It occurred to me today that there is a great lesson for running your villains and campaigns to be found in Super Hero comics that I had never quite caught on to. These lessons show up in other fiction, even in pre-published campaigns, but they're never really called out as such. Like I've said numerous times about things in sociology: the concept is so simple that we frequently don't discuss it. Also like sociology though, in not discussing it and assuming it is already broken down as simple as it needs to be we leave room for misunderstanding what is going on and what we need. When we're running a game, that leaves room for plot holes and other things that can leave an arc feeling unsatisfying.
So today let's talk about your villain's grand goal, and their current scheme.
Characters Need Goals
When making characters - especially villains who by nature tend to be more pro-active - we need goals. These goals are the motivators that move the character along. When it comes to making PCs we're often told to make one major goal and two minor goals. The idea being you can accomplish, and swap out, the minor goals while working towards your major goal. It is good advice for a character that will be in the game every session, but in my experience is often not applied to the villains who - even if they're felt every session do not come up every session.
Instead our villains have their major goals, and much like the Super Villains in comic books, a lot of times those goals are grandiose things: Take over the world! Eradicate All Life! Become An Immortal, All Powerful Lich/God!
These goals are fine. In fact I would say they're necessary. They set the scope for the story to be told by this villain, because a villain who intends to take over - or destroy - the whole world is going to be part of a much grander and higher powered story than one who just wants to take over their local neighborhood.
However, having this goal isn't as helpful when it comes to planning a campaign as it could be, and it also is not helpful in planning session to session content when the villain is going to be taking the stage. So let's break it down.
Grand Goals are exactly what I listed above. This is the entirety of the villain's arc. Doctor Doom wants to take over the whole world. Poison Ivy wants to eradicate, or at least severely cull, the presence of humans to save the earth. Magneto wants to make mutants the dominant species on earth so that humanity can't oppress and torture his fellow mutants.
The Grand Goal does not have to be as grandiose as those things. Often the best villains are the heroes of their own story, which is basically just a way of saying that - like the hero - the villain is trying to solve a problem just perhaps a problem only they see as one, or via means that are not exactly healthy for others. In this case, the Grand Goal is exactly that, it is the implementation of the solution to the problem the villain is trying to solve.
You can have multiple grand goals too. I would recommend having one primary goal, but secondary and tertiary goals are good too. These are also good to keep open. After being thwarted several times perhaps the villain adds "Secondary Objective: Punish <the PCs>!" to their list of goals and things they need to solve.
The Current Scheme is exactly what it sounds like. It is the current plot or ploy the villain is up to. The current scheme is in service to the grand goal, but it is not the grand goal in its entirety. Upon successful completion, the current scheme will bring the villain a step closer towards accomplishing their goal. If stopped, the villain suffers a setback for sure - but may or may not be completely thwarted (depending on their level of personal involvement.)
Complete enough schemes, and the villain will eventually get to their goal. However, in breaking it down into schemes you are effectively cooking adventures along the way to that final conflict that your PCs can be involved with - or not - as they choose. And by breaking things down to current schemes - especially if a villain has multiple goals or purposes - it becomes easier to cook in things like Xanatos Gambits (<--TV Tropes link) as well as to keep track of what your villains are up to while the PCs are off foiling some other never-do-well's plots and plans.
The Super Hero Connection (a.k.a. Examples)
As I said above, Doctor Doom wants to take over the world. However, most of the stories involving Doctor Doom are not ones with the whole world at stake - at least yet. Instead we have the stories of super heroes getting involved in the schemes Doctor Doom employs to get him in position to take over the world. So in this arc, we find out that Doctor Doom is replacing key government figures with Doom Bots, working in shadows to take over a kingdom and add it to his control. Depending on how busy the Fantastic Four is, he may or may not be further along in his plan. At which point the FF has to get involved, figure out who is a doom bot, and rescue the people who have been replaced.
The Kingpin in the first season of netflix's Daredevil wanted to take over New York and clean it up by controlling crime. However, he couldn't just jump to doing that all at once. He had schemes involved with the various gangs and criminal organizations he was working with and balancing against each other, with the corporate ties he was making. These schemes gave entry points for characters to get involved and uncover the full breadth of what was going on. Which in turn added those characters to 'problems to be rectified' for the Kingpin and his allies.
Applying It To Your Game
Let's say we're running a 'City' campaign where the game all takes place in a single city. You have a villain - we'll call him Thaddeus ' who wants to take over all the crime in the city. You envision Thaddeus as a sort of Kayser Soze type from The Usual Suspects - he's a myth, a shadow, controlling things from behind the curtain. This means he works through agents.
Thaddeus wants to take over crime in the city. That is his story. The PCs - for it to be a plot in the game - need to find out about this goal of Thaddeus's and get involved in some way. So how do we do that?
You guessed it, with schemes.
So what is a scheme that Thaddeus could do that would be a step along the way to taking over all crime? Well, before one can take over all crime, one has to take over some crime, right?
We start with something small. Thaddeus is making in roads in the drug trade. He has supplies for a new drug that he is introducing into the city at cut-throat prices. This is causing problems for other drug traffickers who now have people not affiliated with them starting to push product in their turf, but also these people are charging less money which is stealing.
For Thaddeus this goes one of two ways (your choice): he introduces the product, causes a bit of disruption with the current established groups, but then invites them to also sell his better, cheaper product. Once established and having taken those groups, he edges the other suppliers out of the game until he is the sole provider for all product in the city. Alternatively, he introduces the product, causes problems, and then through a drug war takes over turf by eliminating groups while moving product.
For the PCs they can get involved when they find out about someone selling new drugs in their area, or when they hear about the drug war, or by being hired by someone to find out who this new supplier is.
Which means we now have a small, containable plot that helps our villain, can bring in PCs, and run the game for a bit. At the end perhaps the PCs foil Thaddeus's plan. Perhaps they don't. But either way both should be on the other's radar. At which point if Thaddeus is your whole plan for the campaign, you can move on to other schemes. or you can let it rest for a bit and then bring Thaddeus back later.
Planing Out Ahead Of Time
The other good part about planning out a Grand Goal and Current Schemes is it enables you to make a list of things the villain needs to accomplish to achieve their goals, which in turn can all be their schemes. This effectively gives you a progress meter - or a clock to use Blades terminology - for how close to accomplishing their grand goal the villain is as the game goes along. Or it could be used to plan a whole campaign around this one villain and their rivalry with the PCs over the fate of...whatever you decide the stakes are.
It Also Works For Allies
As a fun note, Grand Goals and Current Schemes also work for allies of the PCs. In fact, having these in mind is a great idea because it gives you the option of not always hitting the PCs with villains, but occasionally having them asked for help by their friends who could use a hand accomplishing goals of their own. In helping their allies the PCs then help themselves, because their ally is now stronger - and owes them for the help (strengthening the bond of the ally, at least hopefully.)