A few months ago, I (Beth) ran a few sessions for us in a forest-based arc while Jonathan took a break from his normal role as DM to prep for our next boss fight.
I love incorporating NPCs as a DM, and so I happily went about setting up a scenario that involved interesting twists and turns with the new characters I had made.
One of them, it turned out, would be much more exciting than I meant for her to be.
Continuing our series on different types of NPCs for your duet, this post looks at accidental villains and the new possibilities they can add to your game.
Defining the Terms
What is an accidental villain?
In this case, an accidental villain is an antagonist of the central party who you did not originally intend to play that role.
In the two times this has happened to us, the party more quickly set themselves against neutrally-aligned characters than I had anticipated. As we’ve said before, our four central party members are all good-aligned, so it’s not surprising when their aims are at odds with those of evil-aligned characters.
However, what has been surprising is the animosity that can often erupt between themselves and the more self-serving, neutrally-aligned characters.
Creating an Accidental Villain
Creating an accidental villain on purpose is a contradiction in terms, so maybe let’s say “Creating a Potential Villain.”
Below, I walk through some things to consider when you’re making an NPC that the party may or may not respond well to. Beyond that particular character’s motivations, you’ll want to consider how their interactions with the party may sway their reception one way or another.
Reminder! With any NPC, you’ll want to know what’s motivating them—what they want in a given scenario and what their long-term goals are. Base-line, we usually assume they want to survive, but what are they looking for beyond that? What do they believe in?
Balancing Benefit and Conflict
With this type of NPC, you’ll be balancing what they can temporarily offer the party, their possible benefit, with where they are at odds with the party.
Most likely, they will be able to offer some type of temporary boon:
- they know the area well
- they have important underground or political connections that will make the party’s achievement of their objective faster or more secure
- they have access to secret information of some kind
- they’re powerful and in the right place at the right time
On the flip side, their immediate or long-term goals (or both) may be out of alignment with the party’s. Perhaps their sense of justice differs, or they have questionable means of coming about information, or they’re willling to go too far to get the upper hand.
This, unsurprisingly, tends to be where the conflict comes in.
But, what makes these characters most intriguing, I’ve found, is where their off-kilter motivations and moral code directly intersect with the central party, especially the primary character.
Past and Present Conflict with the Party
Both of the slightly sketchy NPCs I’ve made who ended up being loathed antagonists put the primary character in danger.
Jonathan’s DMPCs have a near-zero-tolerance policy when it comes to my PC, and I’m guessing the same is likely true in your duet: “Mess with our city, sure, we’ll kill you. That’s fine. Mess with our dear friend and beloved protagonist, and we will plot a bitter and bloody end for you. End of story.”
I don’t know that this would need to always be the case either, but I’m not sure there’s a faster way to get on the bad side of a group of adventurers than to threaten one of their own in achieving your objectives. And this seems to be especially offensive when those ends are self-serving instead of oriented toward some larger purpose, however evil it might be.
Your PC and DMPCs will likely find the flippant endangerment of one of their own unforgivable, making any potential benefit the Accidental Villain could offer negligible.
This endangering of one of the central party members can happen either in the past of the NPC’s backstory or in the present.
Will the party—by asking the NPC questions or digging through where they’ve been or how they know what they do—be able to piece together the underhanded role this character played in a dark moment in their friend’s past?
In our game, the first accidental villain, who was way more despised than I meant for him to be, asked one too many questions about the PC. One of Jonathan’s DMPCs became suspicious of this, putting it together with the other information he had on this NPC, and began questioning him.
They knew he traded in information, and they found out that some of the info he’d been selling had directly endangered the PC. It didn’t end well for the NPC, and they found out even more digging through his journals afterward.
His death served two narrative purposes: one, it put the central party in more of a gray moral area than they’d been in before and two, it allowed them to learn a lot about an area they haven’t been able to visit yet and uncover some of its more sordid secrets.
If the accidental villain puts one of the party members at risk in the present, that will (very likely) destroy any connection or allyship the party feels towards them.
In order for this to seem rational and not reckless (unless that’s their jam), that action needs to be grounded in the NPC’s motivation. Is whatever’s driving them in this moment making them desperate? Is putting the party member at risk, to the NPC, a way of working toward the greater good or a larger objective?
The latter was what happened with my most recent accidental villain. She risked the life of the PC trying to save the lives of ten others in captivity, notably without letting the PC know that that’s what she was doing. The PC’s friend and protector, who was present at the time, found this inexcusable.
This was a really exciting twist for that storyline in our game because it created an enemy who could come back and who the party hated on a personal level regardless of where exactly that NPC stood ideologically.
The accidental villain also created a lower-level opponent for them to be on the lookout for, someone who would need to gather allies to herself and use creative tactics to attempt her own revenge on the party.
We now have this very passionate, personal conflict playing out across planes of existence, and because it wasn’t planned on either side, the execution has needed to be spontaneous and weighed against the other, larger goals both sides, the party and the villain, are trying to achieve.
Have you ever had an NPC turn out quite differently than you imagined they would? If they were an enemy, what made the party turn on them? How well did the accidental villain understand the party when their ties together were broken?
Also, as another resource for you, since I’ve been DMing for us more, I’ve been asking other DMs/GMs for advice on tactics. @TheRamblingGM responded with a really helpful way of dividing up enemies based on their experience level and specialized training, and I’d love for you to check it out!
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