I was reading an article the other day about the emotional investment of Dungeon Masters when it comes to their villains and ultimately being more important to be a fan of the characters, it’s great and you should check it out.
What I want to talk about is the fine balance to be struck here for DMs and how it is imperative for the quality of the overall experience. The advice that we should ultimately be fans of the player characters is very important because as much as we like to joke the people sitting at our tables are not our enemies.
They’re the heroes of the story.
Our goal is not to wring every inch of life out of them until they quit, as much fun as that seems sometimes, but rather we are there to facilitate the telling of great stories and the performance of amazing feats. In the pursuit of this I think it is important to remember that your villains and the challenges they present are the springboards off of which all of that happens.
One of the best overall criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the lackluster quality of their villains versus the overwhelmingly fantastic depiction of their heroes. Villains I think are often forgotten as the other half of a great story, they are the catalysts that drive our heroes on the journey to… anywhere, really. Whether it is a single BBEG, a shadow cabal of malevolent figures or just a roaming band of orc marauders the villains help shape the core identities of our heroes. When it comes to the MCU the best movies over the past ten years have undoubtedly been the ones with the best villains because they are the other half the necessary equation. Exposition is nice to tie the mechanics of a world together but conflict and tension is what drives our interest in continuing the story.
To pair it with an unnecessary analogy, any number multiplied by zero, is still zero thus any hero without a villain is not really a hero or more accurately is just an above average person. Naturally heroes are not defined only by felling demons, slaying dragons or massacring orcs but it is certainly one of their central pillars, and a damn bit of fun to boot.
So what does this have to do regarding the downsides of too much emotional investment in our villains? Well, I think that a certain level of investment is required to design and field villains who feel dynamic, important and become true obstacles for our parties to overcome in their travels. If our villains, especially minor ones, are only paper tigers for the party to shred like the occasional pinata then the victories themselves will wear thin. These moments are supposed to be meaningful, tense and whether or not they go the way you intended for them to is not the point, it’s that our investment equals investment by the player.
I believe the name of the real enemy here is: Attachment.
The time and emotion we invest in the design of our game from the world map, dungeons, towns, individual NPCs and villains directly correlates to the investment of our players. The key to all of this is that as DMs its hard to not become attached to things that we have placed that much effort into because their ultimate destiny is to fail and die in the face of our players. Many of us, including me, know from personal experience how hard it can be to see your players overcome a villain you put a lot of effort into characterizing and building up through a game. These moments can be more painful still if the fight ends up going much easier than you planned because you missed a small detail or the party just managed to see an angle you didn’t. In those moments it’s hard to remember that this was always the intended outcome albeit by a different path and that the exhilaration they feel is actually validation of a job well done by you.
Just remember to take a deep breath if you hear, “That was easier than we thought.” and know that sometimes our players don’t understand that words can hurt. But never forget that you can always remind of those words later on in the campaign.
Evil only thrives if good DMs do nothing.
Anyways, back on topic–
Something I was taught by my father many years ago I think would help additionally illustrate my point, while the concept wasn’t invented by him it was certainly helpful to hear.
“You only get out what you put in.“
This is the idea behind the need for our investment in every aspect of the games we run, in addition to being what we get out of our game our investment also equals what the players get out of it. While we may never see this elaborate battle mat, puzzle or enemy again after this one session the importance is that our investment in that single experience pays dividends for our players.
It is important for us to revel in their victories while understanding that it wasn’t at the expense of our investment but rather because of it. A lot of the ins and outs of DMing come from knowing yourself, your strengths and failings so you can design around them. For me even after all these years I still get attached to the NPCs I create and I really hate to see them go so it can be a struggle but I can’t say that I will ever stop investing the time to make them memorable because I see the value of it in my players reactions.
At the end of the day there are very few if any right or wrong ways to run your game except the one that works best for you. Hopefully this helped open up another possible avenue to take, until next time thank you for reading.