Non-Combat Antagonists in Roleplaying Games

This article is for those GMs who want to come up with antagonists who do more than attack the party, and need ways to oppose the party that don’t necessarily involve combat.

A Few Suggestions

No Combat Skills

If you’re really having trouble breaking away from combat-prone antagonists, create an antagonist who has no combat skills to speak of. If you’re worried that your PCs are too accustomed to solving their problems through combat, then make your antagonist extremely difficult to kill–without making him good at combat.

There are all sorts of ways of doing this. Make him virtually invulnerable. This might be because he’s very difficult to find, he cannot die, he is immune to damage from most weapons, he hangs out in an impenetrable fortress, or he’s always hanging out in extremely public places where the party would get captured and executed if they tried anything. There are any number of possibilities.

The only way to kill him must be researched, puzzled out. It might involve making deals with people for information or help, or tricking someone else who can kill him into doing so.

Or he must be defeated rather than killed. He must be magically trapped somehow, or ritually disabled. He must be tricked or changed. Straight combat just won’t work with him, or someone in authority has ordered the PCs not to kill him for some reason.

Alternatively, he has the combat skills to be able to withstand anything, but he has a prohibition, geas or code of honor that forbids killing. So he can withstand any attempts at combat, but he will neither initiate it nor deliver death-blows.

Making un-killable antagonists is not something I recommend for regular and frequent game-play. It’s mostly an occasional drastic measure, something to force yourself or your players into a new mode of thinking when you find yourselves in a rut.

Interesting Abilities

Give your antagonist a number of interesting, unusual skills and abilities. Don’t make him extremely good at everything; give him plenty of low-level abilities. He can paint in watercolor, he knows how to grow orchids, and when no one’s looking he works on his memoirs.

The simple presence of these abilities will make your job easier. They will provide the fodder for so many plots and avenues of approach. If your antagonist is good at writing, he might pen a newspaper article that makes the party look bad and causes them problems with their allies. If he cultivates rare orchids, he might trade one to a connoisseur for a favor.

It also gives your PCs new and interesting avenues of attack. They could wreck his greenhouse and make it look like one of their other enemies did it, thus setting their enemies against each other. They could convince a critic to pan their antagonist’s paintings, thus upsetting him and causing him to make mistakes. If they find a copy of those memoirs, they could make him look bad by publishing pieces, or they could gain valuable information to help them defeat him. (Even if he’s smart enough to leave out details of his operations, it could teach them a lot about how he thinks.)

Friends, Allies, and Enemies

Give your antagonist acquaintances, friends, allies, enemies, neighbors, present and former landlords, people he owes favors to, people who owe him favors, and on and on. NPCs are often the key to an interesting roleplaying game, especially one in which you don’t want combat to be the only focus.

Former landlords might be convinced to pass on odd little details. Neighbors might call the police if they see the PCs poking around the grounds of your antagonist’s house. So much information can be passed back and forth through people. People can be tricked. People can be bought. People can be played off against one another. People can be manipulated.

You don’t need pages and pages of information on each of these people; just a line or two will do. “His landlord’s always wondered what all those boxes marked ‘private’ are in the basement.” That’s all you need to leave an opening for your PCs.

A Few Questions

You might find some character-building questions to be useful as well, but here are a few things to think about that may specifically be useful when building antagonists.

Home Life

  • Can the PCs find his home easily? Is it in his name? Does he go to great lengths to keep it hidden, or is his address in the phone book?
  • What are his home’s defenses? Can your PCs walk in and plant a bomb, lay an ambush, drop off a microphone or hidden camera, ensorcel his belongings, or go through all of his files? If not, what’s preventing them?
  • What interesting things does he keep in his home? Are any of them incriminating? How easy are they to find? How easy are they to recognize as important?
  • Where does he keep information? In his head? On a computer? In paper files? How well protected are they? Is the computer hooked up to the internet? Are his files magically protected or encoded? Does he keep his journal in a magical pocket-realm?

Abilities

  • What are his hobbies? From whom did he learn them? How good is he at them?
  • What hobbies does he have that he would be embarrassed to admit to? Which one is he absolutely terrible at?
  • How might he use his hobbies or the products thereof to negotiate deals and favors or otherwise gain an advantage over the PCs? (It’s good to have a few notes on this ahead of time.)
  • How might his hobbies be used against him?

People

  • What sort of group dynamics are present among your antagonists? Do they get along? Do they quarrel? Are they secretly annoyed with one another? Antagonists who exist as a solid, unbreakable pack of people can be very difficult to deal with. Antagonists who have problems with each other (and lets face it, most people can think of at least one or two tiny things that annoy them about their friends) can be pushed and tricked in ways that don’t necessarily involve combat.
  • What favors are owed? Who has helped out the antagonists in the past? Whom have they helped? Grab one to three tarot cards or a verse of a song to inspire you for each favor, and run with it.
  • Who has blackmail material on whom? Who knows how the antagonists think and operate? What could convince them to share that information?

Feelings and Thoughts

  • What are the antagonists’ inhibitions? They don’t have to have moral qualms in order to be unwilling to do certain things. There are people who refuse to kill for reasons that have nothing to do with morality.
  • What makes your antagonist afraid? Everyone is afraid of something, however large, small, great, or mild.

I have nothing against combat antagonists–they can be awfully useful — but they can get boring if used exclusively. It can be difficult to come up with antagonists who don’t need violence to achieve their goals, who can be defeated through means other than combat. I hope these suggestions and questions help.

Posted in Gaming

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