Originally published by myself at Musings of the Chatty DM forum
"Greetings Lord Elric!" Boomed the King of Liberia, dark bags haunting his exhausted eyes, "Your kingdom has need of your services once again."
"I am always at your beckon call, your Majesty." bowed the great hero, "How may I serve you?"
"An evil wizard has moved into that cave just outside of town . . ."
"You mean the one where the Ogre Bandit's were, and the goblin horde, followed by the undead minions of that other evil wizard?" the great hero sighed.
"That is the one, you know it well." The king uttered, "This time his name is Memnotch, and he's cast a curse on our kingdom."
"Another curse . . ." sighed Elric, "Yeah, I'll tell the boys and we'll head on out there."
When badguys go stale! I'd just like to sit down with the lot of you and discuss what makes a good villain, and perhaps give you some mind-candy to saver for a bit. I noticed a great quote of Chatty's where he complained that his badguys were more like dudes running around in rubber costumes. I think that we've all been there! Take the video game Fire Emblem for example, it's one of my all-time favorites! The mechanics are great, it's the closest thing to gaming with miniatures that I have found . . . but the badguys aren't really all that bad. The only thing that sets them apart from your own side is that they laugh at their own jokes and have bad grammar. Yeah, they are hell-bent on taking over the world . . . but so are you.
Open up the Monstrous Manual, and you'll find hundreds of stats and special attacks and defenses, but these alone don't make interesting encounters. It is up to the DM to take the information presented in this book, and use it to flesh out a decent badguy . . . this is no easy task! It begs the question, "What IS a villain?" Through this post, I hope to answer these questions, and ask more, but while we do a biopsy of what makes a villain, I hope that on the other side of the coin, we will also learn what makes a great hero, and that is really what RPGs are all about.
What is a villain?
A villain is an NPC that essentially motivates your heroes to do something besides hang around the tavern all day getting drunk. His job is to kidnap the princess, murder his fellow NPCs, steal loot, attack villages, burn homes and engage in other such criminal behavior. But a better question that leads to a better villain, is WHY? Why attack the village? Why burn the homes to the ground? What is the villain hoping to achieve? In the above example about the evil wizard moving into that damned cave that should had been sealed up years ago. Why is he cursing the city? Is it just so that the characters can go beat him up, steal his loot and acquire experience points? Well, if so then this isn't good enough.
A villain NEEDS to be memorable. He needs to be the backbone of the campaign, in a sense, if your PC's aren't going after this guy using their own resources and money, then you could improve him. They need to hate him, even when they aren't sitting around the table. You want your players to draw pictures of him and throw darts at it, complain about him constantly to each other on the phone. He needs to be a constant thorn in their side. In a word, he needs to win! He needs to humiliate the PC's, to use them as he sees fit. You do this, and when the payoff comes, when the PC's get him and finally defeat him, they'll be jumping out of their chairs, high-fiving and screaming in triumph. They'll get that sense that they DID something. In a word, create a villain that PC's love to hate, and the rewards speak for themselves. They'll think that you are the best DM of all time!
But how do you do this?
First off, it isn't about min-maxing the villain's stats. You don't even need to have an epic monster to create a thrilling villain that your players will love to hate. You don't WANT him to be invincible, this'll only frustrate and discourage your players. He needs to be vile, not a god.
Fear is how you motivate your PCs. Scare the crap out of them! Surprisingly enough, fear is hard to achieve through a role-playing game, and I really don't want to get into creating settings, but there are ways of using your villain to insight fear into your players, even with all of the lights on, and the TV blaring in the next room.
Again, I'm not talking about him being invincible, that just leads to boredom. There are lots of monsters that can only be stopped by certain methods or items. During the first encounter, make the PC's run away with their tales between their legs. They CAN'T stop him yet, they can only thwart his plans if they play their cards right. You would be surprised at how angry players feel when they lose an encounter, when they have to flee. The next free moment they get, it will be talking between themselves about how to deal with this thing, which of course leads to excellent role-playing. But in the back of your mind, you need to know where the villain is vulnerable at, just don't come right out and say it, make the players research it, and discover it on their own.
Plan ahead! Pit 5th LV characters against a high level monster, no they can't defeat him now . . . and even folks who've read the MM will know this, and it will scare them. Maybe the villain has a use for them, PC's are generally more successful at hard tasks then anybody that the Villain could hire, this is up to you, but it also leads back to motivations, where is the profit in killing PC's when they pose no threat to you? Especially when you can use them as messengers of your power, and free heralds of destruction!
One of the biggest sins and disservices that a DM can do to a monster, is ignoring it's intelligence. If a Lich is a super-genius, then why is he staying up in a tower waiting for PCs to come along and kill him? How do you role-play something that is smarter then you? It's not that hard, once you know. A genius monster is going to be smart enough to have a plan for everything that the hero can through at it. It is going to be able to anticipate their every move, and set devious traps to slow them down. Listen to your PC's as they talk and plan their attacks and plans, just assume that the Genius is already aware of this and it fits right into his evil plans. A genius can anticipate exactly what the PC's are doing at any given time, this forces the players to up their own game. If they come up with some incredible plan that really pushes the game along, then make it work! Reward them for their ingenuity, but at the same time, punish them for being overly predictable. If they try to use the same tactic twice, make sure that it fails.
Playing up on INT, can turn even little gremlins that are tiny in size, into awesome advisories who's devious traps will scare the crap out of gamers.
Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?
This can be a bit touchy, and a word of warning to the Evil DM's out there, use your own judgment with using phobias, because if you play them too hard, it could cause you to lose a friend. Play up on them, but don't over do it, know how hard to push and make sure that you push no harder then you really have to.
With that warning out of the way, people DO have odd phobia's. Some folks hate spiders, others the mere sight of a snake is enough to get them up on their chairs screaming. I'm not saying to dump out a box of snakes onto the table, but play up on the natural fears of your players, especially with illusionists. Illusionists make great villains! Everybody knows a Necromancer and what they can do, but Illusionists can carve terrors that are individual and unique for each player at your table. As an example of this, I'll bring up Stephen King's book IT, when the kids were all grown up and wrapping things up during their first meeting, IT attacked them while they were opening up their fortune cookies by giving each of them a unique terror to chew on. So drop them into pits of snakes, and describe the snake pit with agonizing clarity and detail, but like I said, don't over do it. If your friend is especially vulnerable to a given phobia, be mature about it and just back off and leave it alone.
The thing that makes Batman such a great hero, is his villains. They are dark, scary, and utterly insane! Insanity scares people, and rightfully so! It's unpredictable. DM's typically claim that a character is insane, but they don't play it that way. Insane characters live by their own rules, and in their own private worlds. They aren't stupid, and there is always logic behind everything that they do, it's just not obvious to normal people. Sadistic and homicidal impulses are evidence of insanity, not the disease itself. This can be a handy tool for the pc's to finally take this guy down. Discover his method of thinking, the logic that he is using, and turn it against him. The Joker is one of the most popular villains of all time! The man isn't stupid, he is cunning and a time bomb that will go off. He isn't as crazy as he pretends to be, but at the same time he is driven to commit crimes that are easily predictable, because he WANTS Batman to show up. The Joker is a great character because he isn't one dimensional, just because he's insane, doesn't mean that he's not greedy, ruthless, intelligent, or arrogant, because he is all those things as well.
Political villainy, and the need for power
An evil wizard living in a cave outside of town is just waiting for heroes to come along and kill him, now what if you take this wizard and put him inside of the city itself? All collateral damage caused by taking this powerful being out, will be laid upon the heads of the players themselves. Why not just seal up the cave outside of town? This problem is easily remedied, but if, for example, the sewers are infested with wererats, one can't just cause the sewers to collapse as it would cause the city to be destroyed as well, not to even mention the fact that you can't seal off the sewer system, it gives the rats access to everything that they desire.
But lets make the villain even more powerful! Now that we've moved the wizard out of the country, and into the city, why not give him an even more powerful profession, like a trusted adviser to the king. Not all attacks against the PC's need be physical. A villain can use his power to turn entire kingdoms against the heroes by framing them for crimes that they didn't commit, spreading lies about them, doing this can cause their homes and forts to be seized, there assets frozen, their loved ones jailed. This takes the attack on a personal level that simply taking hitpoints away from a PC can never do, nor do the PC's have the luxury of simply ignoring the villains behavior. A good villain will NEVER enter a fight that he knows that he can't win, not to mention that a villain of this kind of power is not immediately obvious, he's not wearing a sign that points him out as the bad guy. He's hiding, he already has the ear of the king, the people love him, he's a trusted member of society, he's a master of doing this. If the PC's, upon the discovery simply go out and kill him, then their actions would have serious repercussions! They are forced to work with him, until he does screw up in some way that isn't at first obvious, but does lead to him being caught red-handed with the smoking gun, and no way of being able to talk his way out of the situation . . . and even then, it may lead to him being banished, where he can spend every waking moment devising a plot to have his revenge on those that caused his defeat in the first place.
The key is power, and properly identifying what power is. Give the villain the spoils of his victories, he needn't be a stat-stacked crusher that inflicts 12d20 points of damage per hit. Not when he can spread fear through his political power.
With a politically powerful villain, his attacks against the PC's should induce in them a sense of paranoia. Crush them, turn all of the NPC's against them. They are use to being the hunters, reverse it. Hang wanted posters, with rewards so high that they'll be targeted by everyone. Give them the sense that they are just prey, now it is THEM who are forced to live and operate in that dumb little cave outside of town. If they are discovered in town, the police will chase them down and arrest them, mobs will rise and lynch them. Isolate them, this is the stuff that fear is made of! Not even a cool Coke and a handful of cheetohs will destroy the mood then!
It needn't even be a political enemy, actually USE them dopplegangers! Make them question the motivations of everyone that they encounter . . . maybe, even of each other! Use paranoia to build suspense, it's a tool that the villain will use to psychologically defeat the heroes without outright killing them.
Not all villains dog your heroes around every turn, you'll need to feed them something that keeps the PC's feeling like they are accomplishing something. You also need to incorporate minor villains, but even these shouldn't be weirdos in rubber suits. As much as I hate to do it, some villains do require a special setting that will enhance the scenario. STEAL!!! Who out there doesn't enjoy the thrill of sitting down and watching spook shows? Treat your players to a night in a haunted mansion where they must solve the mystery of the place . . . which could point back into the direction of your main villain, but it doesn't have to. A big part of any story is putting your red-haring into the fray. Just give the PC's something fun to do for the night. A beloved NPC has been stricken with lycanthropy and isn't aware of the crimes that they are committing . . . or maybe they are but are ashamed and too afraid to just come out and say it. Force the Players to help the werewolf none violently. A city terrified of vampires, and a band of bandits who exploit this fear. Short little paranormal stories are always fun and are easy to invent with a little creative juice applied. Have them hunt witches, and uncover secret cults worshiping sinister fiends. Little murder mysteries, stereotypical horror stories, sometimes it pays to go overboard! Sometimes, the settings themselves can be good villains, use them to produce the right amount of fear, sometimes it's fun when everybody knows what's coming, but their alignment forces them to go against their better judgment anyway.
Okay, now we've talked about fear, and how a villain will use this to motivate your heroes. Lets now talk about another element that is needed to make a memorable badguy, HATE!
Hate is a strong word, and again, like fear, hatred isn't easy to produce in a Role-playing game. You can't just come out and describe somebody to your characters as, "You hate this guy." . . . well, I guess that you could, but it is much more satisfying to actually earn your hatred the old fashion way. By making your PC's fear your badguy, this will lend some hatred for him, but there are other ways to really bring this emotion about.
Again, great care must be applied here. You want the players to hate the villain, not you personally. The downside of creating hatred is that it can be taken personally, but with mature gamers hatred's upside is that it helps the player's suspend their disbelief, and we all know that this contributes to the element of an unforgettable game.
I do believe that Chatty calls this a symptom of an evil DM . . . thus a Bad DM. I will agree, to a fault that if it is over used, then yeah, you're a crappy DM. However, with that said, you want to create hatred as a hero motivation, then kill a loved one. Of course in order to do this, you as a DM have to create excellent NPC's, which from reading this board, I can tell that as a rule, you're all pretty good DM's. I always let my players create the best NPC's, you don't want to get caught doing this. You don't create a wife for one of your heroes, just so that you can kidnap and kill her. You don't want your PC's to fear creating bonds with NPC's because its a weakness, you want to encourage them to do this. Information is a great source for creating a popular NPC, somebody that the character goes to to get ideas, tools, or supplies. A brave soldier who the party shared a couple of adventures with, or a constable that they trust to arrest minor villains. When killing an NPC that the PC's like, always make sure that it is a big deal. Give them a glorious death! It might not have to be an NPC either, if your players aren't taking your Villain seriously, don't hesitated to kill one of them. Once a hero is dead, use this as well. Somebody thinks that your Zombie Lord is a wimp, kill them and bring them back as a monster later on down the road. You NEED to show, first hand, how dangerous your lead villain is. You need to express his cruelty and that he's a force not to be taken lightly. This goes back to fear, but you also want to instill hatred. Force the PC's to witness his cruelty first hand, give the choice to them if they try and help a NPC, or chase after your monster who did this. Maybe he doesn't outright kill a character, he tortures them and leaves them mangled but alive in a way that not even magic can heal, making the PC's themselves put the NPC out of their misery.
No matter what you do, make sure that the end result is that the Players want vengeance. Real vengeance, not the kind where they expect some kind of reward for hunting this guy down, but that vengeance itself is the reward.
Thou shall covet and steal
When you are playing a game, do you really care if the villain is stealing from the king, or that bandits are robbing rich merchants? No, I don't think that anybody does, yet this scenario is played and replayed more often then reruns of Gilligan's Island. The key here is to create real hatred towards a villain, and he's not going to be able to do this unless he makes his goals personal to the PCs.
The PC's have AWESOME stuff! +2 Swords, Gems of True Seeing, surely your villain is keeping up on the swag owned by your players, and chances are that he is also of the opinion that he can find much better uses for this fabulous stuff then they can. TAKE IT!!! Steal it! And most of all, use it against them. Why not just steal stuff, but replace them with cursed items. A good villain has all the time that he needs! He can easily create a cursed sword that looks just like their enchanted one, don't tell the PC "Oh, you're sword is now cursed." there's no fun in that. Let the player discover it for themselves. Why not put poison in their potions of extra-healing? Why not replace a pouch with a bag of devouring? If the party's got too much money, then take it! Heck, you can even give them stuff for them to enjoy for a bit, just to take it away and be used against them.
Magical items are great motivators, not just for Player Characters, but for Villains as well. In the current game that I'm running, I've created an Artifact that must be put together, and it's a race against the villains, with theft going on left and right! Indiana Jones has some of the best villains! After risking their skins in some haunted temple, acquiring this amazing object of value to them, imagine their dismay when they find the villain waiting for them on the outside, and he's got them completely surrounded. They are already weakened by the struggle inside, now they find out that they've got no choice but to hand this thing over to the badguy who you find out used you, but he's also got the nerve to laugh at you while he's doing it!
Make it real
You know your players, and can use your villain to do things that they personally can't stand. Say you have an environmentalist at your table, have your villain burn down entire forests just to cause a distraction away from him while he accomplishes his real goals. Have him abuse animals, enslave children to work his mine, beat and rape women. Attack their sensibilities! But also role-play. Give them thoughts and opinions that make people mad, the villain can be racist, sexist, arrogant, close-minded, a liar, selfish, greedy, and just possessing an over-all bad attitude. Don't be afraid to let your villains talk in this manner, PC's as a general rule, aren't really looking at you when your saying it, but imagining that it is coming out of the character that they are seeing in their heads.
You can also give them annoying habits, picking their teeth, tapping obsessively or making some other annoying sound when you're roleplaying them to show that they aren't really giving the PC's all of their attentions. Mock the PC's, point out all of their short-comings, BE THE BAD GUY! And do go out of your way to insure that the PC's do get to do some roleplaying with them at some point, just so that they can get to know the villain on a personal level as well.
If you want to know what real villainy is, watch a wrestling show. Pro-wrestlers are experts of the psychology of it all. A slighted NPC will have no qualms about hiding his real feelings in regards to the PC's until the moment that it is time to act. PC's like to steal stuff off of dead enemies, make this come back to haunt them, but not all betrayal is so involved. Think deviously, and hide your villains well. Not all badguys are obviously vile, some are very good at hiding their true selves and are quite impressionable! The Princess who implements her saviors as the ones who kidnapped her to begin with, the PC's believing that a tribe that they have found losing a war, are actually the initiators of it.
The key to successful betrayal is that it is a huge plot twist, something that the players took for granted that it was set in stone, was in fact a lie, and they find themselves trapped in the middle or on the wrong side completely. They were tricked into doing something awful, or perhaps they take pity on the wrong guy. Even minor villains can be made more important this way, and it is remarkably easy to pull off successfully. PC's don't talk with NPC's as much as they should, you can easily put a villain into a situation and hide them right out in the open, keeping them quiet and acting all interested in what is happening, when all they are really doing is simply waiting for the PC's to find something that they'll snatch and leave the PC's cursing because they were there the entire time and played them for a fool.
Your main villain also shouldn't be obvious, a genius character is never going to implement himself. Good main villains can be mentors, or even family members. It will throw the players for a loop when they uncover the identity of their tormentors, and beg the question of "Why?" thus creating great roleplaying possibilities as the heroes may at first be reluctant to do anything about them, and try to forgive them . . . but of course we can't let an ending as simple as that to happen, now can we?!
There you have it. The ingredients to cook up a nasty villain! Fear and hatred, that's all it takes. Mix and match the above suggestions and give those stats listed in the MM some class and character. Give them personality and style that is immediately recognizable to the players, and make them cringe when they encounter them and/or their minions. A word, a phrase, an M.O.! This will give flesh to your cardboard cut-out NPC's, and motivate your players into being the Heroes that they strive to be.
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