Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Getting Villainy Done

So, I'm a (slightly lax) practitioner of David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, which is a fancy way to say that I use a certain set of tricks for keeping useful to do lists. GTD has been incredibly useful for me in a number of ways. I've mentioned before how well it applies to player actions, and recently I've been thinking about how one lesson in particular translates very well into adventure design.

See, the trick I learned from GTD, and which is good all around advice, is that when you put an item on your todo list, it should be a physical action, not just an idea. Too often, people write down something general like "Set up New Desk" and it sits idle because they haven't thought about the actual actions they need to take, which might be "Clear off the current desk, haul away current desk, bring new desk to office, bring tools to office, assemble new desk". Each of those actions is something that can be envisioned, accomplished and checked off, and if you have a concrete list like that, you're much more likely to actually do something rather than put it off.

As useful as this idea is for getting chores done, it's even more useful for villainy. Just as physical actions can bridge the gap between needing to do something and actually doing it, they can bridge the gap between a villains abstract goals and motives and actual play. Which is to say, take a few minutes to look at your villain's (or other prominent NPC's) to do list. After all, every good NPC has some sort of goal they need to accomplish, and that should always demand some sort of action.

For example, let's say we have a small crime boss in the city of our game. We'll call him Mart, and he's looking to expand his holdings. That's a great one sentence blurb, comparable to what you'd see in a published product, and it makes a good seed. To create some play from it, let's drill down a little bit. He can't get up in the morning and just expand his holdings - he needs to do things to do so - so what can he do? Well, he'll need more men, more territory, or more business. So let's make that his todo list:
  • Get more men
  • Get more territory
  • Get more business
So, we've gone from a goal to a broad list (in GTD terms, these would be projects) , but now we need to break it down into actions, and in doing so, we'll see these are more complicated than it seems. Again, let's pick one: Getting more men.

Getting more men is not just a function of putting up flyers for thugs. Men need to come from somewhere, and they need a reason to work for him. He needs to find a source of men and get the resources to bring them on board. Now, if this were a real-life project, we'd have steps for gathering information and analyzing options, but in fiction, we can skip that (I say this casually, but it's a very powerful and creative capability). Let's say, for example, Mart sees three opportunities. First, recent bad weather has left a lot of out-of-work sailors. Second, it's always good to recruit early from neighborhood kids. Last, there are always mercenaries available in a pinch. Mercenaries are easy, and kids are complicated, so let's use the sailors to illustrate further.

The sailors are a good starting point, but he can't just walk into a bar and ask the room "Any out of work sailors want to do some crime?" I mean, he could, but it's not a good strategy. He could put up a posting, which might get some (if they can read) but it might get too many, too few, or unpredictable quality. Plus, it is fairly public, which may be problematic. A better plan might be to make contact with a reliable agent and use them as a go between to bring on the sailors to…what?

Here we hit the rub, and the benefit of the system. He's not just hiring sailors to hire sailors. He's hiring them for a purpose, to expand his holdings. He needs a plan of action for them. So, these are sailors, not necessarily reliable, but available. Maybe he gives them a little extra coin for drink to go to a bar outside his territory he want s to annex and be on hand when he sets up a dice game and basically lays claim. That's a plan. So, his task list looks like:
  • Speak to bartender in the docks to identify a smart, hireable sailors.
  • Interview said sailor.
  • Offer him employment.
  • Get said sailor to spread around drinking money with strings attached.
  • After sailors gather, start dice game.
  • When confronted, escalate to violence.
  • In conflict, overwhelm opposition with superior reinforcements (sailors).

All very tidy, but the trick of it is that each of those steps is concrete enough that it can either be a hook or a problem. A specific action might impact players (forcing reaction) or it might go wrong (forcing the NPC to improvise and call in help, which is to say, the PCs) . Finding the hooks is a simple matter of running through the list and asking
  1. How might this impact PCs if this happens to them or someone they know?
  2. What happens if the PCs find out about it?
  3. How can this go wrong?

Looking over that list and Mart's list, my two guy with swords might
  • Overhear the conversation, find out about the plan, and...
    ...realize a fight would be a great time to rob the dice game.
    ...realize they could make money selling out this plan to the competitor
    ...beat up the trustworthy sailor and take the money
  • Get approached by Mart after the trustworthy sailor runs off with the money
  • Get brought in by the tavern owner, afraid someone's going to muscle in on his territory
  • Get drawn into the fight as it breaks out around or near them

And that's just off the top of my head.

Anyway, what's important is that all of this built from a sentence: Mart is a criminal who wants to expand his holdings. Published material is full of similar information, but it often lacks guidelines for moving from those motives into things that generate play (unless the motives directly apply to the PCs to begin with). Going to specific actions is a great tool for bridging that gap, and it's a fun one. Remember, there's no need to do this with EVERY element in a game. Doing so would be way too much to keep track of. Instead, it's just a tool to go from "huh, I'd like to use this NPC" to "I have a plot involving this NPC" in a very natural feeling way.

One other thing: I realize that for some people, thinking about NPCs in this fashion gives them too much agency. Some feel that NPCs should only have an existence in the context of the PCs, and that this sort of thinking is inappropriate. To that, I suggest that this idea is not contradictory to that, it is merely tangential to it. The ultimate purpose here is to inspire intersections with your players that feel dynamic and like they're a natural extension of play. Whether or not this exercise produces any "offscreen" impact is totally a matter of GM taste.


  1. Totally metal, Rob. Pretty much everything I do as a GM revolves around making sure the antagonists have actionable motives, and aren't just sitting there waiting for PCs to come along and trash their stuff.

    Having a simple way to articulate that, like what you just wrote here, is golden.

  2. Thanks for writing this. It's a common sense plot-crafting tactic that I tend to forget to do. You've just helped deepen my game.

  3. On one hand, seems sensible.

    On the other hand, it seems like an AWFUL lot of work to go through for every villain and major NPC. Not everyone in the world is that organised. Most people tend to just give kneejerk reactions to things and act out of emotion, rather than mechanical organisation.

    I'm not sure how useful this sort of idea would be if you're GMing on the fly, either.

    *shrug* I'll need think more on it.

  4. @Eynowd You _definitely_ don't want to do it for every NPC. It's just a tool to break out when you want to start from a given NPC.

    Also, honestly, once you get the hang of it, it's very fast. Running through something like Mart's situation is maybe 2 or 3 minutes, tops.

  5. @eynowd
    I agree that not every villain is so organized to make such detailed plans - but from GM perspective you could also use this technique to determine reactions based on emotions. Eg. start with the dominant emotion and think what action would arise from it, and then go with the chain of consequences to find next steps...

  6. @eynowd Villains may be disorganized, but they're still going to ACT in terms of discrete, concrete actions. Those actions may be motivated by conscious intent or kneejerk reactions, but as a DM, if you have some insight into what those actions will be, you can use that to create opportunities for your players to have fun.

    Cause the truth is, you have to predict your NPC's actions anyway. That's what a DM does, pretty much. Rob's insight (and it's a cool one, thanks!) is that if you the DM realise that what matters are the discrete steps the NPC has to take, that yields you an array of useful potential hooks for your game.

  7. I'm currently musing over the to-do list of an illithid exiled to the world, hoping to spitefully regain his reputation by facilitating an illithid return to imperial dominance. Interesting how the PCs actions sometimes aid or are required for his plans.


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