At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are all the physiological necessities of existence: food, water, shelter, and reproduction. A shortage of any one of these things can drive a person to do terrible things, and anything that does that is a potential source of villainous motivations. While Maslow's hierarchy is specifically tailored to human needs, as we discussed in the last post about fantasy cultures being generally similar to real cultures, most fantasy creatures have similar needs to humans, because that makes them easier to understand and relate to. We’ll go through the list, providing examples of villains for each, starting with food and water.
Hungry people are desperate people. It’s not a coincidence that so many cultures have myths and stories of taboos against cannibalism, because when food is scarce, people will consider turning on each other. A perpetually hungry villain can make for an understandable and sympathetic antagonist that also disturbs the players, but only slightly. Endless hunger and constant eating is just repulsive enough to bother some players without making the whole group retch, and if you want to run a more horror oriented campaign, you can easily dial it up to make it truly disgusting. Overindulgence of basic desires is a great recipe for a monster in a horror game, by the way, and the seven deadly sins are a reflection of that.
So how do we use hunger to create an interesting villain in a fantasy world? A massive monster might drain lakes and rivers, trying to quench its eternal thirst, turning the surrounding area into deserts. It might need massive quantities of food, descending on towns and consuming all of the farmland around the city. You can also use a more unusual form of hunger, with vampires being the classic example. Vampires also bring up the importance of quality food, with most vampires being capable of surviving on the blood of animals like cows and sheep, but finding the taste of human blood far sweeter.
Just like a vampire seeks out blood, if a creature needs to feed on dreams, it would naturally search out imaginative individuals and attempt to feed on them. Depending on the tone of oyur game, this could mean anything from monitoring them while they sleep to actually consuming their brains. Perhaps you have a monster that is sustained by knowledge, by learning new things, and the players defeat it by taking it to a university or other place of study, where it is fed by experiments and acts as a living library that holds all the knowledge of the world. As I mentioned in the last post, it’s important to remember that not all villains need to be killed for the heroes to win.
Finally, to use an example in one of my own campaigns, a very large spider was terrorizing a city, attacking from the sewers and abducting people. It was also laying many, many eggs. I was expecting the players to want to fight the spider, kill it, and take whatever loot it had amassed. Instead, however, they figured out how to talk with it, ask what it wanted (to leave the city and travel to an oasis nearby with plentiful food so she could raise her young in peace), and find a way to give it exactly that. The whole encounter ended without bloodshed, and there was a fun moment later in the campaign when a swarm of spiders helped the party out of a tough situation. This transitions well into our next topic, the need for a home.
Lack of shelter, while tragic, isn’t likely to turn a single individual into a villain. If a fantastic creature with unusual needs for its shelter is homeless, however, that can create an interesting dilemma. A dragon might desire an aerie to roost in, and try to occupy a very tall wizard’s tower. A vampire would definitely want a safe haven near people it can feed on, and perhaps it tries to bargain with a city instead of trying to hide there, agreeing to patrol the streets and keep them safe from criminals in exchange for being able to feed on any criminals it catches. Of course, if crime goes down the vampire might get hungry, but we’re getting away from shelter as a reason for villainy.
If, for example a disaster is coming (something large scale, like a tsunami or a meteor impact), simple protection from the elements is no longer sufficient. A powerful wizard might need to steal the materials and resources needed to cast a shielding spell over their home, and if their only reason for suspecting this disaster is a potentially unreliable divination, that casts some doubt on the legitimacy of their need. If you want to make them less sympathetic, perhaps they aren’t casting a shielding spell, and instead their magic will actually divert the disaster elsewhere. That’s a tricky choice for the players to make.
Finally, let’s look at reproduction. This can be either a carnal need for pleasure, or a desire to continue one’s lineage. In the case of the former, it can quickly get into territory that makes players uncomfortable, so use that sort of motivation with caution. Exploring the darker side of human nature can make for very compelling stories, but it’s not right for every group. The latter, however, can easily fit at most tables. The monarch wants an heir to the throne, so they’re desperate to arrange a marriage with another noble. Their rival kingdom seeks to take advantage of this by marrying off a saboteur who will murder the monarch as soon as they have an heir, making it look like an accident. Alternatively, they may just intend to subtly influence the heir as they grow up, planting their own values and reshaping the kingdom.
More options open up when look at the unusual creatures you might find in a fantasy setting. You could have your heroes playing matchmaker for a lonely dragon (probably not what they expected when the dragon requested a favor before handing over an artifact from its hoard), requiring them to confront an evil dragon and not only avoid killing it, but convince it to take the quest-giving dragon as a mate. As a more straightforward and evil approach, you could have a villainous monster like the alien queen in the movie Aliens, which simply lays vast amounts of eggs and seeks only to protect and prolong its species. In that case, when coexistence is impossible, there’s unlikely to be a happy ending.
There’s a look at some of the different ways external forces can influence the villains in your game, hopefully you find it inspiring and helpful! Tomorrow we’ll wrap up the week with a look at fear as a motivation for villainy (and heroics), looking up close at what people do to avoid the things they’re scared of.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team