RPG Design – Introducing Villainy

   Here we have an article that was more-or-less co-written with Editorial0.

   Introducing villains to your gaming audience is one of the toughest parts of setting up a novel or game. Usually it’s handled by introducing them to some of the major characters in the story (like the player characters). But that automatically brings up some major issues.

   Firstly, villains are usually powerful, dangerous threats. If not, the villain is usually backed up by or somehow controls said powerful, dangerous threats. If not that, then the villain presumably has a lot of influence or pull and can potentially make the player character’s life a living hell.

   If they aren’t creditable threats, they’re not really villains; they’re background annoyances to be swatted in passing.

   But alright. You’ve got your big nasty villain. Now what?

   Well, if the villain is genuinely dangerous, and actually goes out and does villainous things (or at least orders minions to do them), you have a reason for the hero to go off to defeat the villain; he or she wants to make the villain stop doing those things – or at least swipe whatever-it-is that lets him do them. Without such a reason our heroes are not going to fight the villain at all. Do you routinely haul off to smack around dangerous-looking strangers for a laugh?

   So the villain massacres out heroes beloved peasant village/steals the mighty artifact/usurps the democratic nation of Goodonia. Great! The heroes have a motivation. So they walk on over and nail that two-faced bitch or bastard right between the eyes. Villain dies, the end.

   Oops! Forgot that the heroes were not supposed to beat the villain up right at the start. Let’s fix that… done. Now we have a really POWERFUL villain!

   So our heroes go off and attack the villain. But the villain is too strong and slaughters them.

   Huh. That’s not really any better is it?

   This is getting more complicated than we’d like.

   This is why introducing villains is such a pain. If the player characters can’t kill them straight off, then you have to somehow introduce them to the villain and motivate them without giving them a chance to actually fight back.

   There are a few established ways to do this, and they are appropriate at different times.

   The Villain Kills You.

   This is a surprisingly common trick in video games, but carries some odd risks with it. Presumably our heroes are getting resurrected or something – and that makes death seem a little cheap. Then you have to provide a good reason why they can’t come back to life again should they lose to the villain and find a good reason why the villain can’t be resurrected if he or she loses. We like to call this ‘Aeris Syndrome’, or possibly ‘No Pheonix Down in a Cutscene’.

   The upside is that you do get a nice reason to hunt down the villain, and he or she does seem very dangerous. He or she already whacked the heroes casually once, so they’ll want to get a lot more powerful before squaring off with the villain again. Just make sure this all actually makes sense in the setting or you’ll wind up annoying the players.

   The Villain Kills Somebody Else (and never comes near the heroes).

   This one is always popular, and often gets used later on in the story. If the villain can kill someone our heroes think of as being more powerful and more prepared than they are, the villain does look dangerous (killing powerless background characters may be motivating, but it doesn’t really establish a villain’s power). This is perhaps the classic. The villain shows he evil he is by murdering a character’s Mom / Dad / Older Brother / Friend / Dog / Teacher / Mentor / Favorite member of the Pantheon / Etcetera.

   The Villain Kills A Lot of People.

   Mass murder is always good. Err… evil. Err… well, it does depend a lot on distance. We still talk about “Alexander the Great”, even if what he was really great at was getting more people of more different types killed than most of us could manage in ten lifetimes.

   Anyway, this is pretty much the same thing, but simply on a larger scale. The main difference is that this version distances our heroes from the events. Heroes personally care when a villain callously kills off someone close to them. Heroes care more abstractly when the villain kills off a nation a long ways off.

   Of course you can combine the two options. Kill off… the characters home city! That will kill off a lot of our heroes personal friends, get your villain instant mass murder credentials (good for free drinks and food at the villain’s bar and grill), AND establish his or her raw power!

   It also means giving your villain city-killing powers, which may be a bit awkward if you were wanting to keep the scale down a bit.

   The Villain Shall Taunt You a Second Time!

   This one is inexplicably popular in video games, apparently because video game story writers are frequently stricken with temporary fits of insanity. How should we put it? If the villain is powerful, dangerous, and scary for real, then he, she, or it doesn’t need to mock the heroes. And if he, she, or it does spend time mocking them, it should be because he, she, or it finds them so pathetic that it’s SAFE to waste time on pointless amusements just before destroying them (let us hope that this bit comes just before the escape at the last second or some other bit of writer intervention).

   Let’s make this one absolutely obvious: Enemies whose main form of attack is harsh taunting, or bragging about how powerful they are, or teasing heroes with the thought that eventually they’ll release the last raid in this damn expansion and they can finally get a better shoulder armor piece, will neither get nor deserve respect.

   Even worse, behavior like this never really adds anything to the villain. You wouldn’t think that Pol Pot, Stalin, or Osama bin Laden was any nastier if you found out that they sometimes stole waiters tips off tables at restaurants. The scale of their nastiness isn’t enhanced by petty acts, it’s diminished. It’s perfectly fine to show that your villain is a petty, selfish dick with no redeeming qualities if you’re making a statement about the nature of evil (a la Saruman at the end of Return of the King). It’s terrible if you want a menacing, dangerous villain.

   We like to call the popularity of taunting Lich King Syndrome. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion to World of Wacraft was very well-done. It also featured the most annoying villain in history, who popped up, made threatening noises, and then… walked away.

   He did this repeatedly.

   Later on, the writers tried to cover for this by saying that he, the most powerful undead horror in the world, with his unstoppable army of endless superhuman skeletal killing machines, led by the most terrible abominations ever, really wanted more and stronger liuetenants (even though he was already strong enough to conquer the world without even trying). So he invited his enemies into his lair, made sure he didn’t attack them while they were training or preparing, and made certain they could have the most powerful equipment available, all so that he could personally kill them later and make them his lieutenants, but… no. It didn’t make him scary: it made him look sad and weak-willed, too bored to make the effort to win. It also made him look idiotic; even given the “better henchmen” idea, why not give people the best possible equipment AFTER turning them into minions?

   And that’s where the entire idea of a taunting villain goes wrong: it’s one thing for the villain to gloat briefly when he or she has finally (or so he or she thinks) cornered the hero for good. It’s another to see the villain pass up victories in favor of mocking the heroes.

   The Villain Fights and Runs Away.

   Another one which pops up from time to time features a villain so powerful he wins handily, but so pathetic that he retreats after every battle, even if he actually has the advantage. This happens a lot in comic books, but you also see it in video games. In both mediums, the villains aren’t supposed to win, and battles tend to be frequent but do no lasting harm. The combination means that villains who are currently winning (or have already won) run away after making speeches – or providing mysterious clues – which make no sense to anyone.

   This makes the villain look weak and ineffectual. if they can’t even follow up on a victory, what can they do? Even if they scored an ultimate victory of some sort, this makes it look like they’d just run away afterwards, and nothing would happen. What’s heroic about stopping that?

   It does little good to claim that the villain has a pressing engagement elsewhere; such an engagement would have to be vastly more important than stopping their heroic archnemesis, which should be the focus of their desires while they’re actually fighting them. The villain must be willing to risk something to fight off the heroes. If not, he’s a giant wuss, no matter how great his power, and no one will ever respect him. This problem crops up a lot: the villain lacks any good qualities, and becomes a sniveling coward who only has a chance of winning because the author hands him one.

   A better option is a villain who doesn’t want to kill the heroes, or who doesn’t want to be their enemy but finds himself on the wrong side for some reason. Then he has a reason not to kill, and will want to leave after a victory. At worst, he’d capture them intending to release them after a brief imprisonment.

   The Villain Commits a Crime.

   Always a classic. Who says the villain has to be targeting the hero? He or she is just going along, minding his or her own evil schemes, when the hero gets caught up in one of the many minor criminal acts done to further the master plan. Then *BAM* the villain has to sort things out and get involved in stopping the heroes. I suggest bank robberies. Everyone loves a good heist.

   The Villain Has Always Been Your Enemy.

   Many stories don’t bother describing the origin of the rivalry between the heroes and the villain, and this works if done right. You need to show the boiling tension between the heroes and the villains, and even have them make references to previous adventures and conflicts. The only downside to this is that some readers may get curious and demand to know what those references are actually all about. That gets worse in RPG’s, where the players usually want to have some idea of what’s in their character histories.

   You need to decide in advance if it’s important to show the terrible acts the villain committed to earn them the permanent enmity of the hero, or if it’s enough to show the enmity itself. The former is more informative, the latter is more emotive – and it depends on the nature of the events you’re writing about or presenting in the game. As a rule of thumb, the audience needs to know specifically what happened if it changed the course of the heroes lives in some concrete way. Here, the heroes are driven by a desire for vengeance or justice for a villain’s previous crime or crimes – and the whole thing is usually very personal indeed. This is very good if you want to keep things small-scale however; a villain who did something nasty while the heroes were kids doesn’t need any power bigger than a kitchen knife.

   If it’s not personal, it can be a lot more generic. Maybe the villain just hates members of the character’s race or something. In this case, you can leave the events in the background and show the impact on the hero’s attitude. The hero is usually driven to stop the villain because of the villain’s terrible deeds to others. This doesn’t mean the hero doesn’t care, but he’s championing a cause bigger than himself. You won’t need to describe everything about the villain, just enough to show the feud.

   In any case, introducing a villain is a big moment. It can undermine your entire game, novel, or project if the first impression the players or readers get is “Meh. This villain guy is an idiot!”

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