The criminal mastermind is an iconic villain. They’ve planned for every contingency. They’ve mapped out every route. Every step you’ve taken has been planned by them. How do you play as someone that much smarter than you?
1. Provide Motivation
Great villains have a motivation. They’re not evil for the sake of being evil. Your mastermind should have a purpose that they’re trying to achieve. If the heroes were not involved, what would the mastermind be doing? Providing a motivation lends weight to the villain’s plans, and helps them make more sense. If their plan seems possible, they instantly have more importance than a generic cult of destruction.
“This ritual will destroy the world!” is a poor motivation. It doesn’t tell us why the world should be destroyed. What does the villain gain from it?
“This ritual will destroy the world. I will become a god, and I’ll create a better one in my image!” This is better! The villain wants to create a new world. They want to become a god and actually do something with that power. Create. And the fact that the villain wants to destroy the current world likely means they see something inherently wrong with it.
2. Do “Smart” Things
For some reason, we’ve decided that smart people play chess. Showing your villain playing chess will somehow instantly signal to the players that they are smart. We have movies to blame for this.
Movies only have a limited amount of screen time to convey the story and themes. They use shorthand to show things without having to waste time stating “This guy is really smart!”
Show things that are traditionally smart. Play chess, the piano, or make art. Give them diplomas and awards. If it’s a fantasy setting, they probably know how to cast spells.
D&D has a number of divination spells. Give these to a genius, and make them natural abilities. You’ve now got a villain who can see the future (plans very well) and spy on the heroes (knows which actions they’ll take). Heck, you can just make the villain a wizard!
Give the villain abilities that grant rerolls, second chances, and damage avoidance. Reflavor them all as a byproduct of their intelligence, and now you’ve got a mastermind backed up by mechanics.
Bad guys cheat. It’s one of the things that makes them bad. But when you take a mastermind’s plot and put it under the microscope, you realize that it’s not so brilliant.
Cracked has pointed this out before, but some schemes by a ‘brilliant’ villain leave too much to chance, or just don’t work. But you don’t think about that while watching the movie. It just looks like part of the plan.
You are not going to outsmart all of your players. Number-wise, there’s more of them than you. So the best thing you can do is cheat.
You don’t have to make an entire villainous plot by yourself, and hope it works. You can improvise parts of it based on player actions. Let the players succeed, and then afterwards find out how it fits into the villain’s plan.
The trick is to not go overboard, and only do it selectively. If you counter every single step the players make, they’ll feel frustrated. Remember that the purpose is to make the villain seem brilliant, not to beat the players.
5. Always Have an Escape Plan
A mastermind always has an escape planned. Secret escape tunnel, teleporter, hostages, the mastermind has it all.
A mastermind works best as a long-term villain, and unless getting captured is part of the plan (it sometimes is), you want them to keep pestering the heroes. Have them stay one step ahead of the heroes, always just out of reach until the final confrontation.
Plan your method of escape carefully, because players generally hate to let a villain get away. They will expend a lot of resources to make it happen, so be careful.
These are 5 tips that you can use to roleplay a criminal mastermind. What are some tricks that you use when running an incredibly smart person? Let me know!