Image: Despair by Kurocy, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0
We continue our series on how to make a great antagonist. Last time, we dealt with Love, this week we delve into Fear. At first glance, it is easier to be feared than loved, and Machiavelli would certainly agree with us. But that does not mean it does not deserve to be done right. Let us resume our work with our antagonist, Lady X.
Note: there are many examples in our world of how to use fear and love to your advantage, but I do not plan to reference any of those — even if some examples might ring a bell. I prefer to keep this article anchored in fiction. For, reality is stranger than fiction, and in this case, so much worse.
Spread the Fear
To spread fear, Lady X just needs to sow its seed, water it with a tad of blood, then let humanoid nature work its course.
At this point, she has enough power to enact the next step of her plans. Lady X arrived to that position through hard work, possibly deception and violence, as well as the tactics I am writing about, just on a smaller scale. There is no need, really, to write Lady’s X back-story down to its minute details; no one has trouble believing that the baroness, the royal sorceress or a dragon want to seize more power, and is up to no good. Now for the original crime itself, let us introduce some classics.
Lady X has already attained her goals of power, the people just didn’t know it. She launched a covert ops against her enemies, slashing their throats in the night. Maybe she invited friendly rivals to a banquet where she poisoned them, closed the door of the banquet room, and had her guards massacre them. Or she launched a small army against a group of people, defenseless or not, and spared no one (but two or three witnesses, otherwise how would people know it was you?). Overwhelming force might seem crude, but Lady X knows what tool to use in which situation.
The hostile takeover
Lady X has the necessary pawns to seize power, and she played the chessboard so well that the enemy king had no choice but to surrender. She fabricated a claim to the duchy and convinced the other nobles to deposit her target. She bribed or convinced the royal guard to turn against the king. Or she turned the people into an angry mob, pointing to the bandits, food shortages, diseases and the return of the wraiths, all signs of how the king was unfit to rule. I do not have to say who is responsible for this climate of fear, do I?
The unholy act
Certain things are so unholy they can only be the work of a Great Evil, and in the fantasy genre, people never tolerate those. Nobles war with each other all the time ; the natural state of relations between countries is war, and there is nothing unusual about it. But if you hear about a cambion who seized power from an archdevil, you know that cambion is a serious threat.
Lady X could have fed the bones of Saint Anton to a barghest, turned children into vampire spawns, or she sacrificed her best friend to obtain the favor of Demogorgon. No matter what, it was so repulsive that all the forces of good in the vicinity, and even from beyond, rallied against her.
Nurture the fear
The initial strike is not enough. Like any plants, Fear needs to be watered regularly to not perish.
In the Prince, Machiavelli mentions that it is better to take his family from a man than his wealth, for that way he still has things to lose. This may sound strange and intuitively wrong to us, for popular fiction and reality is filled with stories of vengeance. But the ruling class in the time of Machiavelli operated on a more cold calculated level. If not, another ruler, another guild leader, would take advantage of their anger.
However, you do not have to resort to any intrigues. Even if the ruler is prone to anger, a pack of nerves and muscles, they understand the game of ransom well enough. In the medieval world, it was somewhat common to keep hostages when negotiating peace treaties, and to ransom prisoners after victories. Your world is likely not different.
Lady X has certainly made a few prisoners through her plans of conquest, especially heirs and lovers. Whether she put them under house arrest in comfortable villas, throw them in the oubliettes or disappear them in the chilling unknown, their relatives would think twice before attacking her.
Here, Magic is also a powerful tool. Geas, Flesh to Stone or maybe a magical item to mind control them, there is no limit, really.
If Lady X quenches weeds, then nothing can threaten her bloody rose. Forbid gathering of too many people; control gambling, prostitution and drinking; throw any disloyal casters in jail and claim unregistered (and registered) magical items for the crown. Of course, Lady X needs to know what happens in her realm. Knowledge is power. Besides an efficient secret police and loyal spies —why that is, that is up to you — she has casters of her own working for her.
All information spells can reduce the mowing to a simple chore. Scrying, Locate Creature, Divination, Contact Other Plane, Commune, Locate Object, Arcane Eye. Few secret bases can remain undiscovered, and no rebels on the run can truly hide. What about spells like Zone of Truth, Charm Person, Dominate Person and Suggestion or Mass Suggestion? Think of all the possibilities!
Meanwhile, Lady X herself is protected against most common types of magic through simple spells like Non Detection, and more elaborate wards. Gold and gems are the sinews of war.
If Lady X is efficient at her job and keep the peace, then the people are more likely to accept her tyranny. This can evolve to the point that the people love Lady X; certain countries crave strong rulers. Even an infernal cult, a necromancer or a dark fey could earn the support of the populace as long as they play it nicely. She might give miners workers’ rights, distribute food and pastries, hand out swath of lands from your conquest, maybe even slaves. Those are but a few of the ways to make the empire’s citizens adhere to her rule.
Without popular support, rebellions and coups become impossible. Sure, they hanged Cousin Bermy because his old drunken ass made an unflattering comparison between Lady X’s nose and a carrot. But the kingdom is safe. Murder is unheard-of in the capital, people can take the road without fear, and the nearby black dragon has turned his attention towards other countries. Why that is so, that is an interesting story you can tell.
Power is meant to be abused
And at the same time, to keep a bit of fear in the people, it is better if the law is a bit arbitrary some times. The local baron was just jailed and tortured. The crimson knights just rounded up all the lads of age twenty and below in the village, and sent them to the mines. Lady X’s guards just beat to death the baker, after she protested loudly the death of her dog (at the hands of the same guards). We can rationalize all of those, but what if Lady X gave those orders on a whim?
“…For that matter, men are perhaps indifferent to power…. What fascinates them in this idea, you see, is not real power, it’s the illusion of being able to do exactly as they please. The king’s power is the power to govern, isn’t it? But man has no urge to govern–he has an urge to compel, as you said. To be more than a man, in a world of men. To escape man’s fate, I was saying. Not powerful–all-powerful. The visionary disease, of which the will to power is only the intellectual justification, is the will to god-head–every man dreams of being god.”— Malraux, Man’s Fate
If Lady X is smart, then her opponents will try to justify her seemingly random decisions with elaborate plots. Just as planned. Keep them guessing. Make them compete for the right to lick Lady’s X boots. In truth, as we already touched with the image of the strong ruler, the best ally of a bloody tyrant is the people.
The banality of Evil
As they say, the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for folks to do nothing.
People like to live. When survival is at stake, then limits are tested and goodwill becomes the virtue of the fools. Folks will spy on their neighbors, close their eyes to the baker’s beating, ignore the disappearance of the smith’s eldest daughter, and send anonymous letters to denounce crimes, imaginary or not. That building where people are dragged, flayed alive and turned into undead? Well, what can you do. Yes, the screams disturb my sleep, but I need to feed my children, and me dead won’t help with that at all. Then sprinkle all of that with the black market, theft and gangs, human smuggling and slavery, etc.
People are the villains of their own story. Necessity can rationalize anything, sometimes understandably. They either feel the bad times will pass. And if they don’t, then there is no point. Both attitudes lead to apathy and the feeling of powerlessness.
Not only are people feeling they must do what they must, they also feel justified. In the end, we witness an inversion of the values. Hospitality, friendship and love are risks. Better be wary, keep to yourself. Whereas the group used to care for the individual, now the individual fear the group. Job well done, Lady X.
The theater of constant chaos, what is reality?
This is topnotch tech, and you can’t likely use it in a game, as it is too difficult to show. Nonetheless, I shall mention it for the sake of completeness. If Lady X sponsor her opponents and jail them at the same time, if her public criers announce news and fake news along, then there is no reality anymore. Just a big theater of chaos, a senseless soup that the players might not want to swallow.
Fearsome allies, servants…and others
Lady X might seek complete domination or destruction of the world, but more often than not, any enterprise of such a large scope requires a lot of help (or the Wand of Orcus). Since Lady X’s allies and servants reflect on her as much as her enemies, it is yet another occasion to show her prowess.
The league of Evil
Villains like to band together to fight the heroes. A necromancer finds a natural ally in the cult of Orcus as they both wish for undeath. The Human bandit’s kingdom to the north and the Bugbears tribes to the south have both a mutual interest in the conquest of the Orcish empire between them, whether they split it or fight for it later. If Lady X allies herself with a black dragon, that seems to put her on an equal footing with it. And now defeating her got significantly harder.
Another way to use Fear as a tool is to have servants of Lady X wield it without any compromise. While she keeps her distance from the boring and common affairs of the crown, her champion goes around, executing people, crushing the party multiple times, and taking the head of a golden dragon. If he can do that, then what terrifying powers must Lady X be able to wield!
Last, don’t forget about minions, especially the mindless one. You cannot get through to an army of zombies or constructs. It is very much like a moving wall armed with teeth.
Fighting the wrong fight
Power is being able to compel others to do your bidding. Just like many overlords before her, Lady X wants to force her foes to kneel. Better, she wants to put them to work, doing the very things for which they fight her. And it works. When she scolds them, they pledge their loyalty anew; when she praises them, they redouble their efforts. They stab their old mentor, they turn their back on their people, they destroy the Moonsword. They have little choice, for often Lady X holds something they love very much, such as a child, a lover, a village, a relic, etc. Their goals are to stay alive, or get close enough to slay her.
Sometimes, it is simply because Lady X power is so grand that surrender or death are the only choices. The Lizard folks’ Republic knew that too well. They also wanted to be sure their eggs do not end in the plate of Lady X’s personal mount, the black dragon Thaxll’ssillyia. Hence, they pledged their allegiance to the Empire.
The unspoken often has more power, more sway on our hearts than the spoken word. Under a cruel tyranny, telling the truth is revolutionary. But certain things are simply too difficult to share. The grief of a parent burying their child executed for spitting on the guard’s captain. Starvation and the cannibalism that came with it. A soldier violated in front of his loved ones, that then he could not protect.
I am of the opinion that you should rarely, if ever, show acts of extreme violence. It is better to show the aftermath, to imply them, and use the black cut. And of course, the group need to be on the same page for that kind of content.
Through simple descriptions, you can already evoke a violent and extreme atmosphere, without having to replay the scene.
When their friend the dwarven crusader Lothar Sunbeard was taken from them, the group had no clue where to find him. They suspected Lady X, but her kingdom was vast, her stronghold secure, and frankly, she was beyond their abilities. And then they gleaned rumors of an upcoming execution in the capital.
They planned a great rescue. They bought scrolls, made potions, prepared three ways to retreat and even made room for a diversion. But on the fated day, when they saw Lothar on the scaffold, they almost lost all composure. He was naked, tied on his back to a wooden horse, his arms painfully stretched with iron chains attached to the ground. He could not see what went around, and could only hear the vicious mockeries of the people. Pebbles bruised his flesh while darts pierced his skin. And the smell of the rotten fruits they threw at him.
Worse, he was not unmolested when he arrived there. The bloody marks of a thorny whip could be seen all over his body, his left eye would not open and his beard and hair had been shaved. Aloric’s voice started to break while Lathimba fists whitened in a raging sorrow. Thankfully, their leader Hamal calmed them down by humming “No such thing as stale bread”, Lothar’s favorite song. The plan did not go as planned, for no plan survive encounters with the party, but they rescued Sunbeard, and everyone came back home safe.
You can also make them smell the fear. As they try to knock on doors to get information, describe the hurried tones of the people answering (who don’t even dare open their door), or the silence of a house lit with a firewood. Explain how a beggar throw himself to the feet of a merchant’s daughter after their reckless carriage ran him down. Show how a proud Dragonborn bend the neck when her victors parade in the streets of her home.
A glimpse into the victim’s soul.
A character is only as good as how interesting or alive its psychology is. Victims are no exception.
Have them break down in tears. Be silent, with a vacant stare. Repeat the same word over and over, one that is senseless, while they are deaf to any questions. Tell of how their relatives are steaming with anger, ready to assault a whole castle. Show their black eye bags and their slowness, as they can not sleep since a week.
The good news is that, unlike reality, most of those ailments can go away simply by waving a magic wand (albeit a powerful one). Here you go, take some greater restoration or heal. At least, the hope exists for adventurers. The bad news is that villains also have access to magic.
There are plenty of spells to do outright villainous things. In the Player’s Handbook and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, look for spells that create nightmarish illusions, necromancy that torment the soul (such as the terrifying Soul Cage in XGE). Think of how many people a fireball can kill in a packed tavern. And then there is the Enchantment school.
Things get very simple if your foe suddenly becomes your friend.
Spells such a Charm person make your victim friendly to you. If they are unlikely to reveal you top secret information — for they would not reveal that to an acquaintance — they can still give up a few crucial details. Dominate Person take it even further, as there is simply no option for the victim to resist. Suggestion, a mere 2nd level spell, could if applied liberally, simply break any opposition. You are in danger, you must retreat to your safe-house. The holy lance of Nimbus is in danger, hide it somewhere else. And what about Mass Suggestion? A non-concentration spells whose upcast can extend its duration considerably, up to one year.
There are more twisted scenarios, such as the use of Geas. Although this one is no threat for a Player’s Character, remember that a key NPC could have low hit points. Or as the DM you have the power to use an altered version of that spell. Modify Memory take it even further, where you can brainwash a few key opponents and turn them into ticking bombs.
By the way, I would recommend that as DM, you ponder carefully the ethics implication of Enchantment spells. It is easy enough to decide if you see reanimating the dead as desecration or recycling, but the line becomes more blurry when it comes to take away the will of a creature.
Healing as a weapon
But the true terror comes from some holy spells and defensive spells.
I must say, a disconcerting amount of players are perfectly fine with torturing prisoners or enemies, even when it contradicts their characters morals. Hence, I am hesitant to share a few tips destined for antagonists, but that unaware players could use. Ah, but the sacrifices I must do.
Zone of Truth.
Torture is an inefficient method of getting the truth or information of someone; relating to them works better. Torture is a tool to dehumanize the enemy, to terrorize them. But what if the victim can’t lie because of magic? Then things might take a turn for the dark. Remember however that Zone of Truth has multiple limits that the brave could exploit.
If the prisoner is wounded multiple times, extend the session with a bit of healing magic. I recommend that you use things like madness to reflect the psychic wounds the victim suffers.
Spare the Dying.
This deserves a special mention, as it is a simple cantrip. Imagine being waterboarded for a full day, as they keep bringing you back again, and again.
Resurrection spells and Clone would not work, as they require the soul to be free and willing to return. At least a bit of hope for our poor prisoners.
See you next week!
Next week, I shall continue our series, with Antagonist III : the Power of Sneak.
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