Today is the first day of November, and it’s a pretty serious holiday – it’s my birthday! Yep, today I’m so old that if 23 one-year-old babies all combined their years into one super baby, that creepy mutant baby would still be younger than me.
But enough about that. Today marks the beginning of a new month, which means it’s time for a new segment on the blog. That segment is here, and it’s called Homebrew Helper!
Each week, we talk about tabletops on Tuesday. It’s what we do. But I actually have plenty to say about tabletops! I love strange board games and tabletop RPGs, and have been enjoying them for years. In those years, I have created some homebrew content – that’s just a fancy way of saying that I custom-designed some stuff for myself and my group of players. In the month of November, I’ll be sharing some of that homebrew content with you so you, too, can enjoy it as part of your tabletop campaigns.
Don’t play tabletops? Then please don’t go away! I’m going to be describing these things in a very non-technical way, telling stories about how I’ve utilized them in my campaigns and revealing information about their backstories, things like that. You don’t have to love tabletops to enjoy that kind of thing, so if you are a fan of fantasy and adventures in any way, you definitely want to stick around and read. I’ll divide each session into The Story Part (for the casual readers) and The Mechanical Part (for those interested in the stats).
Today’s Homebrew Helper segment is going to focus on villains. I’ve come up with lots of evil masterminds for campaigns over the years, and now I’ll share them with you.
Femme Fatale – Mutants and Masterminds
The Story Part
When I first started playing tabletop games, it took me a while to get used to incorporating female villains in my stories. I could blame the media or comic books or video games or whatever, but ultimately, it was my fault for never thinking outside of the box. A lot of times I designed villains who were just photocopies of villains that already existed in some way, and since most of those villains were male, I never really thought to change their gender to make things a little less stereotypical and offensive. I’ve gotten better at making female characters significant in my campaigns over the years, and Femme Fatale was the first lady-boss I designed with some serious power behind her.
Here’s the scenario. My players were invited to a fancy-mansion party by the mayor of their town. Of course, partway through the party they find out that an assassin has come for the dear old mayor, a fact that they discover when another prominent guest collapses under mysterious circumstances. The players looked over the assassin’s first victim to find that he had no signs of being harmed – it looked like he was perfectly healthy except for the fact that he was dead. Some investigation revealed the assassin’s identity – Femme Fatale, a woman who could kill simply by touching your skin.
Now Femme Fatale was significantly more powerful than the players. Mechanically, the players were all at the starting Power Level of 10 (this session was still early in the game). Femme Fatale’s Power Level was 15, a very significant leap that would make it very difficult for the players to face her fairly. However, the battlefield offered an advantage – the mayor had some anti-superhero security devices that were currently deactivated. Each room had a different activation code, and the codes were all riddles and puzzles – because the mayor was into that kind of thing. By luring Femme Fatale into different rooms of the mansion, the players could then do the security puzzlers to activate the power draining system. Every successfully completed puzzle dropped Femme Fatale’s Power Level – and subsequently lowered all of her abilities – by 1. This meant that after three or four rooms, Femme Fatale went from nearly impossible to quite manageable as a boss. The players had to trade off who was distracting her and who was solving puzzles, constantly healing and playing defensively until she was weak enough for the group to take the offensive. When the players finally took her down, everyone was pretty satisfied. They’d loved the different puzzles and they loved defeating a boss that seemed so powerful at first glance.
The Mechanical Part
If you’d like to use the idea of Femme Fatale as a villain in your own M&M campaign, here are my suggestions. Set her Power Level a good five or six levels above the party – way too drastic for them to have a fighting chance in a fair fight. She needs balanced parry, dodge, and toughness – since the real trick is to get her PL low enough to damage her, there’s no reason to make her particularly impressive in one defensive stat. Stealth is her most important skill and should be capped out – also give her a high count in skills like acrobatics, athletics, sleight of hand, and close combat. Her actual power is the Weaken ability. When she successfully makes a melee attack, she drains Stamina from the target. This effect has a number of deadly modifiers like Progressive (the target has to roll resistance again and again, and each failure makes the condition worse) and Concentration (if the target does successfully resist the effect, as long as Femme Fatale is concentrating on them, she can restart the effect with no need to touch them again). The two most important, though, are Subtle and Insidious. Subtle makes it so the target does not realize that he or she is being attacked, which makes sense – brushing someone in a crowd is generally not perceived as a form of attack. Insidious has an even more devious effect – the target doesn’t realize they are hurt until that hurt drastically interferes with their actions. Femme Fatale’s touch drains your life away – until you’re collapsed on the floor dying, you don’t know it’s happening. This makes deaths from her effect very surprising and allows her to get away from the scene before they take place. For players, this means that during the fight, they may not know how weak they really are until their Stamina is so low that the character is dying.
HAFTA Team Three – Mutants and Masterminds
The Story Part
“What the heck does HAFTA mean?” Well, in one M&M campaign I led, I co-ran the game with the help of one of my friends. The two of us worked together to conceive a world where superheroes trained at a university, and these heroes-in-training were assigned missions where they would go out into the world to stop real villains in order to get class credit. These missions were called HAFTA missions, both an acronym for Happy Action Fun Time Adventures, and a way to emphasize that the missions were mandatory – you “hafta” go on them (I wish one of us had thought of this, but sadly the reward for thinking of HAFTA goes to some random camp counselor I had as a kid). Anyway, HAFTA Teams are the groups of students who work together on these missions.
Our players were HAFTA Team Four, out of four total. HAFTA One and Two were what we jokingly called HAFTA JV – they went on easy, goofy missions because they weren’t very good superheroes. Now HAFTA Three, on the other hand, were just as capable as the players. They competed with the players for many jobs and whenever there was a test, it was HAFTA Three the players had to overcome.
My co-GM and I really wanted to emphasize the rivalry with this group. We wanted them to seem like real people, so we painstakingly went through and each designed multiple characters for the team – each one a character we would be willing to play as in a real campaign. We took our time, we became fans of these rival characters, and we made them with interesting abilities that weren’t just quick cop-outs thrown together to make some villains. Finally, we made them equally as powerful as the players, even giving them the EXACT same Power Point total. The only difference between HAFTA Three and the players was that HAFTA Three would be controlled by one person – the GM – whereas HAFTA Four would always be a group of many players.
This made HAFTA Three appear to be more powerful and competent because their teamwork could be more fast and efficient – mechanically, they were all played by one person. I could organize them and have them work together with an efficiency that seemed unrealistic because in reality, every plan and every team action was my idea. Additionally, I knew the rules and loopholes of the game backward and forward, and I could utilize the mechanics to their fullest so that HAFTA Three seemed more powerful because they were using efficient strategies.
The way it worked out was that in their first encounter with HAFTA Three, the players lost. It was a tough battle where the rival team proved superior, and it had the desired effect – HAFTA Three legitimately became their rivals, and beating this other group of students became just as important as beating any real villains in the campaign. The players were emotionally invested in defeating this group, and the next time they met, there was no mercy. The players ultimately learned teamwork and learned how to play their characters more effectively because of HAFTA Three, and the rivalry became a really fun story arc throughout the campaign.
The Mechanical Part
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about what the HAFTA Three from my campaign looked like. What’s important is the concept that drove them. The first thing you need to do when designing a rival team like this is to make every character the way you would make a player character for yourself. Develop a backstory, decide what the character’s family life is like, give them abilities that you as a player would really want to use and experiment with. Then, learn those abilities. Give the rulebook a hard look and find every possible combo you could use to make each character fight their very best. Once you know these combos, all you have to do is use them in battle and watch as your players have a very balanced but also very difficult struggle against characters that are literally on the same Power Level.
Arcane Guild – Dungeon World
The Story Part
When designing settlements in Dungeon World, you’re encouraged to populate those settlements with different guilds. Now my current Dungeon World campaign is actually a post-apocalypse, and the idea of guilds didn’t exactly fit my original vision. However, I went along with it to make the world more detailed and interesting, and the presence of guilds is something my players latched on to and really wanted to get involved with. In particular, they got tangled up in a fight between two alliances – the Thieves’ Guild and the Merry Men (a mercenary guild inspired by the tales of Robin Hood) versus the Arcane Guild and the Templars (a religious guild).
The players ended up making an alliance with the Thieves’ Guild and journeyed to the home of the Arcane Guild in order to fight them. Now just before arriving, many players in the group accumulated some new powers. Wanting to flex his new abilities a little bit, one player decided to attack the gate guards in the Arcane city. His actions drew the attention of the Guild and got him thrown into a parallel dimension, where he and a friend were nearly eaten by Hellhounds. The remaining players managed to save them, but at a price – if any party member ever came to the Arcane City again, someone of great importance to them would die.
The players intended to stay away, until a war started brewing. You see, back in the beginning of their adventure, the players promised to stop a petty thief and sorcerer from terrorizing a small village. Instead, they left the village before finishing their quest, allowing that thief to grow in power and become a tyrant in command of all the small villages in the southern part of the country. This meddler led his ragtag army against the Arcane Guild, and to prevent the deaths of hundreds of innocent villagers, the players returned. They went into battle with the intention of stopping the thief, but instead caused chaos.
You see, they managed to take away the thief’s power to command the villagers with magic – which made their entire army disband while also drawing the Arcane Guild’s attention directly to the players. With no army to keep the Arcane Guild distracted, they were able to put all of their focus and pour all of their magical wrath onto the party. The resulting bloodbath forced two party members to take their last breath – one actually died – and the other two were beaten within an inch of their lives before escaping. But while the players managed to escape temporarily, magicians can find their prey anywhere on the globe. Through scrying, they hunted the players and then cast a powerful spell to fling them once again into the labyrinth in a parallel dimension.
Needless to say, the players are more than ready to pay back the Arcane Guild for everything they’ve done.
The Mechanical Part
So what made my Arcane Guild so strong? Well, I wanted to design an enemy whose greatest strength wasn’t direct combat. After all, my players might have wanted to fight the Templars first, and the order of knights would definitely be expert warriors. So the Arcane Guild was intended to be more crafty, dangerous but in a totally different way.
A few moves made this possible. The Archmage – the leader of the Guild – has the following monster move: learn unknowable secrets about them. This represents her ability to detect the players from a vast distance and to learn about their powers through this detection. The standard mages in the Guild have a similar monster move: spy on them through scrying. Once the Guild knows about the party, they can find them and know their actions.
This is when they get really dangerous. Both the archmage and her servants have this monster move: cast spells of incredible reach and scope. When the players represent a huge threat to the Guild, the magicians can hide safely in their tower and fling powerful spells at an enemy miles away. This is what allowed them to literally immolate a player character during the battle outside of the city, and what also allowed them to fling the players into a parallel dimension, perhaps never to return.
As far as stats, these characters have tags such as Organized (they’ll rely on each other for help), Intelligent (they’re as smart as humans – because they are humans), Devious (they’re sneaky and have dangerous abilities beyond just inflicting heavy damage), Cautious (they’ll go on the defensive when needed and always make decisions based on their survival), and Magical (duh).
For the standard mages, I recommend them to be the Group type, fought in sets of five with 6 HP and 1d8 damage. They aren’t that dangerous in combat, because combat isn’t their main purpose. An important ability for them is this monster move: counter their spells. This allows the Arcane Guild to be divided into squads – one focused on dealing damage from a distance and one focused on protecting the tower from retaliation. This represents their Organized and Cautious tags.
For the leader, obviously the Solitary type. I gave her 20 HP (the base 12, +4 for uncanny endurance, +4 for repeated tags such as Magical and Devious). Her damage is the best of 2d10+2, which means you roll d10+2 twice and keep the highest one. This is respectable damage on its own, but remember, the mages are Organized. They fight as a group, and this means that the archmage can be the main spellcaster and get support from her other mages. A group of helpers adding their power to her spells raises her damage to b[2d10+7], a very dangerous proposition for any character. The Arcane Guild’s long range tactics make them a fearsome enemy, one that the players will have to face with care and cunning.
I hope you enjoyed these ideas and, if you’re a tabletop player yourself, that you may want to use them sometime. If you weren’t interested in the mechanical aspects of the game, I hope you still enjoyed reading about these villains and their capabilities. As the month goes on, I’ll be treating my readers to even more homebrew content including monsters, magical items, and even classes I’ve designed. So if you’re a big tabletop fan, be sure to stay tuned throughout the month for more Homebrew Helper!