As mentioned in a earlier essay, there are two kinds of characters in any game: characters controlled by players and characters controlled by the GM or game itself. The players announce what their characters do and their actions are the central part of the game. What about the other characters, though? How do we know what these other “people” do?
Sometimes it is easy to answer this question. In most video games, monsters wait for you to approach their designated area before acting. They are waiting for their moment to be slain by the player(s). In the massive board games Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, the movements of the monsters and the dialogue of the characters interacted with are proscribed by the cards. Their motivations could be potentially reasoned out, but that isn’t important for playing the game.
A lot of common fantasy novels actually take this approach to the villains as well. In the novel Wizard’s First Rule, Darken Rahl, the villain and the orchestrator of everything bad that has happened to our hero Richard, is sitting in his castle waiting for the final confrontation. Rahl has made no counter moves to the actions of Richard and has made no real attempt to outmaneuver him. While this makes for a dramatic confrontation, it makes the villain one dimensional with virtually no agency of his own.
In my own stories, I repurpose the idea of a villain clock here. A villain clock is a set of actions the villains will take in a certain time frame. The most common example of this in narrative is the race against the bomb. If the protagonists can’t diffuse the bomb in the set amount of time, the bomb goes off. On the TV show 24 this plays out as a desperate justification for almost anything even though the nature of the narrative makes some measure of success inevitable. We often don’t use this in role playing games because the outcome is undetermined and competing against a neutral clock can feel especially demoralizing in the event of failure. I have felt the resentment of players at the “rigged system” when they were unsuccessful at a timed challenge.
In history this plays out on a larger scale; agents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had forewarning of the attempt to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and spent days rooting out the plot and arrested many of the people involved. However, they were unable to fully eliminate the anarchists and on June 28th 1914 the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo. Of course, in a role playing story or a novel, success and failure are often both equally interesting and exciting opportunities for storytelling.
The players in the story are not static. Their characters are constantly making decisions that change events. If the villains do not act in a similar manner, the question becomes why not? Often when the players in a game push on the game’s characters or their operations there is no response or alteration to the status quo. Sometimes this is warranted, the eliminated characters were expendable, the factory was a red herring, or communication between the destroyed fort and the capital was never very good. However, if the Forward Operating Base of the Ogre’s army is destroyed by murder hobos, the Ogre King not responding feels strange.
This is where the villain clock comes in. The Ogre King was going to invade the Kingdom of Cascadia on the 23rd of the month. However, the adventurers destroy his advance guard on the 15th thereby stopping the invasion. In this story, the Ogre King still has an army large enough to have invaded Cascadia, why would it just sit there? It is more likely that he would simply use his army to attack a target that did not require the now destroyed advance guard. So because of the Player Character’s actions, the Ogre King now sacks the City State of Bend on the 23rd and sets about subjugating its people. Or maybe the sudden failure causes the dissolution of his army prematurely and there are an army’s worth of trained soldiers wandering around raiding and pillaging.
This sort of clock mechanism doesn’t work for everything. If the players need to speak to a store owner to get a vital clue it is actually better to choose to have the store owner be there whenever the players show up. Trying to find a GM character to give out a core clue can be a very frustrating enterprise for players, especially if the sole reason for the runaround is realism. On the other hand, if the shop keeper is easily frightened it might make sense for him to hide after he is interrogated the first time. The difference here is that, like the Ogre King example above, the players actions provoke a reaction and the GM character becomes a more interesting person as a result of the player’s choices.