In tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeon & Dragons or Apocalypse World, most epic story campaigns will feature a villain or antagonist who casts a shadow over the players and their characters. Whether as an evil overlord ruling over a kingdom of darkness or a galactic empire, a syndicate boss who feasts on the corruption of society, or a dark prophet who wants to summon gods of evil into the world, villains can challenge the player characters of an RPG campaign and give their triumphs and downfalls extra weight… particularly if a Game Master uses the following design principles to create their villainous characters.
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Not all tabletop RPG stories need a villain to be interesting, but an RPG campaign story centered around conflicts over power, resources, or ideology benefits from including a villain more often than not. A crafty, deadly, and possibly even charismatic villain can be a fun “Final Boss” for players to overcome with PC abilities and tactical thinking; thematically, they can also represent the “dark side” of humanity, flaws in the human condition both players and their PCs must overcome to save the world and grow as individuals.
Making a good D&D villain character for a story or an RPG campaign is a tricky balancing act, however. They need to be powerful yet fallible, relatable yet abhorrent, and, in the context of tabletop RPGs, hard to defeat while not completely invincible. When trying to create an RPG villain that’s interesting, full of complicated layers, and resistant to the trigger-happy antics of “Murder Hobos,” the following character creation principles will serve GMs well.
Give D&D Villains A Big Goal They’re Passionately Working Towards
Villains in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons should have goals of some kind. Intelligent, charismatic, strategic villains generally have goals centered around dramatically perpetuating or destroying a part of the world the “heroes” live in and this, in turn, determines whether the heroes are protectors of a just, happy world or revolutionaries fighting a corrupt, unfair world. Even when the villain is a an alien creature or mindless monster, they should still have long-term goals such as “satiating their hunger,” “reproducing,” or “evolving into a more dangerous form.”
The important thing is that the villain is constantly (and passionately) working towards their goal, even when they’re not in front of the player. Narrative RPG systems like “Powered By The Apocalypse” or “Forged In The Dark” frequently use clock diagrams to measure just how close a villain’s scheme is to completion; if players don’t intervene and all the “spokes” in the “clock” are checked off, the villain’s scheme comes to fruition, a states of affairs generally bad for the PCs and their loved ones.
Decide In Advance How Sympathetic/Detestable D&D Villains Should Be
The morality alignments of Dungeons & Dragons divide “bad guys” into three types of villainy: the Lawful Evil villain, who upholds a harsh social order with ruthless means, the Chaotic Evil villain who revels in violence, discord, and the suffering of others, and the Neutral Evil villain who will sacrifice everything and everyone for their own personal benefit. When it comes to the goals of “villains” in an RPG campaign, it’s also possible to codify their behavior by asking whether their motivations are selfish or altruistic in nature.
If a Game Master wants to make their villain sympathetic to the eyes of players, they can give said villain altruistic (albeit twisted) motivations, putting their “evil” acts in service to a noble end goal. To ensure player sympathy, a GM should show their “sympathetic villain” making “evil” choices with reluctance, and gladly choosing kinder alternatives if they become available. A “selfish” villain Dungeons & Dragons players are meant to hate, on the other hand, should be portrayed as someone who will gladly commit atrocities if it brings them pleasure and profit, treating the people around them as objects for amusement and reacting poorly whenever the world doesn’t obey their whims.
Give Villains Abilities & Aesthetics That Mesh Well With Their Personalities & Vices
Villains defined by their greed and avarice frequently dress in ostentatious clothing and may have the power to transform into a Dragon. An emperor with a god complex may wear lots of purple, wear a crown shaped like a halo, and force their enemies to kneel with gravity magic. A dark wizard who lusts for all the secrets of the worlds will almost always carry many books on their person and have the ability to read people’s minds.
By thematically matching the appearance and abilities of a villain to their personality traits and vices, the GM can either foreshadow a villain’s true power to players by describing their personality, or foreshadow their true villainous personality through the nature of their abilities and resources. Also, “personality powers” are just plain cool and great for roleplay opportunities for both players and the GM.
D&D Villains Should Be Challenging, But Never Frustrating
Books, movies, and TV shows frequently feature scenes where a villain absolutely dominates the heroes at the beginning or mid-point of a story; sometimes they show up out of nowhere and effortlessly thrash the heroes in single combat, or disguise themselves as a trusted alley before revealing their true colors with a dastardly betrayal. In books, movies, TV shows, and even video game cutscenes, these sorts of scenes are powerful ways of establishing just how dangerous and devious a villain is.
In tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons however, “unstoppable” villains are just frustrating for the players who want their characters to have agency, while “trusted allies” who reveal their true colors as villains encourage gamers to indulge in “murder-hobo” behavior as a pre-emptive safety measure. This doesn’t mean the Game Master of an RPG should never create powerful, deceitful villains; rather, they should always give their players the chance to respond to a villain’s actions in fun, interesting ways.
A villain who’s too tough to be killed can still be trapped or lured out of the way, while a villain who hides behind minions, dupes, or disguises can still be exposed or cornered by a sufficient clever stratagem. And if the villain gets prematurely killed by PC’s clever plan or lucky Dungeons & Dragons dice roll? Then the Game Master should reward the players for their hard work by having their villain crumble with a cathartic shriek of despair, then rework their narrative to function without them.
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