Do me a favor. Take a short quiz with me here. Who’s more interesting, both as a character study and as a pop culture icon: Luke, or Vader? Batman, or The Joker? Thor, or Loki? Simon, or Garfunkel? If you’re most people, you picked the latter every time. Well, maybe not for that last one, but that’s an actual question I need help with. There’s a reason you picked the last one. Villains are way more fun and interesting than heroes. Antagonists may be the ones we root against, but you tell me you weren’t fascinated the first time you saw the T-1000 change shape, Hannibal Lecter escape justice, or Jack Nicholson in literally any movie.
The player characters, naturally, will be the protagonists of your adventure. If you’re rooting against your own characters, then you’ve got issues that tabletop gaming can’t solve, I’m sorry to say. If you take Felix Danger’s great advice, you’ll have a lot of passion, drive, and love for your character. Less can be said about a GM being interested in the PC across the table from them. That’s where the villain comes in.
GMs carry the weight of creating the villain of the adventure. The grander the adventure, the grander the villain. Dungeon-of-the-Week or Danger Room games only need someone at the end of the tunnel to hand out loot, but a sprawling, fully-realized world needs a fully-realized villain. A BBEG.
I’m going to speak to the newer players here. The main villain of a big adventure is the BBEG- Big Bad Evil Guy. It’s okay. We use a lot of acronyms in RPGs. It’s just the way we TCB, and if we don’t hurry, there will be a TPK ASAP, OK?
A BBEG’s the one that you love to hate. The one you shake your fist at when he escapes on the back of a griffin. The one that cackles manically as he sends wave after wave of henchmen at you.
Creating such a hate-able person tends to fall into the cartoonish. If we don’t stop this sorceress, fellas, she’s gonna BLOW UP ALL EXISTENCE! But that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Why would a sorceress, no matter how evil, want to blow up existence? She’s part of existence! Felix told you that the heart of a well-crafted player character is backstory and expression. I’m here to tell you that the heart of a well-crafted villain NPC is motivation. From the highest BBEG, to the mid-level bureaucratic henchmen, to the kobolds fawning over shiny stuff, villains need to have motivation to be believable.
Believability doesn’t necessarily lower the stakes. I don’t want your fantasy-world BBEGs to slaughter thousands in order to scrape enough dough together to open a Carl’s Jr. in Minas Tirth. That’s boring. I want your BBEG to have a purpose behind his evilness.
For instance, I’m currently crafting a campaign based on classic Roman antiquity. A well-established empire, replete with marble temples and beskirted soldiers, reached a little bit too far into the wilderness, and now the barbarian horde is falling down on their head. Our heroes are a piece of that established empire, and can express that through their own play. Our BBEG is a barbarian warlord set on ending the spread of this imperial power into his forests. Sure, he does this from the back of the aforementioned griffin with a bow that shatters stone and creates craters wherever it lands, but he still has a point. He’s not diving deep into the heart of this empire to undo creation, just take back some ancestral lands and maybe commit light genocide along the way.
You can scale this up or down. If your players get to a high enough level, maybe their villain thinks they can do a bit better than the gods themselves, and seek to become one! If your players are still just starting out, maybe a goblin king is making raids on supply trains. They both have motivation.
Henchmen can carry a piece of their boss’s vision, but they don’t have to. A band of assassins can be hired by your BBEG to wreak havoc on a mining town, but only be in it for the money. A blood-thirsty cult, however, tends to be true believers all the way down. It’s all context.
After you figure out WHY a villain is doing the things they are, figure out HOW they go about it. The villains I listed: Vader, The Joker, Loki, Garfunkel- They all had flair and style that makes them memorable. This is tabletop gaming, and you can make them do whatever they want. Maybe it’s his weapon of choice, like my BBEG. Maybe it’s a way of speaking, a way of dressing, or a way of interacting with the PCs. It’s your game, do the villain YOU want to see.
The villain may be around longer than some of your PCs, depending on how tough they are, so you need to pour just as much work into him or her or it as any player character. Make full-on character sheets for your BBEG: I find that my notes on the backs of the sheets and even supplemental notecards are way more decked out for villains than any hero.
There’s plenty of psychology that explains why we’re so fascinated with villains even as we root against them, but it boils down to a pretty simple thing: The villains we like are really cool. Cool looking, cool acting, cool one-liners. They’re the ones you love to hate, and the love part is a bit bigger than we’re willing to admit.
Take some time, next time you plan an adventure, and ask yourself these questions:
Why is the BBEG doing this?
How will they go about doing it?
How are they going to do it in a memorable way?
If you can answer those questions, your PCs will have a fight worthy of a bard’s song.