Friday, March 12, 2010

No Generic Villains: Navarre, Varegant and Grisaille

This post was originally posted to the Old School Heretic Blog.

Great heroes typically arise in direct response and reaction to great villains, obstacles or challenges. Without a suitable villain, the hero doesn't amount to much. Batman wouldn't be Batman without the guy who shot his parents, but he really becomes The Batman in response to the Joker, at least in the older comics. Likewise without Sauron to stir shit up, old Middle Earth would be pretty damned boring. Bond wouldn't be Bond without the over-the-top villains. A good campaign needs a few good villains -- and you need a few of the rotten scoundrels on-hand because the players might actually get around to killing one of them, so you want a back-up just-in-case. So, I have drafted-up a set of despicable and diabolical villains for Riskail that aren't just moustache-twirling fops or mouth-breathing cannibals with lumberjack fantasies.  Well, okay, maybe some of them are, but Navarre and Grisaille are a cut above such has-beens and wannabees.  They're real villains; conflicted, imperfect, and driven by forces that most other people just cannot appreciate.

"When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror, and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the empire of crime.”

No, that's not a Lovecraft quote, it's the work of German film director Fritz Lang, the guy who also did Metropolis. So, I was thinking, why not develop an underground, clandestine and furtive empire of crime, not just a syndicate, not just a few gangs or even a paltry thieve's guild, but a full-out secret-empire of crime?  It's not something that I'd necessarily want to deal with personally, but it is a really cool idea to flesh out within the setting and see where it goes. Maybe the player characters will topple this empire of crime, or spend their careers in conflict with it, or maybe they work for it. But who would be the emperor of such a thing?

That's simple. The self-styled Emperor of Terror himself, Navarre. An accomplished thief, kidnapper, extortionist, arsonist, assassin and clandestine necromancer known to torture his subjects to death in order to get just the right essential terror embedded in their cold, dead brains. Navarre is cold-blooded, ruthless, completely amoral and a criminal master-mind, a real and true Insane Genius and consummate master of disguise.  He was once an actor, but having been repeatedly passed over for the choicest roles and always relegated to bit-parts and character pieces, he grew increasingly resentful of the more successful thespians he had grown up amongst. When he finally was blacklisted for his alleged 'eccentricities,' Navarre abandoned the theater and took up a life of violence and crime. Or so it is said among the denizens of Black Kirtle Street and the dimly lit dens of iniquity that line the various discrete mezzanines and unlisted sewer expansions that the local urchins will guide you to for a couple of Drachems.  If you only have a few Cendims to spare they can show you where most of the actors who snubbed Navarre are buried, entombed, or otherwise integrated into the various lamp-posts, foundations, and bridges of the locality.

But do not ask too many questions about their vengeful rival.  Before he became a necromancer and assassin, he was firstly a performer and portrayer, and some say that he still acts in exclusive, invitation-only productions somewhere that only a select few can attend and fewer can hope to escape.

No one knows what Navarre really looks like. That is the story, that is the myth, and that is pretty much the truth. Navarre has been wearing masks and disguises for so long that he has forgotten his own face, and his use of certain questionable spells and rituals to sorcerously obscure his location (and the foul pact he made to gain that particular boon) have made it such that Navarre could not be found if he wanted to be. And as if losing his face were not enough, Navarre's clandestine and irregular researches into some of the most depraved and despicable sorts of necromantic techniques are alleged to have taken a drastic toll upon him. No one agrees on what specifically ails the super criminal, but it is a matter of some conviction amongst the various snitches, gossips and similar sources that Navarre is a tortured man, one suffering from a great deal of pain, and it is easily enough verified that he is indeed a man accursed by numerous restless spirits and vengeful ghosts.

Despite his mysterious painful illness and the spectral forces arrayed against him, Navarre is infamous for his numerous daring, breath-taking and incredibly flamboyant escapes. He always seems to get away at the last minute, either through well-placed bribes, threats, or well-chosen hostages. It's amazing what a bad guy can do with a little careful planning and blackmail. He always covers his bases and plans his jobs multiple steps ahead of the authorities, much like a pernod-swilling chess master.  Which, by all accounts he could easily impersonate and no one would be the wiser (at least before the pact and him losing his face and all...).  Indeed, there are those who mutter darkly that Navarre must either have agents working for him amongst the Magistrate's forces or he has infiltrated them himself, most likely enjoying a comfortable middle-level desk-job right in the heart of things.

Navarre is the author of a number of illicit rituals in covert distribution as hand-reproduced manuscripts scratched out on some sort of discolored parchment suspiciously similar in many respects to human skin, including one particular ritual for the creation of The Gloves of the Murderous Corpse, in which the officiant removes the skin from a murderer's hands and makes it into a pair of gloves that grant the wearer various abilities and bonuses based upon the abilities of the murderer from whom the gloves were fashioned. (There's a table to roll on, naturally. If anyone's interested, I can post it later.)

So Navarre is a very ambitious, driven and accomplished Emperor of Terror, even if he eventually loses his face and the ability to personally infiltrate the Magistrates or to move about in Polite Society any longer.  By the time he concludes the pact, sacrifices his face and turns his back forever on Polite Society, Navarre is quite ready to assume his throne as Emperor of Terror and ruler of an extensive clandestine empire of crime operating throughout Devukarsha, the City of Tiers, and perhaps beyond.  Such a man would not settle for only one city, even if it is the largest and most prosperous and powerful metropolis among all the city-states of the Great Rift.  Navarre is not a man given to small schemes, nor one to rest on his laurels.  Ambition and a desire for vengeance against a system that punished him with inferiority and shame drive him to commit atrocity after atrocity.  Bombs, poison, gonnes--no tool is too wicked for Navarre's unholy reign of terror.

And it is precisely because of Navarre's mad ambitions that not long ago he and his henchmen brazenly kidnapped the former Regent of the Academy, Xemo Varegant, another insane genius who was quietly retired from academic responsibilities after an unfortunate incident involving several mostly missing students and a questionable matter transmission apparatus. Varegant is an inventor and accomplished autonamatist who once lived in a run down manor surrounded by hundreds of armatures, mechanisms, automatons, contraptions, and constructs. Old, sour and bitter over how he was forced out of academia by a pack of dilettantes and bureaucrats, Varegant was working on his incredibly elaborate scheme for revenge upon the Regents when Navarre and his inner circle of most trusted lieutenants broke into his laboratory and hauled Varegant away with them to an undisclosed location that even the best trackers and location spells cannot find.

The Regents of the Academy are beside themselves in fear of what these two madmen might do should they decide to join forces.

But wait there's more.
Navarre once took on an apprentice, Grisaille, a young woman with whom he fell madly in love. He taught her everything she wanted to know and together they have become a dark sort of Bonnie & Clyde, only more violent and far more dangerous. What most people do not know is that one night not long ago, Grisaille discovered Navarre's blasphemous infidelity. Heartbroken and filled with the wrath only a woman scorned can muster, Grisaille killed Navarre, trapped his spirit, and has stolen his identity. She used one of Lorshal's more modest spells of Biomorphic Incongruity to make Navarre's body to look like her own and then proceeded to act out the part of a grieving Navarre. She now lives a double life which is about to get more complicated as she just discovered that she is pregnant and Varegant suspects that something is not quite right with his 'partner.'  Then there is the matter of her face starting to distort strangely, perhaps as an after-effect of having to wear Navarre's mask in order to impersonate him.  It is getting more difficult to remove it every time.
So there you have not one, not two, but three sinister criminal master-minds, depending upon whether you prefer the pre-Grisaille version of Navarre, or the new and improved Navarre.  I could shovel a few more potential plot hooks into things, but thought that I'd hold off and get back to work on the Ten Insane Geniuses instead.

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