So I’ve got a so-called villain strapped to the operating table (he wouldn’t stop squirming while I was using the scalpel) because I was wondering what makes them work. What’s makes them tick (tick-tock, tick-tock, like an evil clock!) so speak. It seems to be a fad these days, to be chillin’ like a villain. As I mop up (more like smear it around) the pools of blood this dastardly fellow leaked (how uncooperative he’s been!), I try to listen (he was screaming the whole time) to the notes I recorded during my dissection.
Anyways, I should let one of my trusted assistants finish cleaning up, I know how much they like to chew the fat while working. Hey, don’t forget to put those organs through the grinder before they spoil! Where was I? Oh yes, my notes… well I present my written report on the composition of a villain. DAMN IT MINIONS! Chew with your mouth closed, you know how much the smacking of lips irritates me!
We all like to build the most effective villains for our games, but some components work better in different atmospheres. If you’re game is a light, humorous poke at the supers’ genre, then a truly nasty demon villain that eats babies may not be appropriate (or it may, depending on your group…). The underlying point is to use the components that work for you and forget the rest.
Antagonists vs. Villain
Let’s get one thing straight; villains are the bad-asses of the bad-guy universe. If you look at the bad-guy universe as a Venn diagram, the big circle is the general antagonists set and then a much, much smaller circle, a subset of the general antagonists, is the villains. Villains are a special breed.
Antagonists are anyone who becomes obstacles in the player characters’ path. They could range from the diligent guard blocking access to a location (just doing his job) to the thug who beat up one of their grandmas and left her for dead. It could be the bard in the corner singing out of tune so loudly that the PCs cannot hear what the thief in the corner is saying to her boss. An antagonist just someone (or something) like makes life more difficult, but doesn’t necessarily have a lasting effect on the campaign.
Actual villains should probably remain relatively rare in a campaign, otherwise they lose their effectiveness. The single factor that make a villain distinct from lesser antagonists is the fact his goal(s) is the direct anti-thesis of the PC’s ultimate goal(s). A villain is the arch-nemesis of the player characters, and he actively tries to defeat them.
Mechanisms of Good Villains
I have collected, preserved, and placed in labeled jars full of formaldehyde some of the common components of effective villains. These are some of the most rotten elements that comprise many of the most hated and feared villains.
Cult of Personality
Many villains become powerful leaders and influential people of station through their commanding presence and charisma. They may use sex appeal or oratory skills (no it’s not the same, pervert!). This usually means any dialog with a villain should be real and memorable. Not to mention the hoards of zealous followers willing to lie down and die for their liege.
If a villain doesn’t pose an honest threat the player characters, then he’s a mook (as opposed to a villain). A villain should strike fear into the hearts of the players, not just their characters. A villain actually uses sound tactics in and out of combat and he orders his minions to do the same.
This is really a reflection of the game’s attitude and atmosphere. A villain should be just as intense as the player characters (or more so if they are a bunch of gimpy roleplayers). If the characters see the world as black and white (and they are white), then the villain is the blackest black. If everything is seen in shades of grey, this guy is nebulous too. If everything is tongue-in-cheek comedy, then the villain should be dark humor.
This is a reflection of the player characters. Sometimes the best villain is a photographic negative of one or more player characters, or what they believe in. The villain should be a perverse mockery of all the good traits of the characters.
Some villains still possess a shred of their humanity (or elvenity, or whatever) that they had before they became the cruel bastard they are now. Perhaps they have a soft spot for children (or gully dwarves), or like ice scream an awful lot. This is a great way to get players to feel sympathy for a villain.
So your players have slain the big bad evil guy, but wait… this guy was actually the good captain who was undercover trying to find the real bad guy? Oh yeah, the truly despicable villain will throw the player characters with excellent red herrings. What did you just say, you’re my mother!? Nooooooooo!!
Give the player characters a greater understanding of their nemesis and have them discover the tragic origins of the villain. Perhaps he grew up in an orphanage where the Sisters of Mercy wouldn’t give him any ice cream but would pound down pints of Cookies’n’Cream in front of him, oh the torture! So now he will drown any nun he sees in hot sticky cream.
Occasionally is it can be fun keeping the villain unknown and working from the shadows. The player characters are always baffled until he finally slips and makes a mistake. Then you reveal the villain in all her glory, hopefully crushing the PCs’ spirits with hopelessness.
Usually, I am not a proponent of scaling elements in the world with the progression and power of the player characters. I like an organic or natural world. But the natural world isn’t completely static, and an ambitious villain will most definitely progress in power too; quite possibly at a faster rate than the PCs depending on how unscrupulous she is.
Well you can’t have a terrifying villain with a hokey name, unless that’s the atmosphere of the game. If your villain has been designed properly, merely using the name in normal conversion should elicit emotional reaction from your players.
Cinema & Novels
Let’s face it. Roleplaying games are NOT movies or books. That’s a good thing, because playing an RPG is dynamic art that always creates a unique experience because you (and the rest of your group) are the one creating it. It’s just that some of the tools and techniques used in cinema and novels don’t work as effectively when used right out of the box.
Presentation & Revelation
Directors and authors often center parts of their stories away from the protagonists and focus on the activities of the villain. This is great because it allows them to develop the villain’s character and compel the [passive] audience to connect with the adversary.
Game Masters do not have that luxury. It is fairly difficult to switch away from the player characters during the game to narrate the devious actions that the villain is doing. Besides killing the pacing, it also destroys the suspension of disbelief by showing things that is impossible for the characters to know (and of course this information can then be metagamed).
However a clever GM can reveal the villain’s machinations, history, and depth of character to the player characters through the accounts of interviewed witnesses, scrying, dream sequences, scenes of aftermath, and other recreations of the villain’s actions.
Check out some other insightful posts about villains on The Core Mechanic and At-Will!