Design Notes: Finding Your Edge
Enjoy this excerpt from the companion piece to our new Ladies' Night game of villainy. We aim to create a set of exercises and examples that you can use to craft your own villainous homebrew world. This is just one snippet from chapter three, Finding Your Edge.
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A big part of revenge is finding that thing you didn’t have before. This guidance will help players define their own edge, that thing they were missing that they want now. The edge also defines the first part of any kingdom’s adventure and how characters will interact with the second part of the kingdom. Let’s break this down into:
What item, location, entity, or power does the character need?
Who or what prevent them from getting to the edge?
What must be earned or sacrificed to gain the edge?
These are not trick questions. They will come to define each kingdom and provide the guidance for preparing a session.
Ultimately, allow players to set their own stakes and introduce new challenges. As the game master, keep in mind how a simple task may be complicated and deepened. A harbormaster offers a ship for a more than reasonable sum, but it draws the ire of a krakenling whenever it hits the open ocean. When possible, these complications should be double-edge, potential weapons for the villains if they go the additional league to prepare.
When in doubt, have the players describe what to do and what they need to do. Employ the inspiration mechanic described in Chapter I to support these complications with questions like, “Who knows where to get Perrin’s Bane?”, “What do you know about infernal gates?”, and “Who has traveled the Reaper’s Pass?”
Remember, our characters are knowledgeable and powerful. They learn from their mistakes and they’re smarting from a recent big booboo. They’re not going to swagger on into trouble without a plan unless said swaggering is a ruse for an even bigger win. Here is how they aim to do that.
Before you venture into a particular kingdom, ask the host player what their character would seek to get the upper hand on their rivals. Is there a dangerous splinter faction hiding in the foothills, an artifact in an ancient woodland temple to procure, or a dam that provides clean water to the capital? What is gained by controlling, manipulating, or destroying this? Edges can be a sailing ship to lay siege to the capital or the King’s late son’s sword hidden in the crypt.
By sculpting the first leg of each kingdom around the edge, you help ensure clear progression of story and avoid meandering sidequests. Someone in the party wants something, so they are moving the party toward it. With this new edge, the whole party grows more powerful. Obtaining an edge should be enough of a challenge to increase in level, so these can become more baroque as you play. Introduce narrative twists about the edge in later acts as the remaining kingdoms become more and more aware of the villainous party. While goody-goods, they are not simple dupes.
Getting the Goods
Items that provide edge can be small, such as a powerful focus at the wizarding college, or large, like a flying ship with a crew of winged kobolds. Oftentimes, an item is the simplest edge, but its mobility makes it extraordinarily flexible. It should provide a power or capacity to the villain, and to the party, that they lacked before.
Items to consider may be ancient artifacts that give the kingdom protection that must be destroyed, a powerful weapon held by the current champion, or the alembic that is used for an elixir of invulnerability by the soldiers. Keep in mind that claiming such items isn’t always the goal. Lacing the soldiers’ elixir with a subtle poison may be more impactful than destroying the alembic itself. What poison might do the deed and how is it derived? Perhaps it is a cousin of Hera’s Thistle, used in the elixir, and could be easily confused by a novice or compromised alchemist.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Arsenia Hopberry leads the party through Three Coin Kingdom where the gnomes long ago forged a peace through industry with the surrounding kingdoms. She explains that the automaton armies will be forged using a few key molds for parts. Once inside the factory, the party can corrupt the molds with some stoneshaping, making the automatons structurally unsound. All the while her compatriots watch the path, Aresnia scribbling out notes on exactly how to slyly undermine the molds in the forested backcountry of the Three Coin Kingdom, oblivious to the threats of owlbears and giant eagles in the forested wilderness.
Baba Indrasa of the Triton kingdom of Aphros knows that King Dysseon is powerful, but he has always sat under the shadow of his grandfather, the great conqueror Cerul of the Southern Waves. Cerul, a giant among his people, once wielded a trident that parted waves and invited thunderous clouds, now buried in a barnacled sarcaphogus beneath Epterrea, the guardian city of the dead. While Epterrea presents sentinel priests and servants of Aphros, if they can claim the trident and wield it against Dysseon, his soldiers will flee in fear. Little do they know that it will take an enlarge/reduce spell to make someone a worthy wielder of Cerul’s Trident, literally making its wielder a titan!
In Arsenia’s case, it isn’t about control of something, but its skillful corruption. With the wave of automatons weakened, they will fall in droves to a frontal assault, casting fear and awe in the eyes of the Three Coin Kingdom. Arsenia may opt to return as a subtle vizier, weeding out her rivals before felling the monarch and taking the kingdom for herself. Arsenia may wish to return to her studies, removing her rivals, or imprisoning them as servants to her devilish intelligence and goals. The story is up to her, but her success at gaining the edge is essential.
Meanwhile, Baba Indrasa prefers an outward assault against the king that oversaw her exile. Baba Indrasa may herself not be the one to wield Cerul’s Trident, but her magic may transform one of them to the terrible Cerul of the Southern Waves returned in some ghastly manner or enslave a brutish sea giant to do their bidding for a climactic battle. Again, we see how the edge is a tool for an explosive act two.
Some item of great power should have high meaning to the kingdom of its origin. Be prepared to ask villainous players how they first encountered such items. Was it in story as a child? Did they come to know the item during studies or worship? Are there those they were once close to the character that now protect it? While a simple “fetch quest” may come and go, take the time to make a powerful item into a way to create backstory, explore the world of the host villain, and propel the narrative into the second act for a given kingdom.
Location, Location, Location
Locations can come to mean a great deal within a kingdom. Such places may memorialize a great peace between warring factions or provide wisdom to the rulers of the kingdom; a gem mine offers wealth to one kingdom while a dam protects and provides fresh water to another. Allow locations to tell a part of the history of the kingdom and, if a villain has spent time there before, the story of the character.
En route to a powerful location, invite villainous players to share the story of when they first were there. Ask questions like:
What did this place mean to you when you first came here?
How is the location and its history celebrated in your kingdom?
Who would be there at this time of year and why?
These questions are opportunities to grow the scope of the story. Villains can become sympathetic or they can emphasize their everlasting yearning for power and control in this memory. Without a hint of a rival or monster, these questions allow the villainous character to expand the shared story and their own experience.
Vargas Ash-Eye knows that his fellow villains will not easily depose King DeGerrous the Green. However, he can sow discord by vandalizing the Archway of Peace between the Ironscale Kingdom and the elves of Aurelea. This stone passage is bound by a lattice of the fine, enchanted silk of Aurelea which levitates the stone in a miles long tunnel surrounded by wildflowers and succulent fruiting plants in the fall. The party discusses how they might disrupt the magic, triggering its collapse, or unmoor it, sending it heavenward before crashing back to the earth, crushing the plants below. Tensions will rise, forcing DeGerrous to send soldiers to the border, leaving himself undefended.
A beautiful willow tree grows in the hidden, mist-shrouded grove beyond the Grey City. Since time immemorial it has advised the elvish lords and ladies with whispers of the Dreaming. If only Gerrard Moon can negotiate a path there, with his party in tow as well as a dozen young Arachnar warriors, then they could lay waste to the nobles of the Grey City, sending chaos rippling through his people. Cut off from the divine guidance and martial experience, the disheveled army will cave and flee to the Arachnar surfacing from their caverns and dens.
With these cases we see the history of these two kingdoms. By destroying a memorial to peace, old tensions flair. Alternatively, go to the heart of wisdom in an ancient society, take the place of meditation while spilling blood in a powerful duel, preparing a final move against those that doubted and then exiled you.
We also see a disruption in the story we’ve told so far with Gerrard Moon: Why did the ancient willow not warn the nobles of the Arachnar and verify Moon’s claims? Perhaps a great warrior, now in the Dreaming, was convinced of the Arachnar’s absolute destruction; this can reveal a lie in the histories, even of the sacred Dreaming, turning the story of the Elves of the Grey City. Alternatively, the ancient city may have been built with the collaboration of the spiderfolk, but the elves turned on them at a moment of celebration and joy, darkening the otherwise resplendent history of the Grey City.
Locations are special in that they always contain history and meaning. Places of industry tell of growth and wealth, but also of despoiling and marginalizing. Places of faith tell stories of great myths and heroes, but also of conquest, corruption, and secrecy. Places of history and civil strength wash over the rebels and outsiders who were slain or pushed to the fringe. Allow each place to breathe, expand, and show something new.