“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”
It’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 honorable 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.
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.