:
- A friendly saurian who needed to repair his time machine – then, he would bring back more of his kind to feast on all the defensless mutants. This guy was a con man who befriended the party, and even helped them at points, to serve his own ends. The PCs didn’t suspect a thing. In fact, they just handed him the piece he needed to repair his ship.
- A shark who had been experimented upon and turned into a wheeled shark. To avenge his horrific transformation, he has enlisted the help of Fen (fish people) to build dams and flood the valley. The PCs ignored the hooks for this one, including the day the streets started to flood for no apparent reason.
- A mythical evil overlord who has stumbled through a gamma portal, and simply wants to destroy everything. The fight with this villain eventually resulted in the PCs causing a gamma portal meltdown, and becoming irreversibly stuck in an interdimensional space (campaign ended early).
As the villains, I only revealed to them the heroes’ actions that they were aware of. If the heroes got into a skirmish with some minions, the villain heard about it. However, if the villain wasn’t actively seeking information on the heroes’ activities, the villain generally continued to proceed as planned with no knowledge of what the heroes were up to.
The campaign’s most dynamic villain was the saurian (Vinnie) because he interacted on a regular basis with the PCs, and got them to bring him into their confidence. This made the betrayal sting that much more.
In short, I think it worked really well, and would certainly try it again. So what are some of the advantages and disadvantages to handing over the villain reigns to another person?
The villain has no connection to the players. If you’re what some might call a “softie DM” there is a temptation for the villains to play stupid, oblivious, or weak when it looks like the heroes are losing. But if the campaign villain is someone half a world away with a vested interest in seeing the heroes fail, it’s quite likely that the villain will be that much harder to beat. And that’s more realistic. After all, you don’t rise to villainhood by being stupid and weak. Stupid and weak is for minions. It’s also likely that the person playing the villain will make surprising decisions and take the campaign in a direction you may not have been expecting. That’s a good thing.
There are a few cons to doing this. First, you have to find someone willing to be your villain. While this may seem easy, it is important to note that there is a potentially long term time committment on both of your parts. If your villain flakes out on you, you’re going to have to pick up those reigns. There is also a fairly large time committment up front. You need to decide upon story elements with the villain as well as resources at the villain’s disposal. Does he have an army of minions to send after the heroes? Does he live in a keep at the top of a mountain? Answering these types of questions gives a greater sense of realism to the villain, but require additional work and planning. Finally, there is an ongoing time committment. You not only need to DM for your group, you also need to DM for the villain. While this second responsibility can happen at a more leisurely pace (e.g. via email), there is still a need to communicate to the villain what’s going on in the campaign, and to adjudicate the plans that the villain tries to execute in response. The bottom line is that, although someone else is making the villain decisions for your campaign, the between-session time committment for you, the DM, is not likely to diminish.
Where To Find Your Villain
I’ve given a lot of thought to how other DMs can employ this technique. Ideally, there would be some central place where a DM could go and request someone to play the villain in their campaign. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no such place exists, at least no such place that serves this express purpose. So let’s start close to home, and work our way out in looking for places you might find a campaign villain.
- Check with players who used to be part of your group. This is probably your best source of villains for your campaign. Assuming this person left the group on good terms (i.e., wasn’t asked to leave), they’re the ones who have the best idea of your DMing style, your campaign style, and your player’s play styles.
- Players or DMs who you’ve played with in Encounters or other organized play, but who do not play in your home group. These are people you know… sort of. If you go to Encounters every week, there’s a good chance that the people you play with there aren’t part of your home campaign. However, these people know your play style, which informs your DM style, so there’s a tenuous connection to what would fit in your campaign.
- If your Twitter list consists mainly of RPG players, ask them if anyone is interested. When people post on Twitter about RPGs you get the sense of what kind of game they run, especially if they comment on their game.
- Post on forums, Reddit/rpg, or somewhere similar. This one may be the most difficult for several reasons. First, you’re posting to the world, so you never know what you’re going to get. You’ll need a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for, the type of campaign you’ll be running, and probably some sort of vetting process before you invite a complete stranger into your game. Second, the particular sub-forum you should be posting to in order to find someone is probably pretty unclear. (I’m thinking specifically of ENWorld and the Wizards forums, which are probably the most busy. But you probably know of some forums that are RPG related where the community is smaller.)
What You Want In A Villain
In short, you want someone who will be engaged. You want someone who responds to the PCs’ actions, and actively seeks to thwart them or circumvent them to achieve their goals. A villain who shrugs his shoulders and doesn’t do anything because the PCs didn’t engage him or his minions this play session is not a good villain. That leaves the onus on you, the DM, to come up with something; now you’re getting no return on the time invested in the villain plus you have to invest more time as well. Make it clear to anyone wishing to be your villain your expectations.
Sub-contracting your villain work can be very rewarding for your campaign. It will give the villain a flavor all his own, make him smarter, more realistic, and will take your campaign in unexpected directions. However, realize that, along with all the benefits, there is an additional time committment involved, and plan for that as well. And above all, have fun!
Questions, comments? Have you ever tried this?