There’s one golden rule that every villain should keep in mind: “Don’t piss off the adventurer.” If villains could just keep this in mind, they’d probably get away with a lot more. But in the movies, in books, in comics, and in roleplaying games, the villains just keep forgetting this one fundamental guideline. There they are, almost at the peak of their power, and they go out and do something really stupid that … yes … pisses off the adventurer. And then the adventurer has to pull his or her swords or guns out of the closet, blow off the dust, strap them on, and go out villain huntin’ again. And you know who wins in that fight. Well, OK, in cyberpunk the bad guys might win, but in most genres, the villain just doesn’t have a prayer.
Machiavelli’s The Prince covered this issue pretty carefully hundreds of years ago, back in 1515, but cinematic and RPG villains keep making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe the stilted 16th-century language is a little too complex? Let’s review Machiavelli’s rules one more time, translated into 21st-century English.
- Don’t spend more than you can afford, because you’ll piss people off when you have to stop spending to conserve funds. Folks get used to being spoiled and get cranky when it stops.
- Don’t kill a person’s family without making it look good first (with trials, appeals to justice, all that). And don’t mess around with people’s stuff, like their car and house, either. That’s personal.
- Behave like you’re religious, even if you aren’t. Don’t say things that will ruin your reputation as a “nice” boy or girl, no matter what you’re thinking or doing.
- Let others do your dirty work for you. Keep your own hands clean and always preserve plausible deniability.
- Keep your word to your allies, or else you’ll just have two sides mad at you. Keep your underlings happy and entertained so they’ll think you’re great.
- Show respect to your underlings but keep them dependent on you so they don’t get cocky.
- Avoid flatterers. Yeah, it’s fun to be flattered, but they’re worthless and they’ll turn on you at the drop of a hat.
Pay a lot of attention to the second rule there. That’s Machiavelli’s ordering—I’d make it the No. 1 rule, myself. How do you piss off an adventurer the most? Hurt a member of his family or trash his house or lands. Just rewatch almost any action-adventure movie if you doubt me.
Now, Machiavelli’s rules are basic outlines for successful villainous behavior. Actually, they were originally meant for “princes”—kings, queens, popes, emperors, presidents, Congresspeople, etc. But they’re broadly applicable to any villain.
Still, the devil’s in the details. Once that adventurer has been pissed off, what do you do then? Others since Machiavelli have helpfully developed a set of rules for the Evil Overlord. Much more detail-oriented, this is a good guide to behavior after one’s villainous cover has been blown and the adventurer is on your tail. (Villains should check out the evil henchman’s guide, too, to make sure one’s henchmen aren’t getting too uppity. Remember Machiavelli’s rule six, above.)
A villain might also benefit from checking out Sun Tzu on the Art of War. Especially glance over his comments on Weak Points and Strong—every adventurer has a weakness. But don’t get stupid and assume that weakness is the adventurer’s family or beloved belongings. Uh-uh. Those are actally strength drains on the adventurer—added burdens that the adventurer must deal with before being able to strap on the weapons and take off in pursuit of bad guys. Take these burdens away and the adventurer gets stronger … ’cause s/he gets mad. So don’t mess with the family and furniture.
How can a GM use this advice? If you want your villain to remain safe for a long time, pay attention to these guidelines. Your adventurers may know the individual is a certifiable bad guy, but they’ll have a heck of a time proving it (“Oh, but he’s such a sweet man—goes to church every Sunday and even paid for the Junior League’s fireworks display!”) … and they won’t have much personal motivation to go after the villain. On the other hand, if you want your villain to immediately become adventurer-bait, break these rules and watch the adventurers come running!
Originally written August 31, 2000
Image Source: The Yellow Fairy Book, 1906