1000 Relatable Villain Motivations

Jimbro

Explorer
So in my latest blog post, I discussed some humanizing villain motivations to craft a deeper, more layered story rather than having some villains who are evil for the sake of being evil.

I thought maybe we could come up with some more relatable, humanizing motivations here that can work as threads for a quest or even entire campaign. These hooks can be for any setting, any time period.

For instance....

A demon lord falls in love with an angel and plans a siege on Mt. Celestia to make her his bride.

A former soldier fallen on hard times cannot feed her children and becomes an assassin for hire to pay the bills.

A maimed beholder is missing eyestalks and looked upon as inferior by others of his race. He begins murdering adventurers and stealing their magic items to make up for his loss of power.
 

Celebrim

Legend
So in my latest blog post, I discussed some humanizing villain motivations to craft a deeper, more layered story rather than having some villains who are evil for the sake of being evil.
Cool.

I thought maybe we could come up with some more relatable, humanizing motivations here that can work as threads for a quest or even entire campaign. These hooks can be for any setting, any time period.

For instance....

A demon lord falls in love with an angel and plans a siege on Mt. Celestia to make her his bride.
Wait.... what??? That just fails on so many levels. First, why are we humanizing a demon lord? I mean, it would make sense to do this with a human king, arguably this is the story behind the Illiad, but a demon lord isn't a human and if it is a human then it serves no separate purpose. Secondly, how in the world could an incarnation of evil experience a positive emotion like love? Lust, sure. Greed, sure. Gluttony, sure. Envy, sure. But love? That seems to fundamentally misunderstand something.

A former soldier fallen on hard times cannot feed her children and becomes an assassin for hire to pay the bills.
Ok, Breaking Bad, D&D edition. Problem here is that this motivation doesn't last that long I would think.

A maimed beholder is missing eyestalks and looked upon as inferior by others of his race. He begins murdering adventurers and stealing their magic items to make up for his loss of power.
Again, I think it is a stretch to humanize a beholder. Regardless of his problems, I'm not going to feel much empathy for a beholder, nor do I think it particularly interesting to humanize a beholder at the expense of their alien qualities. Unlike a situation where a handicapped human avenges himself on his tormentors and in the process destroys things that are innocent, a beholder is never a tragic villain whom - absent the tragic circumstances - might have been someone good and noble and worth having as a friend. A beholder is less interesting relatable than they are unrelatable. Plenty of things are out there that are relatable and at least 'near human'. But if we start taking the unrelatable things and making them relatable, we are left with an empty category.
 

Jimbro

Explorer
Cool.



Wait.... what??? That just fails on so many levels. First, why are we humanizing a demon lord? I mean, it would make sense to do this with a human king, arguably this is the story behind the Illiad, but a demon lord isn't a human and if it is a human then it serves no separate purpose. Secondly, how in the world could an incarnation of evil experience a positive emotion like love? Lust, sure. Greed, sure. Gluttony, sure. Envy, sure. But love? That seems to fundamentally misunderstand something.



Ok, Breaking Bad, D&D edition. Problem here is that this motivation doesn't last that long I would think.



Again, I think it is a stretch to humanize a beholder. Regardless of his problems, I'm not going to feel much empathy for a beholder, nor do I think it particularly interesting to humanize a beholder at the expense of their alien qualities. Unlike a situation where a handicapped human avenges himself on his tormentors and in the process destroys things that are innocent, a beholder is never a tragic villain whom - absent the tragic circumstances - might have been someone good and noble and worth having as a friend. A beholder is less interesting relatable than they are unrelatable. Plenty of things are out there that are relatable and at least 'near human'. But if we start taking the unrelatable things and making them relatable, we are left with an empty category.
Cool. We agree to disagree. It's really an exercise in thinking about how you could humanize a demon lord, if you wanted to. I did want to and I don't think my players would balk at it. If yours would, don't use the hook.

If you've got some of your own ways to humanize more human villains, go ahead and add them. Love to get the train rolling.
 
1.- Foreign hordes are invading the land; local chieftain starts attacking neighbours in order to ensure the survival of his people.

2.- Vigilante priest starts murdering corrupt rulers. Knows he is damning his soul because of this, but believes that's a fair price to pay to ensure others don't get to suffer.

3.- Wise king learns that their whimsical god has decided that the next ten thousand souls he receives will be tortured for eternity. Sends out his legions to kill ten thousand people elsewhere in order to fill that quota as fast as he can and thus spare his subjects.

4.- Alchemist accidentally unleashes a brutal plague. Decides to fill the waterways with horrifying parasitic worms that, when embedded in the person, can fight off the worst effects of said plague.

5.- Seer believes he has seen the future; starts kidnapping people he is sure will commit crimes later on. Turns out he's just being manipulated by a devil.

6.- Illithid with amnesia starts eating brains in a desperate attempt to remember his past.

7.- Ancient dragon historian determines local humans are going down the exact same path of mutual destruction as their forefathers. Decides to burn the capitals to a crisp before things escalate.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Cool. We agree to disagree.
Ok, fine. I'll add some ideas of my own I've used over the years, but I first want to strongly insist that your list is stronger if it is generic rather than tied to a specific type of villain or a specific circumstances. The only time you should be specific is if the idea cannot be generalized because it depends on some unique particular. But even then, those ideas are less strong than the ones that are general. Thus, your list is better if you alter it to read something like:


1) A powerful ruler falls in love, and to win his love, he lays siege to great nation or city in order to claim his love as his bride.

2) A formerly honorable person is fallen on hard times, and in order gain security for thier children, turns to a decidedly dishonorable profession - such as assassination.

Variants:

The person may be trying to cling to their honor by assassinating only those they believe deserve it. The PC's have to decide if they sympathize.

3) A disfigured or disabled person is looked upon as inferior by their kith and kindred. They begin an elaborate plot to prove their worth and avenge themselves on their tormentors.

Variants:
The person's tormentors may be so dislikable, the PC's may decide they legitimately deserve their fate.
The person actually wants the PC's to help with the plot.
Everyone suspects someone notoriously competent of being the actual perpetrator, but they are being framed. The true perpetrator may not care if he's ever recognized, being content to prove his worth to himself.

The meta-variant in all cases is that the first impression the PC's have is wrong. Apparently sympathetic figures are actually villains, or apparently unsympathetic figures are practicing more legitimate justice than it may seem. This is yet another reason to avoid concepts where by definition the figure is unsympathetic.
 

Jimbro

Explorer
Ok, fine. I'll add some ideas of my own I've used over the years, but I first want to strongly insist that your list is stronger if it is generic rather than tied to a specific type of villain or a specific circumstances. The only time you should be specific is if the idea cannot be generalized because it depends on some unique particular. But even then, those ideas are less strong than the ones that are general. Thus, your list is better if you alter it to read something like:


1) A powerful ruler falls in love, and to win his love, he lays siege to great nation or city in order to claim his love as his bride.

2) A formerly honorable person is fallen on hard times, and in order gain security for thier children, turns to a decidedly dishonorable profession - such as assassination.

Variants:

The person may be trying to cling to their honor by assassinating only those they believe deserve it. The PC's have to decide if they sympathize.

3) A disfigured or disabled person is looked upon as inferior by their kith and kindred. They begin an elaborate plot to prove their worth and avenge themselves on their tormentors.

Variants:
The person's tormentors may be so dislikable, the PC's may decide they legitimately deserve their fate.
The person actually wants the PC's to help with the plot.
Everyone suspects someone notoriously competent of being the actual perpetrator, but they are being framed. The true perpetrator may not care if he's ever recognized, being content to prove his worth to himself.

The meta-variant in all cases is that the first impression the PC's have is wrong. Apparently sympathetic figures are actually villains, or apparently unsympathetic figures are practicing more legitimate justice than it may seem. This is yet another reason to avoid concepts where by definition the figure is unsympathetic.
Again, we agree to disagree. The way you've generalized here works, but it's also cool to be specific. You might think one way is stronger, but others would say specificity is the soul of narrative and want to see something more focused. I'm cool with people contributing to the list any way they choose.

I think most people will be able to bend or take what they want and leave the rest behind. Most GMs know how to do that. People contributing to the list can be as generic or specific as they like.
 

Celebrim

Legend
#8: Vengeance: The villain has a legitimate grievance. He has been wronged and there is no justification possible for the wrongs that have been committed to him. In response, the villain has decided that justice will only be served when the wronged party is destroyed, preferably after experiencing all the horrors he himself has been made to suffer. The villain may sympathetically try to confine his vengeance to only the original guilty parties, or the villain may abandon such course having decided that the guilt for his injuries is collective. (If the villain is convinced that only by destroying all his possible enemies will his safety be secured, this may overlap #9 or #11 below).

#9: “We all have to do what we need to to survive”: The villain has been reduced to such a desperate situation that the only way to survive was to adopt the most ruthless and distasteful habits. The degeneration may have begun slowly or even reluctantly, and it may be even in progress, but there is no end in sight. As grievous as the villains deeds may be to him, they are all justified by his desire to live which he considers reasonable no matter what he does.

#10: “The needs of the many…”: The villain has decided that for the sake of society, some small group will have to be sacrificed. The villain may not be happy about it, but believes he is doing the right thing amongst several hard choices. The group may have some resource everyone needs, or the group may be doing something innocuous that the victim believes is unintentionally injurious. Or the group may be some critical weakness or drain on resources that the villain believes cannot be sustained through some coming trial. Or the villain may believe that the group is socially corrosive either deliberately or through no fault of its own. This small group can be almost anything, from children, to the wealthy, to the poor, the handicapped, to a racial minority, or even criminals – any group that can be marginalized.

#11: “The needs of the few…”: The villain has decided that some small and oppressed group must be protected at all costs. The villain isn’t necessarily interested in vengeance, but feels that larger, wealthier, and more successful groups must bear the cost of protecting this small group whether they like it or not. Any threat to the group likewise must be dealt with ruthlessly. The group may initially be sympathetic and may even have legitimate and sympathetic grievances. Likewise, the observer may not realize just how far the villain is willing to take things, so the villain may be able to easily manipulate compassionate observers into helping in small ways or against certain foes of the group.

#12 Code of Honor: The villain was originally motivated by a sense of justice or honor that required him to act. Importantly, the crime he was trying to redress was not against himself. His motives may have been entirely pure. This however brought him into conflict with some figure, and the conflict has only escalated or grown since then. The original crime that motivated the villain to act may be legitimate or imagined injustice. The villain may even have misinterpreted what he saw, but remains convinced of his righteousness to this day. The more legitimate the grievance that the villain was trying to redress, and the more sympathetic the code of honor, the more tragic the villain will seem. However, truly brutal villains may also have this motive, as a moment’s thought about the outcome of a code of honor like “When you are insulted, you must strike back twice as hard.” The villain may have long since abandoned his code of honor in despair, or the villain may be trying to cling to his code even as his list of foes, evil doers, and those he counts as complicit in the original crime continues to grow longer and longer.

#13: Grief: The villain motivated by the pain of what was lost. The thing that was lost is something sympathetic and valuable, and the villain’s grief is therefore understandable. He may even be the victim of injustice. Despite all he has been through, he doesn’t necessarily want vengeance, but rather he just wants to restore whatever it was he lost and he is willing to do anything to do it – where break laws, make pacts with devils, or sacrifice the innocent. No cost is too high to pay. The villain may be fair spoken and normally honorable in all his dealings, and neither the observer nor even the villain may initially realize just how far he’ll take his quest to get back what he lost. The initial attempts to get back what he wants may seem reasonable, but make no mistake as to what happens if anything gets in his way or hinders his plans. This may cause a formerly sympathetic figure to be rather suddenly disclosed as a villain.

#14: Progress: The villain just wants to make the world a better place. The problem the villain observes may in fact be legitimate and sympathetic. The villain believes he has a magic bullet that will cure the problem, if only he is allowed to implement it or develop it. Unfortunately – and unreasonably in the mind of the villain – the larger society or authority figures have prevented the villain from acting on his plans, resulting in a continuation or even worsening of the problem. Regardless of the reasons that society mistrusts his cure - whether high costs, significant risks, disagreement about significance of the proposed solution, superstition, or ignorance - the villain has come into conflict with society and now finds himself (reluctantly or not) doing less than savory things to advance his dream of a better tomorrow.
 
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Jimbro

Explorer
1.- Foreign hordes are invading the land; local chieftain starts attacking neighbours in order to ensure the survival of his people.

2.- Vigilante priest starts murdering corrupt rulers. Knows he is damning his soul because of this, but believes that's a fair price to pay to ensure others don't get to suffer.

3.- Wise king learns that their whimsical god has decided that the next ten thousand souls he receives will be tortured for eternity. Sends out his legions to kill ten thousand people elsewhere in order to fill that quota as fast as he can and thus spare his subjects.

4.- Alchemist accidentally unleashes a brutal plague. Decides to fill the waterways with horrifying parasitic worms that, when embedded in the person, can fight off the worst effects of said plague.

5.- Seer believes he has seen the future; starts kidnapping people he is sure will commit crimes later on. Turns out he's just being manipulated by a devil.

6.- Illithid with amnesia starts eating brains in a desperate attempt to remember his past.

7.- Ancient dragon historian determines local humans are going down the exact same path of mutual destruction as their forefathers. Decides to burn the capitals to a crisp before things escalate.
Yes! These are great. I love #6. Made me feel for a mind flayer!
 

Jear77

Visitor
Curse: they are evil because they can't escape the effects of a curse. This could even be a generational curse in that everyone following in the footsteps of the original is thusly cursed - e.g all members of a race.

Insanity: while sane the individuals are decent people, but something or someone or some event broke their mind.

Accident: the person didn't want to do evil, but find their actions becoming more vile by the passing day to accomplish their goals.
 

Celebrim

Legend
#18: Misanthrope: The villain is deformed or disabled in some manner that has made them reviled their entire lives and forced them to live outside of normal society. They may have been born that way, or they may have become deformed as a result of abuse and torment. Regardless, they are socially, mentally, and often morally stunted, unable to relate to people on a normal basis and having known only cruelty and scorn from others. It may even be possible to befriend the misanthrope by treating them compassionately and avoiding frightening them. Unfortunately, it may also be too late, as the misanthrope has developed engrained habits of thought and modes of behavior that invariably will bring them into conflict with society or which will explode again into violent behavior if the misanthrope is ever once again subjected to scorn. Villains of this sort are among the most tragic in literature: Lennie in 'Of Mice and Men', the monster in 'Frankenstein', Carrie in 'Carrie', and so forth.

#19: Charismatic Scoundrels: Their is a place in literature reserved for the rogue or scoundrel which has so much charisma and panache that the reader overlooks behavior on their part that the reader would find despicable and evil in a less charismatic individual. Indeed, a great deal of literature often depends on differentiating two individuals with very similar modes of behavior by giving one sympathetic traits in their personality and another less sympathetic traits. The classic trait for doing this is marking one as treating women well and another disrespecting them or treating them poorly. Also common is to make the villain be obnoxiously arrogant, or to be physically disgusting. One excellent example of how the reader can be manipulated in this way that has been analyzed recently is 'The Karate Kid', where the movie successfully gets the viewer to excuse behavior by the protagonist and revile behavior by the antagonist based mostly on personality traits - or to put it another way, mere charisma. Another pretty good example of this is Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which as a series takes this idea so far as to reform the villain of the first film into a sympathetic protagonist merely because he has panache. Probably the most extreme example are slasher films, which use a variety of tricks to make the truly psychotic murderous nominal antagonists of the films into effective protagonists that the viewer may even be rooting for. Panache and charisma makes murder seem less vile, shutting down the forebrain by tickling the lizard brain. The same tricks can be used in an RPG to get players to classify villains in the category of charming rogues. They will recognize intellectually that the villain is not a nice person, but will blind themselves to their potential villainy if you are careful to not openly step over certain societal bounds that are 'beyond the pale'. Indeed, it's quite possible to 'Han Solo' or 'Jack Sparrow' some of these villains and let players trick themselves into the expectation that they are going to reform or act honorably in a pinch and so forth. You can then pull the rug out from under such expectations after a suitable period.

#20: Hunted: The villain was originally the victim of some great injustice. Perhaps they were framed for a crime they didn't commit. Perhaps they were sold into slavery. Perhaps they had a legitimate need for justice - for example they were raped or abused or swindled - that wasn't recognized by the larger society, and when they were forced to take matters into their own hands, society viewed them only as a criminal. Unlike the villain motivated by Vengeance, the Hunted desire only to get away or to be left alone, but unfortunately that hasn't happened. Instead, they became hunted and to protect themselves from capture, they've been forced into actions which in turn made them only more hunted which in turn has made them more desperate. The great thing about this concept is that whether the Hunted is villain or protagonist often rests on knifes edge, and its easy by selectively recounting the facts of the Hunted's history to make them seem either villain or hero according to the biases we are likely to have. Depending on who the PC's first hear the Hunted's history from will make a big difference in their initial impression. Depending on how the story is handled, as they learn new facts and the Hunter takes new actions to avoid capture the PC's may move back and forth on their stand regarding the hunted. One of the most nuanced outcomes you can strive for is to ultimately have the PC's decide to join the hunt despite having considerable respect and sympathy for the hunted. It's also worth noting that its quite possible to seduce PC's into villainy and becoming hunted themselves with villains such as these so some care should be exercised if you don't want to go that direction. Note this motivation often heavily overlaps with #9 ("We all have to survive") above.
 
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Two cultures are at war over one holy city. A powerful archmage realizes that one or both cultures will annihilate the other in order to 'make safe the city,' and so decides to raze the city and everyone in it before that happens. No more city to fight over, and a powerful (perceived) enemy to unite against.

[sblock]Yes, I just combined Jerusalem with Dr. Manhattan. :)[/sblock]
 
An antisocial psychopath is raised with a strict code of conduct, resulting in him murdering only heinous villains who evade the law. A law-enforcer discovers his activities, and hires the party on as bounty hunters to catch him.

After catching the psychopath, he somehow demonstrates to the party his adherence to his code even in the face of execution. (He briefly escapes but doesn't attack the party, he helps the party fend off an incidental ambush but won't kill any of the ambushers, etc..)

[sblock]Yes, I'm a Dexter fan. So sue me. :)[/sblock]
 
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