Iconic Antagonists: Bandits
The other day I was talking with some friends of mine who are running/playing in a Pathfinder game I (unfortunately) couldn’t be a part of due to conflicting schedules. They told me about how their characters, who are still relatively low-level, came across a group of bandits. Instead of simply drawing their swords and charging into battle, they tried speaking to their attackers; even when the bandits could not be convinced to turn back, the characters did all they could to keep them alive and take them prisoner. Why? Because they recognized that there is more to a bandit than simply an enemy to kill. Bandits are still people (as it is hard to say “human-beings” in context of a game with elves, dwarves, and the like). Bandits are a very common antagonist for characters in table-top games, even those who aren’t called “bandits;” thugs, gangsters, members of a criminal guild, and others. This discussion is meant to cover them all. Because they are so prominent in gaming, I have decided to make bandits the second of my Iconic Antagonists articles.
The roads between settlements and village are ripe with bandits and thugs in most fantasy table top games. Often, they are used against relatively low-level characters when the Gamemaster has grown tired of the normal goblin/kobold/orc mix-up. They can be incredibly tricky encounters because they are always different. Sure, most bandits are likely to be warrior and thief/rogue archetype characters, but there is nothing to say that a magic-user down on his/her luck will not take to banditry. Basically, if you can build it as a character in a game, it can come at you in the form of a bandit. Bandit encounters can be as simple or complex as the Gamemaster desires, as being able to use the same archetypes as characters gives them a lot of room to play.
As I mentioned in my first paragraph, bandits can also be really interesting to encounter because there are more to them than there is some random wondering monster. These are people, just like your characters are. Sure, they might be evil people, but honestly that is usually pretty rare. People do not often resort to thievery or assault because they are evil, but because they are desperate. Something has driven these men and women to attack people on the road, and they have had the unfortunate luck of encountering one group (the player characters) that is likely more than able to handle them, as bandits are rarely very experienced combatants while player characters very much are.
In the example of their encounter that my friends told me about, they did manage to capture one of the bandits alive and ask why he was attacking them. Rather than tell them directly, the bandit – who was convinced that his life was likely over – just gave the characters directions. Deciding to follow them, thinking maybe that these were going to be directions to some sort of bandit treasure hoard, they found out what led this man to become a bandit. They found a simple cottage out in the woods. There, waiting for the man to return home, was his wife and child. The man had lost all other ways to provide for his family. Banditry was the only option he felt was available to him.
The characters gave the man a few gold coins and immediately let him go.
Bandits have a lot of potential for story hooks for Gamemasters. Failing to take advantage of those can be a great loss for a campaign. Sure, it can be fun to just kick down the doors, kill all the bandits, and take their stuff; but how much of a better story is it when even these men who are trying to kill you have motivations, goals, hopes, and dreams? What is maximum fun? Play it up.
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