Antagonists as More than Just Combatants
Antagonists often get used as punching bags and little more — just combat monsters. Sometimes this is deliberate, which is just fine. But sometimes the GM just isn’t sure how to make the antagonists more interesting.
Part of the key to making antagonists interesting is in detailing them: giving them goals, allies, enemies, weak spots, and so on. But wait, there’s still more we can do! (I feel like a $19.95 infomercial…)
This week we’re going to approach things from a somewhat different perspective. We’ll talk about various ways to work antagonists into your ongoing game. We’ll talk about the two methods that get used the most, and then move on to a third, less-often-used method, that will hopefully give you something worthwhile to work with.
Interfere with the Party’s Plans
Many GMs approach antagonists primarily from this view: How will the antagonists interfere with the plans of the party?
In this case, you start out knowing what plot the party will get caught up in, or maybe even what their plan is. You need to provide some resistance for them, so you figure out at what point the antagonists will get in the way and make life difficult, and how. While this method is a necessary one (what would plots be without opposition?!), it does tend to encourage villain-as-punching-bag tendencies. After all, one of the simplest ways for someone to interfere with the player characters is for him to attack them.
Instead, come up with more devious ways for the villain or antagonist to get in the way.
There are always distractions, for example. If the party has to be someplace at a certain time or do something by a certain time, then the antagonists could try to delay and distract them. This could be anything from providing the party with someone who conveniently needs their help somewhere else at just the right time, to finding ways to deceive the party into thinking their job doesn’t need to be done. The antagonist could try to throw doubt on the party’s mission, or make it look like someone has already done their job for them. There are the direct interference methods, like making a road impassable so the party has to go the long way, or sabotaging their plane so it has to stay on the ground.
The antagonist might just want to cause the party to carry out their job slightly differently, rather than stopping them altogether.
Remember that there should generally be some way for the party to thwart the antagonist or work their way around what he’s done, or you’re just stomping on them, not providing them with interference.
Let’s go back to the idea that detailing antagonists makes them useful as more than punching bags. If you give antagonists contacts, friends, and interesting abilities, then they have resources other than combat with which they can solve their problems, even when you don’t have time to come up with intricate plans.
Oppose the Party
A similar, yet separate approach is to figure out how the antagonists plan to oppose the party on a grander scale. Method #1 is philosophically reactionary: the party plans something, and the antagonists react. Method #2 allows the antagonists to act as well as react; their actions just happen to be things that the party will find objectionable, or that come into conflict with the party.
“Opposing the party on a grander scale” doesn’t necessarily mean that a given antagonist sees the party as her long-term enemy, although it might. It means that you can find things for antagonists to do by planning their goals to come into conflict with whatever the PCs see themselves as being about. This is another major way that many GMs come up with plots for their players to solve.
For instance, if the party is working to achieve political goals, the antagonist could be someone who wants the same political position that a member of the party wants. If the party wants to protect someone, then an antagonist wants to kidnap, kill, or brainwash that someone. If the party is interested in protecting the environment, the antagonist has some project going that will harm the environment as a side effect.
Use the type of plot as a key to non-combat ways of interfering with the party. If the antagonist is after political power, then he might try to find ways to make the party look bad, or he might bring some sort of political pressure to bear on them. If the antagonist wants to achieve some scientific or industrial goal, then he can use scientific means, money, or industrial contacts to strike at the party.
Think of Your Antagonists as PCs
How do you come up with plots for your PCs? Do you pull them from their character backgrounds? Do you pull them from affiliations the PCs have (guild, clan, tribe, race, hobby group, professional association, etc.)? Do the players come up with neat stuff they think their characters would be interested in, and run with it? Do they just involve themselves in the interesting things going on all around them? Do they take orders from someone who wants them to handle certain issues?
Do the same for your antagonists, and then figure out how the PCs can come into conflict with the NPCs instead of the other way around. Approach the whole issue from the opposite direction.
Does an antagonist belong to a particular race? What sorts of activities does that race engage in? Do they have rites of passage? Do they go on spiritual journeys? Do they try to protect certain homelands? Do they all go out on Friday nights and kidnap the first brunette they meet who has green eyes?
Okay, I’m exaggerating! But you get the point. If an antagonist is going on a spiritual journey, how might the party end up mixed up in that? If an antagonist has a duty to protect a certain area, how can you set the party on a path to threatening that area (or appearing to threaten it)? If an antagonist needs money to give her sister necessary medical care, then perhaps someone can use her against the party by offering her money.
What about prophecies? They aren’t just for PCs. Why not make an antagonist the great prophesied second-coming of some bad-guy group?
If there are interesting things going on in town, then there’s no reason why the PCs should be the only ones who decide to interfere. Antagonists can be just as inquisitive and pushy. They also don’t have to get involved at the same point that the PCs do; they might get there first, or come into things much later. They just happen to decide that they want something a little bit different out of the situation than the PCs, and that sets them in conflict with the party.
The antagonists might work for someone who has an interest in certain areas. If they’re researchers, then give the PCs reason to interfere with their research. Or the company they work for sends them after something that the PCs have, or have influence over. They could be given orders not to engage in violence, particularly if the company has a reputation to protect.
In short, think about your antagonists the same way you think about your PCs. Come up with plots for them without even worrying about what your party will be up to. Afterward, once you have a handle on your basic plot, then figure out how your party will get involved and where the conflict will come from.
You’ll find you come up with a whole lot more plot variety, and that the interactions between your antagonists and the PCs span a much greater range. Your antagonists will be much more than just punching bags by the time you’re done.
Just make sure you spend a little time on figuring out how your party will get involved with the plots; you don’t want your players to feel like they’ve been pasted haphazardly into someone else’s plot!