Originally posted on March 15, 2009–but the Generic Villain is still open for questions! Just leave them in the comments!
Long ago, I invited people to step up with questions for the Generic Villain. Took long enough, but we’ve finally got a request.
Reader Brickwall, on behalf of Vamaldes, dragon god ascendant, asks:
Hello, Generic Villain. I’ve been doing some research, and I need some tips on keeping protagonists on side adventures while I advance my own power (rituals take time), but without them doing that whole ‘acquiring ancient artifacts, spells, allies, and secrets’ deal that side adventures tend to do. Sadly, my organization has little in the way of henchmen besides a few mindless zealots and what creatures I can summon. What can I do to keep my plot on track?
What this is, in essence, is a sidequest creation problem, best approached by focusing on several variables involved in the sidequest: Time, difficulty, resource input, heroic interest, tangible payout, and intangible payout. Interest is increased by the forms of payout and decreased by time; difficulty’s impact on it is, well, variable. Some protagonists prefer easy sidequests, while others will attack the difficult ones just because they’re supposed to be difficult, just so they can say they did. Finding out which variety your heroes are will greatly assist with this. Needless to say, you’re going to want to maximize time, and minimize tangible payout.
The easiest way to do this is what’s known as the minigame approach. Basically, this isn’t creating a sidequest so much as a timewaster, but it can come in handy anyway. What we’re talking is small resource input, small time investment, but highly variable rate of success. It’s just short enough to fit the standard hero attention span, so it keeps their attention, and may be fun in its own right. I’ve found two particularly useful ways of using this, though there are others. One is making the game in question relatively easy to ‘win’, but with degrees of winning, leaving plenty of room for improvement; this essentially puts the protagonist in the position of playing against himself (or others) for bragging rights. Extra credit if you can get the entire group competing for a high score. Another is creating something semi-difficult, but varying the payout; they know there are a number of possible prizes, but they’re never sure what the prize for that particular game is until they’ve started. So it does give them something (important for the hero mindset, if slightly inconvenient to you), but keeps them busier than they might otherwise be trying to get it. Or you can have something that only improves slowly, and involves great risks, but will have great rewards if kept at for long enough. (This is why so many villains front casinos or temporally appropriate equivalents thereof.) Then you have something extremely difficult, but with a highly useful payout, and watch them bang their heads against the wall over and over. Not only does it slow them down, but it’s very good stress relief. The best part? It usually only takes two minions to come up with a minigame.
But that’s not going to keep them forever. So, sidequests. One thing you can do, as originally suggested by Urbane Zombie, is arrange for them to go on a wild goose chase, or into potential trouble. This has a higher time factor, and greater difficulty, but presents the possibility that they’ll ignore the hook. Fortunately, most protagonists have enough curiosity to balance this difficulty.
Another, and one I’m fond of, is creating a very long, very complex, very confusing quest for something epically useful. Imagine, for instance, rumors of an ancient ruin that can only be found by looking for hints in a certain library, then using those to find an item that would point to it, then going through a complex set of puzzles, traps, and the occasional random native creature before finally reaching the prize. Or something that requires the procurement of exceedingly rare items (though it takes a mess of work in and of itself to figure out which rare items), the capture and possible breeding of also rare creatures, maybe participation in a minigame or two while you’re at it, in hopes of working past obstacles to inaccessible points with a priceless treasure. For extra fun—only bill it as something epically useful. Imagine their surprise when they discover that all this work went into acquiring, say, a weapon perfectly suited for that one relatively low-powered assistant character who tends to stay behind due to the risks involved. (There is, of course, a minor risk that that might make said member decent on the battlefield, but…) Or, if this is a preexisting epic quest… find a way to beat them to it. I’m sure you have at least some advantage they don’t that will bypass the tedious portion of the quest. (The catch is that the Laws of Dramatics may result in them running into you as you’re leaving, and even if they don’t, if they figure out you’re the one who yoinked their promised shiny, their hatred for you will be eternal. Use this path with caution.)
The heroes’ gain of resources is in the end inevitable; if nothing else, we have the Wabali Principle to blame for that. But with these tricks, you can maximize the time it takes for them to gather those resources, making it likelier that the necessary portions of your plan are complete or at least secure by the time they get around to interfering.
Good luck with your ascendancy!