Creating a Compelling RPG Villain

“Don’t talk like you’re one of them! You’re not… even if you’d like to be. To them you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their “code”… it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these “civilized people?” They’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”

– Joker, “The Dark Knight”

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Godblood2It’s said that no one ever sees themselves as the villain, merely the hero of their own story. In the world of tabletop gaming, however, the heroes and villains tend to be rather distinguishable. Heroes wearing shining armor and stand for honor and virtue, while villains wear black and are covered in blood as they spout threats in a quest to destroy all life. Sympathy for the villain can be rare or so minor it becomes a nonfactor, and sometimes this is alright. However, when you create a story that may take months or even years to unravel, this black-and-white portrayal can seem a little bland and the adventure eventually redundant.

Every creative venue has methods for creating engaging protagonists and antagonists. There are countless books and videos detailing what makes a “great” novel or movie villain, but tabletop gaming is a different animal. Players aren’t just readers or spectators; they are active participants in the story. Every good campaign should have a strong force of opposition, whether it’s a large force or – more likely – a primary individual that must be stopped. The road to get to that end need not be a straight line, and below are a few suggestions on how to fashion a compelling and interesting villain against whom your heroes will do battle.

1. SECRET MOTIVES

In movies especially and novels to a lesser extent it is generally considered a good idea to present the motives, agenda, or at least affiliation of the antagonist fairly early on. This sets the stakes for the protagonists, plots their own goals, and helps compare and contrast the two forces. In the long-term pacing of tabletop gaming, however – in which players must piece together clues as they go – a good villain remains a mystery until the very end. If the evil Dragon King is set on destroying Goodville, you can bet the heroes will head for and make camp in Goodville for most of the campaign. They’d have no real reason to do otherwise.

Keeping players on their toes accomplishes two things simultaneously: it keeps the campaign from getting boring and it puts space between the heroes and the villain. A village on fire is certainly cause for concern and action on the part of the heroes, but was it intentional? Was it part of the villain’s plot? Is the fire merely a distraction as she maneuvers elsewhere? What secrets did she want to destroy with this fire? These are questions that make players think, and can turn even a simple plan of conquest into a far-reaching campaign of intrigue. In addition, having heroes investigate a burning town for clues and rumors allows the villain to continue on to her next task is relative safety, the fog of mystery becoming a smokescreen for her and her minions.

2. HINT OF HUMANITY

Building onthe “no one sees themselves as a villain” motif, a purely evil and destructive force – while certainly deadly – can become two-dimensional. Bringing even the slightest glimmer of humanity into the darkest heart can not only strengthen the character of the antagonist but throw your players into their own alignment quandaries. Maybe the villain saw his entire village burn down, and the authorities refused to help him. Maybe he had a loved one who left or died, fostering a deep sadness that soon became rage. Maybe he is cursed, and has no control of his actions. Maybe he is actually the unwitting servant of a greater evil. He could feel his actions are inevitable, and that redemption is impossible. Whether or not humanity wins out in the end, merely breaking the black-and-white mold may make some heroes second-guess their zealous quest to destroy them.

3. HONORABLE EVIL

Few things are as bewildering and alignment-challenging in an RPG as a villain who shows honor. This is a fantastic aspect in cultural campaigns such as Rokugan or Feudal Japan in which honor and dishonor replace typical notions of good and evil. An scorpion2honorable villain, though a bloodthirsty murder, could reach out to the heroes in a civil manner.

She could be honest in her plans and truthful in conversations, even if it’s at odds with the heroes. She could spare the lives of heroes who break into her abode, simply because she knows they were under orders to do so. She could congratulate the heroes on victories or even aid them against rivals. She could refuse to strike first and always greet the heroes unarmed until threatened.

Maybe the villain is actually in the right? What if the dark lord is the rightful ruler of the kingdom, even if he’s evil? What if the “good” King wrongfully accused and condemned the villain’s late sibling, prompting him to take up arms in retaliation? What if the Orcs were promised land, and when they weren’t granted the Chieftan waged war against the human squatters in his forest?

For heroes that are truly law-abiding and honor-focused, this can be a seriously difficult thing to deal with and makes for some very interesting encounters.

4. VILLAINS WIN, UNTIL THEY LOSE

A truly compelling and engaging antagonist always seems to be a step ahead. This can be difficult to balance, because too many losses can be frustrating or downright infuriating to the heroes. Tabletop gaming is an improvised art form, which allows for a unique opportunity to build up a villain as more crafty and ingenious than they actually are. The method for doing so is simple: you cheat.

Any situation, whether a victory or failure by the heroes, can be spun to be “part of the villain’s plan.” That village they liberated? They are secretly loyal to the antagonist, and once they leave the villain now has a stronger base than before. The random Orc patrol the heroes thought was a waste of time? They carried a powerful magical item that could’ve turned the tide of the war. The scrap of paper no one can translate? It’s now the password into the villain’s lair. While such spin-doctoring should be used sparingly, it can help build the dynamic that they are always playing into the villain’s hands – until the end, when the tables are turned.

A solid example is what I call the “Moriarty Effect.” It’s a classic dupe often perpetrated after the players fail to investigate something properly. For instance, a woman pleads for the heroes to find her children that ran into a dark cave. If no one bothers to roll for insight or check for illusions, suddenly that innocuous stranger could become the villain or her henchman in disguise – and a rather deadly secret is awaiting the heroes in that cave.

5. KILLING AN IDEAL

Drawing on real-world influences, one of the most seemingly impossible tasks facing the heroes is to combat an ideal. Villains can be killed. Beliefs are immortal. The villain could simply be the face of a culture, religion, social caste, or cult that is far-reaching and growing. Perhaps the villain champions a revolt against a king due to high taxes and an overreaching military. Suddenly the heroes must now contend with entire cities of like-minded civilians who see the heroes as villains themselves. Perhaps the Dark Priest is simply one leader out of countless throughout the world. Now the heroes must not only drop the Priest from destroying the land, but weed out the rest of the church as well. It is like a hydra, cutting off one head while two more take its place. Such conundrums prevent a relatively small or straightforward task (killing the villain) as the tip of the iceberg. The heroes must dig out the roots, or the felled tree will continue to regrow over and over.

OVERALL

Villains are vital to any campaign, and the stronger the antagonist the richer the campaign will be. While the story is important, without a compelling force to oppose the heroes their quest may well seem hollow.

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The Psychology of Gaming

“The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience. There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.”
– Gary Gygax

Roleplaying in any game is a unique opportunity to escape into the lives of a constructed persona, to live lives of adventure and cunning, battle and espionage. Tabletop games especially, such as Dungeons & Dragons, provide yet another critical aspect to this vicarious living – social interaction. Whether physically surrounded by friends or strangers, or communicating by headphone over the internet, gaming allows players to create their own story instead of just reading one that is already written. The unpredictability of the campaign is what is so compelling and often addicting, since with every conversation or combat encounter, everything could completely change. When I first started gaming, as an actor I was thrilled at the opportunity to perform and take on the personas of my characters. I would often make dozens at a time, even if I would only end up playing one, just to feel the rush of creation. But the performance aspect of roleplaying turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. By exploring the minds of the characters, I inadvertently discovered I was exploring my own mind as well.

One thing I had begun to notice over the years was that no one makes a character without reason. Something about their personality or backstory appeals to the player, and the player often injects the same traits into multiple characters – often without noticing. This develops a core pattern of the mutual psychology of gaming. Simple put, characters become reflections of the players. Most often when I’ve brought this up to players, they were completely unaware of this. Some players make the same types of characters over and over, while others are all over the map with a few unifying traits.

For example, a good friend of mine had a character whose father was addicted to painkillers and her goal was to find an “out” for him. I somewhat jokingly pointed out that all of her characters are either distanced from their parents, or helping them deal with addiction in some way. She later admitted that her real mother was currently suffering from addition and at risk of losing everything. She had never noticed the similarities in her characters until I said something.

Because characters become an extension of the player’s psyche, there are times the player can feel exposed or agitated when that extension is pointed out. Recently I played with someone who created a drunken drifter with no motivation. When I as the Narrator started asking why the character fell into drink, what he was hiding from, and what he wanted to do before becoming a drink, the female player grew rather angry and admitted that there were “personal reasons” behind the character. Soon thereafter the player quit the group.

Another player who expressed an interest in joining revealed an even darker side of human psychology. He asked if I’d allow a secretly evil character into the group, and this began a long discussion on why he felt butchering civilians and releasing plagues on innocent populations could be justified. I counter-argued, expressing my belief that because the rest of the party was good in nature they wouldn’t stand for it and would likely attack, abandon, or arrest his character. That’s when things started to get “real.” He compared the situation to real life and said, for example, “if we were best friends and I killed someone because he annoyed me, would you help me bury the body or coldly call the police despite everything we mean to each other.” This opened an entirely new can of worms. When I started discussing the fact that most humans have a moral and legal compass that would prevent them from assisting in murder, he claimed I had no concept of human psychology and promptly left. Needless to say it was a rather harrowing experience that made me realize just how deeply embedded psychology and mental relations are to the gaming experience.

Over the years I seem to have attracted players who have many deep-seeded issues that we’ve been able to address and, in some cases, heal through roleplaying. It’s a calling and responsibility I don’t take lightly. I’ve learned not to ignore players others may consider problematic. Instead I do my best to understand why players play certain characters in certain ways, good or evil. Even the lack of motivation or depth of character speaks volumes to me. In my opinion, there are no lazy gamers. Players participate in roleplaying games to portray a character and interact with in a social environment, which takes dedication and initiative. So to go through the process of finding or forming a group, getting a character created, and then keeping up with them on a weekly basis, having a background such as “his family was killed, and now he just drinks and takes up mercenary work all day” says to me that the player has issues delving into their own psyche. That’s why the character has none to probe. So, by chipping away at the lone-wolf, murder-hobo exterior of two-dimensional characters, it’s entirely possible to uncover a cavern of suppressed emotions, personal history, and family life. While I personally don’t force any player to self-analyze, nor do I recommend others press the issue, it’s worth noting that every character is in fact a manifested mask covering the face of the player. Some are comical, some serious, some valiant, some violent – but all are worth seeing with new eyes and an open heart.

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