“Hey, remember when we took down…”
Good villains are absolutely necessary for a successful campaign in any gaming system. The heroes need a worthy foe to fight against. And the best villains will be the stuff of stories for years after the campaign has ended, the dice are put back in their tins, and the character sheets have been recycled. A villain that is nothing more than a stat block is a disservice to both players and the DM who runs such an abomination.
A good villain can make or break any campaign - from D&D to Star Wars to Pathfinder, Exalted to Shadowrun, and everything in between. Good villains are hard to find, but not terribly difficult to create if you follow a few simple guidelines. In the words of Tom Hiddleston in the “Art of Villainy” commercials, “world domination begins with attention to detail.”
The best villains can get the heroes to waver in their beliefs. They need to be charismatic, compelling, confident, and competent - the four Cs of a good villain. They can have an air of understated threat or menace, or they can be overt and belligerent, but they need to have that je ne sais quoi, that little something extra that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Think Hiddleston’s Loki, Emperor Palpatine, or Doctor Doom. They are real characters, with understandable motives, goals, and storylines of their own; basically any villain that has their own fandom works as a strong example here. People can relate to villains if you give them a character they can empathise with - and the memorable villains are the ones that have people cheering for them against their will. Maybe they are cruel, demented sadists who secretly funnel large amounts of money to kitten rescues and foster children. Think a villain with a good PR campaign.
In a Shadowrun campaign I once ran, the villain was so beloved by the people of his city that any time the runners worked against him, they ran so hard into public opinion that they almost started riots. It’s the old Roman philosophy of bread and circus - if the villain is the one keeping the people happy (think Doctor Doom here, to follow the example), the people are likely to support him, which adds an entirely new level to the difficulty of your campaign.
It can be really hard to sway public opinion for your players when the dread lord who puts people’s heads on spikes also sends around the grain wagons after a bad harvest and supplies the roast oxen for every village holiday - or the oligarch who owns the politicians just gave their city gigabit fiber optic Internet, free for anyone with a smart device.
This is where you can really connect with the deeper sides of your players - we’ve all been overshadowed by a more popular person (Loki), reached a point of frustration where we are certain that everything would just be fine if people would simply do as we say (Palpatine, or if you prefer, the Goblin King from Labyrinth), or that we truly know better than a vast majority of people when it comes to handling a certain situation (Doctor Doom).
Remember, every villain is the hero of their own story - and your heroes are their villains.
The best, most insidious villains can cause the heroes to doubt themselves; to make them question their beliefs and wonder if they are truly on the right side. A villain should be used as an agent of growth, something to make the heroes who are facing them stronger.
Your villain needs to be able to have a commanding presence - when he/she talks, people listen. They have instant command of the room or situation, and woe betide those who seek to lessen that control. Their reactions to those who attempt to lessen the control can be very telling and make them more well-rounded; do they bite their tongue when an important ally tells them something they don’t want to hear, or is it blood spray on the walls if someone coughs at an inopportune moment?
One of my very favorite villains (and it’s a stretch to call him a villain in my eyes) is Lord Vetinari, from the Discworld novels. He tends to use words as his weapons, despite being a trained Assassin. “Don’t let me detain you” has two entirely different meanings, depending on enunciation.
The villain needs to have the utmost confidence in his or her own powers and moral certainty that what they are doing is for the greater good, either their own or that of the world as a whole. The less selfish he or she is, the more believable and engrossing the character is.
How many times have we seen a deus ex machina come into play by a lazy or inept GM or author, when the villain just “happens” to drop their staff/break their sword/be out of a key ingredient for a spell/get eaten by a large bony dragon just as the adventurers feared all hope was lost?
No one wants to beat up the bumbling idiot, whereas everyone wants to defeat the apocalyptic menace that is hellbent on destroying all creation. Somewhere in the vast and mighty depths of the Internet is an ancient, hoary tome of a website called Peter's Evil Overlord List. I highly recommend anyone designing a villain to give it a look-see. You’ll get some marvelous ideas and at least a couple of good solid laughs. For example:
“Whatever my one vulnerability is, I will fake a different one. For example, ordering all mirrors removed from the palace, screaming and flinching whenever someone accidentally holds up a mirror, etc. In the climax when the hero whips out a mirror and thrusts it at my face, my reaction will be ‘Hmm...I think I need a shave.’”
If you keep these four C’s in mind when creating your next villain (or anti-hero, I’m not one to judge), I think you will have a far better chance at creating a memorable character that your players will love to hate for years to come.
PS: Have some other examples of memorable villains? Something that you would like to add? Comments are welcome.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as a courier and personal cook while her plans for world domination slowly come together. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.