“So I won’t get away with it, huh? How many times I’ve heard that from dumb coppers, I couldn’t count … You’d give your left eye to nail me, wouldn’t you?” Johnny Rocco, Key Largo
Let’s talk about bad guys.
If you’re the Keeper, Dungeon Master or whatever other hat of doom you’re wearing this week, you already know the problem: sometimes villains just leap off the page, screaming for attention as they blow up the world, but more often they just sit there, spineless slugs waiting for death. What went wrong, and how can you design a tabletop RPG villain that really catches the players’ attention?
The problem with villains is, too often they exist only to do one thing: be foiled by the player characters. Villains are punching bags, paper Nazis, colorful targets that sit on the far end of the shooting range and never shoot back, or at least not accurately. There’s nothing unique about them, nothing that makes the players think ‘I want to know more about this guy.’ If the players don’t feel engaged by the villain, they won’t respect him, and at that point the whole thing falls flat.
There’s a useful writing exercise for creating characters in fiction, which applies just as much to roleplay as it does that unpublished novel lurking on your hard drive. When designing a villain, think about the answers to the following questions:
- What is the villain’s name, age, ethnicity and gender?
- Name three physical attributes.
- List three favorite items.
- Where does the villain live?
- How does the villain make money?
- Where is the villain right now? What is he doing or saying?
- What is a problem the villain faces?
- What is a secret the villain hopes nobody finds out about?
- What is the villain’s core belief?
- What does the villain want, long term?
The first five questions on that list are self-explanatory. You need to know who the villain is and what they look like, or have on them at all times. You also need to know how much cash or capital they have, so you can work out what the villain has available to throw at the player characters. The rest of it wants a little explanation.
A villain is a character, with wishes, dreams and plans, just like everyone else in the game world. He didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, ‘I want to rob a bank today.’ The whole idea of robbing banks, or whatever it is the villain does, springs out of his desire to satisfy his long term goals. Maybe he wants to buy a house so he and his young wife and child can settle down, but he can’t afford it. Maybe he knows it’s a mob bank, and he wants to bring down the mob, so he figures hitting that particular bank is a virtuous act. Maybe it’s something else, but whatever it is, it’s tied to his core beliefs, and has the potential to satisfy his long-term wants.
This influences everything the villain says and does, and he should take no action that fails to satisfy his wants. If he’s doing something, anything, it’s because the thing that he’s doing is important to him in some way: it protects a secret he doesn’t want anyone to know about, it solves a problem for him, it fits in with his core beliefs, or pushes forward a long-term goal. If it doesn’t do any of these things, then why would he bother?
The bit about where the villain is and what he’s doing or saying is for your benefit. You need to be able to picture, in your head, what this villain is likely to do or say in any given situation, and often this means coming up with something on the fly. It really helps if you’ve worked out beforehand the kind of thing he’s likely to say in a particular situation, because you can use that as a jumping-off point to work out what he’s likely to say in other settings.
So how does this work in practice?
I’m going to use an example villain from a Bookhounds of London campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. You don’t need to know the ruleset to understand the villain; for the purpose of this example, all you need to know is that Bookhounds is a horror game set in London, England, during the 1930s, and the core idea of the campaign is that the characters are booksellers dealing in occult tomes. That means the villain has to be interested in buying or collecting occult grimoires, for whatever reason.
- Stanley David Fentiman. Caucasian Male, in his early 30s.
- Tall. Wears good quality clothes that have seen hard use. Is missing two fingers on his left hand.
- He always has a catalogue on him for a forthcoming book auction. Trench art RFC swagger stick. Webley Mk IV revolver, RFC issue.
Already you can see a bit of his history in what he wears and owns. He’s been injured at some point in the past; that suggests a catastrophic accident, or some kind of fight. The Great War isn’t that far off, and if he’s in his 30s now he could easily have been old enough to have served. The two RFC items indicate he was in the Royal Flying Corps, which means he can fly, and since one of the items is trench art, Fentiman’s probably quite talented as an artist. His clothes have seen hard use, which suggests he hasn’t the money to replace them when they get torn or worn out.
- Oxford, and is also a member of two London clubs, which is where he stays when he’s in the city.
- Private tutor, formerly an Oxford don, disgraced and thrown out of his college.
He’s a very educated man, who formerly held a good position but now does not. That explains the good clothes, and why he can’t afford to replace them. He may also find it difficult to afford his club dues each year, but someone of his social status would probably hang onto those club memberships even if it means he has to eat beans for a month or two.
- Fentiman is confronting his enemies just before a fight, either in his tattered apartments or in a school room. “Dear boy, you ought to have a better grasp of grammar at your advanced age. Not that you will have an opportunity to improve …” [draws Webley]
- Problem: he wants to establish a Satanic school of necromancy, but lacks the resources.
Satanic schools are a staple of folklore. Allegedly the Scholomance high in the mountains of Romania admitted ten students, each of whom was taught by the Devil himself. When the course of learning was complete, one student was sacrificed to the Devil as payment and the others were allowed to go free. Dracula himself is said to have studied there, and the Scholomance also turns up in World of Warcraft.
Fentiman considers himself a master occultist, a true Satanic lord, but he’s also a teacher at heart. He wants to pass on his knowledge to future generations of occultists, but for that to happen he needs a lot of money, and also needs to conduct several powerful magic rituals. He may even need a school building, perhaps an old Victorian one that has fallen into disuse which he can then convert to his own purpose.
- Secret: he lost his privileges at Oxford when he was caught helping several of his student cheat; he was using the money the students paid him to buy occult books. He gets very angry if reminded of this disgrace.
Secrets can be very useful to the players. They reveal weaknesses, something that the characters can exploit to help them defeat the villain. In this case Fentiman gets angry if reminded of his fall from grace, and anger often makes people careless. Maybe in a critical moment the characters could use this information to upset Fentiman, at which point he starts making mistakes. That could be very bad for Fentiman, if he happens to be in the middle of a ritual or summoning.
- Fentiman believes he is one of the most powerful occultists alive today, and one of the most knowledgeable.
Just because a person believes something, doesn’t make it so. Fentiman probably has some ability – unless he’s completely delusional – but there may be people more powerful than he, and more knowledgeable. He would probably be very upset if something happened to contradict his core belief.
- Fentiman wants to establish a Scholomance of his own, to teach others.
If there is such a school, then there are students. Fentiman probably has some picked out already, and if he ever gets this thing going then there will be more students, eager to learn. There may be a school building, perhaps some decayed old Dotheboys Hall, abandoned decades ago after an awful scandal. There may be staff, but what kind of person – or creature – is Fentiman likely to hire?
Consider this tactic, when designing your own villains. Find out what they want, what they fear people will find out about them, what they’re prepared to kill for. Once you know that, you know how to make your villain memorable, and then it’s time to make the player characters shake in their boots. There’s nothing more terrifying than a well-designed villain, out for blood!