Hey Game Fans, last week we took a look at some ideas for how to setup your encounters for your role-playing games. The crux of what we looked at revolved around what you expected your players to gain/glean/suffer for engaging the encounter. Today we’re going to look at another important part of encounter building, the antagonist. I’ve called them the Challenge in the past, and i’m sure there are dozens of other titles and names that people have used in the past. Let’s take a closer look at what the antagonist is supposed to do, and the role they play in the story you’re setting up for your players to experience.
The story you’re telling is the framework that all of your encounters fit within, and each chapter can basically be its own adventure and series of encounters. The alternative of course is to make each encounter its own chapter and tell one complete adventure in a story. Either plan is viable, and really it’s a matter of choice for you organizing your thoughts. The framework for the story is mostly for your benefit, as it helps you shape the presentation of the story to the players.
In many ways, selecting the right antagonist can help you select the other elements that you want to shape for the encounter, and it can help put you into the right mindset. Not every encounter has to lead to combat, but not every monster can be convinced not to try and murder you. Sometimes they’re hungry, and the pizza delivered itself. Let’s take a look at some ideas for building encounters based off the type of antagonist and the level of challenge you expect to put to your players during the encounter.
For a social encounter, your antagonists can be a lot of different things. Overly aware Guardsmen, citizens, a rival for attention, or an authority figure that must be convinced are all potential antagonists in a social encounter. Each one of these characters represents a different type of challenge, and each one has varying degrees of challenge associated with them.
Guardsmen: These are the retainers/hirelings/bodyguards/goons/doormen who are responsible for keeping riff raff looking adventurers/peasants/nobodies from getting close to their boss. In most instances, some sort of official badge/writ/maguffin is needed to convince these guys to step aside and allow the players to advance the storyline. These types of social encounters should be capable of holding their own in a combat encounter with the pcs if they are more than a speed bump on the party’s goal into the next encounter.
With Guardsmen, these are npcs that the party shouldn’t actively try to entertain the idea of going through. For official guards in a place of authority (like a set of red armored storm troopers guarding an Emperor), the idea of fighting them shouldn’t even come up to the players. These are the law, and these are the rules. The consequences for violence should be severe enough that everyone plays nice with each other.
An important part of an encounter with guardsmen is a squad leader/commander type who can do the talking. Someone has to explain to wandering adventurers why they aren’t permitted certain places or what the official steps are to gain entry. This character should be more of a facilitator than an antagonist, so the party can see what steps they need to take in order to move the story forward.
Less official guards (like the goons for a crime boss) should be intimidating enough or in large enough numbers that fighting through them shouldn’t be a socially acceptable choice. Remember, these are intended to be social encounters that they players talk their way through. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have stats nearby in case of war, but the first alternative shouldn’t be punch the guard and go through.
Doorman at a bar
The Goons hanging around a crime lord
Actual guardsmen protecting a location
Spectral guardians protecting the entrance to ancient tomb
Trolls guarding a bridge
Remember, Guardsmen are designed to impede or limit availability and access to a specific person or location. Locks, traps and monsters occupy a similar intention, but a different means of interaction and conquest. Moving past a guardsmen encounter can be as simple as presenting the official seal/writ/gizmo/plot device they require or as complicated as retrieving something of vital importance to the Guardsmen’s boss before he’ll even consider meeting the players. Figure out how hard you want to make this, and then adjust your expectations and encounters accordingly.
Citizens are a lot of fun as a potential social interaction challenge. In most instance these aren’t adventurers, guards, or professional face punchers, but these are the low level commoners/wage slaves, hapless townsfolk who get themselves into situations that they need to be extricated from or removed. Citizens are typically useful in full sized mobs (Torches, pitchforks and ropes are optional), or as lone points of interaction where a single person can often screw up whatever encounter the players have in mind.
Lone Citizens can be anything from a witness to something that happened, a stranger in need of help, to a potential follower depending on how the players interact with them. If the players are supposed to be sneaking into a castle but are observed by a member of the castle’s staff that isn’t a guard (say a scullery maid or one of the many servants that live in the castle), how are the players going to handle this? In most instances, murdering the person isn’t a viable option, so they’re going to have to do some fast thinking in order to get through the social challenges.
Angry Mobs and panicked crowds are a staple of fantasy and fiction. Players will have to deal with larger crowds of individuals that are often behaving irrationally or against their best interest. These people are going to have to be communicated with in order for the players to move past or through them, or to convince them to disperse. A large crowd can be hard to manage, especially with a major attack or disaster in the background.
In Dungeons and Dragons (our usual rules system that we use to discuss things like this) players have three primary skill choices to interact with npcs, so don’t be surprised if the skill you expected isn’t used. Sometimes using Intimidation to get a crowd to disperse doesn’t work. Sometimes you have to persuade the crowd to change its mind or you have to deceive them into doing what you need.
In most cases, Citizens add a level of complication to an existing situation. They need to be appropriately managed to be out of danger/not a threat to the party without an outbreak of violence. Construct these encounters in a way where violence is an unnecessary complication or a direct crisis.
Rival for Attention
This antagonist is competing directly with the players (either as a group or a single, specific player) for the attention and resources of another. This could be a rival adventuring company, a potential suitor for the hand of a princess, or a scheming city councilor who has designs on something else. In all cases, these rivals are competing against the players for a specific tangible goal. How they choose to impede the players can manifest in a variety of different potential ways, but this type of encounter is a direct confrontation with the players, probably in an open environment where murder isn’t a viable option.
Often these scenes will be in front of the person/group that the attention is sought after, so the players will have to be able to articulate why their usage of the resources/attention is the best choice, and survive blackmail/dirty tricks/slander and other douchery. These types of conflicts can come up again, so even if players lose one round of these interactions, they can come up again. If the players HAVE to successfully win an encounter like this, then i would encourage you as a DM to give them several opportunities to prepare their arguments and attempt to influence the authority figure they are attempting to garner attention from. This is a situation where preparation pays off for both player and dungeon master.
Example Rivals for Attention
The key element for a Rival for Attention is that they legitimately represent a credible threat/alternative to the players. If they aren’t credible, then there isn’t anything for the players to overcome, they should handily be capable of pushing their social agenda forward. Alternatively, the Players likewise have to represent as a credible alternative to their Rival. A party of 1st level adventurers is unlikely to present a credible alternative to the high clergy of Bahamut. Build your rivals accordingly.
The most likely reason to be interacting with an authority figure is to seek permission for something. Accessing the secret archives, getting into the lost crypts, or laying claim to territory are all things that an authority figure has the ability to grant to players. Often these folks will have things that a party of adventurers are capable of taking care of for them in exchange for their requested need.
Authority figures come in all shapes and sizes and everywhere and everything has someone who probably has authority over it somewhere/somehow. Finding out what this person wants/needs can help players be ready and prepared for their social meeting. Authority figures can be as local as the innkeeper at a favorite inn to as interplanar as the gods themselves.
Example Authority Figure
THe key points for an authority figure social encounter are basically twofold. Figuring out the extent of that person’s authority can help you figure out if the players are interacting with the right npc. The other point to keep in mind is what the Authority Figure actually wants from the players in return for this consideration.
Those are the four main types of social encounters that players are likely to encounter. Working from these ideas you should be able to build the social encounters that help you tell the story you’re wanting to build for your players. Those are our ideas, and we think these can be very helpful for you. If they don’t work for you, well, that’s why we call them ideas. Next week we’ll try to go over exploration as an encounter type.
Game on, Game Fans.