So You Want To Be A Game Master – Part 4: Villains



She had always found villains more exciting than heroes. They had ambition, passion. They made the stories happen. Villains didn't fear death. No, they wrapped themselves in death like suits of armor! As she inhaled the school's graveyard smell, Agatha felt her blood rush. For like all villains, death didn't scare her. It made her feel alive.”
Soman Chainani, The School of Good and Evil

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A man dressed in black wrings his hands menacingly as the fare damsel dangles over the pit deep below. He twirls his greasy mustache and laughs deep and long as the damsel struggles to no avail. Suddenly, a door below bursts open, and the knight, resplendent n gleaming armor appears. He points his sword at his nefarious foe and swears that this time he has gone too far. The dastardly na're-do-well sneers his best sneer and pulls the lever that drops the damsel, prompting the knight to engage in some daring heroics.

 "Muwahaha, and other such nonsense"

This mustachioed malcontent draped in all-black is not a villain. He is a cartoon caricature of a villain. He is what heroes envision when they think of the bad guy, because it is so much easier to defeat something that is so “out there” it is impossible to relate to them.

You may have seen this guy lurking around your gaming table now and again. The irredeemable menace that wants to blow up the world. But they are flat. One dimensional. A good villain has to be every bit as complex as the party they oppose, and then some. They need to illicit real hate from the players, not just the characters. They have to want that villain dead, but feel a tinge of regret, because despite all that hate, they kind of love them. 

"So hot."

Today, budding Game Master, I will show you how to get the most out of the other driving force of your campaign (besides your players). We're going to explore the mentality behind villainy, the nature of evil (or good, depending on what side you're on), different nefarious archetypes, and how to build a good villain (oxymoron for the win) that can fit into any campaign you want..

The first thing we want to clarify is the definition of what a villain is, because if you aren't sure, how can you know they are all that bad? They might be a swell fella that volunteers and clothes the homeless.

Villain: A character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot; the person or thing responsible for specified trouble, harm, or damage.

But why? Why would anyone do that sort of thing? What causes people to perform evil acts? Are they born evil, or do they grow into it? He best way to find out is to poke around in the head of the bad guy.

 "I'm thinking something REALLY bad!"


The Villainous Brain
Few things ever start off evil. Demons, devils, and other immortal extraplanar menaces of the like are inherently evil. It is as much a part of them as their skin is. There is no outside force driving them to this kind of mentality, it is simply a part of them. They are irrevocably, irredeemably evil because there was never a good part to them. These types of villains, though potent, are difficult to relate too, because we as human beings can't really comprehend things like that. We are beings of free will, and therefore when we do evil, we make the conscious effort to do so.

That makes us actually kind of scarier than demons. They can't help it. We can.

Lets take a closer look at mortal races, who posses this kind of free will. The most memorable villains in history started out as innocents. After all, you can't look at a baby and assume they are going to grow up to be one of the most evil people in history.

Or can you...?”

Evil, more often than not, stems from a traumatic event or series of events that have befallen the person. One need look no further than the entire orc race to see this in full effect. From the time they are children they are regularly beaten, taught the (lack of) value of life, and tormented until they become brutally efficient killing machines. Goblins likewise experience a similar upbringing. Their lives are a series of events that shape them into the monsters we see.

For a race raised in less tragic conditions, the events they experience conflict with their upbringing and change how that person views the world at large. It is a defining event that shapes the character into the villain they will eventually become.

Take a long, hard look at Batman. Everyone, living or dead, knows exactly how he became Batman. His parents were tragically killed by criminal in a botched mugging. That was a defining, traumatic event for little Bruce Wayne. Now, imagine if you will that instead of a criminal, it was a cop that shot Bruce's parents. Would he still have the same view of justice he holds dear, or would it have warped into his own brand of justice? The same event, flipped, could see Bruce brutally murdering members of the Gotham P.D. In a lifelong vendetta for the loss of his parents. To him, they represent a cancer that must be removed at all costs. Just like that, a villain is born.

 "A much darker knight."

Circumstances that your players can relate to make for more compelling adversaries, and is what sets a bland villain apart from a great villain. Yes, we know the madman wants to blow up city hall with the mayor inside, but if your players know why the villain is doing it, and can understand their motivation in doing so, then they become exponentially more memorable. That is a bad guy with staying power.

The best kind of villain can make your player characters take a hard look at themselves and ponder if they are capable of such deeds, or-if put in the same situation-if they would do the same thing. It raises a lot of questions at the gaming table, not the least of which is “what is evil?”

The definition of evil is pretty simple: profound immorality, wickedness and depravity. Sounds easy, right? WRONG! This is when we start sifting through the gray area. All those things sure sound evil, but who is looking at them to judge them as evil acts? Evil acts differ from person to person. It's then that you realize that evil is a matter of perception. 

"The man is a philosopher!"

A fallen Paladin that has raised an army and decimated the forces of the king will undoubtedly be labeled as evil by the kingdom and the order of paladins from which he fell. However, on the flip side, the only reason the paladin fell was because he felt that the king, and his knightly order's apathetic view of helping lesser people, was an act of evil. After all, the only thing evil needs to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

Every coin has two sides, and neither usually has anything good to say about the other. That is when you as the GM needs to decide what is really evil, and what is just sort of evil. As good folk, we can usually agree that the following things are unspeakably evil.
  • Killing innocent people that cannot defend themselves: Innocent in this context being civilians who haven't or won't take up arms or defend themselves, such as children, the elderly, the infirm, etc.
  • Rape: because it is.

Wow. I thought we'd get a lot more mileage out of that. Honestly, there are tons of evil things in the world, but a lot of them can be altered by perception. Those two up there... yeah, nothing good there. Now we enter the murky waters of shades of gray.

  • Slavery: These days, most of the civilized world openly denounce the owning of other people, but barely 150 years ago, that wasn't the case. Several countries around the world owned human beings and thought nothing of it. Time, for us, has opened out eyes to this being an evil act, but in the eyes of some, it was perfectly normal.
  • Cannibalism: While we civilized folk may call eating other people evil, there are still some folk that have a flavor to the long pork. To them, it's not evil at all. It can be an act of honoring a passed loved one's memory or a religious event. To others it is simply a consensual thing. Still, it's hard to imagine munching on your buddy... I mean, maybe if they were asleep...
  • Torture: Something about putting someone through a living, wide-awake hell just seems kinda wrong... until they know something you want to know. Then the gloves are off and the boards watered. Torture may be one of the grayest areas on the list, because of its implications. Lives could hang in the balance if certain information isn't retrieved, but to do so you will need to inflict severe amounts of pain and listen to the agonized screams of the person you're clipping the jumper cables on to. Even then, it may not be a sure thing that the poor bastard knows anything. Murky, no?
  • Betrayal: Of this whole list, this is the one most good people have probably done. Trust is an important thing. People either give it out easily, or very sparingly. When you have it, you know you have it, which makes betraying that trust such a dick move. In Dante's Inferno, the entire 9th Circle of Hell is dedicated to treachery and betrayal, and is home to perhaps the most depressing Hard Rock Cafe' ever. Still, we mere mortals find this the naughty thing we are most capable of, and it is still pretty evil.

Villains come in a lot of flavors. It's like a freakin Baskn Robins of evil out there. Here are a few you have no doubt seen in your travels amidst books, TV, movies, comics and even at the gaming table.


  • The Anarchist: The system is broken, and we don't care enough to fix it. Governments are bad, laws are bad, and people should do whatever they want. The Anarchist often believes they are waking up the populace by showing them a world without rules or structure. A world of total freedom. Barbarians fit into this category well, as to madmen geniuses that only concern themselves with “Can I?” and never “Should I?”
    Examples: The Joker (Batman), V (V for Vendetta), Adam (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Darth Bane (Star Wars) 
  •  The Bully: This was the asshat we didn't like at school. The bitchy girl and her clique' that sneered at you in the halls, or make you life a living hell. The pompous, muscle bound thug that would stick you in lockers or humiliate you. They tormented, antagonized, and worst of all, they would often (if not always) get away with it because they were in a position of authority or power, or had a friend that was in that position (more often than not a small cadre of friends that disliked you as much as the bully). These villains are especially potent because they are someone everyone has dealt with at some point in their life. They are tangible. In game, these guys could assume the role of a tax-collecting sherriff, drunk on their own power, a local thug or mercenary that likes to prey on the weak, or a noble that delights in letting his lessers know just how lesser they are.
    Examples: Biff Tannen (fBack to the Future), Dudley Dursley (Harry Potter), Badger (Firefly
  • The Dark Lord/Lady: Whenever you have a shining knight fighting for good, this is the guy clashing swords with them. The Dark Lord is the personification of evil. He is the big bad in charge. He has minions, he has power, and he has a mad on for smiting good. This mean mama-jamma is often depicted as an incredibly powerful foe that cannot be defeated single-handedly. This can be an evil necromancer raising an army of the dead, a sinister king with a dark and powerful secret, or an unstoppable warlord
    Examples: Darth Vader (Star Wars), Voldemort (Harry Potter), The Lich King (Warcraft), Strahd von Zoravicih (Ravenloft)
  • The Ancient Evil: If The Dark Lord had a boss, this would be it. The Ancient Evil is an entity that is very old and very powerful, and somehow is back. Perhaps it was a prophecy, or someone accidentally read a verse from a book they should never have touched in the first place. What is important is that its presence can now be felt, and it is not nice. It can often indirectly influence others or grant power to their minions to make them more potent villains. A good deal of the time the thing is dormant, or outside our reality, or trapped between worlds. Whatever the case, if this thing should rise or make its way into the world, it will cause a great deal of trouble. What kind of trouble? World or reality-ending trouble.
    Examples: Lavos (Chrono Trigger), Melkor (The Lord of The Rings), Cthulu (The Cthulu Mythos)
  • The Mastermind: Intelligent villains aren't just scary, they are frustrating too, always with an escape plan, or a back up plan, or a Machiavellian plan that no one sees until its to late. Some villains play the long game, but none more so than The Mastermind, who is usually operating 2 or 3 moves ahead of the heroes at any given time. This villain uses their Superior intellect to run circles around everyone, often manipulating their moves without them even knowing it. Often prone to boredom because there doesn't exist anyone that can match their wit, these folks have no problem playing games, leaving clues, and stringing the party along with just enough information to keep them in the game. They are also prone to pride, knowing that few can come close to posing a threat to them. They are careful, meticulous, and often paired with a singular, loyal henchman.
    Examples: Victor von Doom (Fantastic Four), Ozymandias (Watchmen), James Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes), Sasuke Aizen (Bleach)
  • The Henchman: Speaking of the Henchman, there are few time honored classics as the trusty Henchman. Don't listen to what the big wigs and Hollywood are trying to push with this “Incompetent Henchman” shtick, these folks can be just as competent as your player characters...
    ...Err, maybe a little more. When a Big Bad needs something done, and I mean really done, they send their trusty hench. Princess needs kidnapping? Send the Henchman. Need to have a member of the city council quietly “taken care of”? Send the Henchman. If the players are on the trail of their big bad long enough, they will eventually cross paths with the henchman. Henching can take on verious forms. They could be hired assassins, body guards, the head of the city watch or a lieutenant.
    Examples: Artemis Entreri (The Legend of Drizzt), Henchman 21 (The Venture Bros.), Crossbones (Captain America), Oddjob (James Bond)
  • The Hero: What's this doing here, you may ask? Easy, villains are often times just an opposing force's hero. The hero could share many of the same qualities as the player characters, but with one profound difference that puts them at odds with one another. Also called The Mirror Villain, it shows the players what they could become if they aren't careful. So broad is this particular villain archetype, that it could easily encompass one or more of the above types.
    Exmaples: Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII), Kylo Ren (Star Wars), Sasuke Uchiha (Naruto)

There is a whole lotta bad here. Any of these archetypes have the capacity to be a prominent villain in your campaign, but the capacity in which you use them is completely up to you. Your dime-a-dozen minion-types don't need a whole lot of thought behind them, but when you are setting yourself up for something special, something with a name, you want to consider the two capacities in which villains are encountered.

1. The Foil: This is the run-of-the-mill villain that your players are most likely to encounter. They show up often, and are usually the foe faced at the end of a story arch (a specified adventure that has a beginning, middle, and end, but is contained within a larger story). They can be anything simple, like a corrupt official like a sheriff lord, or the head of the king's guard. A fallen cleric that attempts to befoul and subvert the church's hierarchy, a bandit lord, the head of a thieves' of assassins' guild, or the chieftain of an orc tribe are all good examples of The Foil. They are there to make things a little harder for your players, to act as barricade between them and the next adventure, and challenge them.
These guys don't even need to be combat encounters. They could exist entirely in the realm of social encounters, using their clout and power to make your player's lives difficult. These types of enemies cannot be defeated with a show of force, because of how they operate. Acting within technicalities in local law, or having powerful friends could make a direct confrontation more detrimental to the player characters. These enemies should be defeated with cunning, creativity, and skill checks.

2. The BBEG: This is the guy everyone thinks of when they envision a villain. The BBEG (or Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal if you aren't hip to the lingo) is a force to be reckoned with. They are the big time movers and shakers in the world of villainy. They are the ones with the plots, the schemes, and the power to get whatever awful thing they want to get done, done. And if they don't have it, you best believe half the adventure is trying to stop them from getting it. These folks are the capstones of a campaign, the big, epic, climactic battle which will decide the fate of the kingdom/world/universe.


They are also the source of most of the Game Master's biggest mistakes...

I too am guilty of this most grievous sin, so know that I speak from experience. A lot of times, when Game Masters take a long look at the large picture of their campaign, they envision the “Perfect Villain”, the driving force of ruin the players must stop. We stat them, we build them up, and when we get to them a lot of the time the players feel very “meh” about the encounter. Sure the BBEG is tough, but is there really an emotional investment? Do they really have a reason to hate this person aside from the fact they are supposed to because story?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the coolness of our BBEG that we forget to tie them to the party. Some think that this isn't important, because of the potent threat the villain poses. The players will seek out this bad guy, and fight them, but if for some reason the villain personally wronged them, you best believe those players will move heaven and earth to lay an apocalyptic ass-kicking down on the poor bastard.

 "And they call ME evil!"

That is why I propose a radical idea: Don't build your BBEG in the beginning of your campaign, build them in the middle.

Bear with me here. You may have some lofty ideas of what you want out of your villain, and that is okay. That is to be encouraged. Having a final idea is important because it gives you direction in wich to move things, but keep it just that; an idea.

Lets look at the word antagonist, because you will find something here that will help when plotting out where to go. An Antagonist is a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary. 

 "Thrust! Perry! Rinse! Repeat!"

Note how I didn't say evil? The thing you must remember about your villain is they need not be entirely evil, or evil at all. All they need to do is oppose your player characters, or their ideas. If you have a thief in the party that steals from the rich, and gives to the poor, create a villain that steals from them so they can't give to the poor. If there is a priest in the party that is devout in their beliefs and trusts in the hierarchy of the church, make an openly corrupt higher priest that that flaunts their power and makes the priest's like difficult.

Ideally you should make a villain that directly opposes each of your players' characters. Eventually you will come across one that they all hate with a passion, especially if they are good at getting away. This is the villain that has the potential to become the big bad. They could come in contact with some manner of McGuffin that grants them unbelievably power, or they might ally themselves with other villains, and rises through the ranks, or they could already be working for a more powerful villain, and through some manner of betrayal, takes over control of their power, resources or organization.

 "It's morphin' time."

I would be remiss if I didn't provide some personal examples of villains I have used in the past to make my players seethe.
  • Harvor “The Carver” Hammerstone A dwarven serial killer/mad scientist. He is responsible for kidnapping people and performing insane medical and alchemical experiments on them. Very few victims survived. He claimed everything he did was for the advancement of medical science.
    What Made Him Memorable: Harvor posed as a healer, and saw to the player characters' wounds. He told them (rather convincingly) that he'd concocted a special serum in a syringe that would heal their wounds and help them sleep. At first the players were suspicious, but the warm nature of the dwarf, and the fact that they were safe in a noble's home put their fears at ease. Each accepted the serum, forgoing any saving throws, and each failed to notice the bloody rag hanging suspiciously out of his bag. When they woke up, one character's heart was replaced with a trolls, one had snakes for hair, and the other had been partially fused with an ooze. Personally wronged by the mad doctor, they almost didn't want to kill him, just to see what would happened if they let him live.
  • Korrog “The Red Death”: Korrog was a half-dragon orc chieftain in my Dragonslayer game. He meant to be the boss at the end of a story arch that had started when the players were level one. Before it even came to combat, I projected the orc's power through intimidation and roleplaying. The players bore witness as he took control of a dwarven city, enslaved the citizens, and forced his own son to pluck out his own eye as penance for letting the player characters escape. He made them watch.
    What Made Him Memorable: Korrog's staying power was... well, his staying power. The dreaded red-scaled orc refused to die. The players sliced him with a dragonsbane weapon and blew him off a bridge into a near bottomless chasm. Later, when they found themselves slumming about the Underdark, they managed to get themselves enslaved and thrown into a gladiatorial arena. Their final battle was against the grand champion whom the arena owner had taken the time to rebuild. That's right, good o'le Korrog, not part iron golem, stood in between them and freedom. After another hard fought battle, they managed to defeat him again, but “The Red Death” is not done by a long shot. He'll be back. He always comes back.
  • Nera: An Aranea sorceress from the very first D&D game I ever ran, who banded several tribes of evil humanoids together for a singular purpose; to wipe out the town that shunned her as a child. Nera was smart, conniving, and deceptive. All thing she made the players hate her for. Atop a high tower in an abandoned citadel, the players encountered her. She wasted no times in using illusions and enchantments to make them fight among themselves.
    What Made Her Memorable: She was the one that got away. Through perseverance (and a talented healer) the party managed to quell their clouded their minds and see the true enemy. All save for the fighter, who protected Nera fiercely against their onslaught (Thanks to a well placed charm). Against his allies' punishing assault, and a rapidly burning tower falling around them, he had not option but to throw Nera out the window, to spare her a terrible fate. Not exactly how she saw her escape going, but it worked. She transformed herself into a cloud of gas and flitted away to fight another day, much to the dismay of the party.
Villains are as important to your campaign as the play characters. The more memorable you make them, the more your players will talk about your game, even after it has ended. Love 'em, hate 'em, or love to hate 'em, they are what make the world go round. What is the most memorable villain you have ever made or fought? Leave your tale in the comments below.

Join me next time when we the topic that will really make your story pop... the story.

Embrace the dark side,
+Ed The Bard 

Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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