Just about a week or so ago, I took part in and “won” my first NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Winning the contest is easy: simply start a novel on any topic on November 1st and complete and complete 50,000 words on it by November 30th. It’s only about 1700 words per day, and sounded pretty simple, but it’s harder than it seems, especially with the holidays jammed into the middle of the month.
My friend has been trying to get me to take a stab at it for a couple year now, and she assured me that I would find the experience rewarding and full of self-discovery. And I have to admit it was a rewarding, even if I did have to plow through 5500 words on the last day, which was frustrating as hell! But getting to my goal was worth the effort, and I’m actually continuing to write the novel, because 50,000 words got me only about half of the way through the plot… maybe less.
You see, I honestly set out writing the novel without any plan, with no outline, and with no idea where the story was going. I didn’t know who the hero was, had really only a vague notion of who the villain was, and all I knew was that I wanted to take a stab at using a Steampunk genre for the setting.
So it was rather surprising when the plot of the story kind of took off on its own, despite my lack of planning. And as I wrote, I was rather surprised when a hero emerged to face my villain, how my villain responded to the hero, and how supporting characters rose up out of the prose to, well, support them. The results were rather unexpected, especially when the plot went in directions I had never anticipated, and the characters began to reveal parts of themselves I didn’t know existed until I wrote typed them on my laptop, and my Steampunk world evolved into a rather strange dystopia as the hero and villain adventured within it.
And really, I think all of this happened because I didn’t force it, but simply let myself play with my inner Villain…
E Pluribus Unum
As Dungeon Masters, I think it is all too easy for us to sometimes worry too much about creating an adventure for our characters without actually getting to know our villains. If you’re anything like me, you get an idea for a plot or a quest, figure out what sort of monsters, encounters, and settings might work, and then prepare the adventure. You build encounters, set up skill challenges, and create some NPC supporting cast to get the heroes moving along in the right direction, because the player-characters are, after all, the focal points of your campaign.
But my experience with my NaNoWriMo project made me wonder what sort of adventures I might come up with if I just let my “inner villain” out to roleplay. And I’m not talking about deciding what sort of voice or accent I plan to use at the gaming table, but actually get into the role of my main villain, and talk with him – one-on-one, so to speak – just to see what sorts of things motivate and drive them to do what they do.
On a certain level, it might feel a little weird, if not down-right schizophrenic, to hold a conversation with yourself, internally or externally, where you are literally getting inside the mind of something that’s inside your mind anyways. Not to mention the fact that not many of us – at least I hope this is true – are not particularly villainous by nature, and thinking like a “bad guy” is not within our comfort zone.
Then again, if you hold with any psychological theory, particularly the Jungian point of view, as humans we are actually made up of many diverse archetypes, and not all of them pleasant. We are the sum of many parts, and so while there is a Hero, a Warrior, and a Wise Man in every one of us, but there is also a Villain and a Trickster lurking around in our heads, along with myriad other archetypes. In fact, some psychologists suggest that the human mind is actually the sum of hundreds if not thousands of inner “voices”, and that the part we think of as I or Me is merely an illusion, because our minds are, as the great seal of the United States tells us, “E Pluribus Unum” or “From Many, One”.
Interviewing for the Job
So all psychology and philosophy aside, there is almost certainly something to be gained by trying to get inside the head of your villains, if for nothing else than to add depth and character to them. Sure many villains are going to be motivated by simple drives such as greed or a quest for power, but there might be nuances to their simple drives that might suggest new plotlines or twists that will not be evident on the surface. There might be reasons for their villainous deeds that might come out if they are “interviewed” by the Dungeon Master, and new strengths as well as weaknesses might be uncovered that can be used to make the adventure story more detailed and richer.
Personally, I think that the most interesting villains embrace their motivations, know they are flawed and evil, but accept it because their dark past makes them stronger (or so they think). And even more interesting still are those villains that don’t realize that they are villains, and actually act out of some twisted perspective that makes them willing to sacrifice others in order to achieve their goal – which they think is the “right” thing to do!
And those types of villainous characters and traits are not going to suggest themselves every time, unless a DM is willing to really get to know their inner villain. Oh sure, not every bad guy needs to have a massive depth of character, and an evil orc chieftain can still just be an evil orc chieftain. But it never hurts to explore other possibilities for antagonists to place in your heroes path, and your players will probably find it much more interesting to occasionally face down a villain with a mind and soul, rather than a stock elite from the Monster Manuals!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!