Villainous characters can make or break a role-playing game, and they can be difficult to come up with because villains are often the worst people imaginable. You can’t just give me a bad guy who runs an operation that you don’t like! Not only am I more interested in what they’re doing than your character, but most of my players will have the same reaction. Your goal is to create an NPC that is so unlikable that the players want to get rid of them ASAP! But how do you make them engaging in a way that your players will want to play against?
In this article, Jared Emanuel (a fantastic friend, RPG extraordinaire, and wargaming hobbyist) shares his experience with roleplaying games, like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons. Jared offers great tips for creating and game mastering (GM) fun villains that players love.
Villains don’t need to be just Dark and Dreary, they need to be fun to hate!
Read on to learn more about how to roleplay the bad guys that keep your players engaged, laughing, crying (!), screaming (#@?%!), and downright enjoying themselves in your gaming sessions!
Villainous Tip #1 – Your Villain Should Be Selfish To The Point of Idiocy and Embrace It
The word “idiot” originally meant “ignorant person,” but is now referenced to a person who lacks common sense and basic intelligence (source). Here, attributing your villian with idiocy who needs to care only about improving their position in the world creates a fascinating character. In short, your villain should ignore conventional logic when it comes to interacting with other creatures.
The Villain should not be able to fathom how their actions might harm others, and therefore confused when other creatures logically oppose them. Your villain does not have time for simple things like love or sympathy. They are far too busy building complex and intricate evil webs to notice the small act of kindness that could potentially destroy their whole scheme.
By ignoring sympathetic instincts and focusing entirely on their own desires they become a villain that your players will love to hate. The plans that villains often concoct includes some ridiculously over complicated plot to take over a kingdom, gain immortality, or become all-powerful through magic items and absurd rituals.
As you become more experienced with creating villains and their warped desires I recommend you try to come up with schemes that are more unique and personal. Give your villain a goal that their life has revolved around for years, something they have dedicated their whole being to achieving at the expense of all other relationships in their life.
Villainous Tip #2 – Your Villain Should Be Proud
Of all the seven deadly sins, pride might be the most interesting. Sometimes regarded as a boon, it quickly becomes a dangerous character flaw. Excessive pride and arrogance means that your villain should only derive satisfaction from their own accomplishments.
A villain should ignore or take credit for the success of their minions regardless of their actual contribution. This could be used to craft other non-player characters (NPCs) opposed to your villain, that your player characters (PCs) can have interesting encounters with.
It is fun to design a potential situation for your heroes to discover a disgruntled, underappreciated or misguided lieutenant to exploit to their advantage. Have your Villain antagonist have a Gamora to their Thanos, a Vader to their Palpatine. Perhaps a PC in your party could be that character themselves making things deliciously personal.
Villainous Tip #3 – Use Weakness as a Fun Point of Player Engagement
Having an enemy be too big for your players to handle is a recipe for disaster. If they are not worried about the threat before them then your villain has failed, as their goal should be to appear so powerful that no one dares challenge them. This does not mean you have to be unrealistic or use deus ex machina creations every time. It means that you have to think about your villain’s motivations, their resources, and how the intrepid PC’s can exploit them.
Your Villain is fated to lose in spectacular and perhaps embarrassing way. Whether a farm boy turned religious zealot shoots a torpedo into a tiny exhaust port small enough to shove a womp-rat through; or maybe a cross country hike by two intimate friends ends once they reach the only magical volcano with arcane lava hot enough to destroy your ancient phylactery, you need to embrace the end, and in fact plan on it.
Your PCs are the heroes and you need to embrace any loophole they may find and run with it. Because it will be fun for them and fun for you when they unexpectedly and “unlikely” topple your evil regime.
Villainous Tip #4 – “It Isn’t Personal”
In all likelihood to start your campaign your arch villain should not even have your heroes on their radar. But, your villain has to do something that calls your heroes to action and it needs to be incidental. An NPC or a place that your PCs love needs to be casually destroyed in pursuit of an evil scheme.
It’s a trope that PCs have edgy back stories to start. I recommend playing that out. Have the PC search for missing droids or livestock and while they are gone: Oops! Your PCs are now all orphans.
Stack those initial odds against them, but give them an out to escape, to recover and lick their wounds. The villain didn’t even know that he just made their own worst nightmare.
The first time your PCs are supposed to encounter the villain they may never even meet him or her. This is nothing new, but it’s not a useless trope either. You want your players to get into trouble with someone they don’t realize is really connected, powerful and evil until it’s too late.
If this is your first time GMing, I suggest you don’t make it obvious to your players that the bad guys are in league with each other. You do not have to mess up this dynamic too hard. Just let some bad things happen that point back to a single entity and then reveal the mastermind behind it all as part of the plot.
Villainous Tip #5 – Evil is Self Destructive
We talk about the duality of Good and Evil as if they are always opposed to each other. However, for a truly fun conflict, approach the dynamic as if Evil does not care about Good. Evil isn’t opposed to Good; rather Evil is just really ambivalent to it. Evil should have no problem destroying conventions or systems that may actually benefit them in the long run.
To them (the villains), the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. And, that can be dangled in front of your heroes. Being devoted to the self means that your villain may feel the need to do something that feels satisfactory in the now, but may be bad for them in the long run.
Sometimes the villains can sow the seeds of their own destruction. You can then let the PCs nurture that seed into a very creative looking bonsai tree, if you catch my drift. The results may surprise you.
The first and most important thing you can do is play to lose. This may require you playing against your own character, which can be tough, but it will result in better stories. If the party’s fighter misses by 5 points all the time, then make sure that it hits on a critical miss instead of when your character succeeds. Play your villainous character like a loose cannon. Make them do seemingly very harmful things that, in the long run, can actually have benefits to your players.
If you’re playing a villain in an RPG, make them as unlikeable and evil as possible without being too overt. If the players don’t take notice of your efforts, there’s no point to what you’re doing.
Make sure that your villains have their own goals outside of harming the heroes or destroying everything they love; it can be more interesting if they are just indifferent to good things happening around them (since many people feel this way).
When designing a campaign with multiple villains, try not having any connections between the different bad guys until later on in the story so that it doesn’t become clear who is responsible for certain events early on.
Finally, when facing defeat by one group of heroes or another, play up how self destructive these characters are and how they will harm themselves more than anyone else. It can make for an exciting ending that is different from the Usual Suspects.
Follow these tips on how to GM a fun villain, and you’ll find that it doesn’t take much to bring out the evil in your players!
About the Author
Jared Emanuel is a hobby enthusiast that loves high fantasy, science fiction, and everything in between.