I was working on a story the other day, and I thought: revenge is such a great plot. It’s a classic. There’s a reason why it shows up in so many forms and contexts. Revenge can be as great as wars between nations, or as small as one kid beating another up on the playground. Revenge can be simple or elaborate, involving a push down the stairs or an intricate plot in which one misstep would spell doom for all involved. Revenge can last for moments or centuries. Almost no one is immune to the desire for payback, whether it’s a matter of something small and petty or a great lightning bolt from the sky.
Revenge causes people to behave irrationally, casting aside their better sense for just one taste of retribution. And that word itself, “retribution,” conjures up the other word often used with it: “divine.” The implication is that the gods themselves are not immune to the desire for vengeance. Revenge has acted as the genesis for great myths and legends, divine punishment meted out and lasting for millennia. Eternal torment gone wrong later unleashes the tormented as a terrible evil upon the world.
People can want revenge for almost anything, from some small (even imagined) slight to a great hurt or evil that was done to them or a loved one. It could be something understandable, such that everyone wants to help them, or something they’ve blown so totally out of proportion that, in wanting revenge, they become the bad guys. Revenge can be hot, rage-filled, or cold and calculating. It can be a matter of emotion, or a matter of politics–no one wants to be seen as weak and able to be taken advantage of, particularly in the dangerous worlds of most roleplaying games (RPGs) and fiction.
Like anything else, the revenge plot can easily become trite when overused. However, I daresay that there’s an element of revenge somewhere in most novels, whether large or small. Sometimes it’s a major plot element; sometimes it’s a little thing that simply acts to move the larger plot forward or complicate it. As with most plots, it isn’t so much the plot itself that is trite as how it’s used. If you dress it up with original details and dialogue and don’t resort to overused movie villain lines you can get a lot of mileage out of revenge in your game. Here are just some of the ways that you can make use of vengeance in your RPG or story:
Revenge as plot hook
Having trouble figuring out how to get your party of characters involved in an adventure? Use revenge as a plot hook. For example, you want the party to defeat the evil baron of a neighboring kingdom. Have that baron do something that causes the party to want revenge. His men burn their village, terrorize or kill one of their families (or a friend), waylay the party and steal their gold, humiliate the party, get to an item the party wants or needs before they do, or something similar. He could also visit this harm on someone who has authority over the party and can order them to go after the bad guy.
As always, don’t overdo this in a roleplaying game–particularly that bit about killing off player characters’ (PCs’) friends and family. That’s a quick way to discourage players from fleshing out their characters with such allies and contacts (particularly when you have the kind of player who sees NPC family members as resources and little more).
Once in a while, however, particularly when you have players who create involved, three-dimensional characters, a PC revenge-plot can be truly fantastic to sit back and watch. Just keep in mind that such plots sometimes take on a life of their own, and can end up eclipsing the plots they were meant to hook into…
Revenge as motivator
Revenge makes a great motivator for bad guys. Why is the villain doing such awful things? A drunk driver killed his wife and didn’t go to jail for it; now the villain wants revenge against the “corrupt” justice system. Or a “good guy” accidentally shot one of the villain’s children, who were innocent bystanders during a firefight; now he works to destroy all such people. This can be used as background on someone who seems to be acting irrationally, or to make a villain a little sympathetic. Revenge as a motivator can give a little depth to someone, so that when the PCs someday ask the bad guy, “why did you kill all these people?” he doesn’t answer, “uh, just because.”
This time the warning is that revenge as a motivator has become overused to the point where, without some additional details, it really isn’t enough to add depth to villains in most genres. You’ll still need to think a little further about why the character took things so personally and took his actions so far in response.
Revenge as connector
Sometimes you know you want to involve one or more of your long-time minor or non-player characters (NPCs) in a plot, but you aren’t sure how or where. This particularly tends to come up when you improvise a lot (in the case of an RPG) or write by the seat of your pants (in the case of fiction). So, you toss one of your favorite NPCs into a scene because you sense that it would shake things up a bit and make things interesting. But later you try to figure out why the character is getting involved, and you can’t see an obvious hook.
Why not try revenge? Maybe someone involved in the plot ticked him off in the past. Or maybe by influencing this plot he can achieve vengeance against someone else entirely. Perhaps someone else involved him as a means to their vengeance — either against him, or using him against another NPC or one of the PCs.
Revenge as back-story
Vengeance can make a great back-story for various characters, both NPCs and PCs (main characters and minor). It’s a great all-purpose plot hook for the game master (GM) or author, as mentioned earlier. If a PC has written into his background that he’s trying to seek vengeance on his parents’ killers, then the GM can involve those killers (or hint at their involvement) when he wants to drag the PC into something (as always, don’t overuse…). If the PC’s background states that his father was an evil monster who made many enemies, then the GM has plenty of interesting adventure fodder to throw at the party. Who wants to hurt the father by hurting the child? Who wants to use or recruit the child in some scheme against the father?
Even if the GM doesn’t use the back-story as plot fodder, it can still make for great character material. A character who has gone on a quest for vengeance, successful or unsuccessful, to his satisfaction or not, has been changed by the experience. This can lend valuable depth should the player or author choose to take advantage of it.