One of our most important jobs as Game Masters is to provide our players with ne’er do wells, monsters, and henchmen to test their might against. These antagonists are the ones who challenge our heroes. They sow chaos and destruction throughout the game world, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. How do we create these miscreants? What do we do to make villains that will engage and haunt our players?
I touched on this subject in So You Want to Be a Game Master? Issue #5: Writing for the Super Hero Genre, but villain design is one of my favorite parts about the Game Mastering process. I feel it deserves its own post. There’s something fascinating about delving into the darkest parts of the human experience and trying to understand it. You’re free to harness that energy in new and creative ways. It is a reflective exercise, and taking the time to do it right will make the difference between a good game and a great game.
The first thing to consider when designing a villain is what this character’s role is going to be in your story. This will determine exactly how much work you should put into designing and personalizing each aspect of the bad guy. Is this going to be a monster of the week? Do you want them to be the overarching mastermind for your series? Are they a henchperson for another more powerful villain? More work goes into creating a complicated bad guy who is on screen more often.
Their relationship with the player characters is another thing to consider in this step. Maybe they’re an antihero who walks the line between hero and villain who might be an ally or enemy of the heroes. Are they an age-old nemesis to one or more of the protagonists? Do they even know the protagonists existed when they formulated their evil scheme? Ask yourself all of these questions so you can figure out the type of bad guy you’re dealing with.
Some archetypes to consider are:
This character was a dweeb who stumbled into amazing power through the machinations of another villain or just dumb luck. They are often petty, bruiser types with a score to settle against the people or community who scorned them.
Mastermind: This character has labyrinth schemes and delusions of grandeur. They are always one step ahead of the players and often use pawns in their plans. They will often be the underlying reason for most of the issues throughout your series (even if that information doesn’t come to light until the end.)
Dark Lord: Similar to a Mastermind, but on a more overt scale. The Dark Lord is the reason for evil in the universe. He usually has an army of faceless minions willing to fight and die for his supreme rule.
Usually a supremely powerful being who uses their godlike abilities to...mildly inconvenience the heroes. Often gets in the party’s way to teach them some bizarre moral or indulge in some strange fantasy.
An ally of the heroes who has crossed the line. Often has a similar goal to the PCs but their methods draw them into conflict with the characters. Occasionally ally with the heroes until a climactic moment when they have to betray them.
There’s a pressure on every Game Master to constantly generate new ideas. I’m here to tell you that that doesn’t have to be the case. The best storytellers don’t plagiarize ideas, but they definitely adapt and pay homage to their influences. It’s a good idea to keep a particular villain in mind when you’re designing your own bad guys. You can examine what exactly makes those characters stand out and borrow those elements for your own creations.
This might be the most important element to consider when creating a believable and memorable bad guy. Why have they decided to throw away their ordinary lives and embrace the risk that villainy presents? This isn’t an easy decision to make, and it should never boil down to evil for the sake of evil. Tapping into the character’s reason for making this decision will give you more believable villains, but it will also help you when the players make an unexpected decision. You will know what this person wants and will be able to more accurately predict what they will prioritize when things fall into calamity.
As you’re writing your bad guys ask yourself: Is this person the hero of their own story? As far as the villain knows, they are the protagonist. The forces arrayed against them, including the PCs, are their antagonists. Their actions are necessary in their twisted worldview. Maybe they’re trying to gather enough resources to finally develop a cure for their sickly child. Were they champions of justice who were failed by the system? Are they a squire who found the knight’s code too restricting for punishing the wicked?
It’s tempting to fall into what a bad guy can do without first considering why they do it. It is exciting to imagine what they can do. Let your imagination run wild, but keep in mind that without a proper motive your villain will ring hollow. You can boil most motivations down to some form of the following:
Thrills: This bad guy wants to experience all that life has to offer. They are constantly chasing that next high. To borrow a phrase, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” This hedonist wants to experience all that life has to offer, consequences be damned.
Ideology: This villain has some grand, existential opinion about the universe that has to be fulfilled. They might serve a higher power or have a scientific reason for what they do. They will force their worldview upon everyone.
Revenge: Someone wronged this bad guy and they will go to hell and back to avenge themselves. It could be a murdered loved one, a grant that went to a rival scientist, or being spurned by a celebrity (or even one of the heroes)
Duty: Some villains do what they do out of some sense of service to another power. This can be to a nation, a family, a species, or anything else that bestows responsibility upon them.
Next, you should work out an idea of their personality. How do they approach the world? Is your bad guy a trickster who is constantly making jokes? Are they a grim force of nature plodding ahead with single-minded tenacity? This can be a difficult process, but I have found the Myers-Briggs test to be an invaluable tool in the quest for creating believable villains (and heroes).
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is a personality assessment compiled by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers to make the work of psychologist C. G. Jung available and applicable to the average person. This assessment classifies participants into one of sixteen personality types based off of the most relevant indicators of four dichotomies. Essentially, the MBTI assessment defines a participant's personality type by asking them a series of questions surrounding four "this or that" pillars. Check out this direct breakdown from The Myers & Briggs Foundation website:
Favorite World: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).
After answering those questions, your assigned a series of four letters, one from each pair of E+I, N+S, T+F, and J+P. Combining these four letters gives you your personality profile. I will often take this test from the perspective of my new villain to help guide them into one of these sixteen configurations. Doing so gives me a framework for the way this bad guy makes decisions, sets goals, and interacts with others.
The final piece of personality I will consider for each character is related to their dialogue and mannerisms. I’ll often jot down specific words or phrases that are unique to that villain. For instance, I have a villain who sees the world as one big equation that needs to be balanced, so I have a series of mathematical terms and facts jotted down in his notes. When he is on screen, I will color his interactions with the players with snippets of arithmetic-based predictions. He’s a staunch intellectual, so I’ll also use longer words and condescension to really dig under the heroes’ skin and stand out in the players’ minds.
The last thing to consider before diving into the actual mechanics of your bad guy is just how villainous they really are. There are levels of heinousness to consider with any bad guy. Few people will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Some criminals are simply thieves who will not resort to murder. Others are only willing to kill those who get in their way. Most villains will not indulge in the most depraved activities: cannibalism, mass murder, slavery, etc. That being said it’s a good idea to keep possible escalations in mind. Say the villain is trying to steal enough money or technology to cure their sick daughter. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but will that continue to be the case as the heroes foil more and more of his robberies?
If you have questions about their limitations, tie everything back to their motivation. Someone who is trying to set the world on fire is going to be a lot more ruthless than an on the outs construction worker who wants to make sure his employees get to keep eating every day. Another caveat to keep in mind is working within a framework your players are comfortable with. Discuss what content everyone finds acceptable during your session zero and communicate often to make sure you’re not pushing boundaries people don’t want to be pushed. This is a game after all and on some level, people are looking for an escape from the horrible nature of the world around them. I’ll address evil more in-depth in a future post.
Villains are one of the great pieces of any good story. They serve to challenge the heroes on a physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional level. The best are nigh unstoppable forces of personality who captivate the audience in every scene in which they appear. This goes doubly in a media as interactive as tabletop roleplaying games. You have an opportunity to frighten and entertain your friends in ways they didn’t know possible. Build better villains and the rest of the game will be stronger for it. Thank you for reading and may all your hits be crits.