Plenty of wonderful options today, but I felt like I had to dedicate this entry to what it takes, in my opinion, to create a good Villain in a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG).
If you think about it, what truly distinguishes a campaign from an adventure is a) a cast of recurring player characters (PCs) and b) one or more related villain non-player characters (NPCs) who oppose the PCs.
As such, if you want to run a great campaign it is of the utmost importance that you’re able to create amazing villains that your players love to hate, so to speak.
A Negative Example: The Dragons of… Series
The campaign that I know best and that I’ve tried to run the most times is Dragonlance’s War of the Lance campaign, the one composed by the Dragons of… modules, published between 1984 and 1988, and revisited many times in the last 37 years, with various adaptations to the newest editions of D&D.
One major issue that I find now with the campaign overall is its lack of great villains. Don’t misunderstand me: the villains are memorable and do their job, but they are so, well, plain. They’re evil because they are evil, and they have to be defeated, well, because they’re evil. There’s no shot at redemption or negotiation, no way of understanding each other and, as a result, I find myself less and less motivated to run them, to embody them and make them the antagonists of the campaign.
To make things worse their personalities and motivations are, at best, barely sketched and, at worst, nonexistent. So, you just have to go with let’s hope that my players are excited about killing them because, well, they’re evil.
And that’s not a good thing, isn’t it?
A Positive Example: Curse of Strahd
I’m currently running Curse of Strahd and my experience has been a blast for a number of reasons, chief among them that Strahd von Zarovich is a great villain.
Don’t get me wrong, though: Strahd is absolute evil, a true monster. But you can understand that monster. His motivation is crystal clear and, in reality, forever out of his hands: (luckily) he’ll never get Tatyana’s love. He’s condemned to try again and again, but he’ll always fail in the end.
That being said, he’s a formidable opponent. He’s dangerous through and through, charming and totally ready to kill whoever stands in his way. He has the skill and power to do so, and all of Barovia is under his grasp, whether they admit it or not. He has corrupted most everything and, what he hasn’t been able to corrupt, he has destroyed.
Everything in the campaign is built around this. All the places and people the PCs interact with are either Strahd’s victims or their (unbeknownst) allies. And that is just plain great. Thanks to this the campaign has a laser focus on one thing—Strahd and the corruption he brings—and everything else is connected to this twisted core in one way or another.
Building a Villain
Using these two examples as a basis—and putting my own experience on top of it—here is my perspective on how to write a great villain.
Give Them a Clear Motivation
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can pass along, a solid villain needs a solid motivation. So, what’s a solid motivation?
Put plainly, it’s something the villain desperately needs, whether consciously or not, and the search for this something defines them.
For example, Strahd’s motivation is simple: to get together with Tatyana. But he doesn’t just want to be with her, no. He is positively obsessed with doing so. Nothing he has access to—and he’s a 700-year old wizard vampire—is enough for him. He cares only for Tatyana, and nothing more.
This type of motivation is crucial because it’s at the center, at the heart of the character, if you will.
No Villain Is a Villain From Their Perspective
This is something simple, but it bears repeating: no evil person thinks they’re evil. Everybody believes that they’re good, that they’re doing the right thing.
This is a very powerful notion.
I believe that it is so because it makes playing the character much easier. Now you only need to justify whatever atrocity the villain performs from their own (distorted) point of view as good or desirable and voilá! You’re now in their head.
Make It Personal
Finally, I think that, to make your villain memorable and worthy of building a campaign around them, you have to make things personal between them and the players.
Don’t have them kidnap, torture, and kill any people: have the villain go for the PCs’ loved ones. Don’t have the villain’s burn any village; have them burn the PCs’ hometown. What’s even better, have the villain explain to the PCs that they had to do it because of their actions, ideally in front of the whole lot of survivors. Now the PCs are scorned by their neighbors and have a personal grudge to settle with the villain.
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