Friday, September 28, 2012

Important Villains vs. Fungible Monsters

It's struck me as I populate my DF game's setting that there are really two broad types of enemies in a campaign. You have your Important Villains, and your Fungible Monsters. I mentioned this a while back, but decided I'd try to write out my ideas about this more fully to get them clear, and maybe help others populate their worlds more easily.

(You could say Fungible Villains, but I think Fungible Monsters sounds better.)

Let's look at them in reverse.

Fungible Monsters are just NPCs placed for opposition. How tough they are or aren't, or how important they become or don't become, isn't critical. The idea behind fungible monsters is, you can swap them in or out. It doesn't really matter if they turn out to be easier or harder to kill than you expected. You can always deploy more or less next time. Or the PCs can relax and fight them more casually, or drill down and fight more ruthlessly, the next time. If those monsters turn out to drop dead like flies from a simple spell or are utterly harmless against the PC's front rank fighters, well, it happens. If you’re playing a game with an acceptance of high lethality, then even a TPK isn't really a problem. The next bunch of PCs will know not to mess with those monsters.

The monsters in and of themselves aren't very important as individuals. This is decidedly not the case with Important Villains.

Important Villains are NPCs that, in and of themselves, are important as individuals or as groups. They cannot easily be swapped out for another NPC within the setting, and what they can and can't do is important. They are important and useful for a sandbox game, and critical for a story-driven game.* These are the opposition which are inherently interesting and touch. They aren't random, and the GM needs to know how tough they are from the word go.

If the PCs decide they want to overthrow the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang, he's an important villain (primarily player driven). If the GM sets the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang after the PCs, he's an important villain (primarily GM driven). If the whole game is "Guys, we're going to play The Quest to Overthrow the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang," he's an important villain (story driven - pre-game decision driven).

If that aforementioned Mad Wizard of Wu Tang goes down to a simple spell you didn't plan for, or his Killer Kung Fu skills don't actually work that well, you're going to ruin the verisimilitude of the story. It just strikes a bad note if you didn't forsee some elementary defense he'd need to have survived long enough to be the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang. The more stuff the Bad Guy is supposed to be able to do, the more thought you have to put into it. It's totally lame if the whole quest is to fight an important NPC and he's taken down in a single second because you didn't build in the right defenses. It's a letdown if the "greatest swordsman in all the lands" is less of a challenge to a PC swordsman than that wandering group of goblins was. While these things can happen in reality, fiction and gaming isn't meant to be real. Conan doesn't have an easier time with the Big Scary than with the Big Scary's Henchmen.

I personally find it nice to run a game where the vast majority of critters are Fungible Monsters. It greatly simplifies my game prep. But the idea that some monsters really do need to be important and need to be crafted to explain their in-game position and reputation is still one I need to keep in mind. It's amusing if the trolls die in a few seconds while the goblins put up a real war of a fight. But it's lame if the Dragon of Felltower is a one-shot kill . . .

I also think these divisions help you to not over-think some encounters. If the monsters really are Fungible Monsters, and could really be anything, just relax and stat them up and see what happens. Save the worry for guys who legitimately need to be Important Villains.

* Note that story-driven does not imply a railroad. It merely implies that there is some over-arching plot or story, whether setting-, GM-, or player-driven, that provides the backbone for the campaign. Railroading is a way of running a game, not a game style. You can railroad in a non-story based game ("We go to that dungeon over there." "Suddenly, a teleport trap sends you to the dungeon I wanted you to go to!") as easily in a story based game ("We kill the important NPC!" "He miraculously survives and uses his alter reality action to undo your mistakes!"). It's a question of freedom of choice and action, not of story.


  1. Funny story about "Big Bad goes down easy." We were playing Orcslayer, I think, in a previous campaign I was playing in. We rushed into the fight chamber, and our brute did a shield bash on the Big Bad . . . and knocked him out cold due to a crit fail on the guy's HT roll.

    The rest of the fight was actually very difficult, and that same brute got down to like -50 HP via repeatedly being hit with a pick, but kept making his HT rolls (this was 3e, FWIW).

    1. The Big Bad in Orcslayer is a glass cannon, though, Having played that fight vs. Bulgan a few times in Man-to-Man, he wastes a PC every 2-3 turns but he's not hard to take out if you make a concerted rush at him.

      He's a good example of a well-done Important Villain. Imagine trying to take that guy out, one-on-one - he'd be a rough go, and none of the orcs you encounter could take him even with a small group. Unless you turned his bodyguards, he's tough. But he's not so tough that the PCs can't win the final fight.

      The rest of the orcs along the way? Fungible Monsters. They're just fights in a skirmish game, with no particularly important guys.

      Just as an aside, I loved Orcslayer and we played it through at least once, and most of the fights as pick-up battles once or twice each. Good supplement, all in all.

  2. I like to follow the Gygax plan of multiple boss monsters that are often rivals. It could be an underling that would be more than happy to see his master die so that he could gain power or they could be rivals that when one rival dies it frees up the other to be more aggressive and more powerful. If there are more than one boss monster then the chances that a challenging combat happens increases. Think about the Vault of the Drow where there were rival factions of drow, some serving the Elder Eye and others serving Lolth. If the ones serving Lolth (Eclavdra and Lyme) are defeated then the other rival drow clans are free to attack the PCs because they no longer have to worry about their rivals. Also there were many other groups that hated the drow like the mind flayers and kuo toa so if the drow are beaten too badly then the other races will be free to attack the PCs more aggressively. I talked to Gary about what he wanted to happen with the Queen of the Demonweb Pits and he said that he would have had the Elder Eye and Lolth counterbalance each other so if the PCs defeated Lolth that would free the Elder Eye to enter the Prime Material Plane or if the PCs defeated the Elder Eye then Lolth would be much more powerful. In short there were two boss monsters and the chances are good that at least one of the battles with them would be challenging.

    I think this makes sense from the concept of evil as well. Evil is evil even to other evil beings. They are constantly vying for power and when their rival is defeated then they are free to attack the PCs more freely. The different factions serving the Elder Elemental God were rivals and each hated the other and they could only be controlled by Iuz and Zuggtmooy and if they were defeated then they would have free reign to cause havoc.

    In short, many boss monsters are good becaue the chances of having one of them give the PCs a good fight increases.

    1. Yeah, this is true. For major "placed" NPCs, you need a lot of thought. But if you have a lot of potential boss fights, you're really just seeing what the dice and players tell you are important.

  3. To my way of thinking, it's good fiction but bad gaming to determine which NPCs are going to be the story-important ones in advance. That is, for a good game, the setting designer (who may be the Referee) should include a number of variously-powerful NPCs and the interactions that they have with the PCs will determine which ones are story-worthy. That is, there's the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang, the One-Eyed Master of Flowers, the King of Pain, and so on, and the PCs one-shot the Mad Wizard, but have a long-running rivalry with the Master of Flowers, and never meet the King of Pain (even though they cross one of his plots in the fourteenth session). The players tell the story, the setting designer just gives them something to tell stories about.

    1. I think that's a good theory, but I've never seen that in actual practice. Plenty of times the player-driven decisions tell you an NPC is important and must be powerful before they even find out if the NPC is actually in-game powerful.

      D&D and class-and-level games make this a little easier. You can just make the Sauron 20th level or give Conan better stats and more levels than anyone else. But it's still true - the Big Bad is higher levels than the Little Bads, the King is higher level than you, etc. They're Important Villains. You even do this in sandboxes - or at least I have.

      The monsters that are just there for a fight, which can be a hard fight or not, are fungible. They can be dropped in without too much thought. But the more roots you've dug or your players have dug into the setting for an NPC ("He's the King." "I hate this guy's minions, let's go kill him." "Let's go kill the most legendary dragon in the world.") the more thought the NPC needs.

      I think "put in a bunch and let the dice decide which ones are story-worthy" is a good technique, but it's not going to totally wipe out this split of IV vs. FM.

    2. "D&D and class-and-level games make this a little easier. You can just make the Sauron 20th level or give Conan better stats and more levels than anyone else. But it's still true - the Big Bad is higher levels than the Little Bads, the King is higher level than you, etc. They're Important Villains. You even do this in sandboxes - or at least I have."

      Oh, yeah. In the Pathfinder game I play on Sundays, the pirate captain is kind of an ass, and the ship is terribly undermanned. In a GURPS game, I think with proper surprise, the PCs could take him.

      I'm not up on the new Pathfinder, but I was able to ask the GM "is this dude like level 10 or something?" and yeah, he was. So even 5:1, he probably has the perception skills to see us Lvl2 types coming, and the combat skills to wipe the floor with us. It keeps us under his thumb until much later in the adventure.

    3. Yeah, I can go with that. In D&D-type games, the way that hit points work (as a measure of luck, skill, and divine favor as well as more physical attributes like toughness), and the way that they interact with levels make the issue easier to deal with. In a more detail-oriented game like GURPS or BRP, where every character is vulnerable in the way that real people are, the setting designer has to pay a lot more attention to vulnerabilities - and this is made much harder if the setting designer doesn't know about the exact make-up of the characters who will be represented at the table!

      I do see that there is a place for Unique Individuals and Generic Thugs in a game, though. I just have some philosophical problems with it (it's profoundly anti-democratic for one), and am trying to find a better way. Like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. while writing Breakfast of Champions, I am hoping to ensure that there are no irrelevant characters in the world of the fiction. Or, at least, no characters that are absolutely doomed to irrelevancy.

    4. I mean, maybe the most important antagonist turns out to be Generic Guard Number 8, who manages to dog the PCs' steps in ways that the Mad Wizard doesn't, just through the luck of the dice and the players' choices.

    5. Oh sure, I'd never suggest turning down the results of dice and choices. If what should have been Guard Number 8 turns out to be a hell of a lucky fighter and dogs the players, that's great. Take that as balancing the books for the time spending thinking, "How did this wizard survive so long? How would he need to defend his tower if his enemies are this guy and this other guy?"

      One of the most famous NPCs in my games was a generic guard who ended up whupping on a bunch of PCs in a fight he should have lost in seconds. One of my players ended up using the name on the counter we used on the map, Sgt. a Wood, as his character's name. Stuff like that is a gift from the gaming gods.

  4. Another reason having rivals is useful is because if all of the bad guys were aligned together then they would have no trouble killing off the PCs in a dungeon. But if they are rivals then the PCs can kill one set of bad guys and then the rivals to the bad guys can then step up to attack the PCs later. If they were all together then thee PCs would be wiped out because the combined force would be too strong. For instance, a cult that worshipps the Devil has set up shop in a dungeon and are capturing people from a village for sacrifices. But within the dungeon there is also a hidden group of Deep Ones who are worshipping Cthulhu and they used to steal a few of the people who would have been sacrificed to the Devil to acrifice to Cthulhu instead. Well when the PCs defeat the evil Devil worshipping cult then the Deep Ones would likely attack the PCs because the rival of the Deep Ones has been defeated and now they are free to attack the PCs.

  5. I require that you use "Fungible Monsters" in the title of a GURPS book.

    1. I dunno. I was going to make Fungible Monsters the name of my first solo album.


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