Villain Design: Cabals

Over the course of the campaigns I’ve run, my PCs have faced a whole lot of cabals of evil spellcasters. One of those campaigns was an early run of the Dust to Dust setting, and the Blackfeather Order played an important role in both the tabletop game and the LARP. As much as anything, I’m writing this to figure out what I’ve learned, and I hope it will be useful to you, my cherished readers.

Villain Design in Dust to Dust | Villain Design: Cabals

Blackfeather Order: 4e D&D

In my 4e campaign, roughly the last 20 of the campaign’s 40ish sessions were dedicated to tracking down the Blackfeather Order, infiltrating the ruined city that was the base of their power, and killing them in a series of boss fights. The cabal was made up of nine spellcasters, and since we’re talking about 4e, that didn’t mean “all wizards.” There was one soldier (swordmage-like), several controllers, and several artillery, to make sure the fights were significantly different. I could have done more there, but still.

To stop it from being a pure boss rush, I did all the things you’d normally do: I changed environments, I made the NPCs proactive against the PCs and their allies, I made the PCs earn trust from another set of NPCs just to get close to the cabal. The grandest retaliation was invoking a storm of vengeance, a city-wide environmental effect that brought down catastrophe dragons on their heads whenever they moved around in the open. Making them keep under cover, moving under the city streets, gave me more chances to throw problems in their way.

It’s one of the constant refrains of this blog, but what I needed to do was to create a channel of communication between the PCs and the cabal, so that their personalities had more of a chance to come across. I mean, magic mirror teleconferencing is a little trite at this point, but it’s hard to argue with its success as a story device. My other problem was that their goal was to be left alone and allowed to exploit the magic in the ruins of Arad-Targa; I needed for them to develop a plan of counterattack that threatened things the PCs cared about. The PCs fought them because they’d been hired, but the Order actually was evil, and I feel like I didn’t lay enough foundation there.


Blackfeather Order: Dust to Dust

It wasn’t a given that the Blackfeather Order would be a part of the LARP, but one of the players in the tabletop game played a reinterpretation of his character in the LARP. Once he wrote the Blackfeather Order and several other PCs from the D&D game (who were played by members of DtD Staff) into his character history, well, the conclusion was obvious.

The first appearance by the Blackfeather Order was, I think, the first three-day event. I played Skara, the most disposable of the whole cabal. Skara was essentially a side bet to see how many times he could show up on camera without getting murdered by the PCs. I went on to play him maybe four more times, finally getting caught by people who knew and cared about who he was, threatened extensively, and promised a messy death if he interfered again.

The PC team of the player who had been in the D&D game decided that yes, they really were going to go after the Blackfeather Order as part of their long game. They started by going after one of the Order’s lesser allies, the Scarlet Coin cabal. There was some buildup, but it was still quite early in the campaign that they raided the Scarlet Coin’s base as part of a module and killed them all. They discovered that one of the Scarlet Coin leaders was in the midst of a transformation to something called a Hollow One – the DtD term for a lich. This was a high-risk, high-reward encounter that they overwhelmed through a head-on assault. We hadn’t put nearly as much into the development of the Scarlet Coin cabal, but they had done some bad things on camera and there was a fair amount of justified animus between the PC cabal and the Scarlet Coin.

A few years go by, with the PC cabal gradually gathering information and building a base of support to fight the Blackfeather Order. Eventually this drew the Order’s attention away from their own projects, and they carried out a warning hit – they showed up late at night, murdered about half of the cabal in their beds, and left. Well, if there wasn’t justifiable animus before, there certainly was now! (But there had been before – it was all just complicated political and familial stuff that would take too long to explain.) The PCs also got warned away from tangling with the Order by NPCs they trusted – they were, unfortunately, more allied with the Order than the PCs, thanks to the power of Binding Contracts.

In the penultimate event, the PC cabal and a few more PC and NPC allies finally attack the ruined city of Arad-Targa. At this point in the campaign, statting fights for challenge verges on the impossible, because the PCs and NPCs are both so powerful within the system – but it’s a system that leans toward fragility, and tactics and luck can turn any fight into a victory or a rout. In this case, the terrain made the fight: the PCs’ line of approach was uphill and into a semicircle of casters, which is the spell-packet-range version of a killing box. It would be churlish, at this point, to play armchair general. They suffered a crushing defeat.

The heartbreaking part of this, as a game-runner, isn’t the defeat itself, but not having enough time left in the campaign to stage a second try for narrative resolution. I hope to write a resolution to it someday, but even my greatest effort won’t be the same. I don’t believe there’s a particularly useful lesson to take from this for other gaming situations. Sometimes your campaign has to end and you just go for as much narrative resolution as you can. Some threads just stay unresolved.

The weak point of our presentation was that other than Skara and the cabal leader, Erandreg, we didn’t offer a lot of personal characterization on the rest of the cabal. LARP-running involves a lot of tradeoffs and limited resources, in all things.


General Principles

What differentiates a villainous cabal from any other significant antagonist? A cabal might be anywhere from two to twenty or more, so there’s the number of faces and individual personalities. If you’re tangling with all of them at once, a group of 4-5 can match a legendary creature for action economy. But like any group, these people have their conflicts and rivalries. Lean into this, and reward interaction by giving players opportunities to drive a wedge between the cabal members. In this way, interaction can turn, say, a 8-on-4 suicidal mission into two separate 4-on-4 fair fights, or a series of 2-on-4 slaughters.

What differentiates them from any other Evil PC Team? This distinction is a lot hazier, but I think the general usage is that a cabal holds a base of power – magical, military, and social, in some combination – rather than sharing an adventuring party’s transience. I’ll go further, though, and suggest that you can add a lot to a storyline by giving an enemy cabal one or more special resources. The Blackfeather Order is an example of this: they had physical control over the ruined fortress-city of Arad-Targa, a variety of forces defending it, lichdom, and the patronage of the creator of all liches (one of the campaign’s arch-villains). The PCs called in NPC allies to counter the forces defending Arad-Targa. Between PC cabal members and their PC allies, they carried two artifact weapons that they were on reasonably good terms with.

If each cabal member is a miniboss in themselves, and the leader is the real boss (which is how the Order worked in D&D), the great benefit to their numbers is the utterly clear sense of a progress bar. Their names are your checklist of goals. This can get samey, since it’s a lot of fights centering on a spellcaster, so you still need to space them out with other kinds of (combat and non-combat) encounters, but the PCs can land some meaningful victories without ending the story. This is what the Tyranny of Dragons module seems to promise, but its deliveries turn into bait-and-switches – most of the villains you take out are discredited, out of power, or easily replaced, so only the people you kill in the last battle matter.


Enemy Cabal Goals

Plenty of villains have explicitly magical means and motives, but I’ll still try to expand on the (excellent) villain generation tables found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, turned more specifically toward evil cabals. Where the DMG works in generalities, these are intended to be evocative story seeds. Most of these are relatively immediate goals, and may not be the cabal’s end goal and reason for being.

d10 Goal
1 Attract a powerful new fey patron
2 Establish a new stronghold on a Lower Plane
3 Overthrow the existing hierarchy of magical society
4 Gather the Katadesmos Tablet fragments, to use its curse for kingdom-wide extortion
5 Establish a celestial interdict, preventing contact between mortals and angels
6 Reawaken long-dormant or petrified creatures
7 Forcefully assert a bloodline claim to a rich inheritance
8 Contact and exploit another world or parallel reality
9 Seize or suborn all of the graveyards in the kingdom
10 Learn the secret name of a god

Enemy Cabal Assets

For additional Asset ideas, many of the Goals listed above also suffice.

d10 Asset
1 Lichdom (feel free to tweak the precise rules of lichdom for each individual lich)
2 Control over an arch-wraith and its spawn
3 An imprisoned demigod or diabolic legate, from whom they extract increased spell power
4 Legions of homunculi or golems
5 Arcane crystal mines, and a monopoly on their distribution
6 A statue that suffers all of their wounds and infirmities for them
7 A listening-chamber that lets them overhear sending spells or interfere with long-range teleportation
8 Collective attunement to an artifact, such as a staff or crown
9 Vat of primordial ooze
10 The ruins of an arcane academy or temple to a god of magic

In a best-case scenario, at least one wizard in the party profits directly from capturing enemy spellbooks. If not, look for ways to further develop the Asset so that when the PCs seize it, they might be able to extract some amount of value from it, just as the NPCs before them did. (Or maybe they benefit from destroying or freeing it, whatever.)

Another thing about villainous cabals: they probably have a lot more enemies than just the PCs. As I’ve talked about before, I love it when settings present spellcasters as members of a society separate from the mundane world around them. Since we’ve long since learned that evil shouldn’t be monolithic, one villain cabal that your PCs care about destroying is justification in itself to talk to other, equally-evil cabals that just aren’t the PCs’ enemies of the moment. A group that had been a thieves’ guild in 4e Arad-Targa became a cabal of rivals to the Order in DtD, and they entered into a tenuous alliance with the PCs. You know you’ve hit your mark if the players all feel the need to take an extra-hot shower after they cut that deal.

So sure, that means you’re writing not one unsavory cabal, but two, three, or maybe a lot more. On the plus side, you’ve probably just written a high-functioning Mage adaptation into your setting. (The parts of the setting that are about political tension between cabals, anyway.) If you weren’t intending the campaign to be mostly about feuding wizards, well, this may represent losing control of that. There are worse fates.

In closing, my advice is to do everything you can to avoid advancing uphill into a semi-circle of enemy casters. You can thank me later.

PS. LARPing has taught me that more fights in D&D should be on hillsides with treacherous footing. The hill is the enemy; the people on top of it are merely the opposition.

PPS. To the stalwart members of the Hand of Enlightenment cabal, <3 you. Thank you for your display of true sportsmanship.

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