World Building #3: Rivals
Updated: Mar 4
It has been quite a while since I tackled a World Building post, but with the recent release of Critical Role: Call Of The Netherdeep I found the perfect opportunity to get into doing one! There's a lot to like about this book - it provides an excellent adventure for 3rd level to 12th level players, and fans of the show will enjoy it's Exandrian setting, beginning in Wildemount and transitions to Marquet! Matt Mercer's love of world building certainly shows. Something I've always admired about his games is his ability to craft all of his NPCs with emotional depth and intriguing backstory, and weave them so deftly into his world. Especially his villains.
In Call Of The Netherdeep, a new system is introduced that I found really cool - the Rival system. It gives a little taste into the process of creating a recurring rival or villain NPC that the party will encounter multiple times throughout the story, something that Matt Mercer is famous for. In the examples provided within the book, he refers specifically to an adventuring party that the players will meet over and over. They each have distinct personalities, goals, and motivations. They become stronger in the same way that the party do, and their relationship with the party will change dependant on the way that the party interact with them. I enjoyed reading about this because many adventure modules give no clear indication of an NPC's headspace beyond the moment that the party meet them and perhaps at key moments in the story. A system such as this could certainly contribute to a clearer understanding of an NPC's goals and motivations, and in turn allows for better role-play at the table!
When looking for examples of great rivalries, I once again turn to real-world figures, folklore, myths, and legends as they can be an excellent source of inspiration. Siblings are often fantastic places to start - Romulus and Remus were brothers that had an interesting start in life, ultimately deciding to build the city of Rome but falling out when attempting to agree upon the location. The biblical brothers Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, competed in their love of God and this culminated in Cain killing Abel because Abel's religious tribute was chosen over his own. My favourite, complex rivalry is found within Odin and Loki's relationship in Norse mythology. They both relied upon each other and had somewhat of a sibling-style connection, but their distrust of each other's intentions grew and spiralled until they became enemies and ended the world to destroy each other. You might also look to Horus and Set of Egyptian mythology for their continued attempts to outdo each other, or the great Greek warriors Achilles and Hector who both were stubborn and prideful in their enmity.
Modern media also highlights some great rivalry dynamics - it is in fact a key mechanic of the Pokémon games in which the player will often battle their rival repeatedly. In the earlier games the 'rival' in question was antagonistic and hostile, while later on they were encouraging and used the rivalry to motivate their own training and technique. The relationship between Thor and Loki in Marvel Cinematic Universe's is one of rivalry - both thinking that they are a better candidate for the throne of Asgard. I also really love the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, based on their real life rivalry. Many times, a rival can turn into a villain, as happens in Monsters Inc when Randall takes his rivalry with Sulley far too seriously.
What a lot of these examples highlight is the difference between a 'rival' and a 'villain'. A 'villain', or the 'antagonist', is generally the opposite to a heroic character. Whatever the motivations, goals, actions, and methodology are of the hero, the villain will do the opposite. While Batman is steadfast, respectful of the law, and has a very strict moral code you will find that his nemesis the Joker is chaotic, and has no care for morality or law beyond his own amusement. Meanwhile, a rival quite often wants the same as or something similar to the hero but thinks that his own methods in achieving it are far superior or better in some way. This dynamic means that a good 'rival' character will have a lot in common with a party or individual, as well as a lot of differences.
So I'm going to be setting this post out a little differently to my previous two posts on Tricksters and the Moon. I want to provide some good ideas and inspiration that will help you to create your own recurring rivals or recurring villains for your party to meet.
Here are a few things to consider when coming up with some of your own recurring rival ideas!
ALIGNMENT: I don't tend to use alignment on the whole when creating NPCs, as I often find it a little too simplistic. I do think it creates a good starting point however, and it's a useful tool when thinking about what will create a rivalry. If you have a PC that really tends to fall into the Lawful Good category in their play style, consider introducing someone who is Chaotic Good to share their values but rub them up the wrong way with their methods, or perhaps even Lawful Evil who shares their respect for the rules but bends it to their own nefarious interests. It can create an interesting dynamic at the table - will the PC react to this negatively and feed into a rivalry allowing it to become hostile? Or will they seek to create a bond with that character based on the traits that they do share? These decisions could drive a rival into villain, hero, OR anti-hero terrain. Just as a PC develops over the course of an adventure or campaign, so will the recurring rival and their own values or approaches to life will be influenced by the PC as well!
POLITICS/RELIGION: Do your Players have steadfast political beliefs and allegiances? Perhaps they are a member of a particular faction that aligns with their own interests? Then a rival that is working against that belief but is generally likeable, or a rival within that faction working towards the same goals but in an abrasive manner could work really well. Equally, if any of your Players are religiously inclined then it can definitely be very interesting to pit them against a fellow religious warrior or cleric that is perhaps on the same holy mission as them and keeps attempting to steal their thunder, or a religious NPC working for the interests of a rival temple or God. Or maybe, someone who directly opposes the belief in their God and challenges them in other ways!
FAMILY: I have already stated a number examples of sibling or familial rivalry, and these dynamics can be really fun to play with. Perhaps your player's character is the golden child of the family, and their sibling is constantly being overlooked. Or it could easily be the other way round - often a player will put a small detail like this in when writing their backstory thinking that it won't serve as anything more than a motivation for their character to make their family proud. Throwing in the unexpected surprise of their rival turning up will create great role-play opportunities, especially if they manage to charm the rest of the party, or are genuinely likeable!
ROMANCE: There is many a DnD game that exists purely because the party want to romance as many NPCs as possible. Well...not PURELY but...that is a motivation for many players! And what better way to challenge your horniest characters than by introducing a rival that is interested in the same romantic partner as them. The object of their affections could be another NPC, or even one of the other players that they have been building that slow-burn romance with. The goal is often to get some fantastic role-play moments from your characters and so introducing this rival could be a great way to challenge your players to push their characters out of their comfort zones, as long as everything at the table is being treated in a respectful manner and everyone is having fun.
QUESTS: Similar to the example provided within Call Of The Netherdeep a rivalry doesn't have to start thanks to deeply rooted backstory - your players are not the only adventurers in the world! Perhaps a rival adventuring party that thinks themselves superior will keep turning up to claim the bounty they are after, find the rare magical item, steal the treasure, or impress that important political figure. If so - will the party establish a good relationship with them and come to some agreement? Or will the two parties be hostile towards each other. It could be a really fun idea to make up an entire party in which each character is the perfect representation of everything each player character hates. Got a brooding rogue that hates social situations? Have their rival be overly friendly and talkative. An intelligent wizard may be easily irritated by an even more intelligent, far more arrogant wizard. If your party's leader is struggling with their confidence or decision making, then have the rival party led by the perfect representation of everything they want to be.
The thing that I was super impressed with when it came to Call Of The Netherdeep was the stat blocks that were provided - they make the perfect base for you to create your own rivals AND they are given for Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 play which means they get stronger as your characters level up! Having looked at them they provide a good mix of the racial abilities and class abilities of each character as if they were built as a PC first of all. Playing around with these stat blocks will make a good start for creating your own rivals, and I also want to recommend William Rotor's Outclassed: The NPC Statblock Compendium for all classes, and even has them organised in tiers and CRs to help you figure out the best help or hindrance for your players!
I hope these pointers help with creating some interesting rivals within your campaign! You can take these same principles and use them for your recurring villains also. Have you created any interesting NPCs that your characters love to hate or hate to love? Let me know!