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Day 15: Making the Memorable Villain

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Hi, my name is Kat and I love bad guys. I have a bit of a reputation around the office as harboring “dark side force-princess fantasies,” and always being cast as the example dark side-using player during meetings. To be fair, it’s the Witches of Dathomir I think are sweet, not the Nightsisters, but the perception remains.

Maybe it’s like Sam said, and I like breaking the taboo around Sith and Imperial characters, or maybe it’s because the bad guys I know and love have deeper and more nuanced motivations than the shallow “let’s save the world because so-and-so told us to!” that I remember from video games and anime as a kid. I also have a penchant for tragedy, which is the usual outcome of a villain’s story arc, but redemption too. Whatever the reason, I love villains, and their creation and development takes a large chunk out of my prep time, to the point that I even own the book Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction.

Here is my method for making a memorable, despicable—and eminently lovable—villain.

Dubious Motives

The starting point for crafting a villain invariably starts with the heroes and their goals. By definition, an antagonist is the character whose desires conflict with the protagonist’s, so you should have a good idea of what it is the villain wants or is doing that the heroes would find contentious. If the players want freedom, he’s the oppressor. If the players want peace, he’s the belligerent. If the players want the princess, well then, he does too.

The key for me is adding an extra dimension or level of nuance to the villain’s motive so that it doesn’t just mirror the heroes’. The villain has to have the conviction that what he is doing is right or necessary, so if he is withholding the princess, it’s to protect her and by her own wishes (see Zagato from my favorite anime ever). If he is causing a war or curtailing rights, it’s for a noble end or the greater good, by his own twisted logic.

Of course, there are villains that lack this second level of development, and are just evil for evil’s sake, but I can’t find them compelling or interesting in any way. It’s Anakin Skywalker whose fall we follow in the Star Wars saga, not Emperor Palpatine’s, though I’m sure the EU has fleshed him out somewhat through the various novels.

In my Marrakesh campaign, the Narbonnais villain Admiral Rainier Desmarins believes he is a true patriot of his home country and bringing prosperity to its people. The queen Shar’azi Al-Maghreb believes that an heir with dual Marrakeshi and Narbonnais lineage will bring peace between their peoples. And Tariq Al-Jawar, the Thieves Guild Master and Merchant Prince, believes violent rebellion and economic strife will restore the rightful heir to the throne, Layla.

The Origin Story

Superheroes have them, sure, but the interesting part of any deliciously dastard bastard is the point in his life where he lost his innocence, became jaded, turned ruthless, or determined the ends justified the means. This event typically happens before the start of a roleplaying game campaign, but it would be exciting to set it in the beginning of the story arc, or better yet, during the inciting incident itself.

Either way, the circumstances that brought about his motives are essential for any possible sympathy or relation later on. Arthas burned Stratholme and obtained Frostmourne to save his kingdom of Lordaeron from the Burning Legion. Loki hates that his true heritage deprives him of a legitimate claim to the Asgardian throne that will be inherited by, at that point, a foolish brute. Your campaign’s villain should have a plausible and convincing reason for believing what he does and resorting to the methods he is.

In Marrakesh, crushing defeats and invasion in the early part of Rainier’s life led him to develop his country’s navy and expand to neutralize neighboring threats. Queen Shar’azi’s own mother lost her life and many of her subjects’ in the hopeless resistance against Narbonnais occupation. And Tariq sees immense profit in subverting the Narbonnais, but has also fallen in love with the princess, despite being two decades her senior.

Know Thy Enemy

Though a hidden enemy works well in some campaigns, I prefer my villains to act in the open and affect the PCs early on. The heroes should know whom to hate and why, driving up the dramatic tension and giving them agency to act. Various scenes and encounters should reveal his hand at work, building up his perceived threat over the course of the campaign. Better yet if the PCs can interact with him directly before they can finally confront him. The GM does need to tread a thin line of tenability if the PCs are able to defeat him multiple times and he keeps on coming back, but one false death is usually dramatic enough. “Tempest Keep was merely a setback!”

If you are going for a hidden enemy, seeding him throughout the story and letting the PCs meet him unwittingly makes for an amazing final reveal at the end. WFRP3’s The Enemy Within uses this to great effect, if you’d like to see an example.

World of Warcraft learned this lesson and applied it well in their Wrath of the Lich King expansion—you see Arthas at Light’s Hope Chapel, at Angrathar the Wrathgate, and in the Halls of Reflection before you’re even ready to face him in his stronghold, Ice Crown Citadel. Players of Warcraft III had also followed his entire story, from Paladin to Lich King, in the strategy game, and knew him well. I think few would argue that he is the most beloved villain in the Warcraft universe, because we saw his descent, we saw his crimes, and we felt his wrath before we were able to defeat him.

In my Marrakesh campaign, the PCs interfaced with Tariq often, both as an enemy and later as an ally (however shady), and the identities of the Queen and Admiral were well known to all in the city. The Admiral’s atrocities were visible at any uprising, the PCs knew his henchmen well, and he even captured some members of the party. Yet the Queen’s villainy was only slowly revealed over the course of the campaign.

Pursue his Agenda

One plot-driven method of planning a campaign is to determine the actions and objectives of the villain and allow him to execute them with only the PCs to resist him. Even if you’re going to allow the players to more or less choose the scenes and encounters they want to resolve, the GM should still consider the villain’s agenda and allow his vile deeds to unfold off-screen. A passive antagonist waiting for the PCs to come get him is not a very fun one, so be sure to give him objectives to complete in pursuit of his goals in order to make him seem more alive and an active force in their world.

In Marrakesh, the crux of the action hinged on the Queen’s slow push to disinherit Layla and install her newborn infant as the true heir apparent, and to surreptitiously cement her country’s ties with the Narbonnais. The Admiral would support her in any way necessary and quash any hints of rebellion or uprising, while Tariq moved to destabilize society and cut off all trade in the city until he could force the Queen to capitulate and restore Layla instead. This was all going on before the PCs entered the city, but slowly the party become more and more involved in supporting or opposing each actor’s schemes.

Make Him a Bastard

A villain that’s too likeable tends to become an ally, and with most player groups trending towards chaotic evil, the GM should draw a line between the players and the villain, unless of course the campaign becomes a tale of the PCs’ degeneration and descent into villainy. To keep him an antagonist, make sure the reasons to hate him always outweigh his points of sympathy, so you shouldn’t hold back from making him a real bastard.

John Wick’s book, Play Dirty, is an excellent primer on dastardly GMing but also serves to illustrate how to make villains truly awful. I’ve used his advice to talk about giving PCs added dimension, but those same tips can be used by the GM to take advantage of the PCs.

In Marrakesh, both Rainier and Tariq were willing to go to violent extremes in order to achieve their aims, which didn’t sit well with some of the PCs. I got to mess with some of the players who opened up their backstory to be screwed with, like Sa’id being a bastard of Rainier himself and Zael having the murderer of his kingdom show up, but left the rest of the party alone who didn’t want the added drama for their characters.

I would suggest that you not surprise the PCs with this level of adversarial GMing, and instead let them know that this is the sort of game you plan on running or ask permission to mess with their character. Some people are not playing for that sort of experience, but others will love to hate it. Again, it’s a matter of setting expectations at the outset and not pushing anyone too far from the perceived established paradigm.

How do you craft a memorable villain? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on investigation- and mystery-heavy games. Thanks again for reading!

Author’s Note: I throw around a lot of the male pronoun in this post, but this is obviously not meant to exclude female villains in any way. I just have a lot of positive connotations associated with pretty boy/bishounen bad guys (see: Sephiroth or Arthas), so that’s what comes out naturally when I write about villains.

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  1. 30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Fifteen to Nineteen | Renaissance Gamer - […] Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative? […]

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