Telling Stories in Games Series: Part III
Since I spent a couple weeks talking about antagonist and I haven’t done a Telling Stories in Games entry in a while, let’s combine the two!
Who are the antagonists in your campaign?
The Final Boss
Let’s start at the end of your story. Presumably you’ve thought that far out, yes? Or at least you know who your Final Boss is, even if you don’t have the specifics worked out yet how your player characters are going to get to—much less defeat—said boss. If you aren’t planning on having a completely open-ended campaign with no set Final Boss and you haven’t yet worked out who or what your PCs are going to take down at the end, you should probably figure that out. In most stories, the beginning is the most important part, but I’ve found in general that stories told with RPGs (tabletop or computer) make it or break it with the conclusion. So start with the end of your story and know who the Final Boss antagonist is.
Before the player characters get to the Final Boss they will almost certainly meet a number of lesser antagonists along the way. Let’s call them Midbosses. These Midbosses might be lieutenants of the campaign’s primary antagonist, but more often they should be primarily serving their own purposes. Either way, they present challenges to your PCs along the way, giving your players the much-needed sense of accomplishment and progress as they work their way through your story.
And speaking of story, each of these Midboss antagonists needs his or her or its own story. You have the overarching storyline of the campaign, presumably, and waiting at the climax of it is the Final Boss. Unlike what I said in my first antagonist article, the primary antagonist of your campaign needn’t be at least as interesting as the player characters. Usually, this character’s goals are grandiose and simple: conquer the world, kill all the people, destroy the thing. It’s the people along the way who your player characters meet and overcome who you can use to create really interesting stories.
So for these Midbosses my advice stands. Each one needs to be interesting. If you can make their backstories more detailed than those of most of your player characters, you’re doing well. The trick with having antagonists with interesting backstories in RPGs, though, is disseminating the information. How to share backstory with your players is a topic for another day, but assume that about 90% of what you create will only ever be known to you.
But suffice it to say: your Midbosses need interesting backstories. You can get away with not much of a backstory for your Final Boss because, in effect, your entire campaign builds up a reason for the players to care about defeating their greatest antagonist. Your Midbosses, though, often work independently of the Final Boss, at least to some extent (even if they are minions thereof), and so they need their own motivations and backstories.
Midbosses who do their own thing from the very beginning–who are threats to the player characters without tying in to the main storyline–definitely need good motivations for doing so, but just as importantly you need to find a good way of making these side quests interesting and important to your players.
On the other hand, Midbosses who are more or less loyal to the Final Boss tend to be at their most interesting when they not only serve the campaign’s main antagonist but also have their own agendas. Their personal agendas need not be aligned with those of their leader, but it’s hard to make them believably loyal if they actively work against the Final Boss. It can be done, but it’s hard to do well.
Monster of the Week
At the bottom of the antagonist pile, you have those who essentially serve as “monster of the week” for your player characters. These are the main characters in their own little dramas, but the scenarios they feature in are one-shots that rarely tie in with the rest of your campaign, so in the grand scheme of your campaign they are minor characters at best. How much backstory do you give these guys? That depends on how much you enjoy creating backstories, but they need to be interesting enough to make your players care. Often, you can just imply backstory with a few carefully dropped comments or hints, saving your players a long soliloquy by someone they’re just going to beat up on for a little while.
Who Gets What
So what am I getting at here?
When you’re thinking about your campaign and the antagonists you want to throw at your player characters, focus your backstory efforts on the Midbosses—the antagonists who trouble your PCs for a story arc of multiple sessions but who are neither the campaign’s primary antagonist nor just one-shot monsters of the week. You don’t need a lot of backstory for your main antagonist—in most RPGs, just being evil is enough—nor your throwaways. But the antagonists your PCs spend several scenarios and numerous sessions hunting down and defeating really carry your campaign and are the ones your PCs tend to focus on most.
And remember in all of this that an antagonist isn’t necessarily a bad guy, or evil, but merely someone who opposes your protagonists (the PCs). This can be the captain of a city guard, a crazed alchemist, a dogged reporter, or anyone who has a reason to make the player characters’ lives miserable.