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Building Bad: Tips on Creating Memorable Villain NPC’s

January 6, 2020

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It’s easy, relatively speaking, to run a villain in most campaigns.  You’ve got technical application of the rules, some rudimentary tactics, and keeping track of stats, spells, and wounds, sure…. And sometimes that can be burdensome, but any GM worth their salt should be able to readily handle that aspect of the game, if not right away then early in their GMing career.

But how do you take a pile of stats and make it memorable?  Make it truly villainous?  here are a few tips to creating a bad guy that your players will love to hate.

Reputation / Infamy

You hear about a villain, or their actions, before you ever see them:  You come across the scene of the murder.  You hear the villagers talk about the tradgedy the villain has brought to bear (even if they don’t know that’s who is behind it).  People talk in hushed tones about the warlord  in the neighboring province.  Villagers tell tale of the creature that lives in the woods.

This is best delievered as background noise, tavern rumors, or news reports.  Better yet, it’s learned when the party is busy with another problem.  It builds a richer world, one fraught with problems where the party can only do so much.  The villain is a problem that the party has to work itself up to.  Haunting scenes of death and destruction or chilling tales from victims or survivors build the villain’s reputation.

Villains use others to do their dirty work.

While some villains may be solitary, many villains that wield enough power will draw followers that seek to benefit from the riches or influence their dastardly patron.  Others may see a chance for wanton violence in the company of someone who has mastered it.

This could be as minimal as a hobgoblin or bugbear that commands a small horde of semi-faithful goblins.  It could be a petty crime lord that pays a biker gang to ferry his contraband and protect his holdings for a cut of the take.  It could be an army.  In this agency, there is power over the innocent.  These perhaps not-so-powerful followers can affect change by virtue of their numbers.  They can destroy a village, derail a train, and in big enough numbers, crush a nation.

Use these minions to exact the will of the Villain, spy on their enemies, and create confrontations that remind the party the villain is active without putting the villain himself at risk.  Furthermore, these minions brag about their patron villain.  They want people to know that they are to be feared and respected because of their patron’s power.  Let your minions tell tales of their patron villain, threaten his wrath, and predict his retribution.  You’re building a relationship between the villain and the party without the villain saying a word themselves.

Villains attack heroes where they’re most vulnerable.

Only so much force can be brought to bear agains the heroes themselves.  They are, after all, the heroes!  They were built to overcome adversity.  When a villain cannot eliminate the heroes, they can make them pay.  Often, they have friends, family and loved ones that don’t have the same capability to fight back.  And there’s nothing to make a villain more hated than attacking or exploiting the innocent, especially if the heroes are close to the victims.

Villains live to fight another day.

There is no single thing that drives a party mad more readily than a villain slipping through their grasp.  Villains should plan ways of making their escape so that the heroes cannot follow until it’s time to stop telling their story.  Dedicated retreat can be difficult to counter, especially for a Villain applying a little forethought.  Take note, however, that if you do this, there are two rules you have to follow: One, the escape must make sense in some form or fashion or the party will see the escape as a cheat. Make sure evidence of their escape plan is clear and reasonable. Two, you must eventually let the heroes catch the villain.  The contract you have with the players as a GM is that you will give them the opportunity to be heroic. Give them that opportunity, if not right away.

Villains use their resources to make your misery their hobby.

Villiains have time and resources that allow them to do things that an average hero wouldn’t even consider.  It might be having their goons ransack the heroes’ base, burn down a town, or spread nasty rumors about them.  They can take their time or drop a little money into making the heroes miserable, including impersonating them while doing their worst.  Fire is cheap.  The watch and judges can be bribed. While the possibilities are endless, the goal is to anger the party, not to kill them.  They are owed a confrontation, and their anger is the spice that will make that fight all the more satsifying.

Villains aren’t just cruel to the heroes.

If a villain is cruel, there are plenty of ways to show it.  Sometimes, this involves slaying their own underlings for their own incompetence.  For the chaotic evil out there, it could be slaying bystanders for almost no reason at all.  In most cases, it’s going to be a villain taking the most direct route to solving a problem, even if that means a few people have to get hurt along the way.  Show these victims to the players in your story so that they get the depth of what a jerk your bad guy really is.  If possible, let your villain do this infront of them, but just out of their grasp.  Use the innocent as human shields to cover the villains escape or distract the heroes from seeking their vengeance.

Villians love to hear themselves talk.

There’s nothing more disappointing than fighting your way through multiple floors of a dungeon or secret base and finally cornering the villian you’ve been hunting for weeks to only have him or her wordlessly wade into combat with you without uttering a word.

This is the easiest, cheapest way to make a villain 100% more satisfying.  Call it a surprise round where the villain takes his whole action talking, or do what I do and say it’s a special “drama round” where you apply GM fiat to tell a cool story.  However you make it happen, have your villain at least say a few lines:

“Miserable stinking imbeciles!  You think you can defeat me?  I am Lord Castigar!  I have slain hundrends of so called heroes like yourselves.  Come at me, if you wish to die!”

It doen’t take much to improv some witty (or not-so-witty) dialogue.  But don’t stop there.  Each round, on the villains action, give them some more lines.  Goad the players, mock them, have them explain the cunning nature of their plan, or if things are turning agains tthe Villain, have them start to negotiate.  And when they negotiate, see if there is a way to be reasonable.  See if you can actually tempt the player into taking the deal.  Don’t be surprised if your villain tells the heroes, “Wait! Stop!” and they actually do it, and hear him out (with hesitation).  There’s something about our human natures that make us willing to hear reason, if its possible, and a villain can use that to his advantage.  A real villain will always welch on the deal anyway, so its nothing to make a few promises and then try to get back to their position down the road.  A good villain bides his time. And if they can’t, you have to remember the last thing…

Villains are people too.

Well, some of them are demons, or space monsters or whatever. But the best villain is a villain that can exist in reality.  Sure, there are murdering psyhopaths that cut a swath of death a destruction through the universe for no reason, but the best villains are ones that could exist, that do exist.  They’re usually greedy, money hungry or power hungry people who bend a few rules at first to get what they think they need or deserve.  Soon, when this becomes easier, or if the reward is just too good, they make bolder moves and more people get hurt.  Maybe life has taught them lessons that make empathy a sign of weakness, and they’ve moved beyond being concerned with how others are affected by their actions.  But a complex villain, one that might yet be turned away from their path, or might show vengence another evil for reasons all their own, that’s a truly well developed villain.  They have reasons for acting how they do, and don’t see themselves as evil so much as driven, regardless of the consequences.

In the end, every villain wants to live.  If the choice is obvious death or the possibility of surviving, 9 times out of 10 a villain will choose life unless losing everything is too great of an insult to their vanity. And then, its up the heroes to show mercy, or perhaps begin the road towards villany themselves. Every villain has to start somewhere, and its a fine line between vengence and wrath.

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