Recruiting 101 for an RPG villain

The opportunity for training and experince provided by military service is a powerful recruitment motivator – both in the real world and in RPGs.

Many Dungeons & Dragons villains have entourages of evil humanoid followers, especially at low experience levels. That circumstance may not matter much in combat-heavy campaigns – knowing the humanoids are evil is generally considered sufficient cause to kill them and take their stuff in most hack/slash games -but knowing how a villain recruits and retains his retinue can take adventures in unexpected and unconventional directions.

So where do these villains get their humanoid sellswords? They do so in two ways: voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary service can be obtained with the following arguments and / or inducements:

Patriotism. Although humanoid tribes seldom recognize themselves as nations in the modern sense, they may feel loyalty in similar fashion for fellow members of their race, outrage at heroic incursion into their lands, or even remembered outrage at being driven from more hospitable lands in the past. Defending one’s home is a powerful motivation, and if a villain can convince humanoid minions that they are doing that, morale and loyalty will be relatively high.

Responsibility. Many humanoids have the reputation of being savage brutes, but at the same time, the attitudes of their warlike cultures can echo more codified forms of honor. Even for a bloodthirsty orc, there are some insults that cannot go unanswered, some losses that cannot go unavenged, and some foes who cannot be suffered to live. Villains who can paint heroic activity in a way that offends the humanoids’ sensibilities in such matters will have more dedicated troops.

Training. Most modern armed forces have taken to the idea of job training as a primary reason to enlist. While an orc raider may not plan on a sociology major after service, it will likely seek opportunities for increasing its combat skills and notoriety; in humanoid cultures, being a strong warrior brings status, comfort, wealth and mates, and you can only gain so much field experience striking straw dummies in a cave.

Travel. Another modern recruiting strategy, the chance to see the world can be a stirring motivator. In most fantasy games, humanoids eke out a meagre existence from the most inhospitable regions of the game world. The choice between someday taking charge of the family cave or striking out to make one’s own mark upon the world is an easy one for more intelligent or enterprising humanoids. Why not join the evil wizard? He’s paying in gold, will supply three meals a day, and you’ll get to kill human and elf heroes as part of the job.

Involuntary service tends to translate into reduced morale, and in some cases outright insubordination or rebellion, but it also carries with it the lowest price. They serve, or else. Involuntary service forms include:

Conscription. Sometimes, by virtue of some sort of civic authority or legal arrangement, the villain can demand obedience. This generally happens when, for example, a tribal chieftain strikes a bargain with the villain, and the chief sends some of his warriors to support the villain’s plans. It can also be found in campaigns featuring totalitarian nations which retain complete control over their citizens.

Threats and fear. This circumstance arises when the villain has control over something the humanoids value, whether it is loved ones held hostage or the humanoids’ own lives.

In games where role-playing with recruited humanoids is an alternative to automatic combat, crafty heroes may find a way to turn a villain’s minions against him, especially if the heroes can show that the villain lied while recruiting the humanoids. Similarly, heroes learning that they face the Medieval fantasy equivalent of conscripted cannon fodder, could allow those humanoids to leave unharmed if they agree to desert the villain.

Do any of your RPG villains employ these techniques, or use some that aren’t discussed here? If they do, please consider sharing your experience in a comment to this post.


8 comments on “Recruiting 101 for an RPG villain

  1. Poop says:

    Marian reforms are a good example of successful recruiting. It offered landless people a way to acquire land and get some upward mobility.

  2. There are a few good comic books about the same subject. “G.I. Joe Hearts and Minds” No. 5 showed various people (a bored California kid, a man angry about an invading army’s mistreatment of his homeland, etc.) being recruited into the ranks of Cobra mooks. “Astro City: Dark Ages” No. 1 has two brothers, one who became a police officer and the other who fell on the wrong side of the tracks and joined a supervillian’s army of minions, find each other after several years.

    • Alric says:

      “Cobra Mooks.” That is awesome. And there are some interesting angles there – never thought about boredom as a motivator, but it certainly is.

  3. Svafa says:

    You sort of covered it under Travel, but somehow managed to miss one of the more obvious means: payment. A citizen who’s being paid may not care who his employer is so long as he can put food on table; he may even disagree with his employer’s goals or practices, but is willing to overlook it for the pay.

    Another, which falls under the same category as Patriotism is religion. The religious aspect is playing an important role in the recruitment of my campaign’s current villain, though he also uses training and payment incentives as well.

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