Antagonist III : the Power of Stealth

Today we examine how we can make Lady X a complete and superb villain. Last time, we looked at the Power of Love, and the Power of Fear, now is the time for the Power of Stealth. By that I mean, any subterfuge and ruse and dirty tricks Lady X can use to gain the advantage. Of course, there is some overlap with the two first articles. Particularly the first one, as all is fair in love and war.

The Dramatic Tension of Stealth

Just like for Fear, it is likely you have absorbed enough fiction to know all the tropes of Stealth. However, there is a key difference between the two. In many stories — and the kind D&D campaigns are —, there is a dramatic tension between what the reader can accept, and how far the writer can go. If the tension breaks, then either the reader accepts to suspend their disbelief, or they simply close the book. In a D&D game, in addition to this aspect, the player is actively shaping the world and the story.

In other words, your players need to accept Lady X as a worthy opponent. If she is a pushover, or the entire opposite, the god of trickery himself, then the game is unlikely to be fun. Just like Fear, Stealth rely on that dramatic tension. Yet, unlike Fear, you can’t show your hand with Stealth. It works on what the players don’t know, but also what they can’t know they don’t even know. The visible invisible and the invisible invisible.

This can become an issue if you are too enthusiastic. As you are always ahead of the players, you could be tempted to have infinite+1 plans ready for Lady X. Even if each were justified, overall it would not be fun for the players.

Cold-blooded Snake.

In The Civilizing Process, and later The Court Society, Norbert Elias explains the process that led to the rising of the cities nobles and the bourgeoisie. They valued self-control and stable relationships between themselves and amongst themselves — partly because of trade requires it, and cities concentrate wealth — while the feudal chefs of old were more prone to instability, fits, and brusque decisions, came to be obsolete. They simply made too many mistakes.

“I have to ask, sir…Why does it have to be done like this?”
Vetinari smiled. “Can you keep a secret, Mister Lipwig?”
“Oh, yes, sir. I’ve kept lots.”
“Capital. And the point is, so can I. You do not need to know.”
― Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam

Lady X’s a calm, collected person. She does not smile. She speaks with her eyebrows, and cajole and threaten people alike with the same monotonous voice. Each of her inflections feel like daggers that stab you in the spine. People sweat profusely around her. She drinks from an exotic ceramic teapot, and she sips her porcelain cup with complete satisfaction. Do not believe the rumors, Lady X is not devoid of emotions. As proof, she cuddles a purebred cat or a stinky dog she seems to truly love. And she takes no pleasure in torture, but the times, the tradition, how silly they are.

After the queen of Altaïr made a good offer for Lady X’s ivory, she storms out of the room and refuses to sit again at the negotiations table. Altaïr need it more than she needs the gold, they will fold. When the prince of Biran insults her knight, a commoner of no heritage, she demands he apologizes by kneeling. And of course he refuses, it is preposterous it says, and she is ridiculous. She jilts him. She throws her glove and defy him in duel. Little does the prince know Lady X is a master of battle. Even her fits of rage are calculated.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

The only better thing than no opposition is an incapable opposition.

Make your foolish enemies look good

If Lady X is the leader of the scorpion cult, she might not mind the boring and unpopular arch-priest of Ilmater. His temple keeps getting emptier and emptier, his crusaders consist of two drunkards, and he has no treasury. Recently, a devout peasant joined; he believes he is the chosen one, but can barely withstand the sight of blood. What is the worse that could happen? As long as the peasant doesn’t find a holy sword, as long as three other fellows join him, Lady X is safe.

Let them think they can win

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station

Lady’s X black fortress is renowned all over the world as a dreary and bleak place, and yet somewhat stylish, to the point that wannabe necromancers model their abode after it. It is also filled with riches and magic. This might be why it is often attacked by foolish adventurers who do not realize where they really set foot in. When Lady’s X cold and sleepless wraiths catch them, one of two things might happen.

  • They are only her for gold, and then she hires them, for the livings are in short supply — did you know that in the entire human history, 100 billion died?.
  • If, of all things, they were there to purge her and cleanse the land, then she might arrange for them to escape her cells. After all, they can’t be much of a threat. She then tracks them through her sneaky servants or magic, and, by lifting her little finger, squash their base with an army of skeletons.

Conspire against yourself

If Lady X deals in court intrigues, she keeps a few of the plotters close to her. Unbeknownst to them, she already has infiltrated their cell, and four or five of the nobles’ servants report to her. She also sponsors the rebellion, favoring the weak and rash leaders instead of the tactical minds. Whether it is through arrests, double agents, false evidence and possibly enchantment magic like Suggestion or Charm Person, she sows distrust and chaos amidst her opponents.

In fact, Lady X could pretend to be her own lieutenant. Once discovered, she would change sides, she could even add she had no choices. She was magically compelled, poisoned, blackmailed or had her family taken hostages, surely there is something in the list your party would buy. Or Lady X could sell her services, hence the party would pay her a great deal to hunt herself down.

Regardless, she would promise she knows enough to lead the party to the great mastermind behind the dark conspiracy. And how could she not?

Hide your motives, act openly.

It is better to hide in plain sight than stand in the darkness. Lady X can pursue her plans in the open, as long as they are not too disruptive.

“We had been waiting for this for a long time, we had planned for this day so hard it was incredible. The war chest we had assembled JUST for killing Shane was enormous, and we used it all. We hired thieves, we hired wizards, we bribed guards, we called in every divine favor we could, we even made deals with the evil doom cults that Shane might work for. The Paladin was ready to fall, the Warlock was ready to repent his sins and seek redemption, the Bard was ready to swear of women and wine, whatever the hell it took to nail this slimy bastard to the wall.”

Rest of the story.

The bloody general

She works relentlessly as a general to advance the Emperor’s prestige. The military, her men in particular, worship the ground she walks on, in spite of her cruel methods and her massacres — or maybe, because of it? When the time comes, she’ll make her move and take the throne

The rebellious princess

She is a princess that looks out for the interest of the people, feed them, fight for their rights. But the truth is, she can’t ascend to godhood without sacrificing one or two million souls. And it just happens that her jubilee shall take place at the same time as a fortuitous Eclipse, where the Void Lord shall smile upon her.

The merchant of many things

Lady X is a merchant with average wealth, but she has a finger in every pie. She is the go-to intermediary for many actors, some of them enemies with each other, because they trust her to provide neutral ground. In truth, she is bankrolled by a somewhat distant but powerful empire, and can’t wait for the mountain of gold that is to come after their takeover.

Magnificent Rational Bastard

Remember that we judge people on their actions, not their intentions — because we don’t know them. As long as Lady X’s actions are acceptable, the party has no reason to neutralize her, even if they suspect her. This works well with the previous idea, for Lady X can stick close to the party with little risks. Even if she fails to convince the group she is a trustworthy ally, she can still present herself as a political realist.

Because of modern fiction, people know that they should not trust magnificent bastards. But at the same time, they also know you can bargain with them — as long as you take your precautions. Especially when cornered, they still want to make deals. Would you like to know how to lift the curse that afflict Myrtille’s sister? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, so let’s join force against the Wyrm Firkraag! Hold on, I have a small cache of magical items in exchange for my life — and don’t think you can cross me, it’s in the ethereal plane. They start to offer deals, make sympathetic offers. Of course, some groups won’t fall for it, and shall quickly bring Lady X to justice, or to her death. Especially if it is the second time.

Antagonists have Plans, Players have Intentions

Most players are, to say the least, bad at planning — and that’s not their fault. They know what they want to achieve, but not how they want to achieve it. This either leads to a series of catastrophe that entertains all, or to the DM helping them along, hand-waving a few essential details. On the opposite end, Lady X has a plan. In fact, she has multiple plans, plans within plans, plans for when those fail, and even a last-moment plan.

“You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is it’s the only thing you’re good at. One day it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It’s part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don’t seem to have the knack.”
― Terry Pratchett, in Guards! Guards!

This is partly because of the gap between the game time and real time. If the players don’t plan outside the session, they can hardly match the DM’s efforts as they prepped the session. Even if you are the kind of DM that doesn’t take notes and do little prep time — which I recommend you aim for — the cogs of the story are still turning into your head. Running a game kind of overtakes you, to the point that the story, the campaign, takes a life of its own in your brain.

There are other things that naturally mitigate this issue. Perhaps Lady X doesn’t have time to deal with the party, she already has ten more dangerous opponents. This gives enough room to the party to surprise her, and defeat her because of her arrogance. Furthermore, Lady X might be a genius, one the world has not seen in centuries, but her subordinates can’t measure up to her. They have notes, they speak when interrogated, they are cowards, they are prone to fit of rage, they are weak to blackmail. They can be defeated. That is enough for the party to get a significant breakthrough.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again

In the likeliness that Lady X’s plans fail — because heroes always win — she could fade away. After all, the power of Stealth does not require Lady X to have large funds or numerous allies. She could fake her own death, she could be sentenced lightly after a mockery of a trial, she could flee to better return later. While the party move on, Lady X can succeed elsewhere. Now time for the rematch.

The Power of Paranoia

At some point, you might have an assassination, use poison, have a traitor appear, or similar events. Often, this creates a sudden shift of attitude at the table, the party start to mistrust and second-guess everything. They want to have contingencies, and spend a considerable amount of time of discussing their plans. They lack knowledge but still want safety. After all, if you have little information and want to plan, the only way you can do so is to plan for everything. Think of the first time you have introduced a mimic to the party — now, everything, everyone is a mimic.

That delicious loot

This is exactly what you want to happen if Stealth is one of the main pillars in your game. But if it is not, then be careful of not going overboard. You want that incident to be a unique event. It needs to be treacherous, infuriating and dishonorable, that the party immediately seek retribution. If they are already after Lady X, they want to unleash their mighty fury. If they are yet unaware of Lady X, then they go after whoever ordered the hit. In other words, hot justice is likely their answer. Better not use Lady X’s Stealth again for a while.

For more on how genre and the story interact together, you can read my article on the topic.

Stealth & Magic

There are plenty of ways for Lady X to succeed. Let us list a few involving magic.

Covertness

To run covert operations, Lady X can utilize Silence, Knock (both at the same time!), Invisibility, Greater Invisibility, and Pass Without Trace.

A word on Pass Without Trace. With its +10 bonus, this spells trivialize stealth rolls and guarantee the success of any infiltration mission. This is however a PC spell more than a NPC spell, for most of the antagonist action happen behind the screen. Hence, the DM does not need to justify why they succeeded, unless it becomes part of the game.

Space&Time

Whether it’s Dimension Door, Teleportation Circle, Teleport, or Planeshift, villains with high mobility multiply their power to act. And with a spell like Simulacrum, Lady X can even be in multiple places at the same time.

Illusion

Through Disguise Self, Seeming and similar effects, Lady X can infiltrate and meddle safely. Of course, sprinkle a bit of Nondetection and Nystul’s magic aura on top of that. Perhaps, she also has access to magic powerful enough to become someone else entirely? Such as the change shape of certain dragons and fiends.

Mind-control

Charm Person, Detect Thoughts, Geas and Modify Memory can help Lady X fit in a lot. After all, if the crusader Leopold the 3rd remembers that Lady X has always been her childhood friend, who are you to doubt her conduct? Let’s not even mention the abilities of certain monsters that can enslave or turn into thralls creatures, such as the Mindflayers or the Aboleth.

Communication

Find Familiar, Illusory Script, Sending or Telepathy, Create Homunculus are all good ways to communicate, exchange information, which is crucial for planning.

Safe-houses

Alarm, Glyph of Warding, Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum, Guards and Wards, Forbiddance, Mordenkainen’s Mansion, Demiplane, Word of Recall. Lady X need places to fall back, places the party don’t know about.

Death&Planning

With Feign Death, Lady X can try to fade away.

Magic Jar and Clone are some ways Lady X can defeat death. And if Magic Jar has serious flaws, including headaches when trying to figure out magic interactions, it is only 6th level, two whole level under Clone.

Add to Lady X’s catalog Contingency, Death Ward or Simulacrum, and only the most over-prepared party stand a chance.

Knowledge is power

Lady X requires intelligence, lots of it. She has many eyes and ears that work for her, unaware of her identity. If Stealth is a central pillar of your intrigue, you need to go all-in. You want Lady X to be in that invisible invisible part of the plot at first. You want the party to know defeat, they need to.

The one on her dress of course.
So, which one is the correct mask?

After all, she has been working hard for years. The party is not about to topple it all in two days (but a few weeks work). This is the mountain they must climb. They must overcome the stack of plans, peel off the layers of secrecy, endure the backstabbing, all to reveal the mastermind. And even if they fail at first, you can make it fun with unique encounters, great dungeons, mysterious letters, colorful characters, and so on. Defeating the villain is not the reward, the reward is how you arrive there, how hard you worked. The release shall be all the sweeter, when at last they triumph over that ten-thousand years old lich. Your party will be thankful that you tested their mettle.

Sleeping cells

When each cell of the network know nothing of each other, then dismantling the network proves to be almost impossible. If they each get their order once, act autonomously, if they cannot report back, then there is nothing to uncover here. Still, there might be slip-ups, connections to be made that show the guiding hand behind the planning. Why do so many of those cells contain ex-sailors for instance?

Divide and conquer

It’s possible Lady X controls organization working against each other. Here is an example in nonfiction: there are more than seventeen spying agencies in the U.S.A., and they have clashed against each other many times, sometimes violently.

You won’t take me alive

Lady X’s men are never caught alive; they are either loyal to a fault, or they know that the party can’t ever match the pain, the hopeless fate, Lady X has in store for them. Maybe their souls are forfeit, in her hands, ready to be eaten and forever disappeared. Keep in mind that in a world with an afterlife, this is the worse sentence one can meet.

Because D&D has Speak with the Dead, her most important servants have an empty tooth, not one with poison mind you, but an alchemical contraption strong enough to blow their jaws. Otherwise, they might have a magic rune on their back that can become a one-feet poisonous centipede. It shall enter their mouth and ravage their body from the inside.

The less important spies don’t know enough to reveal anything of note by themselves. But as the clues start to pile up, the party should be able to move forward.

Beware, that poison doesn’t poison your game

The issue however with secret organizations is that they often have assassins. And an unaware party can’t protect themselves from assassins with powerful poisons. Just look at those terrors in the DMG, such as the Carrion Crawl or Purple Worm poison! Hence, you need to escalate in two times, as we discussed before. Then, the party can protect themselves with a bit of planning, and the game becomes fair again. If an assassin slips up past their defenses, they know they failed and deserve the punishment.

Love can take so many forms.
Marcesa, the black rose. Notice how only one of them is smiling.

At some point, the party might get access to revivify or similar effects. This allows you to push things a bit further with the sneaky dirty moves, send more assassins after them — not minions, assassins. If you do not want to go down that road, there are other ways to sell the lack of hostility. Perhaps the organization is going through internal turmoil, the party is currently under the protection of a powerful Silver Dragon, or they live behind the safety of the magically camouflage of a Firbolg village.

No matter what you do, in the end, you need to carefully maintain the tension between the visible invisible and the invisible invisible.

Next Week

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