Know your enemy —
making better fantasy foes

March 15, 2018 at 4:43 pm

“Balk the enemy’s power; force him to reveal himself.”

— Sun Tzu

 

There is no shortage of advice when it comes to creating villains for your fantasy campaigns like how to make them more memorable, believable, and worthy adversaries for your heroes. But what about their hordes of minions? The faceless multitudes that the PCs must fight there way through before even getting a chance to face the Big Bad.

For every Sauron, there are thousands of orcs swarming over the land. And in between the Night King and a ragtag band of rangers stood numberless white walkers and their whites. What makes these creatures interesting? And how can they be a recurring element to your campaigns? What we can do to add depth and interest to these unsung cornerstones of heroic fantasy.

 

By the numbers

Every fantasy gaming system has a wide variety of monstrous races and other horrors to throw at player characters, but which ones make good ‘forces of evil’. One of the hallmarks of these minion races is that they are numerous, so any individual creature should not be overwhelmingly powerful. It should be strong enough to carry off small livestock or threaten someone’s life, but to get a lot of use out of the race requires them to be somewhat expendable.

They should also be flexible. If the enemy turns to stone in sunlight, or cannot leave its forest, its use as shock troops is limited. This is about more than creating an encounter, but a pillar enemy for your campaign world. And for that they should also be distinct, with some aspect that ties them together and ties them thematically to the greater goals of your storylines.

 

Four key questions

What if you want to create your own enemy race to menace your players and pillage the countrysides of your game world. First, you need to ask yourself a few key questions.

What do they look like? Not really a mechanical question for a game, but critical to how you tell the story. Are they humanoid? Do they resemble other races? Do they have distinctive features like horns, tails, or forked tongues? Some of these answers will have mechanical ramifications, and others might just be descriptive. Do they use tools and weapons like the common races, or do they treasure the same things? This could affect combats, and definitely affect what victorious PCs loot from their enemies.

Looks might also reveal things about their origins or affiliations. The drow must have shared ancestry with the forest-dwelling elves at some point. Or a race of dog-faced humanoids might have some mystical connection with mundane dogs. Pallor-faced creatures with deep sunken eyes might be related to the undead, or just aspiring to that condition.

Where are they found? This, too, adds more than just help in encounter planning. If your amphibious squid men slink back to their reefy redoubts after each raid, what does that say about them. Or if they roam seemingly at random, does that say something else? If your enemy race are the minions of a major villain, are they tied to their base of operations? Sauron’s orcs were headquartered in Mordor, but Saruman created his own for Isengard. Multiple groups or factions among them can add detail and interest to forces of evil.

What do they do? This is where things can start to get tricky. Evil stuff of course, right? But that is very broad range of activities. Are they merely enforcers of their master’s will? Or do they have ambitions and motivations or their own. Do they rob others of resources, or do they inflict damage as its own end. A zombie apocalypse is just about eating brains, but an infestation of doppelgängers has very different tactics.

And, on a more mechanical level, exactly how do they do the things they do? A tribe of orcs will do it with axes and force, but wily kobolds might set traps and undermine a community’s structure. For good or ill, a large part of most RPG campaigns is combat-focused. So having combat with your enemy of choice should be distinct.

The example that keeps coming to mind is the AD&D drow originally presented in the Descent into the Depths of the Earth modules. While they seem to be designed strictly to oppose PC power (magic items that disintegrate after looting, really??), they were distinctive, memorable and a lasting edition to the RPG landscape. Those drow had many distinctive powers and tools (hand crossbows!), that have challenged adventurers for decades.

Why do they do it? On some level, this is can of worms. But to avoid the whole ‘what is evil’ debate, and focus on what makes an enemy interesting and fun, understanding motivation is important. Mindless destruction, like a zombie apocalypse counts as a motivation, counts as a motivation. As does the hard-wired morality of demons and other netherworld denizens.

Here are a few more for your consideration:

  • Alien. Perhaps not even malevolent, but their motivations are unfathomable.
  • Commanded. Their leaders were ordering their actions, regardless of their own desires.
  • Insanity. Similar to alien, their motivations are based on a delusion or compulsion.
  • Mindless. Their actions are animalistic or basic needs driven.
  • Religion. Their beliefs demand they act in a corrupt or destructive manner
  • Resources. Their homeland lacks things they desire or need
  • Revenge. Driven by a real or perceived injury, they seek to punish others.

These are just few examples. For good or ill, the rationale for evil is very broad.

 

HEXercise: Making enemies

To put these ideas into practice, we are going to create an enemy race to use our in-house campaign setting for Heroic Expeditions. We call them the Sinder.

What do they look like? The Sinder are humanoids, slightly shorter and thicker than humans. Their arms are longer than ours, and they use them to assist running across broken ground. Their broad, flat faces are marked with ritual scarring. The most notable feature is that the Singer cover themselves in ashes, giving them an unworldly appearance. Their clothing and equipment are scavenged or roughly made, accentuating their primitive appearance.

Where are they found? It is rumored that the Sinder were ‘born’ in a volcanic range west of Ikara, but no civilized man has tried to seek out this birthplace. They can be found in the forested wilderlands west of Mesus and range all the way to the Bitter Sea. These rapacious creatures are nomadic, and constantly search for new areas to terrorize. As nomads, they adapt to the environment around them and stay until they exhaust the local resources or are driven off.

What do they do? In short, they destroy. The Sinder revere fire and love nothing more than seeing things consumed by it. They have very little in the form of culture or production, and what they do produce is made by slaves that they work to death or feed to the fire. They favor large, brutal weapons, preferably flails, and have developed cruel variations on the form.

Sinder warriors are reckless and proud, and do not employ complex tactics. The slave-catching Harook (see below) will work together to corral and immobilize potential workers.

Why do they do it? The Sinder believe that they have been chosen by their patron god Moar (the Living Flame) to scour and destroy everything that lives on this unworthy flawed world. When they have burned it clean, Moar will take his place in the center of the Heavens and create a new world for the Sinder to rule. Until then, his thirst for sacrifice is great and they must constantly appease it.

New Monster: Sinder
Common natural humanoid (1 space)
Encounter Group 2d
ST 14
DX 10
IQ 6
MA:  5
AD:   2 (rough hides)
Damage:   By weapon (commonly morningstar, 2d+1)

Harook are the slave-masters of the Sinder. They are slithers (ST13) and quicker (DX12) than average, and are more likely to speak additional languages. They wield two-handed flails with barbed hooks on the end )also called Harooks) they use to entangle and bring down their captives.

Hurn are the shock troops of the Sinder, known for their immense strength (ST16) and the flaming pitch-filled flails they wield. Hurn are prone to fits of ecstatic destruction, and will often spend as much effort destroying objects and buildings as they do on their foes.

Pyrophants are the ‘chosen’ of Moar and have been given the divine gift of fire. Usually horribly scarred and burned, the Pyrophants have ST10 (SA14), and DX 9. They are Adepts with an IQ8+1d and can only cast fire spells. Their Staff is flaming, and will do an additional 1d fire damage on critical hits. Those rare few who are capable of casting Fireproofing delight in immersing themselves in fire.

New Specialty Melee Weapons

[su_table]

Weapon Damage ST Cost Enc Notes
Harook 1d+1 12 $120 2 Can use Entangle special attack
Hurn 2d 14 $200 3 +1d fire damage, Critical failure does fire damage to self

[/su_table]