Creating Interesting Villains for Your Campaign
“Am I evil? Yes I am.
Am I evil? I am man”
(Diamond Head, Lightening to the Nations, Am I Evil?)
Speculative Fiction is a genre full of villains, from the truly evil ones like The Big Bad Wolf or Tolkein’s Dark Lord, through the deranged ones like Misery’s Annie Wilkes or Batman’s Harley Quinn, to the tragic ones like Darth Vader or Magneto.
In this article I’ll attempt to review a few points and tips that should be taken into consideration when creating such an antagonist for an ongoing campaign, an antagonist that would be a little more interesting than a bored dragon lying on his pile of gold, waiting for a group of hardy adventurers to come and turn him into an impressive collection of breast plates.
Like any other issue to be addressed in roleplaying, or at all, for that matter, before asking yourself “how?”, you must first ask yourself “what?”. Before we start designing our villain, we must first define what exactly we are attempting to create. Is he going to be an ongoing villain, forever lurking in the shadows of our campaign, or just a local antagonist for a single scenario? The villain’s powers and motives, his interaction with the characters and the influence he’ll have on them and the rest of the campaign will all derive from the answer to this simple question.
Once we’ve understood the role we want our villain to take, we can move on to creating the villain himself. The first question we should ask ourselves is why he’s doing what he’s doing, or in other words, what is his motive. Only a handful of villains are truly evil, and they can usually be found only in one of two genres – epic fantasy and horror. Most villains of most campaigns will be driven be much more earthly motives, such as an unquenchable thirst for riches or power (and a complete disregard to the welfare of those who stand in their way), revenge or even an ideological or political agenda which places the characters on the wrong side.
Another issue directly connected to the two previous ones is the relationship between the villain to the characters. Generally speaking, all villains can be roughly divided into two categories – those related to the characters’ past, and those who aren’t.
The first type of villain is the classic comic-book villain, the villain whose entire existence as a villain, or perhaps even whose entire existence is focused on the characters and on taking his vengeance on them and undoing their efforts. There’s nothing wrong with creating such a villain, but in doing so, be careful to avoid the two classical mistakes of over-focusing on one character and of over-using the related villain motif. The first mistake is creating a villain opposing a single character, for a specific reason concerning that character alone, and not the other members of the group. It is possible to create such a villain, but be careful not to draw the campaign’s focus to a certain character and not to steal the other characters’ spotlight. The second mistake is self explanatory. There’s nothing wrong with creating a villain who embarked on his evil career after a past confrontation with the characters, but if every kid who lost a tic-tac-toe game to one of the characters when he was in third grade will later return as a powerful villain – you’re doing something wrong.
The other type of villain is the distant and faceless villain, existing only to serve his own cause. He isn’t interested in the characters and does not actively seek to defeat or harm them – he simply wants to get them out of his way so they stop interfering in his plans. Or, as General Bison, a mediocre villain in a mediocre movie, once put it: “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me… it was Tuesday”
Another issue to address is the villain’s powers. In order for our villain to be interesting, he must be able to defeat the characters. In other words, for a villain to be interesting, he must have some distinct advantage over the characters. But before you open your Dungeon Muster’s Guide or Keeper’s Companion and start searching it for interesting spells, formidable magic items and witty catch-phrases, stop and think. Any major villain will physically confront the characters only when all other options are exhausted, usually at the end of a lengthily campaign.
A real villain will lurk in the shadows and attempt to harm the characters in a variety of indirect methods – from various spells and curses that will make the character grow a rat’s tail or develop an acute allergy to carrot juice to dirty politics that could cause the characters an insurmountable amount of trouble, from harassment by various law-enforcement agencies, through shop owners refusing to do business with the characters to closing down the characters’ favorite tavern. Use your imagination and try to think of different and unique ways to empower your villain. Like any other subject in roleplaying games, there are no “rights” or “wrongs” here – even a close friendship with one of the characters’ romantic interest could be considered as an advantage the villain has over that character.
One last issue to think about is the way you use the villain. If every scenario would start with the villain attempting to destroy the characters and would end with the characters defeating the villain, you’re well on the way to a glorious yawn-fest. To ensure that your villain remains effective, he must be allowed to hurt the characters in a manner that is noticeable, but not fatal. Destroying valuable equipment, impairing abilities or abducting friends and allies are all great ways to remind the characters that the villain is still there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to strike. And of course, not every scenario needs to revolve around that villain. Even the most vicious villains are allowed to sit out a scenario or two, just to return to the hassle the characters at the least convenient time.
This article first appeared in issue #23 of The Orc.