In Search of Cadmus

Most nemeses are created, not born. Throughout most of my time gaming, recurring villains seemed to come from two main streams, the kind you don’t meet face to face until the end of the campaign when they have finally run out of minions, and the ones that were never intended to be recurring villains, but in-game drama made them so. The latter vastly outweigh the former in my experience. The best of either, of course, are no more evil than the heroes, but oppose them so completely that their actions are indistinguishable from villainy.

At this stage of my gaming life, there are certain types of tales and certain types of gaming environment that I am interested in shaping, some of which include planting seeds like Cadmus which will grow into things like allies, benefactors, betrayers, or nemeses for the players. This is easy if you plan on eliminating your players’ free will, and do not care if attendance at your games drops to zero. It’s much more of a challenge if you want to play for real.

My most recent proto-nemesis was introduced as nonchalantly munching on fried moles

Best laid plans

Gattaca

One Coin

These days, with the great volume of advice and how-to tips for GMs, it is fairly common knowledge that a good villain has to in some way reflect and complete the hero. Again, this is easy if you are devising both and scripting their actions, but is a huge challenge when launching a campaign and not even the players know how their character ideas will actually coalesce in play. In my early days as a GM, I would try to base villain concepts on what I knew about the players, and what was being revealed about their characters, but as most GMs discover very early on; our best laid plans are slightly less useful than tickets on the Titanic. Whatever plots we devise tend to shift genres from adventure to disaster, and most of them do so long before the players ever get near them. Long-lasting enmities with unnamed barkeeps develop at the drop of a hat, while carefully wrought enemies lovingly designed to incur burning hatred in the heroes are simply ignored. The solution that I developed over time was to create what I call ‘proto-nemeses’ and to forego plots and adventure paths in favor of story seeds, and sowers of those seeds. In other words, I fill my sandboxes with all sorts of things I hope might interest and annoy my players, and if they stumble across one, I will spend time to develop it accordingly.

Don’t touch it! It’s Evil!

Endless Edge

My most recent proto-nemesis was introduced as nonchalantly munching on fried moles. This is hardly an auspicious introduction, but one that has both caught the player’s attention, and caused him to divert his attention to fixate on this villain. In my Palladium Fantasy campaign, Long Winter Shadows, the wizard Marlin Tyrell joined an excursion with a group of Dwarven mercenaries to clear out a warren of Kobold brigands. One thing that puzzled the group throughout the onslaught was how the Kobolds had been managing to pull off their predation without leaving evidence. They left without ever knowing how it was done. As they made their way through the warren, they discovered that it operated on two levels, an upper one for housing and fine crafting, and a lower one for mining raw materials. After clearing out the upper level, they caused a cave-in to seal off the lower level, and departed with the refugees they had rescued from the Kobold larder/prison.

Two Sides

Once finally getting back to town with their charges, the player had his wizard explore the town a bit before heading off to complete his current project. In so doing, he came across a wanted poster which depicted a familiar face – one of the refugees. He realized at that point that he had been duped into aiding one of the enemy – perhaps the enemy – escape from justice. He could have let it go. He could have vowed to deal with him if their paths ever crossed in the future. He did neither. He chose to make it a priority to hunt this fellow down and confront him. At this point, I knew that the nemesis seed had been successfully sown. It is still too soon to know if it will sprout. This mole-munching character could have passed into the ether unremarked like so many other potential points of interest, but because attention was focused upon him, I had the opportunity to fully realize him for play. He may wind up being easily defeated, or he may turn into an ongoing source of conflict for our hero. Time will tell.

Every sperm is sacred

I treat my proto-nemeses like windows of opportunity. Each has a purpose and an ideal character arc to follow, but none of them need to be used. They are not fated to oppose the characters; Destiny is what the players make it.

As a player, I am not satisfied if I feel that the GM is winging something to make one of my theories come true simply for my entertainment, or making something cease to be true so that the mystery or problem can last for a longer period, ostensibly increasing the fun. If I outwit the plot, so be it. If I can’t, so be that too. Part and parcel of this is that if an NPC suddenly becomes interesting just because I am interested in them, it undermines my sense that there is any depth to the game world. As a GM, I like to avoid doing the things that annoy me as a player, so this is one of the things on my do not do list. That is not to say that I will not go with a moment of creativity when a spark of real roleplay ignites a scene with otherwise barely noteworthy characters, but those characters will never be more than the supporting cast, no matter how I embellish them, and players can tell the difference. Their role is to flesh out the non-heroic aspects of the character, and while important, can be forgiven for having a slightly more transient nature than the ones whose role it is to give shape to the character’s primary traits. Villains in particular need to have grounding in the game world deeper than momentary whim or sudden inspiration.

I know what many of you are thinking, “What about the opening statement that most nemeses are created on the spur of the moment as a result of how players reacted to them?”

I believe that in many cases, that is an illusion.

I think that as you are working on the game and getting to know the characters, you start to look for a way to provide challenge, enticement, opposition, and villainy to things. The throwaway NPC suddenly develops into something more than what they were written to be, and they – in the heat of the moment – become more than what they should have been by combining with what you have been intending. This sort of improvisational magic happens all the time in theatre games and in my opinion is no stranger to even the driest and least roleplay friendly tabletops. Sometimes, giving voice to scripted ideas like, “May I take your order, Sir?” can go in entirely different directions… like genocide, or rescuing a princess, or sacrificing yourself to end the grip of eternal winter. Stories have life, and life always finds a way to propagate itself.

Shotgun Solution

Taking these thoughts as a given, I decided that the best way for me to plan ahead for satisfying villainy, while recognizing that planning is nigh useless, was to make a lot more plans, but reduce them in scale to frameworks of ideas. The more open the style of game I run, the more freely interchangeable these frameworks can be, but still without forcing a type of encounter, plot, or interaction.

In the case of the mole-muncher, he is just one of many users of magic that Marlin Tyrell may encounter in his journey, but he has one unique trait about him which Marlin’s interest allowed me to reveal: they both have the same last name. That core, plus some interesting things about what he has done, and plans to do come together to make the framework for a proto-nemesis. There are several more salted into the campaign, but I doubt any of them will be necessary now. It will be interesting to see if he triggers more seeds along these lines and gets himself an unholy cadre of nemeses thirsting for his blood and bone marrow.

I digress.

Flesh! …and Brains!

The campaign has several avenues which could have brought Marlin Tyrell and this proto-nemesis together, but no single thread which would force any interaction at all:

• He is notorious, so Marlin could have picked up rumors and made of them whatever he wanted

• His background story included the Kobold lair, past, current, and future plots against the port of Luna Beach, and some intriguing tales of kidnap and murder which might inspire interest from Marlin in a purely professional sense: What magic did he use to accomplish such grand, evil acts?

• He has a bounty offered on him by the King, so Marlin could have chosen to hunt him down purely for the huge reward… or because it is good and just to do so…

• Marlin seeks to understand the reported duplicity of his father and reclaim his birthright, so links to existing family may have caused him to hear of the notorious Summoner Alcome Tyrell and wonder if there is a connection

For want of a nail

In all truth, I am surprised that these two characters have met and are beginning this dance. I am also very pleased. If their paths had never crossed, Alcome Tyrell would still exist, and would still be out there fleshing out the game world through which Marlin Tyrell adventures and entertains us – even if mention of him never even reached the player’s ears. If their paths had crossed later in the game, coming to understand how often they had travelled the same roads, visited the same alchemist, and spoken to the same bored sentries would have given the player enjoyable cause to give me one of his patented, “I love to hate you!” looks. Meeting at this point in the campaign, however, gives us the rare opportunity for something greater to occur… we may be on the brink of seeing the birth of true enmity (No, I will not coin the word nemesisism, or nemesosity, or nemesisness)  between these two characters, and if they both survive their coming encounter the resulting stories may become the stuff of legend.

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