For anyone who hasn’t visited TV Tropes, I suggest checking it out… if you have vacation time saved up, or a honeymoon you can skip. It’s a wiki site dedicated to categorizing cliches and stereotypes in fiction. A week or two should be sufficient to skim the surface of one of their genre sections. I recommend setting your computer to automatically shut down after fourteen consecutive days of browsing. And god help you if your click on the Villains page, like I did.
Months after I discovered TV Tropes I was declared legally dead. They finally found me following links within links in an infinite spiraling void, trying to unlock the secrets of believable bad guys. My bedroom was the sloth scene from Seven, except the cops began to suspect I was alive when Comcast cut service to half the western seaboard, just to handle the extra bandwidth whenever I closed 10 to the N’th power browser tabs simultaneously. It’s what Nietzsche said– when you gaze long into the tropes, the tropes also gazes into you.
After my tropes-induced fugue state I was able to construct a few villains to throw at my players. Here are some bullet points from what I’ve learned about the presence of evil at the gaming table, and 5 goals your big bad arch-nemesis should shoot for.
1) More Evil Than The Players
Gaming groups are just looking to do the right thing– to overcome injustice, uphold chivalric values, and defend the weak. That is, unless there’s money in doing the wrong thing. Put the gold, credits, or experience points in the hands of townsfolk or freedom fighters, and suddenly you’re witness to a scheme more complex than an Ocean’s 11 heist, and darker than a Hostel movie.
If your big bad villain needlessly kills a villager in front of the players, steals from the poor, or shits on the freedom of the commoner, you’re only proving that he’s willing to be as evil as the players where wealth and power are involved. Instead, promise a pot of gold to the players. Make them fight through a grueling dungeon, or battle an army, only to be cheated out of their monetary rewards. If they reach the end of the rainbow to catch a glimpse of the evil mastermind making off with their pot of gold, you will set into motion a revenge plot as seething as if the villain had slaughtered the players’ childhood friends.
2) Not Pointlessly Evil and Has A Functional Plan
Real villains exist, and they are scary. But not because they’re willing to torture people for no damn reason. Real villains are frightening because they have a justification to do what they do, and people are willing to buy into their bullshit.
Dr. Harry Harlow terrorized small, baby animals, pushing them to their emotional limits in order to understand the connection of mammals to their mothers. Dr. Walter Freeman pioneered the modern lobotomy, performing in excess of 3,000 lobotomies from his traveling van, or what he called a “lobotomobile”. He was banned from performing surgery after killing apx. 15% of his subjects, including one patient who died when he stopped for a photo opportunity, leaving the ice-picks he used for the procedure in the patient’s brain. Both of these pioneers of modern medicine would be considered morally bankrupt by today’s standards, yet they had objectively reasonable motives for conducting their studies.
Or what about Donald Trump? Cracked recently posted an article about his villainous shenanigans, which included attempting to use Eminent Domain to get an elderly widow evicted from her home in Atlantic City, so he could construct a limousine parking lot for one of his casinos. This was almost certainly the plot of an Adam Sandler comedy, except the rich country-club baron had to be toned down and given brighter dialogue, because nobody that inarticulate could possibly amass such wealth.
Your villains don’t have to have the best of reasons–money will do. But give them a motive so their outrageously villainous acts aren’t pointless, cartoonish representations of what evil should look like.
3) Eloquent, But Not A Windbag
Unless your game revolves around six college-age characters attending a lecture by the evil Dr. Monotone, and the real-world challenge includes dim lighting, Ambien, and pillows strategically placed around the table, then your villain shouldn’t deliver more than three lines without a rebuttal or interruption. His mental prowess, and the power he commands, are directly proportional to the secrets he keeps from the players, not what he lets slip during his mad rant.
Punctuate the villain’s actions with snide verbal barbs and cutting remarks. Plan out his talking points. Include dialogue bits, which you can read to the players between torpedo shots or laser blasts. Just remember that your villain is a busy man; he has animals to torture, brains to mangle, and old women to evict. The only time he should devote himself to delivering one-sided dialogue to the players is when he’s moving in for the kill. Think Chang from Star Trek VI.
4) Not A Pushover
A villain is a hero who has abandoned a positive personal narrative. He may be crippled or physically infirm. He may have a debilitating disorder that prevents him from going toe-to-toe with the hero, or a whole host of issues that plague him body and mind. The thing you must remember when writing a villain, is that your evil mastermind has already compensated for these shortcomings before the story even began.
The villain can’t be truly threatening unless he’s covered for his weaknesses before the players meet him. A physically challenged villain should have wealth and wit, with a backup plan for when he loses his wheelchair. A villain prone to violent outbursts will have learned to hold his rage in check, until he has an opportunity to let loose with some quality mayhem. Vader had his respirator and force powers. Conners from Spiderman had his serum. And Hook had his hook, and a hatred for young boys.
Avoid common villain stereotypes and the weaknesses that accompany them. The ancient plotting wizard, the black-hearted business tycoon who lights his cigars with cash, and the feeble-bodied robber baron are poor devices. Try taking a cleft-chin strutting superhero, corrupt his motives and his world-view, sprinkle in some tragedy and ego, and let him loose on the players.
5) Not Plot-Immortal
I mentioned in an earlier post about reoccurring characters and how unkillable villains and henchmen can cheapen the gaming experience. I would ask only one question to reinforce this point. Can you think of a movie or television series that was enriched by having the central bad guy survive every episode?
There are examples, but they are rare. Modern screenwriters know that if a villain lasts too long, the prevailing opinion of the character will morph into: Why doesn’t he just die already? Game of Thrones’ Joffery is a prime example of a character who can only serve as a villain, and viewers have been screaming for his blood since the beginning.
Some villains can grow over time. Sylar from Heroes experienced drastic character changes, growth, and regression, so he never remained the typical villain for too long, which lends him longevity in the series. The same could be said for most of the antagonists in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. If you’re going to keep a villain around for several sessions, push him or her through the same development arcs one would expect from a main character. Force the players to work with the villain for a session, if only to vanquish a mutual enemy before old aggressions reassert themselves. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your villain, but know when their presence has grown stale, and it’s time to bring in new blood.