Hosted by Elthos RPG, this month’s RPG Carnival asks us:
“Setting up challenges for RPG Player Characters that make sense in terms of the story is a matter of thinking “What would the villain *really* do?” Learning to think like your villain is a bit tricky because if you think too well then your players may not survive very long, but if you don’t think enough …well, it is just too damn easy. What Tricks-n-Traps have your villains set for those who dare impinge on their turf, or interfer with their nepharious plots? Did the PCs live or die, …or something far far worse?!”
This has really gotten the little hamster wheel that is my mind turning for a couple of reasons. Two things stand out to me. Elthos’ statement that challenging your PCs involves figuring out what the villain would ‘really’ do and the request to describe the traps and tricks you’ve consequently used. To my mind, these two thoughts are almost mutually incompatible.
Rarely, if ever, do the ‘bad guys’ in my games really consider themselves villains. It’s probably a consequence of genre. I rarely run Silver Age Supers or D&D Heroes vs. the Evil Necromancer. As a result cunningly built death-traps designed specifically for my PCs are pretty rare (although I’m working on that for StarGuard).
Consequently, the closest I come to actual traps fall roughly into three categories: Defences, Giving Rope and Saying Yes.
Everything from the chest designed to shoot a dart if opened, to the undead critters guarding an ancient tomb; anything that is designed to keep people out of a location counts as a defence. It doesn’t matter if it is a dungeon or a secure space facility, if it is secure and designed to be a challenge, it will have defences. Usually these defences will be fairly straightforward, although on occasion this might also involve luring unsuspecting PCs into a more vulnerable position where they can be trapped or slain.
At the end of the day, the defences have to be practical to the task at hand. A highly classified, but largely unmanned, research facility may have all manner of defences to keep people out, but it does need to be designed with some thought to how the individuals at the facility work and live. A temple dedicated to a long forgotten god, on the other hand, may have some obstacles that are designed to test the moral precepts or religious lore of anyone who enters.
How much rope? Enough rope for the PCs to hang themselves with. My current Icons campaign is, essentially, one big trap involving giving the PCs opportunities to ruin their image on national TV and eventually trigger a crisis that the big bad can save the world from it in a public fashion. If my PCs come after a powerful NPC, the NPC is as likely to pull back and let the PCs swagger after an apparent victory, confident that the PCs will quickly make new enemies that the aggrieved NPC can ally with.
Moreover, by letting the PCs act publicly and not taking any openly dickish actions against them, it’s easy to show why the PCs enemy might be winning over the court of public opinion. There’s nothing better than when the PCs realize that the very actions they’ve taken to thwart the antagonists plan has now turned the community they were protecting against them.
You really want that that artefact sword? Why are we fighting? Take it.
I hear you are fighting the Goblin Hordes who are marching south. I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but perhaps we can work together…
Assuming your antagonists aren’t just evil for evil sake, they are working towards a goal and the PCs are in their way. Now while your big bad could just throw ninjas at the problem, sometimes it makes more sense to try and co-opt your opponents. Invite your PCs to a parley and make them an offer.
Nothing big. Not ‘rule the world with me’ big. More like ‘let me help you achieve your goal, and perhaps you can lay-off me’ big. Something that seems small and isn’t too good to be true. Alternatively, let your PCs make a demand (i.e. ‘your cult is no longer welcome in X city’) and have your antagonist say ‘yes.’
If your PCs go along with it, your antagonist can start giving them rope (as above), generally try to compromise them or get closer to them…the better to strike them.