So the other day, a friend and I were talking about villainous schemes in MMO storylines. Specifically, we were talking about why World of Warcraft’s whole thing with the Jailer as the Big Bad didn’t work out properly but the long-standing Ascian plot in Final Fantasy XIV worked out just fine. And before you say that it’s because the latter group was planning… well, that’s part of it, but the Square-Enix writers have also been clear that they didn’t know exactly what the Ascians were trying to do in full detail until later. In the first couple of expansions it was kind of a deliberate black box of “do bad things, figure out exact reasons later.”
And yet the plot works. I think there’s a lesson there that’s applicable to storytelling in general as well as to roleplaying because there’s a temptation to make the same mistake as WoW did that makes everything start falling to ashes and inspires people to poke holes in your story. And it’s such a simple mistake that you can easily forget a lot of the more iconic and memorable antagonists who always feel in control of the situation don’t fall into that stereotype.
You know the one. The “all according to plan” type.
Writers for video games especially love this plot trope. I don’t know why. The player character(s) get to a point, beat up a boss, and then the boss laughs and reveals that everything you’ve done has been a part of the plan. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but then you get to the big ultimate villain (like the Jailer) who claims that everything you’ve done has all been a part of his massive, circuitous, intricate plan.
And it never works. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but let’s start with the most obvious one: At the point when you say this, you clearly didn’t have a plan.
Good plans have a couple of steps to them. Say I want pizza, but I don’t want to make my spouse think that it’s my idea to have pizza. A good plan at that point would be to talk about pizza in our conversations, just idly mention it, plant the idea in her brain until she’s like “yeah, I kind of want pizza.” Then when she suggests it, go along with it. Successful plan!
What would not be a good plan would be suggesting some totally different food this week, then next week talk about pizza but suggest a different food all the same, continuing on to the third week in which I keep bringing up pizza while opposing it, until she finally breaks and says “yes, I want pizza now.” And that’s still a pretty straightforward plan, not supposedly a multi-year “every boss you beat was actually something I wanted you to beat for some reason.”
The longer and more elaborate your plan, the more chances there are for things to happen that you just didn’t account for, which means that for it all to have gone according to plan you’d have to either be perfectly precognitive or so astonishingly lucky that it’s absurd. And that’s usually disregarding the fact that there is almost always a simpler and much more straightforward way to accomplish the exact same goals. I’ll keep dunking on the Jailer: If you’re really trying to defend existence from a bigger bad, why did your plan hinge on making everyone team up to fight you and lose?
And I get it, I really do. You want to make your villain seem intimidating and all-encompassing and hard to fight, with plans stretching far beyond what you can stop. But therein lies why the Ascian plot worked: because the villain plan there was not actually complex. It was just broad.
There’s not enough attention or credit given to broad villain schemes, but when they’re written well, they’re far more satisfying. These are not schemes wherein Baron von Evilguy has positioned himself so that when you beat his minion; he actually wanted you to do that and now he actually is closer to completing his plans. They are schemes wherein Baron von Evilguy genuinely didn’t want you to beat his minion… but losing that minion doesn’t mean that the Baron’s schemes have all been thwarted. You just thwarted that one.
Let’s go back to the spousal analogy: A good plan would be to plant the idea of pizza but also have pizza discount coupons lying around. And watching things that feature pizza. And having a new pizza restaurant in town. And so on and so forth. Any given part of the plan might not work, but that’s all right because there are a whole lot of other approaches going at the same time.
For players who are trying to counter a villain’s schemes, this is perfect because it keeps the villain as an active threat even after defeat, but it doesn’t invalidate the defeat. Baron von Evilguy still lost. But you can only really thwart one scheme at a time, and there are a lot of schemes here! You succeeded but didn’t end the war, so to speak.
And if you’re responsible for plotting the scene, it frees you from having to create a scenario wherein everything is a careful set of cascading dominos that must make perfect sense or the whole house of cards collapses immediately. It’s all right if this defeat is actually a defeat. Heck, it lets you set up a potential scenario in which a defeat actually does suit the villain’s purposes because that’s not usually what happens and the players aren’t taught “well, this is probably best solved by sitting at home and not foiling anything.”
The appeal of having a villain who has already anticipated every move that the protagonists will make is obvious. It’s meant to make it seem as if your villain is unbeatable and unassailable. But it’s also very easy to make the villain seem silly at that point, like someone who can perfectly predict everything. Or to just write a plot in which the seven or eight dozen things that the protagonists have done supposedly feeding into this plan don’t make sense or serve a plan that could be made much simpler and more reliable.
If you want to have a good villain in a storyline, don’t go ornate and perfectly predictive. Go broad. Let your antagonists have multiple irons in the fire, and even if you don’t yet know how all of them will connect or what the ultimate goal is, it allows you to keep writing around them without coming across as silly, unplanned, or just plain ridiculous.
And keep your eyes open for villains who have plans that seem far too complicated for something that could be accomplished in a much easier fashion. Once you recognize it, you start to notice other aspects of weaker storytelling that trickle down from that. Even if you find out the ultimate plan only toward the end of a story, it should still make sense with the stuff that’s happened up until that point.
Heck, sometimes you can get away with introducing the actual antagonist midway through the second act of the story without it ever feeling like a random pull out of nowhere.