Fear is an important motivation to consider for a villain because it offers insight into both their goals and their weaknesses. A villain might seek immortality to further their plans of maintaining an empire for all time, or because they fear death. In each case the heroes have different options for undermining the villain, either targeting their supposedly eternal empire, or bringing them face to face with death, perhaps even arranging an audience with the patron deity of death in your world. We’ve covered a lot of what drives a villain this week, so let’s wrap that up by going into detail on how their fears affect their goals.
A villain takes the actions they do to move away from their fears. Going back to the list of personal motivations we discussed at the start of this week (knowledge, power, justice, love, freedom, and order), let’s look at the opposites of these motivations to create a list of fears: ignorance, weakness, injustice, hate, slavery, and chaos. A villain motivated by a fear rather than a personal value is easier to undermine, creating interesting avenues for your players to weaken or even defeat the villain without facing them down in battle. Some of these approaches might seem cruel or even downright evil, but even with a party of straight-laced heroes, you can get interesting stories by presenting them with an easier way to defeat the villain that’s definitely not ethical. We’ll cover some general ways to exploit a villain’s fears and how the party can use that weakness to bring them down.
Illusion magic is a powerful thing, and coupled with the right information about what a villain is afraid of, it can be used to great effect. An illusion of a villain’s greatest fear or weakness can, at the very least, put them off balance and give the party an edge in a fight. At its most effective, it can derail a villain’s entire plan. If a villain’s fear is based on something real, a figure from their past for example, and the players can bring that figure to face the villain, that can put the villain back in their old state of mind. Or spark the release of years of pent up anger, starting a fight immediately. When thinking about your villain’s fear, consider how they respond to the source of that fear. Fight or flight? Do they stand up to it, becoming angry and confrontational, or do they seek to flee?
If they prefer to fight their fears, the heroes can use this to provoke the villain into starting a fight in disadvantageous conditions, or make them launch their plans before they are ready. If the villain flees from their fears, perhaps that is the only thing saving a town from their wrath. We’ve stuck to fears as internal, psychological motivations, but fantasy creatures often have more tangible fears and weaknesses. Vampires, for example, fear the sun. Werewolves (in their human form) fear the moon. Creatures that are vulnerable to certain types of damage (such as fire or lightning) are likely to fear sources of that damage. Perhaps the local druid is using the spell call lightning every time a monster threatens a nearby city, and the creature flees for fear of being struck by lightning. You can look to the in-game stats of your villain for more information here.
A villain that is immune to some types of magic might fear the types that can affect them. If they are physically tough but mentally weak, they might be terrified of mind control. Likewise, a powerful wizard might be most concerned with avoiding being assassinated in their sleep. Consider when your villain feels most vulnerable. Is it out in the world, while enacting their schemes? Or is it when they are in their lair, resting and recuperating? What actions would they take to reduce and mitigate their fears? There are a few universal answers, which I’ll cover in a moment, but if you can look back over everything you’ve written down about your villain so far (their goals, personality, desires, and now their fears), something should stand out to you. How do they react to feeling weak?
Villains that feel physically vulnerable will seek protection, that much is obvious, but what kind of protection they seek says a lot about who they are. A villain who doesn’t trust anyone is likely to seek traps, either physical or magical (or both), rather than hiring bodyguards or teaming up with someone else. A villain who values complete control may create constructs or undead, entities they can bind using complex rules of conduct. A villain who has a very high opinion of themselves might seek out less intelligent servants to serve as minions, or they might try to bargain with a devil or demon, believing they can outwit the fiend.
A villain who feels that their plans are vulnerable (they’re worried about not being able to handle everything personally) will seek some way to control things when they aren’t physically present. While incompetent minions is a consistent trope in fiction, it should be used sparingly. If they trust others, they will seek out a lieutenant or other powerful servant they can rely on. If they don’t, they might look into magical means of transportation (for powerful villains) or just communication (for weaker ones), allowing the influence multiple areas at once. They might also just yield to this concern and keep their schemes from growing too large so they don’t have to leave their comfort zone. Fear can hold a villain back from achieving their full potential and offer a believable explanation as to why they don’t always take the most effective course of action.
And that concludes our series on villainous motivations! I hope you gained some insights into what makes a compelling villain. Next week’s posts will be all about schemes, plans, and evil plots!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team