Hello again Stuffer Shack. I’m back with my regular dosage of irregular philosophical waxing. See, Tourq was a nice man recently and ran a contest that I was allowed to help judge. The contest, as you may have heard, was about your most memorable villains. I figured with the contest done I’d chime in on what I think makes for a good villain for a table top role playing game. As usual, this is more the philosophy behind the workthat I think gets the most mileage. It may also, in a way, help to explain the thought process I used when I – I can’t speak for the other judges – sent in my voting for the most memorable villain.
The Villain Is An Antagonist
One of the first pieces of advice someone gave me when I started to get serious about both storytelling and GMing was that a good villain should be an antagonist. As an antagonist, the character has one real job: to force the protagonist (read: the PCs) to change. Keep this in mind as you are plotting the story out and working on the encounters. The Villain should be challenging the PCs on a number of fronts. Yes, maybe there will be physical challenge – we all love a little action – but the truly great villains also challenge the protagonists in other areas, as well. To use Batman as a reference (he is generally a good place to look for good villains), look to the Joker. Would the Joker be anywhere near as engaging as a villain if he didn’t constantly force the question of just how far Batman will have to go to stop him? Joker isn’t a physical challenge for Batman, nor do we love Joker for his physical prowess. He is a psychological villain that challenges the hero in his soul, his mind, and his sanity. He has forced Batman to change – which is saying something considering how comic books work – and that is why he gets the respect he does.
The Villain Is Actually The Hero
Another bit of good storytelling advice is to approach the villain as if they were the hero from their own point of view. Maybe they are going to extreme measures, but very few characters that aren’t cardboard cutouts do evil or sew chaos for no reason. From the villain’s perspective, they are the hero. They are trying to accomplish something for some reason and the PCs/Heroes are the antagonists that are trying to prevent them from reaching this goal. By doing this, you give your villain motivations, and those motivations may even be things that the player/PC could agree with, even if they dislike the means that the villain is using. Most importantly, it gives the villain depth and humanizes them in a very real way. A well-humanized villain can make a very lasting impression.
A good example of this is the Empire from the Star Wars films. While we are shown that they are the villains (dark side of the force, super weapon known as a death star, ruling via fear) ultimately all of this information is presented to us with the intention of us rooting for the heroes who are rebels. Look at it more objectively and the “heroes” are a violent resistant group to the established government who, among other things, destroy two very large military installations (obligatory Clerks contractor reference) and in one case use their position as a member of the Senate to cover up their acts of treason. It would be very easy to run a game in the Star Wars universe with the Empire as the good guys and the rebels as the bad guys. Someone who truly believed in the Empire would think themselves the hero trying to put down a rebellion and restore order and peace to the galaxy.
Player Experience Is King
Enough about storytelling tactics, let’s talk about GM style. When it comes to a truly good villain you need to remember that the players’ experience with the villain is going to be key. This is why good storytelling technique can be fundamental to a good villain, because the storytelling technique should – if done right – increase the player experience. This is also why I dislike villain write ups that come across as “look how clever I am for developing this monster!” and love villains where the monster/villain itself may not be so special but the player experience would be much stronger.Don’t get me wrong, a cleverly made villain is great and can be fun, but when your villain has the players staring at you with mouths agape in horror, realization, awe, or some combination of the above… yeah, that’s one of the best feelings in the world. A villain tied in to the world, tied in to the character’s history – especially if it was something they did in game – can be an amazing experience.
No matter what though, if you want your players to remember the villain, then do something to make the experience from the players’ side, memorable. The villain that was all battle rolls and beaten by dice mechanics alone is easily forgotten. The villain who kills the barbarian’s people, sacrifices the elf mage’s wife to a demon, and then is beaten after the bard manages to convince them that they’ve been led down the wrong path and reminds the villain of their humanity? That one is a lot more memorable.
Repeated Conflict Is Good
So now we know that player experience is king. Want to know one of the best ways to make that experience more worth it? Repeated conflict. This can be done a couple of ways. The two favorite ways I have for it are “the three-fight conflict” and “the one who got away.”
In the ‘three fight conflict’ there are three encounters between the PCs and the villain. The first time, the PCs get schooled by the villain. You need to do this carefully to keep it fun, but the villain should win it handily. Some fun ways to do it can be the villain not using a weapon they have on them or something of that nature. The second fight should be a much closer fight, maybe even a fight where the PCs and villain are on equal footing. This fight gets interrupted before any real resolution can happen, but the point is that the PCs get a chance to see how far they’ve grown (maybe they make the villain pull that weapon this time). The third fight is the one the PCs win. At this point it has been built up, and when the PCs win they get the feeling they’ve been looking for.
In “the one who got away” the villain is generally not a match for the PCs as a group, at least not physically. This works great with schemer/cerebral villains. How it works is this: the PCs stumble across some plot that is going on. The PCs shut down the plot, but the ring leader gets away. Later – a story or two down the road – the person pops up again with more going-ons. The point is that over multiple stories this villain keeps getting away. It will start to harass the players that they can’t catch him/her and that gives you the hook. This one is a lot trickier though for a very simple reason: if the PCs keep shutting down the villain’s plots, they may start to think of the villain as a joke. To counter this I recommend heavily employing Xanatos Gambits. Let the players win the day, but make it clear that the villain still got what they were after, too. Things like large sums of money going to fund “something” can work well for this. As can hidden excavation sites that have already been emptied. You need to show that the villain is a threat, constantly, even while letting the players’ win. Otherwise, the villain becomes a joke, and no one wants that. Right?
Just As Capable
The last thing that I want to go over, and this is both a GM technique and storytelling technique is that often the best villains are just as capable as the hero. They are equals, and in that equality they are dangerous and lethal to behold. This is the Moriarty to Holmes situation here. A villain with all the capabilities of the hero and, perhaps, none of the restrictions. This can be fun because it gives the players something hard to go against that is beatable, but in working for that victory they also have to expose how vulnerable they themselves are. Often times I’ve found that making the villain just as powerful as the PC has a much larger impact than when the villain is in fact stronger. Strong things are surmounted by heroes all the time. Someone who is their equal and just as capable? That is someone to fear.