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Top 10 Tricks to Make your Villain Stand Out

Written by loganbonner - Published on September 30, 2011

Welcome back to the column that breaks down gaming into what’s really important, ten things at a time!

Any story arc needs a good villain. The best big bads are more than just another devil or vampire or dragon. These ten suggestions can help take your villain above and beyond the ordinary and give your players a more memorable game.

1. Means to Power.

Why do people follow this villain? Is the villain charismatic, wealthy, or royal? Is it a demon that rules out of fear? Show this power in the actions of underlings. If the rank and file know that nothing the adventurers can do will be worse than what the villain will do to them if they fail, they fight viciously—and to the death. If they’re paid mercenaries, they might ask for bribes or complain about their wages. Whichever you choose, be blatant about it. Let the players see what their characters are going up against and what power they’ll need to break to bring down the villain’s empire.

2. Driven by a Goal.

The villain should have a single overriding goal that drives all his or her actions. If the villain were ever able to complete the goal, it would change the world in a substantial way. The stakes need to be high!

3. Sticks to the Plan.

Along with the goal, place concrete steps the villain needs to take to reach the goal. These can form the seeds for individual adventures or sessions. A dedicated villain doesn’t let failure at some of these steps detract from the big goal. Have your villain improvise and refit the plan as needed.

4. Keeps the Plan in Motion.

The villain should be making progress if nobody is stopping him or her. If the PCs go in a different direction or take their time, don’t just have the villain sit there and wait. Keep the villain proactive.

5. A Fatal Flaw.

Give your villain a weakness the adventurers can figure out and exploit. It might be hubris, a traitorous henchman, or a supernatural trait (like a vampire’s vulnerabilities).

6. Threatens What the PCs Care About.

Avoid faceless or generic threats. Having the villain go after some town the adventurers have never heard of is okay, but not as strong as attacking the base of their closest allies or kidnapping trusted friends.

7. A Widespread Presence.

Make the villain’s presence known in every corner of the campaign. The villain and his or her henchmen appear again and again, and the villain either has a hand in all sorts of plots or presents a threat that casts a pall over brave people.

8. Signature Symbols.

One of the best ways to make the villain’s presence known is by reusing symbols and calling cards. If all the villain’s followers wear black sashes or cut off their left ears, or if every piece or correspondence is written in silver ink on black paper, that provides a memorable cue for the players.

9. Keeps Poking Old Wounds.

Take note every time the adventurers fail to stop the villain, or let a part of its plan succeed. A good villain exploits those embarrassing moments and provides constant reminders so the adventurers can never live the failure down.

10. Has Boundaries.

Your villain will be more well-rounded if there are some things he or she won’t do. Does the villain refuse to fire on his or her own troops? Does the villain obey rules of engagement and refuse to resort to dirty tactics? How can the adventurers use the villain’s boundaries against him or her, and does it challenge their morals if they do so?

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Written by loganbonner

Logan is a freelance game designer, writer, and editor. He worked on numerous projects at Wizards of the Coast, primarily for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

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11 Responses to “Top 10 Tricks to Make your Villain Stand Out”
  1. TheDeclan says:

    Thanks for the good advice! :)

  2. Ravyn says:

    I like these!

    The assumption in your first point got me thinking. My last two villain success stories were–well, the current one works alone (unless you could being in simultaneous manipulation games with half the setting’s major antagonists), and the previous one’s organization was pretty much him, his three (themselves older than the PCs and absurdly powerful in their own ways) children, an indeterminate number of summoned demons, and…. well, I’m not sure the last one counts, since the group didn’t really find out his allegiances until after the final fight was over and the dust had settled. So at first it seems odd to me that one would take for granted an Evil Empire/Corporation/Whatever. Though come to think of it, my villain advice column tends to assume an organization as well. Amazing how ingrained that concept is, isn’t it?

    I’m particularly partial to Number 8, though I prefer a slightly more subtle form of calling card, something they’re not necessarily trying to do. My favorite method tends to involve scents, or distinctive narrative voices, though I’ve been known to pipe background music while running, and to use leitmotifs in those situations. One of my friends in college once told me a story about a game he’d run, GURPS I think it was, in which the major antagonist was some sort of large demon–the group’s first meeting with him was out in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, not long after they’d had a fake-out scare involving a troop of Girl Scouts knocking on the door with their cookies, and the demon arrived soon after, smelling distinctively on Thin Mints. And continuing to smell distinctively of Thin Mints. On the day appointed for the group to fight this thing, my friend brought a whole bowl of the cookies to session….

    There’s also one villain quality you’ve missed that pretty much makes a villain for me–a visible emotional investment in conflict with the heroes. Granted, in most circumstances you’re probably not going to want to start with that; it’s better if a group earns it. But if–when–they do, the peculiar dynamic that it creates makes for a much more gripping conflict.

  3. keitan says:

    Another tip: create a villain which players can sympathize with to a certain degree. X-Men’s Magneto is an outstanding example of this – an old holocaust survivor trying to make the world better for an endangered minority group is WAY more interesting than your standard-issue evil wizard.

  4. loganbonner says:

    Ravyn: There are many ways a villain’s followers might group up. I think I used “empire” in there once, but the bad guy might have just a few trusted lieutenants, be manipulating people from behind the scenes, or all sorts of other things. I don’t mean to imply there’s just one way a villain might organize. Might be a good topic for a future column.

    Keitan: Yes, though the “to a certain degree” is really key. In a game, you’ll usually need to make your villains nasty enough that the heroes don’t feel too bad about throwing down with them. I think the real trick is to show the “why” behind the villain’s actions—making them understandable but not excusable. For instance, the villain might have been wronged in the past, but plans devastating revenge that goes beyond a personal vendetta. The heroes might see how the villain was mistreated, but need to stop a plan that could harm innocents or cause great devastation.

  5. Godel Fishbreath says:

    And does your villain know of the Evil Overlord LIst? It is important to know.

  6. I’d also add that an easy way for to make your villain stand out is to make use of the PCs in his plan. One of the most memorable villains I’ve ever had used the PCs as pawns in his plans. As they grew they became less manipulable and finally found out the part they were playing in unraveling his sinister plans. Once that became apparent their indignation at having been used fueled their hatred. I no longer had to figure out how to bring the PCs in, just dropping his named summoned them.

    Another thing I’ve done before, but which is hard to pull off unless you want to cheat is to have the villain outsmart the PCs or defeat them. Like the loss a superhero usually faces at the outset of a comic book this tends to make the match between the two forces even more personal.

  7. Digging this. I think a lot of players could stand to think through evil characters in general, whether PCs or NPCs. Whatever evils they may enact, it should still be done from the standpoint of a fleshed out personality.

  8. Stryder says:

    My current villain in my game(3.5) is a substantially unknown figure to my players, the big bad evil guy operates a web of shadows, pulling strings and setting motions in events through a large and relatively secret organization of leaders who are all unaware of other members of the organization. Like currently my mage had to literally backtrack about 10 years worth of paperworks, ledgers and accounts and run them by events and atrocities commited at certain times just to find a henchman of BBEG

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