Please note: The Usual Disclaimer applies as always.
At the core of any great story, be it told through a book, a film, or at a tabletop, are the players and their antagonists. Whilst you can have a great story without a great antagonist, it's certainly easier and more engaging when you do have a great villain to root against. There's something about a great villain. It's not just what they do, but how they do it. So that's why we're going to take a moment to look at how you can craft your BBEG's actions and interactions to make for a really delicious kind of baddy.
But what is it that defines a great villain? In my opinion, it's a combination of two things: their motivations and their actions.
A Person of Distinction
A little while ago, Jaguar ran a wonderful ad.
It's true - any Brit in a Hollywood film has a better than even chance of being the villain. Think about some of the greats - Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List and the Potter films, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine... The list goes on and on.
But why is that? Well, part of it is going to be down to the theatrical nature of a British actor, but also inherent is the accent; very distinct from any American accent. It immediately draws the ear. It pulls attention to the speaker. It's the root from which everything else follows. And here we see the first key part of a good villain's interactions - they define character. They must set the scene and the tone of the person. Are they confident or afraid? Are they strong or weak? Do they feel remorse and sorrow, or are they filled with anger and rage? Or bitterness and regret?
Their actions must reflect their state of mind, and always act to reinforce the central ideals to which they hold. Which brings us nicely to...
Nailing the Character
An RPG's NPCs are vitally important, and that's doubly so for a villain. That's why the character of the character must be well defined beforehand. Winging great baddies can be fun, and of course a certain amount of improv is always going to be required. But you need a framework to work from. That means their motivations, as we've already discussed, but also their backstory. Where did they come from? What brought them to this point? Motivations are forward looking - they're what the villain wishes to achieve. But the backstory to that is just as important too.
You're going to need to make notes of the big things, such as their name, physical description, distinguishing features, family and associates obviously. But think more broadly than that - work out where they were educated and to what level, what their pet peeves are, what prejudices they have. What was their childhood like, if they had one? Who do they admire? Take the time to flesh them out as far as possible beforehand, so you can better run that person when the group encounters them.
Keep Everything Believable
The final part for this section on villainy is believability. The biggest sin any NPC can have, but especially with Big Bads is that of becoming unbelievable. Acting in a way that is counter to their character. You can't define someone as being strong and powerful, and then have them run away all the time. Equally, a villain who's cowardly standing up to the players will come across as weird. Now that can be a great hook - maybe they've been threatened by someone they fear, or they've made peace with whatever in their character made them a coward and their character is progressing. That's great writing and great DMing, but then that needs to come across cleanly.
One of my favourite villains from recent TV is Arrow's Deathstroke. Over the course of two seasons, you see how this man goes from being one of Queen's only friends, to being his most bitter enemy. That backstory, the establishment of his character and the consistency in it means that what happens when he turns is not only more believable, but also more powerful as a result.
Conversely, this above? This is what we want to avoid. Vader screaming "no" is so out of character and comical that it became a meme. It's one of the worst writing, directing, and editing choices in a character in cinema. And it'd be so easily fixed - just have him build to a howling scream of rage, as everything around his explodes due to his unrestrained fury lashing out with the force. Immediately fixes that moment. Consistency and believability are key.
On the other hand, this is great:
It's the same with any great villain. The backstory, combined with believable action in the present, driving by a powerful and compelling motivation creates the basis for a great villain. Which brings us on to...
Motivations are, at their core, personal goals that create powerful drive, resulting in action. These are different from goals alone, as a character can have a goal that creates no actions, as they believe it to be unobtainable, or they're held back from acting for some reason. As a result, motivations are inextricably tied to actions, which we'll look at later. But it's the fact of the actions that come out of them that separate a motivation from a goal.
Therefore, the thing that will define a great antagonist in the eyes of your players are the actions they take against them. It's in this that we find the inspiration for the motivations for our antagonists. Because the first question we need to ask ourselves is:
What do the players care about and wish to achieve?
These can be simple or complex and nuanced. Things like "find somewhere to call home" or "protect that which I love", or "understand why people do what they do" or "protect without killing" are all perfectly valid motivations for your players. They're also all great set-ups for motivations for a villain.
- Leave no home to go to
- Hurt those you love
- Create random chaos
- Either I do or you and everyone around you will
It's the subversion of the motivations of the protagonists that makes a great villain, great. Looking at Moriarty in the first two series of the BBC adaptation of Sherlock, we see a genuinely compelling villain.
Moriarty understands exactly what he's doing. He's bored, so he's picked someone (Sherlock) and decided to torment him for fun. We see this best in the last episode of season one, "The Great Game", where Moriarty creates a series of challenges for Sherlock to solve. Interestingly, we see at the start of the episode just how bored Sherlock is too. This creates a great tension - what Sherlock needs to thrive, requires that his own objective - stopping bad people doing bad things, is constantly under threat. He literally needs someone like Moriarty in order to get enjoyment from life.
Sherlocks motivation actively works against his own motivation, and when you throw someone as unhinged and intelligent and deadly as Moriarty into the mix, it's chaos for everyone around him.
We see a similar thing with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and also with The Operative in Serenity. A man who is willing to any lengths.
Mal: I don't murder children.
Operative: I do, if I have to.
He keeps his word later too, when he says that every minute Mal keeps his goal from him, more people will die. This is the mark of a great villainous motivation - a goal counter to that of the protagonist, backed up with actions that show that there's no lengths the villain won't go to to achieve their goal.
Expression of the Motivation
However, this requires, as we see with all three examples above, an element of exposition. The villain needs to talk to the players at some point, and state clearly what their motivation is. Why are they doing what they're doing? What's the intended outcome they're working towards?
Without the characters knowing why what's happening is happening, there's no real tension beyond that they know they're under threat. Whilst that's certainly useful to a point, at some point they're going to want to know what's going on and why. They're going to need context.
That means actually meeting the antagonist or a representative of him/her/it/they. That moment needs to be handled with care. Because a great antagonist isn't the villain, they're the hero from their own perspective. The more convincing the villain is in coming across as the good guy in their own eyes to the players, the greater the tension in future encounters.
The Sympathetic Villain
The final part of making a great antagonist is making them sympathetic.
Part of what makes Loki such a great villain is that not only are they not the bad guy in their own eyes, but that you can completely understand and sympathise with them as well. What happened to Loki was not of his own doing, and made him the man he became. In many ways, he was fated to become the villain he did; it was just a matter of time.
And this brings us to my favourite way to make a villain sympathetic: have them created by the characters. Having an antagonist be someone that the players in some way are responsible for hurting. Examples of this in fiction would be Gog from Superman, Snape in Harry Potter (his mere existence is a painful reminder to Snape of the past), Khan from Star Trek II, Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean, in an odd way, Vader, and in a reversed way, Picard to the Borg after Best of Both Worlds.
The best villains are the ones you don't want to see die. The ones that you feel something for, because until the protagonist came along, there was nothing to worry about. The ones that, if you look from their point of view, you feel sorry for, and understand their need to stop the good guys.
Hopefully this helps next time you think about creating a villain for your campaigns. As always, if you've any thoughts or feedback, let me know on social media.
If you've enjoyed this post, you might want to follow me on Twitter