By John Houlihan
This article contains spoilers for the Forest of Fear, so if you intend to play it as an agent rather than a GM, proceed with caution, as it may spoil your enjoyment of the full experience.
When it comes to designing missions and campaigns, it’s always important to set up some decent enemies to test your players. In Achtung! Cthulhu, we’ve got some ready made bad guys built into the narrative design who always make for interesting and challenging foes. The cult of the Black Sun, are classic Nazi occult villains, steeped in foul sorcery and blasphemous rites, who have no qualms about concluding pacts with the gods and demons of the mythos to further their own nefarious aims.
But it’s interesting too to make these foes not just cardboard tittering villains who do evil for its own sake. Villains who are just plain blinkered, fanatical, even stupid, make for predictable even boring foes, so it’s important to give them believable goals and motivations of their own. Guillermo del Toro, the fantastic Mexican director and horror enthusiast, once said you have to be able to imagine evil in repose, or at rest, in order to make it convincing. It’s a great design principle when it comes to creating RPGs.
Even the foulest, nastiest advocate of the Mythos isn’t practicing evil and creating havoc 24 hours a day and asking what they do off camera, or in between times, can often lead to some interesting questions to help you fully flesh out their characters and aims.
The hilarious Mitchell and Webb “Are we the baddies?” sketch is equally instructive. Do great villains think of themselves as evil? Perhaps they have ended up this way, but maybe their motives started from something purer? From their perspective, perhaps it’s your characters who are the evil ones, attempting to interfere in matters which would bring great benefits to mankind. If only those pesky agents would keep their annoying noses out of your business.
Putting yourself in your grand nemesis’s shoes is an intriguing, even provocative design challenge. That’s not to sympathise with or endorse any abhorrent views in any way, but from an RPG design standpoint it can prove interesting to flip perspective in this way. Ultimately the aim is to lead to more entertaining choices and decisions for your players.
Great villains and antagonists are rarely purely evil or monstrous anyway but rather contain nuance and multiple shades of light and dark.
In Achtung! Cthulhu’s Forest of Fear (Shipping now from the UK, on pre-order in the US and in PDF on both and on DTRPG!), our brand new late war campaign set during the Battle of the Bulge, we’ve tried to give more nuance and flavour to our villains in the narrative design, rather than making them simple straw targets for your players to demolish.
Once of my favourites is “Sweet” Liesel Bohm, who’s a cross between a female version of Loki and Rupert of Hentzau (from the Prisoner of Zenda), whose penchant for random acts of chaos make her an anarchic and unpredictable foe.
As a GM she’s great fun to both play and tease your agents with too. She’s very capable of being charming, amusing, even appealing in many ways. Will she make some outrageous demand, or perhaps prove surprisingly generous or maybe even suggest an alliance of convenience against a mutual foe? When agents encounter her, they’re never quite sure what to expect or she’s going to do next, which keep any scene or session from becoming dull. You’ll have a chance to explore both Liesel and a few other intriguing and unexpected alliances within the campaign.
Allies can also benefit from this kind of treatment. One of the Allies’ great strengths during World War II was that they were a coalition of many different nations, talents, and personnel. Even the strongest of allies can sometimes feel a tension when their goals and motivations don’t quite align and without giving too much away, this is one aspect you’ll be able to explore during the meta campaign (if you choose) as Section M and Majestic’s find themselves at odds for perhaps the first time.
Finally, the Forest of Fear also brings some new allies and in the shape of the Ardui, Celtic woodland spirits who inhabit this forgotten corner of the Ardennes. They came into being after I’d read about Arduinna, a native Celtic deity of the Ardennes, who was a goddess of nature who rides a boar mount. I chose to embody her with these qualities but also as a stern warrior-queen, ready to fight both an ancient evil and the Nazi incursion. Arduinna and her followers’ main motivation is to protect their ancient woodland from all who might threaten it and in this sense she’s a potential ally, but initially at least a neutral, more sceptical one. She must be persuaded and convinced if your agents hope to forge an alliance with her and the way she chooses to do it is in classic Celtic fashion, via a series of trials and ordeals.
When it comes to your own mission designs, try to explore some of these dilemmas for yourself. You’ll find enemies are often more interesting when they’re not just cardboard cut-out cliches and allies prove more realistic when they’re not just blind followers of your agents. Both benefit from having agendas of their own and the free will to pursue them.