View Full Version : How do I credibly let my players redeem villains?

2016-05-26, 12:14 AM
I'm about to start a campaign in which, per the wishes of my players, combat is rarely the best or only means of overcoming challenges. I'm confident in my ability to build engaging puzzles and traps for them to tinker with, but I'd rather the game not become a Myst-like traversal of lands devoid of sapient antagonists -- which means I need to figure out how to tell a redemption story that my players will find compelling, engaging, and credible.

So, Playgrounders, what makes a good redemption story -- and in particular, what can I do to make villains my players will enjoy bringing around to good?

2016-05-26, 12:26 AM
It all depends on the villain.

You need villains that can be redeemed in the first place.

Concepts that are springing into my mind immediately.

1. Good but misguided person. Who actually thought his villainous actions were for the greater good. He just needs to be shown that there is another way.

2. Character corrupted by some outside force. (Like say a ring :D )

2016-05-26, 02:21 AM
Had this happen mostly by accident. The party defeated a necromancer who was doing research into how to create ghouls. By some fluke and some intent, the party defeated his henchmen without killing them, and other than the undead and stirges, ONLY the necromancer died.

His primary henchmen had been involved in kidnapping people to be tortured until they became ghouls, so the party felt their guilt would require a bit more treatment. But the guards and keep staff were just considered to be employees. They didn't have any particular evidence that they had committed a crime, and it was wilderness anyway. There was a serious lack of jurisdiction to be had.

The party wasn't really interested in handling the nitty gritty of redemption themselves, so they foisted their prisoners on a monastery they were working with.

A lot depends upon the powers and abilities the players have, and the threats they can bring to bear. Can they track them to the end of the world? Can they scry on them, send magical beings after them? Can they read their thoughts, and tell what is a true and sincere oath?

In a magical universe, there can be real consequences for going back on an oath sworn on a holy object. I got a lot of mileage in my campaign over the party's priestess worshiping the goddess of Hospitality. Basically, anyone who even peripherally follows the same pantheon would experience symptoms like mild food poisoning if they broke hospitality. Which wouldn't be so bad if people didn't recognize the symptoms and guess at the cause.

2016-05-26, 02:53 AM
You can have wars/fights between clans, villages or kingdoms that can be resolved with diplomacy, wedding, compromised.
Few example :
> If two villages fight to prime access to the last well, finding more source of water is a way to settle the argument.
> Finding the lost relic of some faith can restore order in a messed up land where branches of the religion are divising the people.

In those scenariis, you may have some battle in the game, but they're not the solution, but more a way to face the problem at given time, before finding the real solution.

Outsiders, fairy or foreigners can understand the world differently than the adventurers/main civilisation. Talking, empathizing and respecting boundaries might become the best ways to deal with some ennemies.

All "bad guys" are not inherently evil. As Elana said it up in this page, they can be abused by outisde force or by themselves by thinking doing the right thing. Some can be desperate too, to feed their family, to have the money needed to pay the dot and have a love wedding, etc...
Some can be compeled to do bad things, because someone (this time a really bad guy) has their family as hostage or other way to exerting pressure.

Kol Korran
2016-05-26, 04:28 AM
The Wrath of The Righteous adventure path's player's guide (Which is free) tries to make a fairly simplified mechanic for redemption. Basically a creature on the way to redemption needs to make several significant acts, with intent (Not just faking it, though they might if they wish to fool the party or others), depending on evil they are, and how strong they are (Measures by levels/ hit dice. The stronger an entity, the more deeds it must perform).

After each such significant deed, they may try a roll (Forgot if it was a save, or something like that). If they succeed they reduce the number of deeds/ redemption points needed to change. If they fail, they stay the same, if they make more evil acts, they might increase or fail all together. Mentoring characters can add influence the roll, and of course advise in tough situations.

It's a nice little basic system, but on the whole, this mostly depends on roleplay. You'll need to introduce situations in which such tough decisions & significant acts could be made.

2016-05-26, 04:42 AM
I think the best way to do this is to have a villain who fights for a worthy cause, maybe even the same as the party but the methods used just go to far. Give the villain a strong motive and think of them less as a villain (which always has the ring of evil for evil's sake to me) and instead call them the antagonist.

2016-05-26, 08:01 AM
Sounds like a perfect opportunity to graduate from the D&D convention of villains who are evil just because Puppies Have It Coming, and instead deal with some more complex and realistic motivations.

The classic, root cause of approximately every war in human history, is "disagreement about who should get to live on a given patch of land".

Then there's "tribe driven to the brink of extinction (because of disagreement about land), a strong leader arises to save them, he's just a tad on the fanatical side".

Or "grand inquisitor, who is concerned only with the safety and unity of her own people, seen by local minorities as brutal and terrorising".

Or "heartless king who cares more about erecting huge monuments to himself than about feeding his people".

Or on a smaller scale, "scientist obsessed with conquering death by any means necessary", e.g. undeath, constructs, possession, soul trapping, brains in jars...

All of these setups suggest opportunities to resolve the villain's issues without, necessarily, killing them. Diplomacy, exploration, research and politics could play a major part in those scenarios. Of course, "just kill them already" is still an option, and if you make the character too unsympathetic your players will probably be tempted by it, so that's always something to be aware of.

2016-05-26, 08:07 AM
I think the best way to do this is to have a villain who fights for a worthy cause, maybe even the same as the party but the methods used just go to far.

I'm thinking about the Operative from the movie Serenity. Sees himself as a tool to bring about a new world of unity and peace, but does horrible things to get those results. And he's even aware of what he does and that the new world will not have a place for him. Yet he still does so out of some unshakable loyalty to the cause.

2016-05-26, 09:00 AM
villains who are evil just because Puppies Have It Coming

They piddled on my carpet; it's ON!

2016-05-26, 09:01 AM
So far, lots of words on how to make grey characters with real motivations, but nothing on the actual question:

So, Playgrounders, what makes a good redemption story -- and in particular, what can I do to make villains my players will enjoy bringing around to good?

If the 'villains' have real motivations that are not easy to solve, how do the players redeem them? The 'villains' are just trying to deal with a problem, where is the evil to redeem them from in the first place?

2016-05-26, 11:41 AM
If the 'villains' have real motivations that are not easy to solve, how do the players redeem them? The 'villains' are just trying to deal with a problem, where is the evil to redeem them from in the first place?

That is rather the crux of the problem.

I can see how to make morally ambiguous or factually misguided characters redeemable; if evil is founded on bad assumptions, letting the players change those assumptions is certainly one tack I could take, and everyone has provided excellent insight into how (thanks!). As an oversimplified example, if someone's going around slaying every orc they see because "all orcs are heartless pillaging monsters like the ones that burned my hometown," they're one peaceful orc village away from the start of a dramatically credible redemption.

The thing is, though, that misunderstandings alone account for only part of the spectrum. There are villains between the honestly mistaken and the farcically two-dimensional kickers of puppies that make for satisfying storytelling, and I'd like to let my players take them on diplomatically. or a toy example, consider, say, a ruthlessly ambitious feudal lord dedicated to improving their dynasty's position at all costs. They oppress the peasantry, tax them to the breaking point, deal ruthlessly with dissent, and so forth, all in aid of this goal -- and, for purposes of this argument, let's say the underlying economics favors the lord. They're definitely doing something evil, but they aren't kicking puppies for its own sake and there's no clear misunderstanding behind their villainy. They are, in short, both evil and (factually) right.

From a perfectly rational perspective, such a person might well be irredeemable. But people don't have to be perfectly rational. So how can I make them irrational in an exploitable but believable way such that the PCs can see a way they're likely to change their goals without necessarily changing their assumptions?

So, in a way, I suppose my title was deceptive. Redemption is only half of the story; they need good intentions, which means the PCs need a way of facilitating them having good intentions.

2016-05-26, 04:30 PM
The villain: Ruler of a city, intent on bringing greater prosperity to her populace. She wants to modernise certain parts of the city, and is more than happy to displace a handful of citizens to do so. The economic prosperity and security that will come from her plan will more than outweigh a few short term losses, and the industrial elite are more than willing to help by promising a quick turnaround.

The solution: The ruler needs to be shown what effect her actions are having on the displaced. People can't just 'up and move', and the rushed upheaval had lead to all kind of corruption.

The problem: The ruler has an entire city to look after. She's actively ignoring complaints because she knows that it will be better for people in the long term. The heroes need to earn and call in some favours, set up some chance encounters, and eventually get the ruler into a position where she sees exactly what is going on and agrees to rethink her immediate strategy to a slower, more balanced approach.

Also - you can still use a McGuffin in these situations, maybe all [redeemable villain] needs is to be reunited with their son to give them something more than cold, ruthless power to strive for in life.

2016-05-26, 05:23 PM
I think you need to have a reason for your players to WANT to redeem a villain in the first place. The average adventurer just kills their opponents, or hands them over to local police/guards whatever.

Unlike other people here, I'd say that people who do NOT have an ideology behind their crime are easier to redeem. The main villain's henchpeople just needed a job and when they realize that they will have to torture puppies, they are not pleased. Or there's some bandits who try to rob your heroes because they need to eat and crime was the only alternative to prostitution. Whatever.

Your villains, not being fanatics, could have doubts about what they're doing. Maybe one of them frees one of the puppies they're supposed to torture. Or the heroes find out that the highwaywoman has little children who are starving.

The players then only need to figure out a way to solve the problem that is underlying the poverty that led to the villains turning to a life of crime. I should think that is easier than changing the mind of a fanatic.

Of course, it all depends on how low or high level you play ... there certainly are adventurer groups that are never attacked by random bandits on the streets, and would like the challenge of trying to redeem Xykon.

Honest Tiefling
2016-05-26, 05:28 PM
I would suggest that they are fighting an angel (or similar being of apparent goodness) whose recently appeared somewhere. The town's first reaction would probably be to follow it, because that's what you do in most cases. But this angel isn't on the level.

Some people have figured out that something is wrong, but don't know if its the angel, their neighbors, the party, or some evil the angel has cooked up to cow people into obedience. These people can be converted quickly enough with some evidence, and can become helpful to the PCs after it is obtained. They already have doubts anyway.

The second group really hasn't given this much thought, as contemplating the angel won't bring the crops in. They'll need to be convinced that there is something wrong in the first place, and that they need to care about it. Attacking them just...Isn't an appropriate response.

The third group are zealots. They might not be able to be reasoned with, but can be dealt with in other ways, such as capture or the like. They're not even bad people they really think this angel will help them. They are on the side of good, why won't the PCs just listen to them! Come, let's go bask in the serene presence of the angel, then you'll see and everyone will be happy.

If you toss in an enemy (either this angel, or something else) with mind-control, so you have large hordes of people that either need magic, discourse, time or a good smack to the head to free them.

2016-05-26, 07:33 PM
I think you need to have a reason for your players to WANT to redeem a villain in the first place. The average adventurer just kills their opponents, or hands them over to local police/guards whatever.

Not to nitpick, but the players have such a motivation, in that they've decided they'd specifically like this sort of idealistic campaign. They're working on building it into their PCs, but generally speaking the world isn't in a fit state for handing people over to the guards, what with large swathes of it being effectively ungoverned as the world slides slowly into madness. This is also why they don't want to kill anyone; they don't want to diminish the forces on hand to deal with the many other problems assailing them.

2016-05-26, 09:50 PM
Well, it also depends on what you and your players define as redemption. It doesn't have to mean an alignment change to good (or even neutral).

Let's take arguably the biggest redemption story in the last 40 years: The rise, fall, and redemption of Darth Vader (AKA Anakin Skywalker). And remember, according to Lucas that's what the 6 movies are actually about…(YMMV).

The funny thing is, you CAN say it is a redemption story. Where Lucas went wrong is how he tries to frame it. Vader does horrible things, is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of billions, tortured his own daughter (admittedly didn’t know it was her but still), cut his own son's hand off (no wimpy parenting here!), failed to kill Jar Jar as a kid (his biggest crime), and the list goes on..

And at the end of Return of the Jedi, is he redeemed? If you ask 99.9999etc% of the galaxy, then no. he's still the same evil murdering Sith he always was. If he has a D&D alignment it's still LE.

But he has redeemed himself in Luke's eyes. Luke has been able to close the relationship and (for him) it ends on a positive note. His father does care for him more than the Emperor and is willing to die to save him.

So it is a redemption story. But it's a personal redemption story. The redemption only matters to (and is really only seen by) a very few. Based solely on the movies, it's arguable that even Leah may not feel Vader has earned redemption. And as David Brin said in his write-up a while ago, (paraphrasing) "The galaxy is not going to forgive all the evil you did just because you were unwilling to let your own son be killed". So the redemption only matters to Luke and Vader. But it's still important.

So you can make redemption relevant while still acknowledging that they may still have to suffer the consequences of their evil. Make it personal for the party even if the rest of the multiverse isn't going to care.