Yesterday we went over some techniques you can use to remind players of a villain while they’re off dealing with sidequests, as well as some ideas for how to incorporate sidequests into your plot without messing with the pacing or feeling like a distraction. Today we’re going to talk about how to make a memorable villain. What do players remember? Generally, a villain will be memorable if it makes the players feel something. Common feelings elicited by villains include: anger, frustration, fear, and amusement. Let’s talk about each one in turn.
Anger and frustration are similar, and they are both tricky emotions to manage at the table. Because the villain is controlled by another person (that’s you), if the players feel like the villain is messing with their characters just for the sake of messing with them, or even worse, just to annoy the players, you’re going to have a grumpy game table. Likewise, if the villain is constantly escaping from the players in improbable ways, or if they feel like you’re bending the rules so your favorite villain survives for another session of tormenting the party, you’ll also have some unhappy players. There are two very important rules to keep in mind when designing a villain that will upset and frustrate your players.
First, keep it in-character. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing. Good ways to make characters angry (and by extension, their players), include: kidnapping or killing friends and family; stealing items (use with caution); and getting in the way of their goals. Each of these, used in moderation, will put a character in a difficult spot, especially if you make them choose between resolving the personal slight and taking action against the villain. It can be a great roleplaying moment if the paladin chooses to let a dear friend die so they can strike while the villain is vulnerable. Stealing items, while a staple of fiction, must be used with extreme caution, because players get very attached to their items and it can feel like you’re punishing or weakening one character in the group arbitrarily. Stealing money is usually safer, in that it’s less likely to ruin a player’s fun, but it’s still something that should be done infrequently. Finally, getting in the way of their goals is a classic trope of villainy. When the party returns to town and they see someone else taking credit for their accomplishments, they’ll be livid in the best way.
Second, consider your target. If the villain has a personal relationship with any of the characters in the group, that makes them a perfect target for the villain’s wrath. It also explains why the villain would spend so much time and resources just making someone angry. Because they hate that person. If the villain is lacking a personal relationship to the party, then you need an answer for why the party is being targeted in this way. It should happen only after the characters have proved themselves a threat, and it works best if it’s part of a larger scheme, or if it’s specifically designed to hinder the characters’ efforts to harm the villain. An undead or a fiend, for example, would go to great lengths to disarm the party of a holy avenger. The paladin’s player might get upset if they lose such an item, but as long as they have a chance to keep it (and it doesn’t just “disappear” without good reason), they should be upset with the villain for successfully stealing from them. If they do get upset with you, remind them that the villain is playing to win, just like they are, and that because there are five heads (or however many players you have) against your one, sometimes you need to make the villain play dirty to keep the game challenging. If that fails, you can blame it on this blog. I don’t mind.
Next, let’s talk about fear. Fear is a hard emotion to evoke in a game of heroic adventure, but there are a few ways to do it. The first is to massively ramp up the threat to the characters’ lives. Most characters are tough, and it’s hard to die as long as you have a couple of healing potions or spells handy for anyone who falls unconscious. But what happens when the party sees a villain with a seemingly infinite supply of disintegrate spells? Unless they’re very high level, that’s going to scare them, and they should think carefully before engaging in combat. One trick you can do is to take the mechanic for characters dying (that they must roll a death saving throw each round, and if they fail 3 times, they die) and adapt it for living characters. In one of my games I sent the party up against a Death Elemental, which had one action. It reached out with dark tendrils and tried to touch the heart of everyone nearby. Anyone that didn’t get out of the way got one failed death saving throw. The players freaked out. I’d never seen them retreat from a fight so quickly. It also piqued their curiosity, driving them to explore the world and try to learn more about the Death Elemental. Eventually they learned its origins, and more importantly, how to get rid of it. Fundamentally, fear is about powerlessness. Most games are, on some level, a power fantasy, so it’s important to not overuse this tactic.
Finally, amusement. Players tend to laugh a lot during a game, but it’s not often associated with a villain. Can you have a villain who is primarily funny? Absolutely. Look at The Joker from the various Batman comics and films. The Joker is always trying to make the hero laugh, and there’s no reason you can’t have a villain who has the same goals. A renegade bard who uses a lethal version of the spell hideous laughter, for example. Creating an amusing villain requires you to have a quick wit at the table and know your players very well. You can use out of game knowledge, such as having the villain reference an inside joke between you and your friends, but this runs the risk of alienating any players at the table who aren’t in on the joke. Most likely, your players will laugh at one of your villains even though you intended them to be completely serious. This is okay. If you roll with it, laugh along with them, and then get back to the story, it will still make the villain memorable. Especially if their characters make fun of the villain and provoke them into doing something stupid.
You can expect to see more of all of this in Tyrants & Hellions, as each villain in the book will include ways to establish them in the game, offering specific examples that will make sure your players and their characters both hate the villain, not the Dungeon Master. Next week begins our series on villainous motivations, or figuring out why everybody wants to rule the world. See you then!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming