Thursday, December 21, 2017

Villain Spotlight: King Haggard

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle, was published in 1968.  It tells the story of a unicorn who overhears a hunter saying that she is the last of her kind and decides to leave her enchanted forest in search of other unicorns.  She learns of the Red Bull, who drove the unicorns to a far away land, and she meets companions in the magician Schmendrick and Molly Grue, the wife of a bandit leader.  On the journey to the castle of King Haggard they encounter the Red Bull and Schmendrick turns the unicorn into a human to protect her.  They arrive at the castle and seek employment with the king in order to search the castle for signs of the unicorns.  Following clues and braving the lair of the Red Bull, they eventually free the unicorns and destroy the castle.

An animated movie by Rankin/Bass, who had previously done The Hobbit and The Return of the King, was released in 1982 and is surprisingly faithful to the book.  The movie benefited from a fantastic cast including Alan Arkin as Schmendrick the Wizard, Jeff Bridges as Prince Lír, and Christopher Lee as King Haggard.  This movie was a staple of my childhood and remains a favorite with its heavy themes of regret, heroism, fate, and love.  There is a sort of self-awareness the characters show of their roles in the story that I have always found fascinating.
"A quest may not simply be abandoned; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever.  A happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story."

The Villain

King Haggard is a haunting and intimidating presence, but he is also sympathetic.  His motivation for holding the unicorns captive in the sea seems more of a curse than anything.  Having seen a unicorn by chance as a young man, nothing in the world compares to the beauty and grace of that vision, and even in old age he cannot look at anything else for long.

"My secrets guard themselves." - King Haggard

His castle is a perfect setting for an RPG.  The decrepit keep sits alone on an impossible rock outcropping overlooking the sea.  The king and his adopted son live here, along with a court magician who is quickly dismissed, but no other servants are seen.  There is a village nearby in the book where the unicorn and her companions learn some background about King Haggard from the innkeeper.  There are monsters nearby, as shown from Prince Lír's heroic quests.  There is definitely a Keep on the Borderlands feel to it, as the castle is remote and isolated in a dangerous land.  While the traditional model presents the keep as a safe space and the dungeon nearby, Haggard's castle places its dungeon very near, giving even the home base a sense of danger.  The lair of the Red Bull is guarded by a devious puzzle, the solution of which is known only to Haggard and an alcoholic undead spirit.  I can't think of another castle in film that I'd port into a game.

There are a few fun encounters to be had in this castle.  The undead spirit is a traditional riddle challenge, that can be bypassed through the purveying of wine, or the illusion of such.  A talking cat is somewhat antagonist but can provide useful information if tolerated.  The clock is a fairly standard illusion door, although its destruction by Haggard's sword suggest a material component that players might be able to interact with.  The Red Bull is a nigh-undefeatable foe that, once in its lair, should always be in pursuit.  I would recommend a wandering monster check that decreases down the die chain as time is spent in the lair.  At first it is a 1 on a d20, then a d12, d10, and so on.

An interesting aspect of King Haggard, as an antagonist, is that he never really actively works against the heroes until he destroys the clock.  He even employs them and gives them shelter.  A Haggard-like character would best be used as a patron to the heroes, who happens to have a very evil background secret which might conflict with their ultimate goals.  He is supremely confident in the dungeon he has constructed to deal with any unwanted interlopers.  And he is not an outright homicidal foe, killing for the sake of being a combatant.  He is interested in these strangers simply due to boredom, and his suspicions, and he will entertain their presence as long as they are useful and/or entertaining.

However sympathetic, in the end, King Haggard is a man who keeps a monster in a dungeon in order to hold the most beautiful creatures in the world captive for his personal enjoyment.  He is unequivocally evil.  But he is far more complex than the traditional villain with aspirations of world domination.  He should make a very nice addition to any game world.

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