“Evil Is… as Evil Does” will be a recurring column looking at villains and enemies with a focus on sparking passion in the players.
First off, a little homework. Go watch the PAtv episode about zombies. Trust me, it’s worth your time. If you take anything away from the video, it should be the idea that great villains are grounded in the things that your players genuinely fear. Obviously, there are some boundaries. I won’t do rape or child molestation stories, for example. Loss, betrayal, pain, torment, embarrassment, powerlessness… those and more are all fair game.
Phase One: Innocence – Someone approaches the party and offers to pay them for a lock of someone’s hair.
You can have the target be anyone you wish, so long as they are young and attractive. It doesn’t matter whether or not they take the job or whether or not they succeed. They won’t be punished and there won’t be any ramifications – for now. What we’re going for is establishing the long con so that when the players discover what has been going on, they realize that they’ve been involved from the beginning.
This will work best in the first half of the heroic tier at a time when the characters don’t have much in the way of money or resources and are more likely to accept odd jobs to make some extra cash. Here are some lies you can use:
- They’re secretly in love with the target, but know that nothing can ever come of it. They want the hair as a memento.
- They believe that the target has been kidnapped and replaced with a shapeshifting spy.
- They believe that the target is in danger and want the hair to make a protective charm.
- They want to use the hair as a reagent in a love potion (won’t work with all groups).
- The hair can be used as a cure.
Just play to your players, but be aware that some players will feel betrayed if they are punished, even in the long run, for doing what they think was the right thing. There’s a scene in Keeping the Faith where Ben Stiller and Edward Norton are discussing the expectations of the Jewish and Catholic communities they serve as a rabbi and a priest, respectively. Stiller says, “Jews want their rabbis to be the kind of Jews they don’t have the time to be”, to which Norton replies, “Yeah, and Catholics want their priests to be the kind of Catholics they don’t have the discipline to be.” Roleplayers want their characters to be more heroic than they are.
This is an important lesson to learn about betrayal as a GM. Players will accept that the world is stacked against them and that everything they touch has the potential to be a trap, but being made into a scapegoat or patsy taps into something primal that can turn into anger and resentment. Taken farther, this is exactly what bad GMs used to do with paladins and their codes. It’s one thing to present the players with a painful moral dilemma. It’s quite another to box them into becoming the bad guy.
Phase Two: Close to Home – A NPC that the characters like starts to age at a vastly accelerated rate.
Again, this is an area where planning well in advance helps. You wouldn’t want to fall prey to “ensign red shirt” syndrome. In fact, having NPCs that the players connect with is a hallmark of a healthy campaign. This should take place at least two or three levels after phase one, preferably longer. I generally avoid using a character’s relative or loved one for this type of plot. Players are already leery of giving the GM more fodder to screw with them, leading to characters that don’t have relationships or history. It’s very important that the players view depth as a strength, not a liability.
The characters do their research, go off to find a relic, reagent, etc. to cure their friend, but it it not effective and the NPC dies a gruesome death.
The taste of failure is bitter and lasting, but sometimes players need to be reminded that failure is possible. The best stories include setbacks, mistakes and loss, despite the fact that the good guys win in the end.
Phase Three: Coincidence, I Think Not! – The characters encounter another NPC that has been struck by the magical progeria, right at the start of the process.
By this time, your players should be hooked and more than ready to drop everything to solve this mystery. If you can time this to coincide with the start of the Paragon tier, so much the better, as this is the time when they will begin to have enough fame and notoriety that people will pay attention to them.
The characters discover that the victims did not die of accelerated aging, but were instead dug up and taken to an underground lair where the last of their vital essences were drained.
The reason for taking the hair was to create an even worse version of a voodoo doll that slowly drains the target’s life force. The dolls are then sold to wealthy people who use them to extend their lifespan. There is a secret network of warlocks running this dark trade.
This plotline achieves two goals. First, the horrific nature of the crime is something players can get behind more easily than, “I’m going to summon a demon and destroy the world.” It’s a palpable, genuine evil. The other effect is to establish that this is not a small thing they face. It’s a deliberate, organized evil.
This marks the transition from something going on in the background to active plot, meaning that we have to be ready for whatever the players decide to do.
Phase Four: The East Coast Office – The characters go after a larger base.
You have a lot of options here, so it’s somewhat harder to give you a precise plot kit. You have to decide what kind of organization this is. If Zhannst (see below) has many “customers” within the nobility, then this might have to take the form of a secretive raid or assassination. If the organization is mostly underground, the PCs might have the assistance (or at least the approval) of the government.
Phase Five: In the Face! – The characters go after the main villain.
An epic plot requires an epic finish. In this case, I like the idea of four epic finishes… Let’s start with the boss:
The following designs are predicated on the party fighting Zhannst sometime in late 15th level.
The idea here is that, once the party learns about Zhannst, they track him down to a major city. Each of the encounters will take place at different locations, but Zhannst will prefer to fight in public places where he can sow confusion and turn people against the characters. You should decide what skills are used in each skill challenge, but obviously Diplomacy, Streetwise, Insight and Stealth will take center stage for most of them. The results of each challenge will determine the budget for each encounter (the minions are not counted against the budget):
Three or fewer successes before three failures: 6000 EXP (plus bonuses below) and the enemies gain combat advantage against the characters until the end of the first round. There are also 30 minions present, 15 of which are allied with Zhannst.
Five or fewer successes before three failures: 6000 EXP (plus bonuses below). There are also 25 minions present, 10 of which are allied with Zhannst.
Seven or fewer successes before three failures: 5000 EXP (plus bonuses below). There are also 25 minions present, 10 of which are allied with Zhannst.
Nine or fewer successes before three failures: 4000 EXP (plus bonuses below). There are also 20 minions present, 10 of which are allied with Zhannst.
Twelve or more successes: 4000 EXP (plus bonuses below). There are also 15 minions present, 5 of which are allied with Zhannst.
Add 1,000 EXP to the second encounter (Zhannst is responding to the characters’ assault) and 2,000 EXP to the final climactic battle. Suggested human monsters include (all found in the Compendium):
Artillery: Human Defiler, Human Sniper (be cautious about the amount of weaken in the encounter).
Controllers: Human Mind Adept (another one to be cautious of).
Skirmishers: Sand King Shrouded Blade, Tenebrous Assassin.
Soldiers: Sand King Freeblade
Keep in mind that a 15th level party should be able to blow through 154 hit points fairly quickly. Once Zhannst makes a run for it, his allies will be looking to escape as well.