Ronin Round Table: Villains Don’t Just Break the Rules, They Don’t Know Them…

By Jack Norris

Hey everyone, Jack here. So for today’s Ronin Round Table I wanted to step into a bit of design discussion. Not just game design, but character design, encounter design, and session design by talking about how we use NPCs, particularly antagonists, in games. Not hard to see why this has been on my mind: In addition to working the usual mix of supervillains, fantasy monsters, and kung fu killers to fit into various projects, I’ve been looking at and discussing monsters and baddies even more because of the new Advanced Bestiary Kickstarter that we’re running here at Green Ronin. The product is spiffy and awesome and you should totally check it out if you like Pathfinder or just want a book of great ideas and examples of how to spice up, modify, or mod antagonists in a campaign. However, I want to draw the conversation out to a slightly more "meta" level and talk about using stuff like templates, special rules for mobs and minions, etc…

Rules to modify the way antagonists interact with PCs in a game are really important, as they set the tone for various encounters and thus the game itself. If you’re a running a game that has "minion rules" (like FATE Core, Mutants & Masterminds, Feng Shui, and so forth) that make it easier to take down large swaths of lesser foes, then you’re going to have PCs taking out a lot of henchmen and minor threats. If you’re using a template or other tool to modify a character to make it cosmic, eldritch, giant, or the like, you’re shifting the usual way something behaves and unlocking another area.

Here’s the thing, though: That’s all behind the scenes with the rules. In the world of the game? These guys don’t know they’re just minions, or usually that they’re using some special rules variant. Nope, while you and I might realize that henchmen #45 is one die roll away from being taken out along with possible a dozen of his buddies, he thinks he’s a dynamic, fully actualized person. A Jotun thinks he’s a proud citizen of Jotunheim and enemy of the Asgardian gods. He doesn’t know he’s a Frost Giant with the Jotunblood Giant template applied to him.

Thus when you’ve got an antagonist in a game who uses extra or special rules, in addition to keeping an eye on how the mechanics interact, also consider how the character sees himself. This might (and in fact often does) involve having antagonists behave in ways that would be kind of stupid if these antagonists knew the rules that governed their existence.

For example, I recently was discussing the mob rules or FATE with some folks and questions about the reasons to break mobs of henchmen, mooks, or goons into various sized groups came up. It was pointed out that given some of the setting rules that affected mobs, they should ideally do certain things regularly to increase their chances of being much more than a pacing mechanism or chance for the PCs to show off. I’ve had similar conversations about monsters or minions in other games, especially those with a variety of abilities and how it’s always best to open with Ability A then combo that with Ability B because Rule C lets you get Effect D, and so on.

So I started considering these situations and realized that yes, if you’re looking to make a group of minions or monster a surprisingly serious threat all the time such tactics are the way to go. They make sense too for certain well trained or dangerous threats. However, consider this: the antagonists have no idea about these rules you’re using. They know about mostly their own abilities and how things usually work, but they don’t have the lens into the mechanics GMs and players do and there’s no need to let them in on those little secrets all the time.

That henchmen #45? Unless he’s a dolt, he probably gets that he can’t take down a powerful hero on his own. He knows he needs comrades and decent weapons and luck to even have a chance. However, if there’s a rule in the game system that negates those advantages or doesn’t let him take advantage of them because he’s "just a mook"? He has no idea. Nope, for him, if he’s got twenty men, shiny new guns, and his boss feeds him a line about how the hero is hurt, scared, or walking into a trap? Man, today is the day! It’s when Henchmen #45 steps up to the big leagues! He’s gonna be the guy who brought down Batman, or your PC equivalent! Man, look out for #45!

Kinda sad, right? We know how this usually goes—unless this guy gets crazy lucky he’s going down. But that’s actually pretty realistic; we don’t account for things that exist outside of our worldview, and that goes for poor #45 too.

Variant monsters and work in a similar fashion. Unless they were created in a laboratory or by some terrible accident or experiment, they often don’t know they’re a variant. In any case, they might not know all their vulnerabilities or even abilities based on their background, so it’s okay and even appropriate to not run every encounter as hyper-optimized to use all the existing rules against the PCs. In fact, you’re usually good doing what makes sense in the character’s head and what seems fun. So maybe that Poisonous variant Dryad is immune to all poisons, but that doesn’t mean a clever alchemist couldn’t bluff her with a super-special pesticide he created (which might just be wine in a fancy bottle, it’s a bluff after all) because maybe she doesn’t know she’s immune to everything that’s considered a poison in the game (who would go around testing that on herself?). Again, this doesn’t mean the creature acts foolishly necessarily, just that she doesn’t see herself as a collection of stats and templates, but as her own definite being existing in the setting overall.

This sort of approach is great for genre emulation as well, since mooks act like mooks and henchmen in comics and TV, alien spider things act like alien spider things do in books and movies, etc. Creating a challenge for PCs is crucial at many stages of encounter, game, and session design, but it’s totally cool to do this within the confines of a character’s own knowledge or understanding. Because yeah, you the GM knows the rules and how to best optimize them all the time, but sometimes poor old #45 only knows his lucky number came up in that fortune cookie, his hair’s looking great today, and he’s got a brand new gat… I’m telling you, today is the day!

Jack Norris

A writer and game designer since the mid 1990s, Jack Norris has worked on numerous award winning and critically acclaimed publications over the last two decades, including products for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, DC Adventures, Scion, Mutants and Masterminds, and Feng Shui.He is currently working at Green Ronin developing Dragon Age, as well as co-developing other projects such as Blue Rose. Outside of his work for Green Ronin and others, Jack also designs and writes Tianxia, his own line of wu xia/kung fu action rpg products published through Vigilance Press. When not writing and designing, Jack is an attorney and consultant at the Vidar Law Group, a small Chicago-based litigation firm.

Jack also hates writing bios...