Sunday, January 5, 2014

In Search of a Villain

Over the years I've played in countless campaigns and I'm always struck at how rarely I've encountered a real villain. Oh sure, there have been caricatures of villains here and there but so often it seems as though the Dungeon Master's I've played under have been afraid to let a villain be truly evil. It's almost as though they're afraid that if they do so that the game will somehow be less entertaining and enjoyable then if they throw out these easily defeated foes. 

So my question for all of you out there is this: have you ever encountered a villain in game that you'd really call evil. What did they do that made them evil? What made them worth your time as a player to put forth the effort to actually go out there and thwart their vile plans?


I was asked to provide a description of the sort of villain that gets my juices flowing. So here goes. 

I am tired of villains who are shades of gray. We've all seen them and they were novel when they first came out in the thirties and we started identifying with every character in literature but they've come to dominate our imaginations both in the game and in our daily lives. We no longer have a vile, despicable villain to hate. 

I want a villain who compels me to get off my ass and do everything that I can to fight him. I want a villain who walks in the room and we all look over and know that this fucker must die. I want him to commit acts of villainy. I want him to kill villages and kidnap princesses. I want him to be Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. I want a villain and not some knock off that I'm having to identify with. I'm fine with the rest of the world being shades of gray where I have to understand what they're doing and how their cultures impact the world around them - but let my villain be a stark, blood drenched, black in this world. 

That's what I'm looking for, in a nut shell.


  1. Villains that are villains due to shades of grey are far more frightening to me though as you can see how they got there and perhaps see yourself in the same situation. Pure evil villains are more rare to me and probably in my games. Look at Venger Satanis' Liberation of the Demon Slayer for some (mature) but unadulterated evil!

    1. I'm glad that they can still frighten you, Mark, but these grey villains have long since lost their appeal for me.

      And you're absolutely right, Venger does a great, blood soaked villain.

  2. This is actually something I try to vary on in my campaigns. There are certainly some villains that are doing bad things, but the motivations behind it aren't as cut-and-dry. I like those kinds of villains. Sometimes.

    In my last campaign, set in post-apocalyptic Arizona, I had a group of players who had initially been hired as some of the protection for a caravan of merchants traveling from southwestern Colorado to a large marketplace in central Arizona. En route, the caravan was attacked by bandits. The players were forced to choose between helping out the man barking orders at them (and ultimately controlled their paycheck) or helping out a group of women and children who were being rounded up and captured by the bandits.

    In the end, the bandits made off with numerous children, having slaughtered anyone who got in the way. A local enforcer group, asked the players to help put an end to the bandit attacks, which had been plaguing the region and gotten progressively worse.

    There was some investigating and forcing themselves to work with a known slaver (they were livid - the players were, not just their characters - when they found out they had been escorting a slaver delivering a group of captured children to be sold to the bandit group). Eventually, they were able to take out two bandit camps (one of which was actually blown up by a bandit lieutenant to protect the whereabouts of the bandit lord's operational headquarters) and they tracked it back to the ruins of Kingman.

    There, this inhuman creature (a sort of humanoid canine) was purposely having the bandits bring him children to consume. He prefered the children as a delicacy, but he wasn't above eating his lieutenants that failed him.

    The creature was a demonic witch, who had made a pact with some dark god and was terrorizing the entire region with a small army -- all so he could have a "delicacy".

    My players were suitably terrified by the end of the campaign.

  3. Another campaign I ran years ago was a supers campaign. The players were a group of super-powered government agents and were called to the hostage situation. They needed to make it over to the building without being seen - the bad guys had threatened to start executing hostages if anyone came close to the building.

    They failed their stealth check. Next thing they know someone is tossed out the upper floors of the office building (about 15 floors up).

    After the game that week, one of my players commented that he loved that I actually followed through on the villain's threat. They had managed to save the (now-freed) hostage before he became street-pizza, but they had to think fast to save him.

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks! I just like to make memorable campaigns and the villain is often the starting point (along with some of the one-liners).

  5. What makes you think that Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin had nothing identifiable about them?
    You know, Hitler for instance was born just a regular guy though his parents were ridiculously strict and cruel. As a teenager he was forced to fight for his country in WWI, ended up buried under rubble starving to death for more than a week before being rescued. His country after losing the war was treated like shit, buried under huge debt burdens that caused it to basically collapse under itself. The only people who were doing well were the subcommunity of immigrants who basically only hired their own, only shopped at each others shops and had control of the banks.
    Still, he tried to make a decent life for himself, he tried to be peaceful-- he wanted to be an artist, but was generally simply below average in the field. Given everything else he had suffered, he had trouble making any connections to real people-- he sought out prostitutes in order to find affection and ended up with an STD that ravaged his body and made his life even more miserable.
    Really fed up with everything and with nothing else to be proud of but his nationality, he clung to that and built up a new identity around it. Others rallied to the idea and they begun pushing for a nationalist movement to get out from under the crushing debt and terrible inflation of his country as well as the involvement of foreigners who were profiting off the the suffering of the German people. And for his attempts to take political action were met with imprisonment. And while in prison he wrote what amounted to a giant furious angry rant which then became a popular book because it tapped into the anger a lot of people felt.
    From that point on he just went further and further-- with people around him to do more and more drastic things, his own mind slipping and paranoia consuming him given that he never really trusted anyone to begin with.

    Pol Pot wasn't much different.
    With people like that, there is always a reason. Always something that makes them go bad and just keep going further and further. If there was really nothing identifiable about them, then they don't attract people to them, they don't get hundreds or thousands of people to fight and die on their behalf.

    Just as bad are those like Kim Jong Un. Never had to earn what he had, was taught he had complete and utter control and power over others and hadn't any need to respect them from the day he was born. He has the emotional maturity of a 15-year old, the mentality of a college student and yet also absolute power over the lives of a million people. He can and does just personally order executions of people, even his own family members on a drunken whim.
    The only reason he has a working governance is because of his grandfather and his father before him-- yet that is enough to give him the power to launch weapons that could wipe out whole neighboring nations.
    But then... again... one need only understand humanity just a little to understand precisely how he got to where he is. He is an irresponsible spoiled brat who has been given the power of a demigod.

    1. While I'm not trying to be dismissive of you, I really don't care how they got where they were in life. I'm not interested in the academic discussion of what led them to become evil and how that colored their future actions. In a world of grays they were each clearly evil and provided the sort of clear cut example I wanted.

  6. The kids at columbine? Well, they felt themselves the constant victims of injustice at the hands of those society favors and so decided to avenge themselves upon that "proper" society. Frankly, from their own eyes they weren't much different than Conan going out there and wiping out a whole tribe of people because they killed off his tribe when he was a child. Yet when we are told Conan's story from his perspective no one says 'yes, it is sad that your tribe lost the war. but gong and slaughtering another tribe is just going to do to others what they did to you.' Hell, the comic book character the Punisher is considered a hero but half his stories he has a morality on about the same level as those school shooters.

    Seriously-- a villain without gray is just a fantastical element that has no counterpart in reality. It just isn't the way humans work-- humans are selfish, yes. Greedy, yes. Can do horrible things to one another, particularly under peer pressure? yes.
    But people don't just be evil for the sake of being evil and even those who say they do are really just looking for attention and there is generally a limit to how far they will go.

    But I don't know to what extent it matters in an RPG how a villain got to be where they were. I don't even know to what extent saying whether your villain is a revolutionary or someone granted mass power and no responsibility or someone avenging a crime or imagined crime but going so overboard it is simply unjust... what traits can that really give a villain that make this matter?

    Does it not matter quite a bit more what they can do now rather than what they were and how they got to be who they are now?

    1. Who brought up the kids at Columbine? Also, there is no corollary between them and Conan the Barbarian, You're really stretching there.

      "I don't know to what extent it matters in an RPG how a villain got to be where they were"

      For me it matters not one bit.

  7. My player went insane with rage after an undead-brownie (lich). They were willing to ride to the ends of the earth to finish him off. I think it was his size and my nasally intonation of his voice barking commands to his hoard of zombies (including one of the characters.

    I also have found that brothers, mothers, and sons of vanquished villains make instantly great villains.


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