The Villain: A How-To Guide
by T.A. Saunders ©2010 v1.0
Too often in role-playing games of any kind when a player chooses to play a confrontational villain role, this character does not live up to its true potential because of a few simple mistakes made while roleplaying said character. Everybody loves a good villain, but it is key to remember that everybody likes to KILL a good villain too. The whole point of having villains involved in role-playing games (and certainly in free form ones) is to give some moral diversity to a game and add a little healthy confrontation.
Player villains can be part of an ongoing channel storyline but don’t have to be. A villain’s entire objective could be an encapsulating storyline all its own that offers rich role-playing opportunities if one observes some key things about roleplaying them. The guidelines below are some of the biggest flaws in villain characters and how to correct them, so your fellow players will be left scratching their heads trying to figure out what comes next.
Obvious Villain is Obvious: This, by far is the quickest way to get your villain killed or run off early. Disclosing a character is a villain right off the bat is a sure way to attract unwanted attention early. If your character is a murderer, do not introduce him carrying a head with a hatchet, unless your goal as the player is to start a confrontation right off the bat. Let RP unfold where characters are forced to discover important things, like a secret identity or hidden powers. A good villain does not need gimmicks to be a villain. A villain is made by choices, things said and actions taken. If your villain is lurking in the shadows with a bloodied knife and looking at people with murderous intent, you’ve blown your villain cover (again, unless that’s your intent as a player) and thus cannot be surprised when heroes come after them with the intent to kill or apprehend.
In cases where a villain is supposed to be obviously a villain a means to escape an overwhelming set of odds should be wisely incorporated as well. While this may come across as gimmicky, a good villain does not go into a confrontation without some means to escape and will likely not engage in a confrontation unless it is on their terms. Anything from a magic spell, or back-up from thugs, to a clever framing of the would-be heroes can be employed. Even obvious villains have a desire to survive.
Build your character’s villainy if you are not playing the obvious villain. Make other characters work hard to find out things but not impossible. A good villain should be able to infiltrate a group of people and get intertwined in their dealings, so it will make it easier for them to conduct acts that will be considered villainous. Obviously most of this is player interpretation, but there are a wide range of things that can be done to write somebody’s character a villain.
I AM A VAMPIRE, DEMON, DRAGON, SAIYAN, LICH AND I AM HERE TO DESTROY YOU: While this could be covered in the above information, sometimes people make villains with the intention that they are going to be so unbelievably powerful that nobody will ever want to mess with them once they announce they are something dark, evil and probably indestructible. This fails on two levels:
1. Character power in a free form game is a misnomer; you can write how powerful your character is, tell people OOC how powerful your character is and insist that he/she/it is the scariest thing since mullets, but unless its played out and other players feel that their characters are less powerful and/or agree that your villain could overwhelm them with whatever awesome you, the player came up with? Nobody is going to care and you will have a powerful villain sipping wine in a tavern that nobody is scared of at all. In short, in a free form game, a character’s power is based on how other characters see and react to the powerful character, not on player say-so.
2. The villain who announces they are a grave and dangerous threat and should be feared, usually inspires either a dismissive response from other characters, or if annoying enough, a direct confrontation that ends with the superbad villain being driven off, slain or apprehended somehow.
The important thing to remember about playing a powerful villain is the same thing a player should remember about playing a powerful anything; power does not make the character. People want to know the story of the character and through that story, a sense of power can be conveyed. A classic example is Dracula; he didn’t start out as a powerful vampire, he started out as a knight who was driven mad with grief when his beloved bride killed herself. The story of that transition and what Dracula did to become what he is, creates the villain we understand him to be. Tell the story, don’t tell self-perceived notions.
Just Because a Hero Can Do it, Does Not Mean a Hero Can Do it to the Villain: Villains know people want to arrest, kill, maim and make them pay for
all the evil little things they have done. Knowing this, a good villain goes to great lengths to make sure he/she/it will not be automatically detected by the paladin sitting in the corner that could sense an undead cockroach five miles away. Denying that a hero can detect what/who your villain is or what their intentions are, is a choice of the player of the villain, NOT the player of the hero or heroes. Too often, villains that are otherwise well thought out get revealed by somebody playing a character that insists that they can detect evil on other planets regardless what defenses that villain has, or the werewolf/furry character that insists they can smell undead 5,000 miles away and is never wrong.
These detection powers other characters are bound to have can be foiled any number of ways. Wearing perfume or cologne will make smelling the undead for were-folk and furries very difficult. Utilizing various alchemical powders or magical powders could yield a similar result. Got a pesky paladin or some all-seeing wizard twit? It is entirely possible, without going overboard with the character concept to gain some sort of ward, or trinket or have learned some sort of talent to counter such things. In a free form role-playing game, the possibilities are endless, without being ridiculous ly over-overpowering. The important thing to remember when creating a villain is, the villain knows he or she is going to be hunted sooner or later.
Villains Always (Try) to use the Terrain and the Situation to Their Advantage: No villain walks into a crowded room full of people that will potentially want to blast them to meaty bits without knowing the lay of the land and have some idea how to escape should the odds go against him or her. Even the most powerful villain can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers and without a plan of escape, you will likely end up with the One Night Stand Villain that goes out in a crispy glory or ends up in jail for the rest of their foreseeable futures.
Villains may challenge, or show bravado against the heroes around them but that is almost always to lure the heroes into a trap or a deception. A good villain might also wait till the heroes are involved in something important to them, before springing their trap or hatching their plan. When using the terrain and the situation to their advantage, the villain can do things like lure the hapless victim away while heroes are engaged in another matter, or poison the drink of the important politician while heroes are busy laughing and being joyous. And if they get caught doing these dastardly things? The villain knows where the back door is, or has magic ready to affect an escape.
Simply launching your villain’s plot, without paying attention to both of these things is a sure way to end up with a dead villain quickly. Along this vein, do not be afraid to organize side-channels for playing things out that should not be in the open for other players to see. If you have a mutually consenting player that wants to be a victim or people that want to go along with the scenario, don’t be afraid to move things out of the main channel and let the heroes find out about things after the fact. The villain heroes have to chase is a much more interesting villain.
Villains Do Not Want Heroes to Know Things: One of the major flaws people make when playing a villain is the villain reveals their villainous intentions too early. People asking too many questions about what a villain is up to, are likely heroes looking to see if the villain is a stupid villain. A good villain will not carry around his or her Doomsday Weapon under their cloak and let the hero have a peek at it so the hero can research the Doomsday Weapon and find something to counter it. A good villain may drop a few hints here and there, or engage in misinformation, but giving themselves away isn’t being a villain, it’s being a stupid villain that probably won’t have a long career as a villain.
Play the mystery. Villains are fun because they present an aspect of the unknown that other players do not have direct control over. They are the unseen menace that chooses to reveal him or herself at the time of their choosing and to the greatest possible damage. A villain controls the flow of information about them and the flow of information people reveal about him or her through whatever means necessary. Make players work for every last crumb of information they get.
Villains Don’t Always Have a Plan: Some villains create an intricate masterwork of a plan to foil, befuddle and confuse heroes into any number of situations but this is not the written law. Some villains were just born bad and want to cause strife and have no clear and obtainable objective other than to watch the world upend onto itself. Villains like this do not need a motivation, other than self-gratification. This does not mean they do not consider how advantageous doing a certain vile deed at a certain time might be, but rather they simply have no reason to do it, other than to do it.
However, it is entirely acceptable for a villain to have a confusing and intricate plan. Some villains are masterminds and should take every opportunity to turn heroes against each other, or make them serve the villains wishes unknowingly or unwittingly. These sorts of villains go the extra mile to remain elusive and to keep their plans ambiguous. Both types of villains are valid, however execution is everything. A villain that causes chaos in a situation that really doesn’t breed any chaos, comes across as obnoxious and not really a villain. A mastermind villain that has an intricate plot, but does nothing to entrap the heroes comes across a brooding emo, and not a villain.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful in allowing players to construct survivable villains that will be both enjoyable to play and enjoyable to play against. As with any sort of free form role-play, it is critical to focus on the story you, the player are trying to tell and not get over-burdened with powers, talents, feats. Worry about those things after you understand your villain’s motives, goals and aspirations. Most importantly, have fun being bad!