Sometimes we GMs get so busy counting turns, rolling dice, and keeping track of our monsters’ hit points and spells that we forget to act, which is a pity, because acting’s a big part of the fun of being GM. Some of my favorite times as a DM are when I get to play the obstructive secretary, the blustering father-in-law, the arrogant aristocrat, or—my favorite—the shifty villain. I love villains. I’m the kind who tends to cheer for the bad guys to win. And I think that a good, er, well-played archvillain can make or break an campaign.
The first thing you have to decide is whether your villain is major or minor. A major villain—an archvillain—is one you’re hoping to keep around for a while. A minor villain is just a cameo role, a one-adventure baddie. Major villains deserve to have some work put into them, to be given personality and depth. Minor villains don’t need to have much attention paid to them—you’ll have plenty of fun just using an instantly recognizable cliche (e.g., the dumb thug, the sleazy weasel, the bragging windbag, the grim killer, the knock’em’dead vamp, the psycho loon). They’re relatively simple to roleplay. But the archvillain—now, that’s a challenge. This essay will address how to create major villains—the kind your characters will swiftly learn to swear at and blame for all of their misfortunes, regardless of whether the villain was actually involved.
Nemesis or Hidden Mastermind?
Your major villain is either somebody who will (you hope) plague the characters for levels and levels until The Final Showdown, or somebody who has been operating behind the scenes throughout the campaign and has just been unmasked.
The Nemesis is hard to run, because this villain must escape justice every time s/he has a run-in with the adventurers. This is a comic-book cliche that can be very frustrating for the players if handled poorly but a lot of fun if engineered to seem natural. A good GM should be willing to sacrifice the Nemesis if there’s no way to weasel out of it, but should try hard to keep the Nemesis one step ahead of the characters whenever possible. Moreover, there should be only one Nemesis in a given campaign, although it’s OK to create a new Nemesis if, despite all your planning, the previous Nemesis is killed (in this case, it’s a time-honored tradition that the new Nemesis be a lover, spouse, friend, or relation of the slain Nemesis, and that s/he now specifically seek revenge against the player characters).
If the Nemesis is captured, do your best to convince the characters to “do the right thing” and send the villain to jail. That gives the villain a number of opportunities to escape—on the way to trial, in the middle of the courtroom, on the way back from trial, out of jail, or right before the execution. You’ll only get a chance to do this once—after that, the characters will be likely to kill the villain the next time they get a chance—but it’s always fun that one time, and it’s guaranteed to elicit a round of groans and thrown dice from your players.
Other ways to keep the Nemesis alive is to give the players the option of either capturing the villain or saving an innocent (preferably one of the character’s family members or friends); of capturing the villain or capturing an even worse threat (or at least one who poses a more immediate danger to society); of letting the villain bargain free by offering to swap vital information for his liberty; or resorting to less satisfactory methods, such as having the slain villain melt away into a puddle of icewater (“Argh! A simulacrum!”) or having a Contingency Teleport activate just as the sword blade touches the villain’s neck.
The Nemesis should start at a slightly higher level than the characters—no more than two or three levels higher, though—and should keep going up in level as the characters go up. Ideally, the Nemesis should be seen or alluded to about every fourth or fifth adventure. Remember, the Nemesis doesn’t always need to make a personal appearance. Just a note with the villain’s name mentioned in it, a familiar seal on a discarded envelope, a whiff of the villain’s favorite perfume or cologne, a business record mentioning that the shop is partially owned by the villain, or a trademark mutilation on a dead body should be enough to make the characters gnash their teeth and swear undying revenge.
The Mastermind is behind all the minor villains in the course of the campaign, the evil genius manipulating the players as though they were pawns on a chess board. (The Mastermind can be behind the Nemesis if you really want to make your campaign complex.) The Mastermind is a much easier villain to throw into a campaign, but does require a bit of preparation. It’s best if you make up your mind to include a Mastermind when you first start your campaign, because it’s easier to weave plots together if you’re doing it from the git-go, but it’s not too hard to bring the Mastermind in later if you’re willing to take some time to set up the scene.
First, you’ll need to look at all of your previous adventures and decide how many you can possibly link together. Maybe this unrelated kidnapping really had to do with that robbery and the presence of that monster in that mountain range yonder … but how and why? That’s what you have to decide—and then let the players figure out. I often sketch out a sloppy diagram with arrows pointing from NPC to NPC and notes jotted on the margin when I’m at this stage. Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy with your initial ideas—you can always go back and smooth out the rough edges and add a little more logic later. Any NPCs, including intelligent monsters, who have escaped in previous adventures should be placed into future adventures, creating definite links between the events (as hirelings of the Mastermind, they are naturally involved in the Mastermind’s other plots and criminal activities). Some of these can become mini-Nemeses, if they keep surviving from one adventure to the next!
The second step is to start building this information into your campaign. Slowly but surely the characters should realize that there are links between what they’re currently doing and what they’ve done in the past. If you can show how their past actions actually helped a criminal in some way, all the better (“The ‘innocent little orphan’ you saved from the kidnappers and placed with a fine, upstanding aristocratic family just revealed herself to be a polymorphed archmage who kidnapped the family’s only heir!”). Make the characters angry—make them feel like they’ve been manipulated. Make them paranoid. And then listen carefully. Once the players realize there’s some kind of master plan in the air, they’ll start trying to second-guess you, and at that point their combined imaginations will begin to spin webs of paranoid delusion that will leave your ideas in the dust. Take notes. If they come up with some twist that you like, use it. They’ll never know that you hadn’t planned it that way all along, and when they find out they were right, they’ll be that much more satisfied with themselves and the game.
The third step is figuring out how to finesse the inevitable Unmasking. Who is the Mastermind? Make the Mastermind somebody the characters know and trust. Is it a family member? A trusted mentor? Their most valued NPC friend? The king or queen they’ve served faithfully for years? The DM has two options at this point—make the characters suspect their best friend and find out they’re wrong—or find out they’re right. A truly nasty Mastermind might frame somebody else, who will only be proven innocent at the last minute….
Making the Mastermind somebody the characters love and trust provides the maximum of angst and roleplaying opportunity. However, I suggest you don’t make it somebody too important to the characters—for example, probably not a husband or wife. The goal of the game is for the players to have fun, and completely devastating their characters’ chances at a “happily ever after” ending is unlikely to be much fun for them. But you know your players best. Choose a Mastermind who will provide the most emotional impact without souring the game. And remember, the Mastermind is an evil genius. Just because the characters finally realize who it is doesn’t mean the Mastermind won’t have long since vanished to a secret hideout in preparation for The Final Showdown.
Scum of the Earth or Tragic Antihero?
Is the villain redeemable or irredeemable? Does the villain “just need killin’,” or can s/he be convinced of the evil of his or her ways? Some villains—demons and devils, for example—may be evil because they were created evil and have no free will to change their alignment. I don’t find those kinds of villains to be worthy of archvillain status, though. Too shallow and unidimensional.
To decide whether or not your villain is redeemable, you must first determine the villain’s motivation. Why is the villain doing whatever s/he’s doing? There are three classic motivations for villainy: culture, psychology/history, and misguided ideals. All three motivations can lead to the villain either being scum of the earth or a tragic antihero, depending on the villain’s personality. However, you’ll find that it’s harder to hate somebody whose motivations you understand. As a result, it’s always a nice touch if the GM manages to reveal the archvillain’s motivations to the characters before The Final Showdown. Try to avoid those longwinded James-Bond-movie diatribes from the villain, though. Leave the cheap theatrics for the minor villains. Far better if the characters learn the archvillain’s motives from the archvillain’s spouse, child, parent, ex-lover, best friend, mentor, trusted servant, or personal diary. Archvillains should never whine or seek to explain themselves to others. Archvillains have confidence. They’re cool. They don’t ask permission to be evil.
Culture. This can provide an interesting ethical twist to the game. This villain comes from a culture or has a personal background that provides good reasons for doing what is considered criminal in the player characters’ cultures. The villain’s not intrinsically evil—just misinformed or unable to break out of his or her cultural prejudices or assumptions. Good players should realize that they may be able to change the villain’s cultural beliefs without resorting to violence—whether it works will depend on their powers of persuasion and the GM’s plans for the villain.
Psychology/History. We all know enough pseudo-Freudian cliches to come up with psychological motivations for villainy. These motivations tend to be a little gritty, though, and the DM should make sure to find one that won’t offend the players. The villain was abandoned as a child, abused in a series of foster homes, finally found a “family” in the local street gangs, and the rest is history. The villain was molested by her father and has grown up hating all men, especially those in positions of authority. The villain suffered a series of terrible life crises, turned to drugs for comfort, and now commits crimes to support the habit. The villain was mocked as a child for being (choose your minority social category of preference—race, gender, religion, sexual preference, physical difference from the norm) and now seeks to prove he’s just as good or better than anybody else. The villain had trained for years to become a paladin (a Jedi, a priest) but, when it came down to the crunch, failed to live up to her ideals—and, as a result, has abandoned them completely. There are thousands of possibilities here.
Misguided Ideals: In this case, the villain is completely convinced that what s/he’s doing will better the world—that the ends justify the means, no matter how terrible the means may be. In this category can be found the villain who says “no woman has ever started a war in this realm, so I’m going to kill all the male heirs to the throne until they have to put a woman in the seat of power” … the grown-up survivor of abuse who murders abusive parents and takes in their abused children, promising the kids that they’ll never be hurt again … the vigilante who will kill any number of innocent bystanders to take out that single corrupt king … the drug smuggler who channels all proceeds into the campaign funds of some politician s/he feels will really make a difference if elected. Misguided villains may or may not be able to be reasoned with, and good characters may feel some qualms about killing them out of hand.
After you determine the villain’s motivation, you have to decide whether the character can be convinced of the error of his or her ways. Keep your decision loose—the characters’ actions are likely to affect the villain’s attitude. Cold, callous characters may make the formerly redeemable villain irredeemable; reasonable, sympathetic characters may make the irredeemable villain do a little soul-searching. You should have an idea of how you’d like the adventure to play out (e.g., the characters finally kill the villain, the characters convince the villain of the error of her ways, characters and villain both team up at the last minute to save the city/kingdom/world against a greater evil), but you should always remain flexible.
The Riddler or Keyser Soze?
After figuring out the villain’s motivations and likelihood of redemption, you probably already have an idea of the villain’s personality. Still, there are a few considerations remaining. For example, does the villain have a trademark, like The Riddler, or is the villain known for being untraceable, like Keyser Soze from the movie The Usual Suspects?
The villain with a trademark can be either the Nemesis or the Hidden Mastermind. Trademarks can be left intentionally (riddles, origami birds, a “Z”) or unintentionally (the smell of cigarette smoke, a particular weapon always used when killing, an odd-looking footprint). Intentional trademarks may indicate that the villain is confident, playing with the characters, and/or subconsciously wants to get caught. Unintentional trademarks may indicate that the villain is a little careless, unable to avoid leaving certain marks, and/or subconsciously wants to get caught. You decide.
The villain who is perfect and never leaves any clues behind works best as the Hidden Mastermind—after all, the whole point of the Nemesis is that s/he keeps showing up over and over! A Keyser Soze is a little tricky for the DM to handle, though, because the perfect Hidden Mastermind will never be Unmasked. The DM must assume that at some point or another this “perfect” villain makes a mistake or is betrayed. Put some thought into this one—the more interesting you can make the villain’s misjudgment, the better.
There are a few other personality traits to consider. Does the villain have a fatal flaw that the characters can exploit? (Overconfidence, underconfidence, weakness for the opposite sex, a hot temper, a hobby, a loved one?) Does the villain have any likable traits in an otherwise unlikable personality? (Never harms children, paints roses, composes beautiful music?) These and other traits will give the villain some depth and possibly provide hooks for the characters to build a plan around.
I believe that the best villains are the ones the characters end up liking or admiring despite themselves. If you can create an archvillain who touches the characters at some level, then whether or not they finally ending up killing the villain, you can be certain that your players will be talking about the adventure or campaign for years to come.
The Final Showdown
The Final Showdown should be the culmination of a series of adventures; possibly months or even years of real-time gaming sessions. You should plan the Final Showdown out in detail—this is too important an adventure to run by the seat of your pants. Your players are going to sit down to the Final Showdown session with bloodthirsty, anticipatory grins, and you’d better be ready to give them what they want—action, drama, and the ever-present threat of death.The ideal Final Showdown is one in which the archvillain knows the characters are coming, and the characters know the archvillain knows, and both know that one side or the other isn’t going to survive to see the next sunrise. If the characters have managed to sneak up on the archvillain unseen, then the archvillain doesn’t deserve the title. There’s no excuse for allowing the characters to surprise a Mastermind, and a Nemesis always expects to run into the characters, just as they’ve come to always expect to run into their Nemesis. If the characters are completely brilliant, you may have to scramble a little, but the GM is always permitted to cheat to enhance the story … and this is a good time for it. In this situation you may need to suddenly decide to make one of the party’s henchmen or NPCs a traitor (willing or unwilling, knowing or unknowing) in order to explain how the villain is alerted, but the villain should be alerted! Don’t tell the characters this, though—let them find out later that the reason the villain knew they were coming despite all their care was that their trusted henchman spilled the beans to protect his infant daughter’s life
The Setting: The classic Final Showdown occurs in the archvillain’s personal stronghold. Players expect this cliche—that’s why it’s survived so long. You can buck the trend, but if you do, try to come up with an equally interesting and dangerous setting. There may be some value in setting the Final Showdown in a dungeon that poses a threat to both sides, especially if you’re planning to force characters and villain to fight side-by-side for a while against a mutual threat and then, after being “softened up” by their mutual foe, face each other to fight over the ultimate prize. Just don’t let either side use the third-party intervention as an excuse to run away from the dungeon—it’s not a Final Showdown unless characters and archvillain finally face each other and work out their differences in combat or negotation.
If the Final Showdown takes place in the villain’s stronghold, make certain there are plenty of alarms, both audible and inaudible, for the characters to trigger. You want the villain to have time to prepare the troops! Besides, nothing crushes the characters’ morale better—or makes them more likely to go charging in without thinking—than realizing that the alarm’s gone off and the bad guys are alerted.
The Villains: Of course the archvillain has to be involved in the Final Showdown, but don’t stop there. It’s time to pull out the stops. Virtually each and every villain or monster who has ever managed to elude the characters or who can be feasibly sprung from jail by the archvillain should be here, ready and waiting. If they specialize in a particular weapon or spell, they should be armed and ready, with spares or scrolls to hand. Make sure all the villains are protected by the same kinds of defensive spells the characters have up—fair’s fair, after all. I’ve learned that it’s usually wise to make the villains a little more powerful than the characters. You might think that this would mean the characters would always lose, but players are a crafty lot. They never shine so brightly as in that moment where it looks like their characters are all about to be destroyed for good. After all, it’s one brain (yours) against many (the players’), and no matter how crafty you are, your players are going to out-think you when their characters’ lives are on the line. So give your villains a little edge by boosting their power level. You wouldn’t want to make it easy on the heroes, would you?
The archvillain should be around, of course, but s/he shouldn’t appear until the characters have been softened up by all the lesser villains, agents, and lackeys. Again, the players expect this—they know that they’re not going to see any trace of the person they’ve come for until they’re down to the dregs of their hit points, spells, and magic-item charges. Why disappoint them?
The End: When the archvillain appears on the scene, the long, winding plotline that has led up to this encounter is finally coming to an end. The GM should have a pretty good idea of what the characters are going to do, from listening in to their planning sessions and simply being familiar with their strategies and personalities. If the characters going to try to negotiate (and still plan to negotiate even after fighting their way through the stronghold), the DM should already have an idea of how the archvillain will respond. This is a tricky situation because it can be anticlimactic—the characters nearly die in a huge fight, then offer the villain a deal and walk off? Something seems to be missing…. There are two ways to avoid this.
The first way is to milk the scene for every ounce of melodrama possible. Ham it up. Roleplay it to the hilt and encourage your players to roleplay it, too (if they see you going into full emotive swing, chances are they’ll get into the spirit pretty quickly). Act. If you provide the players with a strong enough performance and milk the same out of them, they’ll end up feeling just as exhausted as if they’d actually been in combat. This is a big demand to make of yourself and your players, and I’ve only seen it done on a few occasions by particularly fine gamers, but it’s always memorable.
The second way is to carry out the negotiation but then throw both the characters and the archvillain into danger. If you’re going to do this, try to plan it ahead of time so you can foreshadow the possibility. For example, if they’ve been fighting in a cavern, have bits of rock fall off during combat … maybe a small earth tremor as they begin to negotiate … and then have the roof start to cave in as they near some kind of agreement. If they’ve interrupted the villain in the middle of a grand ritual, have the spell still crackling in the background, and then a henchman break the circle, or blood run over an important line, or the spell energies surge out of control, conjuring up that ethereal juggernaut that the villain had been trying to summon before the negotiation started. If there’s a third party of villains you can bring in, have them teleport in and attack right as the negotiation starts to go well. In other words—give the characters a fight of some sort, even if it’s not with the person they’d been expecting to fight.
If the characters are going to try to fight the archvillain, the DM should already know what the archvillain’s tactics are—and what the archvillain intends to do if the characters lose. This is important, because although the ideal is for the characters to emerge bloody but triumphant, sometimes not even the most skillful fudging of dice rolls on the GM’s part will be able to give the characters the edge they need. Gaming is, in part, luck-based—the dice inject an element of randomness that can sometimes tip the balance so far against the characters that there’s no way to save them. The GM should have planned for this contingency: Does the villain kill the characters? Imprison them? Enslave them? Bind them in some way so that they are no longer a threat (say, by a geas) and then set them free? Or are the characters saved by some unlikely deus ex machina? I don’t like last-minute divine intervention—I feel it robs the glory from the characters—but if it makes sense in your game, and especially if it can be done in a way that still gives the characters some glory, then plan for the possibility. And be sure to plan it in such a way that the characters are indebted to their rescuer, so you can exploit the debt later.
Once the archvillain has either been captured, killed, or has undergone a change of heart, the characters will probably collect their booty and drag their dead, dying, and walking wounded out of the dungeon. This is the decompression stage, and it’s best not to throw anything more at the characters. Assume the rest of the minor villains or monsters have fled (hey, you can always use them later for the next major plotline) and gloss quickly over the treasure-gathering and return to normality. There’s little point in staging any important scenes after The Final Showdown—they’ll detract from the moment. Your next step should be to let the players do their bookkeeping (healing up, counting gold, divvying treasure, figuring out how to raise the dead, and so forth) while you either figure experience points or decide what the repercussions are going to be. Are there authorities who must be reported to? If the villain is still alive, what next? Let the game wind down with record-keeping and wrapping-up-the-loose-ends roleplaying. Give yourself and your players a rest—you’ll both need it. Because after this game, you’re going to have to figure out what to run next … and The Final Showdown with the campaign’s archvillain is a tough act to follow!
Originally written June 13, 1998
Image Source: Page 004 of von Goethe’s Faust, illustrated by Harry Clarke