Greetings and salutations, Nerdarchy readers!
I was watching a show on Netflix while I was deathly ill (or so it felt to me) and could not help but be inspired to write on a subject I seem to be gathering a reputation for. Namely, villains who inspire the protagonist to excel into feats of legend. You see, like the villainous Count Olaf, a good villain will be a thorn in the protagonist’s side for a long time and alter their lives on every level. The thing is, in gaming it is too easy to create a villain who is a one trick pony or is killed in a single fight. For this reason, I am going to list a few things to keep in mind and a few things to avoid all together. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Villain Do’s and Don’ts
The first the long-term villain needs to avoid is being too much too soon. I have seen many a player lose fun in a game because the godlike villain came down and kicked their teeth in way too soon. The players need to see something to overcome, not something that is oppressing beyond hope. For this reason, you need to slowly but surely introduce the players to what they are up against. How to do this is simple and will be covered in many parts of this article, but there is one I wish to share right away. “The Gamers: Dorkness Rising” did this well in how the peasants are ripe with information. Let the effect of the villain be felt secondhand through those the villain has touched. Through this you can flavor the entire campaign with any kind of villainy you wish. The Joker driving people insane, the feral destruction of Doomsday, or the heart wrenching betrayal left in the wake of Deathstroke and his Judas Contract. The villain you wish to nurture should start with those they have affected.
Second thing you should avoid is having your villain being to in the face of the heroes. Like a child who has been given all the candy they could ever want, the players will soon become bored of your villain. This does not mean you should not have the villain’s effect felt, but his actual appearance is not necessary. Remember the troops cheering for Cobra command, or those saying “Heil Hydra?” Of course you do, because the villain has a trademark and it is shown through the actions of their minions. For that reason you should decide on how organized and how loyal the minions are. Can they be bought off? Do they argue? Are they well trained? Are they mindless? Cruel? The villain might have a few cohorts that are a cut above the rest. Like the Baroness, or Harley Quinn, Lieutenants can be an effective way to drive the story while having the main villain stay in the background.
Third thing is a strictly mechanical or back stage item. If your villain is going to make an appearance, you have to account for the unexpected, and players are notoriously prone to doing the unexpected. As one of my fellow Nerdarchy writers is prone to saying, if you plan for a million and one things, the players will do the million and second thing. What my point is, you have to account for the players getting their hands on the villain or worse, killing him. Let’s face it, that happens all the time in gaming. For this reason, don’t feel bad for having a bit of Deus Ex Machina up your sleeve. Some way to have your villain escape at the last minute. The proverbial ninja vanish trick, or something far more simple such as a minion pulling him out of the way of the finishing blow. Maybe it was a clone, or the villain can teleport? The possibilities are endless, but the need is real or your long term villain could be eliminated by the wrath of the dice. Nothing can cut your villain’s plans shorter than their own death before the final fight. As my roommate put it, “Don’t make it too bulls**t.”
Fourth on the list of things to factor in is how to affect and drive the players. You need a reason, a hook, an inspiration to drive the players to want the villain’s downfall. Everyone has a different draw to action, and you will need to adjust, but you should know your players well enough to be able to pick something out. Maybe the villain affected their life through death of a loved one, slaughter of a village, theft of honor or loot, or maybe it was a simple rivalry. Perhaps they are alternate sides of a war? Or perhaps the villain they seek is merely acting on orders, and the true evil lays undiscovered (What a twist!). Then there is the ultimate driver of players, loot. Maybe they wish to claim or reclaim a treasure in the possession of the villain. As Final Fantasy VII showed us, a villain can use the death of a player or ally as a powerful device to drive the players.
The fifth thing I will mention is that the villain has to have a solution. The players are supposed to feel that when he is gone, their goals need to be met. The villain has affected the world, and that effect needs to be solved. The death of the villain could solve this directly if the villain is a brute type like the Hulk or Doomsday. Though if it was the proverbial Red Skull, it may demoralize the evil they lead. Of course if you want the story to continue, you could say a bit of clean up is needed in such manners. Though I prefer the vacuum theory, where if a villain is downed a greater villain will rise to take its place. Though the continuation is not necessary, the conclusion of a long fought war should feel like it had an effect. If things continue on as they always have, the players will feel disheartened as if their work was all for naught. I cannot say there is much I would find more insulting.
The sixth and final thing is something for the villain itself. The villain should have a flavor and bit of panache. A theme can aid in this, but most important is that the villain has a goal. What is your villain trying to accomplish? If they are just trying to get rich or trying to destroy the world, the goal is not that hard to design. If the goal is domination, ascension to godhood, or some other grand scheme, then you have an entire story arc of ideas on your hands. That is a lot of work but is a great thing in how much inspiration it can grant you through the formulation of how those plans come to fruition. After all, is not half the charm of the Joker not his chaotic schemes? Furthermore, you should contemplate the villain’s level of competence and aptitude. Your villain could be a genius, a trained soldier, a bumbling brute, or anything between. This can even be linked to how the villain achieves their goals and the very mechanics that drive them. Of course this culminates in the final confrontation, and the villain’s aptitude should be reflected in how hard it is to defeat. If it is a genius, the showdown with the villain should involve traps and other methods to show that. If it is a brute or trained fighter, then the fight should be hands on and get players’ adrenaline pumping.
Well, those were my thoughts on villains this week. I hope you found them inspiring. I know I had fun writing this article, and next week I am planning on something super special inspired by my “day job” that I know DMs and Storytellers alike will enjoy. Join us next week as I speak on security within gaming. I may even be able to get a guest writer in the form of a gamer friend of mine who happens to be a branch manager at one of the largest security companies in the world. Let’s see where the world takes us.
Play on PS4 or PS3? Did you know that Nerdarchy has a community that plays together often? Go ahead and search in the community section for Nerdarchy and for the player Nubz_The_Zombie!