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The Hero's Journey pt. 3: Villains

ThorinTeague

Creative/Father/Professor
This is the third part of an exploration I wrote a while back on the Hero's Journey as it relates to RPG's. This was prompted in part by a recent video posted by Heath's Geekverse on the same subject.

Here is a link to the first post.

Here is a brief TL;DR summary:
  • There actually isn't a whole lot of THJ in this essay.
  • Villains should be motivated to be diametrically opposed to the hero(es).
  • For further reading, check out The Complete Book of Villains.

Creating Memorable Villains​

Your roleplaying methods for any NPC will also apply to recurring villains. Memorable villains are largely memorable NPC’s of any other kind.

But villains are also something a little different. These nemeses harass and threaten the PC’s, their homeland, and/or their friends and families. They are diametrically opposed to the PC’s, or close enough. Their actions are directly related in a yin and yang way. They motivate each other. It’s vital that the players feel the threat of the villains in order to create tension and drama. There are several great tricks to create effective, memorable villains.

The experience with a recurring villain should be emotional. The presence of the villain should inspire fear, his escape, anger, and his eventual defeat, jubilation. A villain is an NPC your players love to hate.

Take your time with recurring villains. It should unfold slowly. Let them lurk around the shadows and affect fringe events subtly before even revealing themselves. And let there be more time between the reveal and the final epic showdown.

Motivation

I know we covered motivation with NPC’s above, but what motivates a villain deserves special attention. Firstly, it should oppose the PC’s, but with villains especially there should be a why behind it. The villains’ “why” will create richly rewarding roleplaying opportunities at all encounters.

For example, Kraag the Magnificent wanted supreme power and will stop at nothing to attain it. He got his hands on a magic artifact and led the PC’s on a chase to another world. Ultimately, his own hubris was his demise as his overuse of his beloved artifact destroyed him, thus denying the PC’s the satisfaction.

Not too complicated and quite memorable (my players remember it 25 years later...)

How about a villain with sympathetic motivations? Mondanzenth the lich, who has a strange appearance, seems to grow with the land, like vines or plantlife. He does some villain/lich stuff, the PC’s and Mondanzenth tangle a few times, and then his past is revealed. Perhaps through discourse, an artifact, mind meld, divination magic, or any number of possible revelations. Turns out he was abandoned by his father at the Altar of Ages where he stood waiting for his father to return for 1,200 years, in tears. So long that the plant life began growing around him, then into him, then through him. So emotional was his experience, his deeply painful agony powered him into undead lichdom (yeah I know it’s not RAW, but who cares?)

Or how about the infamous Roy Batty, primary villain of the original Blade Runner? Roy had Deckard beat, with Deckard hanging off the edge of a sheer drop, probably a hundred stories in the air. Deckard’s death was all but certain. Roy was breaking his fingers one by one. At the last second, he decides to rescue him. Knowing his life would end no matter what he did and who won the fight, I wonder if Roy thought something of himself could live on in Deckard. So he left Deckard with his eulogy: “Quite an experience to fear, isn’t it? That’s what it’s like to be a slave. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

The sympathetic villain creates a powerful counterbalance to the common hack-n-slash action provided by most RPG villains. The PC’s may still have to destroy Mondanzenth and Roy Batty, but they will come away with a deep understanding of who they are.

The villain’s objective is the “what” that is motivating her or him. Their goals they wish to accomplish, long term and short term. Accumulation of wealth or power, destruction of an enemy, acquisition of an artifact, or subjugation of a group of people are all good candidates. Remember this should usually oppose the PC’s interests directly. Villains are often (or often want to be) high achievers. To accomplish this, they of course have no qualms with lying, cheating, murdering, or stealing. Their sense of competition is thoroughly unhealthy.

Personality

The villain’s personality traits are going to be important to define how you will play her or him. Whether the villain is extroverted or introverted, neurotic or sane, and empathetic or callous are important to know when you’re at the table.

Some villains will be sadists, some will be masochists, some will be neither. Some villains talk with a stutter, chew with their mouth open, or act like a priss. Some seek attention and some lurk in the shadows.

In addition to giving your villain personality traits, give them some quirks or stylizations that add personality. A phobia, a tick, a disdain of bathing, or a refusal to eat anything blue could go a long way. “I do not mean to pry, but you don’t by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?”

Remember, villains must bring the hurt! I’m going to get into hero's journey archetypes when we get into writing the adventure and crafting the NPC’s in a future chapter here, but the villain’s function in a hero story is to bring conflict to the story, and to motivate the reluctant hero, so don’t skimp. That’s their job! Be a little evil. Or really a lot evil. Give your villains some teeth. The villain might tear up that new shiny hotness the PC’s just acquired. Or kill their loved ones. Or inflict the effects of a mind control ray on one PC and have them turn on the party (perhaps subtly).

One of the primary failures of 2006’s Firewall with Harrison Ford is that its villains had no teeth. Oh sure they threatened a lot, but they ultimately didn’t feel very threatening, which is what really counts. Contrast this to a film like Ronin or 13 Assassins... the polar opposite! Those were some vicious villains, and it made the narrative truly hair-raising. Yours might be anywhere in between, but the villain to some degree needs to be... villainous.
 

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