I’m changing some things up with the blog and looking at a variety of new and old ideas in gaming. I’d like to spend part of today talking about some recurring tropes and ideas that crop up in fantasy storytelling and how they can be used (and abused) in an RPG to some sort of effect. Today’s volume is going to feature the Evil Mastermind phenomenon. There are a variety of ways this idea can be used to great effect in a fantasy rpg. Let’s take a look at how that can work.
Plot Point 2 The Evil Mastermind
This iteration of the plot trap involves an overarching villain who is pulling all the strings of the forces opposed to the player characters and the world at large. Through a combination of abilities, powers, ambitions and other factors, this particular character has amassed enough power/wealth/influence to hire minions/servants/soldiers to pursue some sort of agenda. Evil Masterminds are purpose driven NPCs that have a specific goal in mind and will have a variety of means to pursue that agenda. There are a few primary ways that an Evil Mastermind interacts with the plot going on around them. They also have a few key ways to relate to PCs in an rpg.
In this iteration of the plot, an Evil Mastermind is a high ranking member of court or otherwise has a great deal of social influence to pursue their agenda. These characters are primarily manipulators and schemers, and use their social power to manipulate court, direct social policy, or change the opinion of the people. Agendas typically revolve around controlling a monarch/leader/powerful member of society and enriching themselves. Typical minions include lesser nobles, hangers on, and other servants typically found in the employ of nobles.
In this iteration of the plot, an Evil Mastermind is a captain of industry, has control of a revenue stream, or otherwise has access to a great deal of liquid currency (and harder assets) to pursue their agenda. They are usually looking to either extend their own mercantile power or destroy their economic rivals, but can utilize their currency to accomplish a lot. These characters are typically very practical in their application of their resources, and most keep an eye on the bottom line.. Agendas typically revolve around ensuring their own continued economic success and extending their domination into other markets. Typical minions include highly specialized mercenaries, company men, and people desperate enough to chase wealth at any cost.
In this iteration of the plot, an Evil Mastermind is a warlord, pure and simple. Risen to power because of a martial capability and the charisma to lead forces into battle, a military powerhouse is the most obviously dangerous and threatening Evil Mastermind. These characters often lead an army/horde/order of battle and can usually be found at the head of their army. Typical Agendas involve conquest or militarily seizing control of an area. Typical minions include Captains and other lower ranking members of the same military command, rank and file troopers, and desperate conscripts and slave soldiers.
In this iteration of the plot, an Evil Mastermind is powered by an unusual power. Whether a powerful divine spellcaster that’s turned their church to a power base, or a terrible summoner who can call allies from beyond the world, or necromancer that can raise the dead as servants, all of these characters have supernatural sources of power. Agendas typically involve expanding and strengthening their supernatural powers or creating their own isolated region to pursue their eldritch powers. Typical minions can vary wildly, but they are typically based off of the type of power the Evil Mastermind uses.
Why is this a Plot Trap?
The Evil Mastermind can be a very powerful tool for focusing the attention of the player characters and tying them into the plot. There’s always a way to chip away at the power base or weaken the Mastermind before a final confrontation ensues. There are two primary concerns for using this Plot element. First, very rarely are Evil Masterminds omniscient. They have to rely on the sources of information that their minions and resource base have available to them. This means that Evil Masterminds rarely have total control over complex networks of allies and minions (and if they do, they realistically have completed their objective for regional or world domination). The other thing to keep in mind is to scale the Evil Mastermind to the agenda they are working towards and provide an appropriately challenging encounter for the PCs. If you misjudge either of these, you can create impossible challenges for your PCs to overcome and that’s a no fun situation.
Key Elements of this plot device
- An Agenda: Every Evil Mastermind has a goal in mind and usually has a plan to accomplish that goal. This is as important to the plot you are writing as the stats for the villains or their minions so spend time hammering out the Agenda. It’s critical (and #1 for a reason).
- A Power Base: Every Evil Mastermind has resources (in a variety of types and values) at their disposal to pursue their Agenda. Hammering out what those resources look like and what they can realistically be willing to expend chasing their Agendas can help you tailor your encounters and opposition accordingly.
- The Mastermind: This should be a no brainer, but in almost every instance of this plot element, there is going to be a confrontation between the characters and the Evil Mastermind. Spend some time and develop this character because they are both recurring and potentially dangerous to the world around them. Figure out their personal capabilities and build their encounters accordingly. Don’t be afraid to have this character appear in multiple confrontations. They have enough minions, servants and allies to get them out of harm’s way, and at a certain level there are spells to bring them back from the dead.
There are a couple of variations on this theme that all work roughly the same way. Let’s take a closer look.
The Hidden Hand
In this instance, there are actually two Evil Mastermind class characters, one of whom is using the other as an open face of opposition while manipulating things from behind the scenes. You’ve all seen Star Wars, you know what a Palpatine/Vader relationship looks like.
This variation is similar to The Hidden Hand, but in this instance, the Evil Mastermind is being controlled by an outside force that is compelling them to act in this way. Cursed magical items, blackmail, personal obligations, and many other factors can compel a character to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do.
This particular version of the Evil Mastermind is built on the foundation that is inherently unstable. Something about their power base or resources isn’t as firmly under their control as they like and they have to take steps to assert control over their power base before they can pursue a larger agenda. This typically means that this Evil Mastermind has to work harder and faster to claim resources and assets, and this can be an astonishingly dangerous time for people caught in that rush to claim assets.
The Evil Mastermind can be a wonderful plot element if you make sure you understand what the capabilities of a given mastermind are. You have to do some thinking and research to figure out what any given Evil Mastermind is capable of and you need to understand the agenda that motivates them. This plot element can work very well with the Sacred Maguffin of Power plot element, and the two of them can interlace very effectively. I’ll cover the Maguffin next week.
I hope this gives all of you some insights and ideas on incorporating this style of a Plot Element into your game without it becoming a burden to your fun. If you’d like to see more of these, or have a question about a specific plot element that you’d like to know more about, drop me a line on twitter, which you should be able to see over there on the right side of the screen. Game On, Game Fans.