#RPGaDay2021 Day 16 - "Villain"
Nothing spices up a game like a good villain. They motivate the party, give the GM a legitimate way to annoy his friends and create story arcs that are memorable. For this essay, I'm going to go a little bit different than usual: I'm going to list some characteristics of a good villain, with some examples, but I'm also going to provide some examples of villains who were lessened because they didn't have these qualities.
The first, and most important characteristic of a villain is a personality. They can be arrogant, aloof, obsessed, deranged or even cheerful--but they have be something that makes them memorable when the party meets them, especially early on.
There are so many wonderful examples of this, but I'm going to point to Joker in The Dark Knight as played by Heath Ledger. To me, that character comes into his own with the infamous "pencil trick" which cements him as dangerous and totally in charge, while being completely unstable and unpredictable but in a way that's is so consistent it stays in your thoughts afterwards.
My favorite RPG villain for personality, was Val, a priest of Shotan of Darkness. He was from the House of Night, and was clearly dangerous, but he was genuine, friendly, and cared about the PC's. The fact that he may or may not have assassinated their king, trapped the heirs for a year among illithid, and established a legalized House of Night temple in the kingdom can be forgiven...because he's nice and at least one time out of three, his offers of help were completely legitimate.
On the flipside, I would point to Jason, from the Friday the 13th movies. He's terrifying, and the character/movies have lore, but it doesn't really have personality. He really exists to kill people and that's what he does. It's terrifying, and the movies are fun if you like slasher horror, but it's hard to point at somewhere that he acts differently than expected due to a character trait.
For villains to be their best, I think both the players and the GM need to develop some connection to them. Not immediately of course, but the villain needs to ultimately be understandable. It's great if for a given situation, the villain's response can be guessed at.
For this, I go to Hannibal Lecter. He was vicious both physically and psychologically, and he did unspeakable things. But at the end of Silence of the Lambs, Clarice knows that he won't come after her, because it would "be rude". This really worked for me. It showed a level of depth to the villain that was beyond the obvious "cop and robber" relationship.
In my recently ended arc, I had an NPC who really came into his own in the last few sessions. It was a mini-boss, Little Sam. He had actively tried to assassinate one of the characters several times. He had harassed the party in several ways, as the lieutenant of a crime boss known only as The Hyena. And at the end of the arc, they had fought their way through his den (not killing a single person along they way; all combatants were left unconscious or fleeing). And when they got to him and fought their way to him--he just gave up. Checkmate.
It was different than any RPG moment I had ever seen. Characters always take out the boss, but instead, they treated him like the pathetic and defeated wannabe he had become. They could relate to his position as an underling, and so didn't even take him to the guard; they took him at his word that he'd leave, and just let him go (then torched his entire place to send a message to the higher ups.)
For the other direction, I'd point to several Bond villains. They certainly have personalities, but they aren't really relatable. Rather, one gets them, but their nefarious schemes often have the same depth of logic as Brain the laboratory mouse in his daily declarations to take over the world.
Limits are critical for a good villain, because without them, they are just a giant wall that the GM eventually lets the PC's overcome or worse, the villains become a never-ending nemesis.
When a character or party begins to interact with a villain, that villain has secrets, plans, defenses, and they seem unstoppable. Every time the characters act, the villain is at least a step ahead and laughs at them.
This type of behavior not only strengthens the party's resolve to take them down but the strength of the villain becomes a character of its own: in that first moment where players see the villain bleed (physically or metaphorically) it's a major win because everything else is just armor, and armor can be gotten around.
But at the same time, it's equally imperative that villain have limits even at their strongest and most secure. They can't truly be omniscient and omnipotent or there's no point. It may be sufficient to have some little element get past them, even in a way the players don't know, but shows in how they react after in a change the players maybe can feel.
A great film example of this is Terminator. He's huge, scary and unstoppable--yet they manage to hurt him. He has to repair, and eventually his repairs become less effective and the damage begins to show. At no point is he less dangerous, but he shows the injury, and while the ending of that movie is fantastic, the audience knows that at some point he could have been taken down by normal means.
An example in the other direction the villain in the sequel, the T1000. Terminator 2 was wonderful, and that character was memorable for it's cold, efficient killing quality, but it didn't have limits. While it glitched a few times, it wasn't torn down over time. It was defeated because the end of the movie was there and it needed to be gone. There were no signs along the way that it had real, substantial vulnerabilities.
So much has been written about what makes a good villain. These are my daily essay level of analysis of it--and the things that I strive for. I try to ensure that my characters have personalities, with some depth and surprises to them. I try to ensure they are relatable, so the party can begin to react them in ways that fit with who they are. And most important, I always want my villains to have limits which the players can find and ultimately exploit.
I'll be honest that I don't always succeed; in 40+ years of gaming, they can't all be gems. But I find that when I succeed, the players and I have a much better time watching them chink, damage and finally overcome those villains.
I'll be honest here. I haven't played any of the Zelda games beyond a small foray of a session or two, but I am well aware of the death chickens who will absolutely end you, if you annoy them. Today's art comes from Australian artist Ry Spirit. Rather than try to explain, I'm just going to use his own text.
In celebration of Zelda Majora's Mask 3DS release. I have decided to do a Majora's Mask fan art, I thought about how the villain can be even more powerful, what if the mask attached itself to someone other than the Skull kid? What if it attached itself to the strongest character in the game..? The Cuccos!
As I browsed through Deviant Art and saw the demons, the Maleficents, the Poison Ivys and various anime baddies who made pacts they didn't understand, I came across this one and could not stop laughing. It's both ludicrous, and 100% right and I hope you enjoy his work as much as I did.