The Alphastream Game Design Blog
The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide narrowly defines a villain and their role in an adventure. By widening the definition and leaning into the concept of Threats, we can create better campaigns and adventures.
This topic is on my mind for two reasons. First, on the Mastering Dungeons podcast (video here) we reviewed Chapter 3 of the DMG, Creating Adventures. It centers adventure design on the villain. Second, Sly Flourish just posted Creating Villains, a blog entry discussing villains and fronts. (It’s an excellent and recommended read.)
The Dungeon Master’s Guide tells us a good adventure needs a credible threat, providing examples of antagonists. For adventures using a location, it provides a table of adventure villains, such as a giant bent on plunder or a humanoid cultist. For event-based adventures, an eight-step creation process begins with a villain. We choose our villain, determine their actions, and how the villain responds to the characters’ actions.
This is fascinating, because many old and new adventures don’t feature a villain extensively. In The Keep on the Borderlands, numerous dangerous foes live in the Caves of Chaos, but there is no clear villain driving the action (and not much of a plot, though I address that here). In 5E’s Tomb of Annihilation, though there is a villain at the end, we don’t know that for most of the adventure. In Rime of the Frostmaiden, the villain may not be the climax of the adventure.
Mike Shea gets to the heart of it when he discusses the concept of Fronts presented in the Apocalypse World RPG. Mike says a front “is a force moving the story in a particular direction. It’s a nice term that includes drivers outside of conscious foes. The burning sun of Athas in Dark Sun could be considered a front.”
I dig that about Fronts, and I particularly love the Aspects in the Fate RPG. Those RPGs recognize that play can be much better when we name and recognize factors larger in scope than single sentient villains. Mike’s Dark Sun example is perfect, because perhaps the most popular 2E Dark Sun adventure is Freedom. In that adventure, the true villain is the desert. The goal is survival. The creatures and hazards that show up all represent the desert’s danger. If we were playing Fate or Apocalypse World, the desert would get an index card and be an aspect or front, and we would constantly tap that card and work off of it during our game.
Mike likes the term Villain over Front, but I like a different one: Threats. Whichever term you prefer, we can build upon what Mike is advocating.
Embracing the concept of threats, we will of course at times think of classic villains. The cultist about to finish the ritual. The noble who has murdered the kings in a desperate grasp for power. These are great fun. Mike’s article and the DMG both provide some great ideas for fleshing out villains.
But we also search for larger concepts. The Sea itself is a threat in a maritime adventure, and by tuning in to it we create a far richer experience through storms, sudden waves and tides, shipwrecks, and other representations.
Going back to Tomb of Annihilation, the end villain is the story’s big reveal and climax. It provides a sense of closure and accomplishment. However, the dangers vary across the adventure.
Upon arrival in Port Nyanzaru, the threats are factions vying for power. Foreign entities are a threat, both for the heroes and Chult. This is hugely important, because the story really resonates when the heroes reject the colonialists and ally with the merchant princes (who could become a threat if they don’t do that). Factions, such as the Zhentarim, could be a threat (they were in my campaign), and even the Lord’s Alliance could act as a threat through sheer stupidity.
Leaving the port, the Jungle becomes the threat, as well as Getting Lost. Naming these helps us align the many dangers in this chapter with the larger threats they represent, creating a more cohesive experience. Rivers, disease, running out of supplies, dinosaurs… these agents help us better highlight the overarching threat.
This kind of thinking can be very helpful when we look at the later chapters. Sure, the Tomb is a threat, but in the Fane we can think of the two vying Yuan-Ti factions as a threat and to ponder the real threat. Is the threat “if the Yuan-Ti unify?” Or, is it “if one yuan-ti faction gains power?” The threat may evolve depending on the characters, and we lean into that, presenting choices and opportunities for their influence.
Using this lens helps us approach an adventure like Rime of the Frostmaiden more openly. Sure, Auril and the Rime is a threat (or two), but so is the wilderness, the duergar, and the final buried threat (I’m avoiding spoilers). Analyzing and preparing threats this way helps us better understand the adventure, contrasting with how we might run it (and communicate to players) if we simply say the threat is the Rime.
A final example: the D&D movie! Sure, the Thayans are the villain. But the threats include the Underdark, various factions and acquaintances, and the very concept of camaraderie. The last is an example of taking something players give us and turning that into a threat they must overcome.
What makes for a great threat? A great threat has some of the following:
We can use the following process:
Name the Threats: When we prepare an adventure or campaign and when we write our own, we can look for a breadth of possible threats. Similar to the approach suggested for the Fate RPG, we can write each threat’s name on an index card (or a section of a document if you like to work digitally).
Major or Minor? You can optionally label threats as minor if that is helpful to you. If you do, be open to the threat growing or shrinking based on player actions. The Sea may be a minor threat until the characters buy a boat.
Defining Elements: For each threat, jot down two to three defining elements. If our threat is The Guilds, we might add the elements as As Strong as the Nobility, A Hand in Everything, and perhaps a weakness such as Tenuously United. Elements such as the last one are great because they remind us that there are always opportunities for the PCs. As in the Fate RPG, we keep these statements fairly evocative and open, because we will add depth as the campaign progresses. Broad evocative statements help us come up with creative ideas during play instead of applying a narrow lens. (See the Fate RPG for more ideas on developing threats/aspects.)
Consider Links: Apocalypse World uses the concept of Fronts as a linked set of problems or dangers. It can be useful to consider links and perhaps write them on the card. You may also consider the link type. The Guilds are linked in opposition to the Nobility, and in (secret) alliance with the Cultist Villain.
Use in Play: During any session we can pull out the index cards for relevant threats and refer to them during play. If the characters interact with the threats and change them, we change the card. The Guild may change from Tenuously United to Fractured Alliance or some other statement that captures the current state.
What do you think? How would you alter this system for use at your table, or for use when creating adventures or campaigns? Let me know in the comments or join my Patreon and discuss this on our Discord!
Want to learn more about Fate or Apocalypse World? Check out our discussion on the Mastering Dungeons podcast:
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