Have you ever been neck deep in a story around the table as a storyteller or player and had your immersion suddenly ground to a screeching halt when one of the players asks “Who’s that?” as soon as the main villain, who has been mentioned quite frequently by the NPC’s and been the player’s target for several sessions, is finally introduced and you realise that they have no emotional connection to the story? It has happened to me several times and as such I have been plotting some ways to prevent this occurrence for years.
The first and easiest way of keeping the player’s memory jogged is to make sure the villain is memorable. Players will remember Urgosh the Buzzard King over a more generic Orc Chieftain any day but there are ways to push this further, such as copious foreshadowing where you make sure that at least one non playing character per session mentions the villain or by using detailed descriptions to invoke stronger reactions in the player’s mind. If you use descriptions, try to stimulate more senses than just traditional sight – like describing smells and sounds. Each added sense increases the impression the character makes on the players and thus decreases the chances of them forgetting him. Most of these tricks have been used from the start of roleplaying games but they are easy to forget by veteran storytellers and might be new to inexperienced ones.
Again and Again
Once I was running a superhero campaign in the system Mutants and Masterminds. My players fought many foes but there was one they remember over all others. The Rubber Man, a kind of a mix between Mr Fantastic of Fantastic Four fame and The Joker from Batman. The funny thing is they never really fought The Rubber Man, apart from a short fight with one of the players that ended badly, because he was always a step ahead of them. Several times they foiled crimes and followed the leads to the villain’s lair but instead of finding The Rubber Man they found a large stacks of television sets playing a message detailing how he had outsmarted them. After a short fight one of the players had with him he publicly exposed the alter ego of the superheroine as a famous teen popstar and posted lewd pictures of her unconscious body to the internet. Never before have my players hated a villain as much as The Rubber Man. And the best thing is that they never really caught him. Having a recurring villain that is smart and always seems to get away can make a standard campaign great. Don’t be afraid to have the villain perform atrocities that will motivate the players, especially if they affect non playing characters that the players love directly.
With Friends Like These…
How about killing them with kindness? I learned how to flip the traditional idea on its head. It was after a one off-session of playing The Mark of Prophecy from the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition that turned into a long running campaign that the wheels started turning. Bren ir’Gadden is a minor NPC that is used as a way of bringing together the players during this module but then takes the backseat very quickly and could be totally forgettable. I quickly decided that Bren was the real villain of the story and that the insane Warlock that was presented as the main antagonist was just a foil of sorts. The Warlock was actually trying to do good, in his own twisted way, when he summoned terrible monsters to plague Sharn as his primary objective was to kill the man he foresaw ending the world in his dreams.
Bren was the most helpful friend, he let the players sleep in his Upper Ward mansion, routinely had his Warforged manservant cook them a hearty breakfast of bacon, sausages and eggs when they awoke after long nights of adventure in Sharn and paid well for expeditions that always seemed to be doing good. Every so often he asked them for small favours. Like bringing a hat-box to the Karrnathi princess staying at King Boranel’s ward, escorting a chest full of valuables to the Halflings of House Ghallanda and bringing a letter to some rustic looking Brelish peasants that looked like they had never seen Sharn before. Small stuff that never took long in the game but became a big deal when they found themselves locked up in The King’s Citadel on charges of treason, terrorism and attempted regicide during a banquet in the palace. Turns out the hat-box contained a Hat of Disguise, the Halflings sent to cater the banquet were members of the Boromor Clan crime family and the peasants that the Boromar Clan snuck in with the food where the infamous Swords of Liberty, a group terrorists looking to overthrow the king. Bren now had the Karrnathi princess, the only thing stopping the foreign nation from declaring war on Breland.
Letting my players interact with the villain on friendly terms for so long gave me the time to thoroughly introduce him and the players became intimately familiar with him. After being betrayed by this person that they considered a friend, especially after realising how long he had planned it and how callously he threw them to the wolves, there was a strong motivation for my group and I hear his name mentioned often during our games with disdain and hatred. Just as it should be.
Reflections in a Cracked Mirror
Later I ran a World of Darkness campaign and my players had a bad night. One of them, while possessed by a time traveling alien from the Cretaceous era, brutally murdered a non playing character with a kitchen knife while the other players looked on in horror. The rest of the session was spent trying to cover up the crime scene, leading to them setting fire to the luxury cabin in the woods that the murder took place in.
The next session, instead of their normal character sheets, I handed them sheets with pictures and very rough stats for the homicide police and FBI agents in charge of the murder investigation as the NPC had been a famous TV hypnotist and on an FBI watchlist for his involvement in the occult. What followed is one of the best sessions of role play I have ever witnessed as the players did anything they could to try to catch their own characters for this brutal murder.
After that the campaign continued as normal but once the detectives caught up with the players their reaction was genuine fear as they knew these characters were not to be trifled with. These were now living, breathing antagonists that the players were genuinely scared of and that helped the immersion immensely. Don’t be afraid to give your players a different point of view into the campaign as long as it does not spoil some important information later on. This technique is often used in books and movies and is easily portable over to tabletop storytelling as long as the players are able to keep player knowledge and character knowledge separate.
I hope some of these storytelling techniques help in your future games.