Villains and Characters: Villains AS Characters

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Okay, let’s just cut to the chase here. You came here to read about villainous NPCs, right? And I can’t keep letting commenters and redditors keep rewriting my schedule at the last minute. So, let’s just jump right in and talk about villains. This time, though, I’m not talking about their nefarious plans and how those plans let you write and improvise adventures, arcs, and campaigns. I’m talking about the NPCs as people. Well, as characters. As entities in the story.

This article is going to be a little bit hodgepodgey. It’s going to bounce a bit from topic to topic. I can’t help that. It’s going to retreat a lot of well-trod ground about NPCs. I can’t help that either. I’ll try to keep the repeating myself to a minimum. And, most importantly, it’s going to tell you some disappointing things about building awesome villains like the ones in TV and the movies (you mostly can’t), about creating recurring villains (you usually can’t do that either), and about building sympathetic villains (you really shouldn’t). In other words, this article is going to suck (you can support this article and more like it on Patreon!).

But before we jump in, I have to cover something because I just KNOW this is going to be a fight later. Here’s the thing: I’m going to tell you that you USUALLY can’t or shouldn’t do a few things that a lot of people think you SHOULD do and that they think you CAN do. And, guess what, you actually CAN do them. Even when I say you can’t, sometimes you can. But whether you can or not is not something you have any control over it. It’s going to depend purely on luck. It’s a big f$&%ing gamble. The things I’m going to say are impossible are technically possible. And when they do work out, they can actually be really cool. But they usually fail.

It’s like this: I might say “you can’t go to the craps table to get rich.” Now, the thing is, some people DO get rich playing craps. For the last seven years, my annual visits to the craps table have ended up with me going home with substantially more money than when I arrived at the casino. And yes, a very tiny part of that is discipline and knowing the difference between good bets and bad bets and money management. But the much, much, MUCH larger part of that is that I’ve just been getting pretty damned lucky. And I know it. And that is why when I go to the craps table once a year, I go with a handful of money that I expect to lose. And that I’m fine with losing. I expect to lose.

So, here’s the deal: some dips$&% is going to look at the things I say and say “well, I did the thing you said was impossible and it was the greatest thing ever.” Sure. Yeah. It can happen. Just like I turned $200 into $800 three years ago at Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City for my birthday. But I can’t count on ever doing that again. It’s just a big f$&%ing gamble. When I say, in this article, that you can’t do something, what I really mean is that you can’t count on it working. It’s probably going to fail.

And now here’s the other deal: try it anyway. Seriously. I’m going to tell you one or two things you can’t or shouldn’t do because they are big gambles that are likely to fail. But that isn’t the same as saying DON’T try. And THAT is the difference between me and all of the other morons giving GM advice on the internet. Well, one of the differences. I’m also smart, creative, clever, witty, and charismatic. I’m willing…

Oh, wait, I’m also sexy. That’s another difference.

I’m willing to tell you flat out: try this, even though it will likely fail. Why? Because craps is a fun game. And because you might win. And even if you don’t win, you still had a good time playing. What I’m saying is don’t play craps with your rent. Or to earn enough money to pay rent. In other words, have a backup plan. Know that you’re going to lose the gamble most of the time. Be ready to cope with that. Don’t gamble with money you can’t afford to lose.

So, when I say you can’t reliably create a recurring villain, I’m not saying it is NEVER possible and I’m not saying DON’T TRY. What I’m saying is that it probably won’t work, so have a backup plan when the recurring villain fails to recur. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

Anyway, that covered, on with the article. Oh, and also: learn how to play craps and go to a casino and play craps. It is f$&%ing fun. They let you touch the dice and everyone at the table is cheering for you. And sometimes you win a bunch of money.

The One-Dimensional NPC

In the last article, I discussed the villain as a plot. Or rather a plot device. A driver of plot. The villain has a motive or goal that the players and their characters are compelled to interfered with. The pursuit of that goal creates adventures, arcs, and campaigns. And when the players start interfering with the villain’s plans, the villain’s ability to adapt is what creates dynamic adventures.

Now, as it stands, the villain is just the barest bones personality. The villain has a goal, a plan, and some resources to draw on, right? The only thing that speaks to who the villain is as a person in all of that is their goal. They have one single desire. And that drives all of their actions. In dramatic literary fiction analysis critique bulls$&% speak, we call that a one-dimensional character. Everything you know about that character can be summed up in one statement.

Now, let me be clear that one-dimensional characters are totally FINE. Our entire lives are made up of one-dimensional characters. That clerk in the store? The person driving the bus? The f$&%muffin in the library eating an entire goddamned bag of potato chips with their f$&%ing mouth open two seats away while you’re trying to write a goddamned article about NPCs? Those are one dimensional characters. Shopkeeper, busdriver, rude-as-f$&% a$&hole who is going to die in about three minutes. All we know about them is one thing: they need a paycheck and know how to operate a cash register or bus OR they are clearly psychopaths but without the balls to actually kill someone so they just devote themselves to making life as unpleasant as possible for people.

On the other hand, though, I’m not a one-dimensional character. I’m complex and detailed. The reason I am sitting here in this library writing this article and contemplating murder is the end result of a complex string of life choices, luck, hopes, dreams, fears, and a willingness to kill punch rude people when they need it. The reason I’m rich and well-detailed and all of that crap is because I’m the main character of the story. I’m the f$&%ing protagonist.

Now, we ASSUME that the store clerk has some story that led them to working in that Starbucks or that the potato-chip a$&hole has some tragic backstory that has created an absolutely inhuman f$%&ing monster. But because they only serve a limited role in the story – sell me a latte, have my fist rammed down their throat – that’s all it will ever be: an assumption. And we’ve talked about that before. Right? I talked about how the more “screen time” an NPC has, the more details they need in order to seem real. It’s just like in real life. If I keep coming back to Starbucks and seeing the same barista, I’ll probably get to know more about her as a person. I’ll recognize her moods. Some days, she’s happy. Others, she’s not. And even though she is always driven by working for a paycheck when I see her, there are going to be more dimensions to that story. She loves coffee, that’s why she chose this job. She’s putting herself through school, that’s why she needs a job. She’s studying medicine so that she can become a surgeon. She only works during the school year because she lives out of state and is only here for school.

My point is that there is nothing wrong with one-dimensional NPCs in a story. Dimensions are for main characters and the supporting cast. But when an NPC starts showing up more and more often, the NPC will start to develop moods and variations that you, as a GM, can bring across. And, honestly, you don’t even need that much detail for most recurring characters. You could get away with just rolling a random “mood” every time you have to play the NPC. Hell, you could probably invent a table and system for NPC moods. That might be fun. I should do that.

Sorry, anyway…

Now, here’s where things get complicated. Because that whole system above where NPCs become more detailed as they have more screen time? That thing gets totally f$&%ing short-circuited when the NPC is a villain.

Off-Screen Presence and Non-teraction

Villains serve as drivers of the plot, first and foremost. That means they are generally extremely important to the story. But, most villains spend most of the story off screen and they rarely interact with the players. So, on the one hand, villains probably deserve more shades and dimensions than your average shopkeeper. But, on the other hand, they have no screen time, so do they really?

The answer is yes and no.

Because of course it is. This is me. I can’t give a straight f$&%ing answer.

First, let’s look at the yes side.

Let me blow your f$&%ing mind: villains are on-screen a lot more than you think. And they interact with the players constantly. Even the ones who sit on sinister thrones in distant towers waiting for the PCs to show up. In fact, it’s the interaction that spells the difference between a villain and a boss monster.

Imagine an adventure where an ogre steals a thing and takes it back to his lair. And then he sits in his lair, caressing the thing, while his goblin buddies guard the lair. And they all just wait for the heroes to show up. The heroes kill the goblins, disarm the traps, overcome the obstacles, and then they kill the ogre and reclaim the thing.

Is the ogre a villain? No. Not at all. That ogre is a simple antagonist. A boss monster. The final challenge in a series of challenges.

But, now, imagine the same ogre stealing the thing as part of a ransom plot. He wants money, so he steals the thing and demands people pay money for its return. But the people hire adventurers instead. When the ogre’s spy learns that the PCs have been hired, he warns the ogre and hires himself on the PC’s guide. He leads the PCs astray, getting them lost in the woods so the ogre’s goblins can attack. The PCs defeat the goblins. The ogre gets furious. As the PCs are getting close to the ogre’s lair, the ogre sends a bunch of goblins and wargs and wolves to burn some of the farms and he makes sure the PCs know it. If they rush back, they can drive off the goblins, but the ogre has time to move to a safer hiding place and issue a new demand. He wants money and the PCs to be run out of town or else he’ll burn more farms. If the PCs press forward, townspeople will die and the town will send someone to bring the PCs back because they just want to pay the ransom and be done with the ogre. And on and on it goes.

What makes the second ogre a villain is that his presence in the story isn’t merely passive. He reacts to the PCs actions. And the PCs have to react to his actions in turn. That is what makes a villain a villain right?

In that way, even though the ogre is off-screen, he still has a presence on-screen. It’s like he’s a ghost hovering over every scene in the story. And moreover, every time he changes the story by setting traps, threatening the town, changing his defenses, and so on, he’s interacting with the PCs.

Villains have an off-screen presence and they interact without interacting.

And that means they DO need some personality. They need some shades and dimensions. Because they ARE on-screen and they are interacting. They just aren’t doing it through an actual physical presence and actual interaction.

How Much Personality Does a Good Villain Need

Now, let’s look at the no side. Yes, villains ARE on-screen a lot and yes, they DO interact with the main characters a lot, and yes, they are important to the plot. But how much do you REALLY need to know about them? I mean, honestly, I go into Starbucks every few days and…

Thank f$&%, potato chip a$&hole just left! Now I can concentrate again! I hope he gets run over by a busload of nuns.

Anyway, I go into Starbucks every few days and I often deal with the same barista. And I do know some details about her. But the details I do know are actually pretty limited. She’s not one-dimensional, but she’s still pretty shallow. And that’s because, no matter how much she is on screen, in the story of MY life, she’s still just there to trade money for lattes. That’s her purpose. And anything extra I learn about her is just for curiosity’s sake. And most of it is going to be related to why she trades money for lattes.

All things being equal, an NPC only needs as much detail as their role in the story demands. Anything extra is just a curiosity. But, the more important that role in the story, the more it’s going to overwhelm any curiosity.

If you watch players interacting with NPCs in RPGs, you’ll see exactly this sort of tendency. The innkeeper, the blacksmith, the local priest, the town minstrel? When those characters become recurring characters, the players become interested in them as people. They learn more and more useless trivialities about them and waste more and more game time asking them about their families and the weather and whatever other bulls$&% comes up. But the king, the patron who assigns every adventure and pays the PCs for every job? The players don’t really care so much about the king. There’s an inverse relationship between role in the story and the amount of curiosity the players have about them.

You can think about it like this: there’s a jar for every NPC that contains everything about that NPC. Every NPC gets the same size jar. And once its full, the players don’t care about anything else. The more space the NPC’s role in the story takes up, the less space is left in the jar for bulls$&% like “fear of snakes” and “likes elven poetry.” It’s just a weird truth about role-playing games. And I’m not even sure why it happens.

Long story short, villains are literally the most important NPC in any story that features a villain. They drive the plot. Their motivations, their goals, their plans, and their strengths and weaknesses fill the whole plot. So, most villains don’t need much personality.

Are Villains People or Not?

And those two odd facts bring us around to what you really need to understand about a villain. A villain has a goal, a plan, and resources. Beyond that, a villain needs SOME personality, but not much. In fact, a villain with too much personality is just a waste. Players won’t pay much attention to it and you don’t need that much personality to drive a plot.

But, let me add another analogy into the mix to make this even more complicated. Because that’s what I do. Personality traits are what make NPCs come to life. They need the hopes, dreams, fears, desires, odd quirks, foibles, strengths, and weaknesses right? So personality traits are like food for NPCs. Well, just like human beings, there’s good food and bad.

Take a personality trait like “afraid of appearing weak.” Stick that personality trait on someone the PCs have to interact with and that’s something the PCs can learn about and use. If the PCs need the king to send aid to another country and the king is hesitating, they can wheedle him about how he must not feel his resources are sufficient if he can’t afford to send aid to an ally and how spineless people will think he is. Put it on a villain and the PCs can goad the villain into a stupidly brash action, like walking into single combat or a trap. That’s the personality equivalent of a well-balanced meal. It’s NPC food that brings a lot of useful story bits to it.

On the other hand, a personality trait like “hates the color purple” is the equivalent of a goddamned candy bar. Yes, that sort of quirk TASTES GOOD because you can say “look how alive my NPCs are, they even have favorite colors,” but from a story standpoint, that is just empty f$&%ing calories. It’s a stupid, useless detail that does no one any good.

And you know what? All of those “random personality lists” you see in books are just loaded with bulls$&% candy bar personality quirks.

So what, right? Well, remember what I said about the NPC Jar? Well, it’s more important than you think. Remember, every little tidbit of personality that you give an NPC wastes space in the jar. Players only remember so many things about NPCs and only care about so many things. But moreover, you can only remember so many things about running the NPC. And you can only bring out so many personality traits through the game.

Here’s what it boils down to: your villain needs a goal, a plan, and resources. In addition, you need some sense of the villain’s limits: what will or won’t the villain do to achieve their goals. Will they kill innocents? Will they steal? Will they burn down an entire village to get revenge on a dog that killed them as a child? Those are the things you need to know about the villain to drive the plot.

Beyond that, a villain really only needs ONE good, solid detail that defines them as a person. And that ONE, good, solid detail should be loaded somehow. It should be something that can change the game. A weakness, a fear, a strength, a compulsion, something they refuse to do, whatever. It should be something outside of their plans, but something that can affect their plans.

A dark knight, for example, might be hell-bent on conquering a kingdom, but his misguided sense of chivalry makes it impossible to harm a child or woman. A necromancer trying to achieve immortality might refuse to kill anyone who isn’t actively trying to kill him. A dark cult must always mutilate its victims in a ritualistic way, even when that has nothing to do with their plan. The specific trait doesn’t matter very much, but it should somehow come out in the story OR be exploitable.

Now, if the villain is a campaign villain or an arc villain, one that will drive multiple stories, over time you will want to add more details. But, be careful about adding too many. You can get a lot of mileage playing with a single personality trait on top of the all the villain stuff like goals and plans and resources and limits. Especially because, when it comes to arc and campaign villains, those villain things tend to change over time. The villain’s plans are constantly changing, so every adventure is about unraveling a new plan. That takes up a lot of the interaction. Resources and limits change more occasionally, but they still do change. As a noble keeps rising through the ranks, he has more resources. As the dark knight fails, he might lose more and more of his limits until he’s a complete monster. In general, it’s better to keep playing with what already exists than keep heaping on more details.

This is ESPECIALLY true if you’ve got any campaign structure that involves multiple villains. Batman’s villains are all pretty straightforward. They have one trait that they literally wear on their sleeve. Every few weeks, they pop up with a new plan. Occasionally, a personality shift occurs. Remember, you and the players both have limits for how much of this crap you can handle.

Letting the Villain Come to Life

Okay, so you have a villain with a goal, a plan, resources, and limits. You’ve assigned one nice, rich bit of detail to mix things up a bit. Now what? How do you bring the villain to life? Most importantly, how do you bring that one rich bit of detail into the game? After all, the plan, goal, resources, and limits will all come out during the adventure because they ARE the adventure. And how does goal, plan, resources, limits, and one detail become a personality?

Well, this goes back to one of the very first things I said about NPCs: you don’t run the game, you run the NPCs. When you have a villain in play, you don’t run the adventure, you run the villain.

Okay, so the ogre has stolen the thing and wants money. The townsfolk refuse to pay and hire adventurers instead. What does the ogre do? His goal is money, his plan is to ransom the thing, his resources are goblins and wolves and a spy in town he pays off, he really doesn’t have any limits because he’s chaotic evil, and his one interesting detail is that he revels in causing fear and misery.

Well, OF COURSE, he’ll use his spy to lead the heroes to a goblin and wolf ambush then burn part of the village down to teach them a lesson. Of course he’ll issue greater and greater threats. He might kidnap and torture people. He might specifically target children.

Running a villain adventure involves a lot of improvisation. You have to be ready to react when things happen. And that reaction has to be defined by your understanding of the villain. But the magical part is that, as you make decisions AS THE VILLAIN, a personality starts to emerge organically. The ogre is a brutal, savage sociopathic monster. And he’s vengeful as hell. When things don’t go his way, he escalates. And he escalates hard and brutal. Hell, it might reach the point where you just organically decide that he’ll burn the entire goddamned village down because he’s furious about his plans being derailed. The whole adventure might go wildly askew. The stolen thing might become a useless footnote.

If you start simply enough, most NPCs, but especially villains, they tend to take on a life of their own. It’s about leaving room to grow. If you spell out the entire villain’s history and personality and all of that crap, you spend so much time analyzing the villain to decide what to do next that the villain never gets the magical spark of life. I s$&% you not. I know this sounds like literary mystical bulls$&%, but it is one hundred thousand percent true. If you leave a lot of blank space, a villain’s – OR ANY NPC’s – will grow to fill that space as long as you keep playing the NPC as a character instead of as a game element.

And with all of that said, we now come to hodgepodgy part where I tell you a bunch of crap you can’t or shouldn’t do.

Don’t Backstory

You might notice that I never once told you to write a f$&%ing backstory about how your villain was raised in an orphanage and was so badly mistreated that he decided he had to tear down the entire socioeconomic system that creates poverty and orphans and that is why he’s opening the portal to the Realm of Acidic Ice Fire on the Four Hundredth Layer of the Abyss? Do you know why? Because I don’t want you doing that s$&%. Don’t write a goddamned backstory. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

I mean, sometimes it’s okay. But don’t.

Backstory is the least important, least interesting part of the story. That’s why we’re not playing it. Players don’t give a flying f$&% about origin stories except the ones THEY cause. And no, the backstory doesn’t make it easier to play the villain consistently. PLAYING THE VILLAIN is what makes the villain easier to play. So don’t let your f$&%ing backstory get in the way.

Here’s what MIGHT happen if you listen to me. One day, the players are suddenly going to decide to be interested in the villain’s backstory. Or you might decide to have an adventure in which the players learn the history of the villain so that they can learn some of his weaknesses and counter his next plot. That MIGHT happen. The backstory MIGHT suddenly become interesting or useful in some way. And when that happens, you can look at everything you already KNOW about the villain from ACTUALLY F$&%ING PLAYING the villain, and you can figure out a backstory that fits it.

Alternatively, if you DO invent a backstory, what’s DEFINITELY going to happen is you’re going to forget half of that backstory and the players aren’t going to give a f$&% anyway. And the parts you do remember, you’re going to be so busy conforming to that the villain never takes on a life of their own. Moreover, you rob yourself of the sheer joy of someday being surprised when you discover your villain’s backstory because you didn’t know it until you had to figure out what it was.

So, Don’t F$&%ing Backstory.

Don’t Sympathy

The other danger of writing a backstory is that you run the risk of creating a sympathetic villain. A sympathetic villain is a villain who, despite doing evil things, is somehow justified in his actions. Or thinks he is. The sympathetic villain is the end result of the bulls$&% c$%&waffle remark that “no one THINKS they are evil, they all think they are doing good.” I mean, that statement isn’t even true. Some people KNOW they are doing bad things, but don’t care because they see no inherent value in being good.

Sympathetic villains are all the f$&%ing rage among people who are too good to just run a classic tale of good against evil. And it’s gotten to the point where every villain must have some kind of moral justification for what they do because you can’t just have someone who doesn’t care that what they are doing is wrong because people just don’t function like that, right? Well, wrong. Lots of people do lots of terrible things without caring they are wrong.

The problem with sympathetic villains – villains whose goals and motivations are generally good, but who cross an extreme that makes them a danger to others – is that audiences sympathize with them. Now, that’s just fine when the audience is watching a movie or TV show or reading a book. But, in an RPG, the audience is also the protagonists. And suddenly a lot of s$&% can get f$&%ed up.

See, at the end of the adventure, after the villain is stopped or defeated, what follows is a thing called a denouement. A winding down. The adventure had its big climax, the confrontation with the villain, and now everyone needs to calm down and relax and release the tension. That’s why Star Wars didn’t end when the Death Star blew up. It ended with Indiana Jones and Anakin Skywalker getting medals from Princesses Dumpling-Head.

But, when the players deal with a sympathetic villain, there’s a danger they may actually sympathize with the villain. Or some of them will. And that means, AFTER the climax but BEFORE the denouement, the party gets to have a big f$%&ing unwinnable moral argument. Seriously. The players now get to sit around and debate what to do with the villain and whether he can be reformed or forgiven and what’s just and right. And, guess what, that argument is UN-F$&%ING-WINNABLE because morality and ethics are personal until we discover a universal moral law to the universe. And if you’ve ever watched players trying to just pick out pizza toppings, you know what a goddamned nightmare it is to get the players to agree on anything.

Sympathetic villains – if they work – ruin the ending of your game. They ruin it. It’s okay to have a villain whose motivations make sense, that’s fine. But push the villain too far into the moral shade of grey, and you get to watch a bunch of morons who would have failed a 100 level Moral Philosophy course argue for seventeen hours straight while you finish the goddamned plain cheese pizza that was the only pizza everyone could argue on.

Don’t Recurring

And now, if that last part got your panties in a rustle, hold on to your jimmies for this part. Let’s talk about recurring villains. Now, I’m speaking about a specific kind of recurring villain here. And I don’t mean the villain who sits in the background and drives adventure after adventure over a long campaign. That one is fine. When I say you can’t have a recurring villain, I’m referring to something very specific. And that is this:

If your villain and the heroes ever end up in the same room, do not expect the villain to walk out alive.

We’ve all seen those cool scenes in movies where the villain and the heroes trade quips and insults and have a tussle and then the villain escapes or does something to distract the heroes or the heroes just can’t manage to do anything? Yeah. Forget them. You don’t get to have those. If the heroes in an RPG are ever in the same room as the villain, the villain is dead.

Now, you might say “but Angry, you can engineer a situation wherein the villain CAN escape” or “what if you create a situation where the players CAN’T kill the villain” and I will say shut up. It won’t work. Look, I admit that villains can have escape plans or create hostage situations or have lots of guards to cover his escape or have a secret teleportation ring or whatever. I admit that you can have the villain meet the heroes in a controlled public space in which, due to the bounds of society, they can’t kill the villain. But they still won’t work. And now I will explain why.

First of all, players will do every damned thing in their power to kill the villain. Because killing the villain equals winning the adventure. Nothing else matters if they win the adventure. Moreover, players will always assume they are supposed to kill the villain. So, if they ever find themselves in the same place with the villain, they will ignore any warnings, danger, or distractions and kill the villain. So, most of your distractions and threats of overpowering the players? They don’t work. Either one of the players will manage to eventually off the villain OR you will kill all of the PCs trying to let the villain escape.

For the same reason, players tend to assume that anything they do to kill the villain is justified. So, if they meet with the villain in a restaurant, they will commit cold blooded murder and then try to explain to the waiters, customers, and police that it’s really okay because that was the villain and they are the heroes of the story. And then they will be baffled when they get arrested or killed by police. And they will blame you, the GM, for it.

And remember before you comment about “not all players” or “not my players” or “in my game” or whatever, remember the Long, Rambling Introduction™.

Now, alternatively, you might actually manage to create a plan for the villain that is strong enough to let them escape. The teleportation ring thing, for example, can’t fail. The wall of force locking the heroes in until the villain leaves, that can’t fail too. But guess what: you can do that s$&% exactly once. Because the players will be ready for it next time. Players HATE when villains escape. They will bring a teleport blocker or a dispel magic scroll or a wand of teleportation. Hell, they will stop all other adventures and demand an adventure that allows them to discover a counter to the villain’s escape plan. Which means the villain can’t escape the same way again.

So what, right? The villain can just have another plan next time, right? Wall of force this time, teleportation the next, planeshift the next, turn into mist the next time, right? Well, no. Here’s the problem. After the players counter the first escape plan and the villain uses the second one, the players will not care that you planned this s$&% out in advance. All they will see is a contrived screwjob. You pulled another escape plan out of you’re a$& to protect your villain. You stole their victory.

Any escape plan guaranteed to work will feel like a contrivance. And any escape plan with any chance of failure is going to fail because the players are just too f$&%ing bloody-minded and persistent.

I’m sorry. Recurring villains don’t recur if they end up in a room with the PCs. And if they do recur, they only recur in a way that pisses off the players. Not the characters. The players. And that’s bad.

Long story short, if you’re ever going to let the players end up in the same room as the villain, you’d better have a plan for what happens in a world in which that villain no longer exists.

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50 thoughts on “Villains and Characters: Villains AS Characters

  1. Hi Angry,
    Thanks for the article! I guess I am just confused on one part though- I accept and know that if you get a villian in the room with the heroes the villian is more likely than not going to die. But what I don’t understand is how you would run a rogues gallery of villians if upon each contact that villian’s shelf life dramatically shortens?

    • Don’t have the villain talk to them directly, have it talk to them through other means they’re controlling from afar: Ex: henchmen, notes, body doubles, bloody messages on the wall, “presents”, dominated innocents, etc…

      It works wonders. I had the hardest time giving up my “evil villain monologues” because I liked the trope. But just as Angry said, my villain would end up dead or my players would end up frustrated. So I swapped. I had a minor villain, a Nightshade, dominate and control townsfolk. They would stumble out all covered in terrifying shadowy tendrils (like puppets) and speak in forced voices. Scared the living shit out of my players. They paid far more attention to that minor villain than they did to my epic tropey monologing ones. And turned the world upside down to find it and kill it with extreme prejudice.

    • Another way you do this is to change the genre. The old Marvel Comics RPG had PCs lose all XP they’d collected if they ever killed or by inaction allowed to be killed another character. Some swashbuckling style games do a better job of having ‘you can’t just murder people’ baked into the system, by making a significant portion of the players power base based on style and reputation.

      Look at the “Telling the cops ‘but he’s the villain'” up above That’s only a problem if your characters don’t have anything to fear, anything to lose, from just killing the villain, and only a problem if the letting the villain live is worse than the consequences of killing him. In D&D, that’s never the case. The players can always pick up and have adventures somewhere else, with no loss.

      Players can sense genre, and D&Ds genre is firmly murder hobo.

  2. Yet another great article I wish I could have read months ago, before screwing up my sessions.

    I was recently toying with the idea of a villain who was “invincible”: someone using a certain way to walk out alive every single time, impossible to defeat until the party finds the counter to his trick (something like the aforementioned Ring of Teleportation, or an artifact that allows him to Plane Shift). once the trick is stopped, the villain is helpless in a real fight.

    I still haven’t tried it, because I feel like I need to add something to make the players actually enjoy it, and I can’t find it.

    What if the party doesn’t start looking for informations after the first time? I don’t want to fall into the trap of “after the first time, every escape feels like a screwjob for the players”; but if I am the one introducing the necessity to research that, it feels like bad railroading.

    • honestly, the best thing would probably be to just ask the players if they would enjoy chasing a very elusive target throughout a few (or many) sessions..

      If they seem excited about the idea of playing catch, maybe as if to see how long you can keep them from unquestionably detaining him, then go for it.

      Then again, deciding on the player’s success or failure in such a campaign arc is way more subjective than ending it through combat, a situation where the players are less prone to blame you instead of themselves for their deaths/failure.

      although angry talks about death in the article above, the reasoning also applies to every occasion you decide they failed.

    • Players don’t enjoy it, period. The only way they would enjoy is if the villain has to give something up every time he escapes; if it’s like Terminator and he has to leave behind all his magic items whenever he escapes, then the players still win something. ESPECIALLY if he starts getting mad/flustered at their presence because of it.

      Second idea: the villain can escape, but his source of power can’t. Once the players find his source of power and destroy it, he’s screwed.

      • That… is a cool way to handle it, actually. The viilain has some kind of artifact that instantly teleports him away, but the artifact always leaves a lot of magical items behind (maybe the power is in the armor, and everything magical except for that doesn’t leave).

        • If I remember correctly, Angry mentioned running a game with a very similar concept, but on the party’s side. They were effectively immortal, but had to protect their artifact.

  3. You know I can’t read this article and NOT comment. At least I don’t have to say ‘Tubalcain’ this time.

    Where do I begin? You said I wouldn’t like what you have to say, and that’s not true. I do like and appreciate your comments. My disagreements come from my own sense of OCD and the story-telling in my setting, not from the intent of your points. Unfortunately, I don’t want to go into a detailed explanation of my counterpoints because they’d require deep delves into my setting. Arg. I tend to write long comments anyway, and there’s nothing worse than seeing someone put “TL:DR” in their response to my comment.

    Point 1: So let me start with this thought: You don’t want the villains to be sympathetic to the characters/players. This I agree with. You are right in that this sparks a moral dilemma/argument that makes the game un-fun. But there’s one thing that is worse than villains that are sympathetic to the players: villains that YOU, the GM, feel sympathy towards!

    If you spend a lot of time writing and developing a backstory for your NPC villain, by nature, you don’t want that character blown away in the first round of combat. You spent a lot of time and effort, only to see it go down the tubes because… the players don’t care. I liken it to the efforts of my dearly deceased grandmother. You see, she would spend all the hours between lunch and dinner preparing a feast for the visiting family (I grew up 500 miles away from the grandparents, so visiting was always a special occasion.) Only, when we all sat for dinner, my brother and I would invariably turn up our noses because we didn’t like one or more of the items that landed on our plates. As a child, I didn’t see the disappointment in her, but as an adult, I do. Players are like children! They generally don’t see the hours of prep work we do as GMs. With this in mind, we have to create our villains with the EXPECTATION that they are going to get killed.

    Point 2: Backstory: I have a minor nit-pick here. I think a rough outline of backstory is helpful to establish dates and locations. Kind of like writing from a historian’s perspective, but not much more than that. Each of my player-character’s have backstories, and if I can, I’ll try to intersect something from the villains into one or more of their backstories, then say to that player, “You remember when you were eleven, you saw the aftermath of a battlefield…” Not enough to give anything away, but enough to make it personal. If I can.

    Point 3: Personality: Again, I agree with keeping it brief and leave out the meaningless fluff. However, the four “personality stats” in D&D 5e I think are great: Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw. I must digress a bit, though. The PH has a very limited list of these based upon archetypal backgrounds. This is great when creating player-characters, but I found it to be wanting for NPCs. So what I did is loaded all those stats into a database, then combed the internet for anything and everything I could find (home brew, WoTC resources, blogs, forums, etc.) and found probably a hundred more backgrounds, from which I extracted these stats. When you take out the background categorization and semi-randomly select from the lists, you get interesting combinations. Of which, one in every 5 or so is useful. (I added this data I added to my “SligoNameDB”, but it is now too big to upload on my forum, so if you want a copy, you’ll need to contact me through my forum so I can get it to you. But I’ll want something in return! No more freebies.) Now I have a basic framework with which to play the NPC should he or she ever actually interact with the players.

    Point 4: Recurrence: This is my final nit-pick. Going along with the idea that letting an NPC “get away” feels like stealing from the players. If (and when) I do this, I’ll have a good story-based reason for doing it. You’re right, though: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I have some recurring NPCs in my setting, but… and it’s a big BUTT: They aren’t the drivers of the plot. The first encounter the players had with them they got away by going invisible then using “Expidicious Retreat.” The second encounter they were assisting another villain in a plot-driven escape. (The adventure was tracking down the assassin and bring her to justice. The other NPCs were just facilitators.) Next time the party meets these NPCs, they will die. They’ll put up a good fight, though!

    The other counterpoint to the recurrence idea is that the players may not recognize the NPC as a villain. You know the NPC’s motivations and know how to play the character, but part of the fun is the deception, dropping clues, and seeing the players realize this NPC is working against them, not with them. Again, expect a glorious death. I would caution, however, that the seeds of doubt need to be planted in the FIRST encounter.

    I look forward to you tearing apart my arguments. 😉

    • Well written comment. I personally also like my ‘recurring’ NPC’s, but I tend to have them as the sorts that is a total ass to the party, but untouchable in the current venue. And very, VERY rarely are they the villains.

      Last full campaign I did, had a dwarf mob boss dispensing jobs to the players. Made it very clear he hated going outside of his organization to do this. Characters hated him, players ranged in feelings. Later, after he had lost all of his money due to story, he was among the refugees the players ran into. There was a smug satisfaction the party took in letting him live.

      None of them actually ever caught on that he was the first villain they were supposed to get rid of, but in playing him, I found I had to shift gears based on the players actions in the world. Made for an amazing feeling for me afterwards, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that my players never got to see him the way I did.

      Had my players figured it out, they would have killed him quickly. I guess the moral of the story is that for most any chance of a planed recurring villain, then the party must not be aware of the NPC being a villain.

  4. The only time when it’s safe* to have a villain in the same room as the PCs is when they don’t know he’s a villain yet.

    Perhaps the charming mayor giving a moralizing speech at town hall is actually the evil demon whose been murdering townsfolk for a week. Or the beautiful elf dancing in the tavern is kidnapping men, robbing them and slitting their throats for the sheer pleasure of it.

    When you can pull off that kind of scene, I find it very satisfying. When the players later find out that seemingly normal NPC is an evil mastermind, it’s definitely a gasp-worthy moment. Followed by a “Damn, we had a chance to kill them already!”

    But of course, even these scenarios have inherent risks. The always paranoid player rolls a natural 20 Insight check to see if the mayor is acting weird. Or the amorous player wants to take the sexy elf to bed and have some deep, deep conversations with her… then goes murder-hobo and kills her for fun.

    Anyway… this article is a great synopsis on how to create a good villain. It’s always so tempting to do a sympathetic villain (I’ve done it), but you’re right, it creates a dissatisfying ending. And backstories are a waste. Your players will find a way to sneak up on your villain and slit his throat in his sleep before you’ll ever get a chance to deliver that tragic backstory monologue. Slowly building a villain through his actions is way more effective.

    Now I’m off to work on my villains!

    • Well, one way to rein in the whole Nat 20 on insight thing is to use Angry’s Social InterACTIONS! article.

      Besides another thing, Nat 20 does not mean auto-success outside of to-hit, unlike prior editions. And besides, part of being the GM is also reacting to players in the character of the world.

      • Oh, I’m definitely aware that a Nat 20 does not equal auto-success. But I feel that a really good Insight check on a NPC should reveal something subtle about their body language in most circumstances. Especially in a situation like my example, I could see a player being very pissed off during the “reveal” of Mayor Evil if I had previously said “You don’t discern anything usual about the perfectly normal mayor.”… y’know?

        • Well, 1: why are players rolling insight against a sufficient number of NPCs that this is even a thing?

          2: Just because something feels off about an NPC doesn’t give the players justification to murder that NPC. Especially if you don’t let on that the only reason they got the info was because they rolled a nat 20.

          • Rule Number One: Rein in your players just rolling ability checks. Ask them what they’re doing, and how they want to do it, and then tell them how to accomplish it.

            Rule Number Two: Show your work. If your character has never met the NPC in question, has no history with the NPC, and has nothing to compare their behavior to, your insight check is mostly worthless in terms of determining Big Picture Items.

            The way I usually treat it:
            Upon first meeting an NPC, your insight rolls can tell you things like:
            -Is the NPC being truthful?
            -Is the NPC under stress?
            -Does the NPC like the characters?

            And, depending on the NPC, the DC might be very challenging here. The experienced swindler merchant is going to be very difficult to tell if he’s lying about products. The green innkeeper is much easier to read if he’s trying to rip you off on room rental rates. The DC should start at Hard (15), and if the NPC is good at the thing in question, add advantage (20), or more, if you feel the character in question wouldn’t be great at social insight (you can reward someone acting in character well, or trying to use clues you’ve given to help their deductions).

            Upon subsequent meetings, you can start to tell:
            -Is there something bothering the NPC?
            -Are they acting normally for what we’ve seen?
            -Are they up to their old tricks again?

            That experienced swindler merchant? I might not even allow a roll at all if they suspect he’s cheating them – OBVIOUSLY the characters know he is at this point.

            Remember, only allow a roll when there’s a chance of failure, a chance of success, and consequences for failure. A demon in the shape of a mayor behaving in a normal mayoral manner, where the characters have no knowledge of that NPC’s normal behavior? Nope, no roll.

            Now, if they’ve met the mayor a hundred times, and received quests and rewards from him repeatedly, and now a doppleganger has taken his place? If the character spots him doing something shady, absolutely allow a roll.

          • That’s kinda the lines I was thinking. The over paranoid ‘rolls intuition all the time’ is actually staring at people and making them uncomfortable and ruining social situations for the other players even, especially, when nothing is up.

            That’s the other problem, the law of conservation of detail says that every scene is important, so the players act like it is… that can be a problem in and of itself. Enforce that the way they are acting in that scene is how they generally act off camera…. So now the paranoid character isn’t welcome in the tavern anymore because of the time he accused the owner of trying to kill him. ‘He served me toxic bread!’ ‘It was moldy, and he gave it to everybody. He apologized and gave everyone a round on the house’, ‘He’s just trying to cover up!’

        • In that situation, you can always give a bunch of extraneous details that they have to sift through for anything useful. “You notice that the mayor favours his right leg a bit, like maybe he has a bad knee or gout. He also has male-pattern baldness, and his wedding ring looks uncomfortably heavy.”

  5. The recurring villain bit you mentioned is absolutely true. I’ve had three villains try to escape in my campaign with the resources they had available to them and my players chased the first one into the heart of an enemy fortress and jumped off a building to kill the second. The moment they even sniff out the possibility of an escape they will do anything to stop it.

    • I’ve had some success with minor villains escaping, kind of like the Nemesis system in Shadows of Mordor. In particular, in the D&D 5E starter set, Glass Staff has the spell Misty Step. I’ve played him as kind of a cowardly opportunist, and so far, my players have run into him twice. One time, he escaped before the players got to his room, because they killed his mouse familiar. However, he was in a rush, and left behind clues and valuable supplies, so it wasn’t a total “HAH HE GOT AWAY MOMENT”.

      The second time, he was attempting to assist the boss of a different area, and when the fight started going south, he misty stepped down the hall and ran. Again, there were still additional rewards to be found, and he cut and ran before the boss actually died – so they still got a satisfying conclusion.

      I haven’t decided how to run the third time they face him – so far, the characters hate him, but the players kind of fondly laugh about how he shows up, casts a couple spells, gets frustrated, and runs away.

      So far, the big bad (the Black Spider) is the thing the players are really gunning for. He’s caused them a huge amount of headaches, while Glass Staff is just kind of a nuisance. Depending on how the players deal with the Spider, I might have Glass Staff become the next antagonist. We’ll see how it goes!

  6. I do think there are situations where it’s safe to assume a villain will survive the PCs without it feeling too cheap.

    The main one is when the villain is initially so much stronger than the PCs that whenever they meet, he wins. You can only do it with a villain that has more important priorities than killing PCs once he has what he wants, but you can get away with that multiple times. Pretty much right up until the players finally get strong enough that the villain stops winning and has to play the bullshit escape card.

    Honestly, if the players haven’t gotten their hands on a way to disable the villain’s bullshit escape card yet, you can usually even get away with playing it a whole bunch of times without it feeling like you are cheating. As long as it’s the *same card* he’s established he has – it’s when you suddenly introduce additional flavors of surprise bullshit that it starts feeling like that horrible Babel Fish puzzle from the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

    Curse of Strahd actually does this reasonably well. It specifically advises you to have Strahd constantly screw with the players in person – first in half-hearted probing encounters where he doesn’t want them dead, then later in elaborate hit and run traps where they can’t corner him, then at full force (from a safe distance behind 7000 skeletons), and then for realsies in the final showdown. Although admittedly everybody and their mother already knows how a vampire’s can’t-kill-me bullshit works. Knowing the rules makes it feel less unfair.

  7. I think I disagree with you on the sympathetic villain. Have a sympathetic villain! Have them justify their actions! Just make sure that the justification is lower impact than the means, and the players will still kill them, but they get to have a little Scooby Doo banter on top of it.

    Also, if you can make the villain sympathetic LATER, that’s always a gem.

    Otherwise, good piece!

  8. I dont buy this jar idea at all. It seems to me like things are more like a pile. You start with a character concept, preferably a simple one, and you keep piling things onto that if the players get curious about the NPC. The pile can grow without limit.

    I also think there are some classic reasons for an NPC to be in the same room as the players without being a writeoff:

    “I shall return again, more powerful yet!” If it’s a world of magic or sci-fi bullshit, there are plenty of reasons why a villain might suffer a major setback from a physical defeat but be able to recover to take another crack at it. I was recently on the receiving end of this as a player and we did not feel cheated. It was fun kicking that guys ass the first time and when he showed up again it was smiles all around at having a chance to let lose on the guy we hate a second time.

    “A deal with the devil”: So the villain approaches the players and offers them a deal and the players murder them in cold blood and the story is derailed… well that’s not the only way it can go down. If you have two villains then the players might be doing something that hurts one to the benefit of the other. All you need to do is make sure that the villain isn’t approaching to negotiate, the villain is approaching to offer help. Players tend not to murder characters that are providing active help.

  9. I wish my DM had read this article before we had the first, and last, session of a new campaign last month.

    Long story short, the villain and I were in the same room, he told me has was going to have me hunted down and killed, I wanted to skip the bs and attacked him on the spot, and he slaughtered my level one butt on the spot.

    The DM was baffled, for he assumed I would wait until I had levelled up on a string of comically inept assassins before assaulting the big bad.

    • That sounds like something that really should have been planned for. Putting a starting character in the same room as the big bad when he makes it clear he’s gunning for you and being surprised when their character attacks him smacks of poor planning.

      There are plenty of ways to handle that without it needing to completely end the game. You could go the Fallout New Vegas route, where he easily beats you and you come to, groggy and in pain, about a day later in the midden pit, washed up on the river bank or down a dark alleyway wrapped in an old blanket covered in your own blood.

      Alternatively, if the GM wants the big bad to know you’re still out there so he can throw comically inept assassins at you then you can start with the player restrained, so there’s no opportunity to attack (though there’s still a fair chance someone could get out of the restraints, so you need to plan for that), or you could just have the big bad care so little about your attacks that he just ignores them, trips you and finishes his monologue before walking out, doing something like setting fire to your family home on the way out so you’re too busy with that to follow him.

      Finally, there’s always the option for the GM to drop out of the game to clarify to the player that his character is well aware that attacking this guy in his current state is almost certain suicide, check they, as a player, are aware of this, and see if they still want to go through with this plan of action. Sometimes players aren’t entirely on the same page and it’s worth checking to make sure of their intent some times.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for telling GMs what NOT to do with villains. I recall one game where I bought an anti-teleport sword specifically because the GM had 2 villains that would teleport into our midst, steal the MacGuffin, and immediately teleport out. “Failing” an adventure to that once was one too many times.

    Also, villains having these elaborate escape routes basically screams GM Privilege in a way that really rankles me, namely because the only reason they can instantly teleport miles away (or make us fight clones that are just as powerful as him) is “because the GM said so”. God knows most GMs would throw an utter FIT if PCs tried to pull the same escape stunts their villains do. And I know the second thing I would do if a villain escaped, after figuring out how to stop him next time, is figure out how to steal that power for myself.

    • I think as long as the special powers the villain possesses actually make SENSE in the game world, they’re fair game. Like, if the villain happens to be a 13th+ level Wizard, it makes sense that he might have the Teleport spell, and would use it (and perhaps even design his lair around it) for easy escapes, while constrained to the spell’s limitations. Or if he happened to have a Ring of Teleportation, of course, I’d let my players attempt to steal it from him. If the enemy happens to be a dragon, well, flying away or attacking by air is obviously a good strategy.

      It’s definitely a balancing act for the DM to provide fair yet crafty ways for enemies to escape or hinder the players. I try to stick to the book as much as possible in that regard, because like you said, it sucks when a villain has an overpowered ability just because “the DM says so”.

  11. In brightest day, in blackest night, no tubalcai–

    …oh, right, we’re not doing that anymore…

    So, I read the part where Angry encouraged the reader to go against his advice anyway, in the spirit of how it can be fun to do something even if it’s unlikely to work (*cough*craps*cough*), and I admire how swiftly that went unheeded.

    I, too, believe that if players are prevented from killing off the Big Bad, then they will feel like they are on the wrong end of a contrived screwjob… but what about spells like Clone and Resurrection?

    If a player character can be Resurrected and that’s okay… it would seem only fair the the Big Bad be afforded the same option.

    If the players kill off the Big Bad, and then the Big Bad provides for his return to life by way of a core rule option such as a Resurrection spell, that seems compatible with the spirit of a recurring villain.

    Once the players have killed off a major villian, is the DM obliged to let the villain stay dead?

    • In my experience, players typically kill the big-baddies in such a way as to deny the option for those kinds of spells. Of course, game designers keep upping the stakes by making those spells more broken, so I, as GM caveat, put limits on things like that.

      On the same token that spells like rope trick, tiny hut, and mansion aren’t allowed (by players and NPCs), I also disallow other game-breaking spells. Wish comes to mind. Some of the divination spells are nerfed, and the question of resurrection hasn’t even come up.

      But to clarify, the divination spells are nerfed because of the setting, which makes them interesting to resolve. How can one commune with their god and get advice if there are no gods? Muwahahaha!

        • “Fair is a word dreamed up by elementary school teachers to keep the little kids from getting hurt on the playground.” – Mr. Raymond, my high school chemistry teacher.

          Here’s my real issue: When a character gains access to 9th level spells, they generally only get to pick one from a list of around 10 (if memory serves.) Taking one or two from that list doesn’t break the game, especially when the ones being removed I consider are OP/game breakers anyway.

    • Resurrection and Clone have their own counters. Burning the body to ash will prevent anything but True Resurrection. Clone needs a spare body in a safe place, which must be magically preserved or it will rot.

      Also, all rezzes are high level magic, so you have to ask who the cleric or wizard is who wants to bring back the villain, and why didn’t the players fight them on their way to the big bad.

      It’s a fair move, I suppose, and I can even imagine it being amusing for the players (Hero: “But I killed you!” Villain: “Since when has that ever stopped an adventurer?”). But after they beat the villain a second time, expect your players to burn the body and start tracking down any 17th-level clerics he had on his payroll.

      • This is fair, provided that the players understand that the bodies of their fallen characters will be burned to ash, too. As a matter of routine.

        I did read the Clone spell. A worthy and Dangerously Genre Savvy villain would be exactly the type to prepare a Clone in advance and provided for a facility to store and preserve the Clone.

        Killing an entire sub-section of high level clerics (and you would almost have to kill off all the wizards who can cast Wish, as well) seems more logistically complex that you’re making it out to be. As DM, I would feel no obligation to make this easy for the PCs. Nor would I feel any obligation to provide them with a tidy and comprehensive roster of every cleric that might be in a position to assist a villain. “Here, kill all of these guys and then no on on the continent can be resurrected. Easy peasy!”

        It couldn’t be a static list. I assume that NPC clerics rise in level over the course of time, similar to how PC clerics do. You kill the Pope? A new Pope replaces him. The PCs would almost have to kill off all the clerics of an entire religious order to make this work.

        If the Players are going to hunt down high level clerics, it would seem fair that all of the villains would return the favor and hunt down and kill any high level cleric that might resurrect the PCs, yeah? Again, like burning PC’s bodies, as a matter of routine. The second Big Bad to discover that he’s on the murderhobo hit list pre-emptively goes after the PC’s support system. Any high level cleric who ever helped the PCs would be marked for death. The implication is that every adventure arc would include a fatwah against an entire section of religious leaders, all for the sake of keeping one guy dead.

        Also, if player-characters started whacking all of the high-level priests of a specific god, that almost demands divine intervention. Additionally, this might not sit well with clerics as a profession.

        “So, you’re the guys who murder priests? Just to be safe, huh? And now you want help from a priest? Buh-BYE.”

        • At this point, it sounds like you’re just trying to come up with reasons to screw over the PCs by ensuring their villains never stay dead, which is honestly more of a screw-job than letting the villain escape every single time because you’ve shown you can (and will) snatch away their victory whenever you feel like it. After the first time they resurrect, the PCs will do everything possible to make sure he STAYS dead. If he resurrects a second time, they bring out the nuclear option:

          “Sorry, if you’re pulling this crap on us, we’re not playing anymore. Bye.”

          On a meta level, why recycle the villain anyway? You can create as many new villains as you want, and they would be more interesting to the players than retreading the same ground over & over. It’s just as easy for some subordinate or old ally of the villain to pick up their sword against the players as it is to resurrect the villain, but at least the former gives players closure.

          • At this point, I’m suggesting that what’s fair for the players (getting dealt back into the game with a Resurrection spell or a Wish) should be fair for some villains. These remedies are resource intensive within the context of the game, and should only be available to the most resourceful of villains. Namely, the Dangerously Genre Savvy Magnificent Bastard.

            (And, I’ll iterate here, that if perma-death is the default for the players, fairness dictates that it should be so for the villains, too.)

            Not every Smug Snake, Starscream or Elite Mook should be offered a dip in the Lazarus Pool. Just those villains for whom it would make narrative sense. And if the players can find the Lazarus Pool first? And break it? Then it sucks to be that Big Bad villain, and kudos to the plucky player characters for their well-earned victory.

            On a meta level, I would only resort to this measure if it added something to the game. If I wasn’t convinced I could bring more to the game table than a series of lame re-tread sequels? I wouldn’t bother.

            Let’s say that I put a lich into play as the Big Bad? There will come a point when the PCs are in the same room with her. And when that happens, she is probably going down. Her phylactery on the other hand? Will not be found in her other hand. The players will need be at their most Dangerously Genre Savvy to find it. And they will likely have to ‘kill’ that lich a number of times. Because I’m not going to place the phylactery in her fanny pack.

            By the way, if the threat of a mass rage-quit works on your GM? Then your GM sucks total ass and your game will suffer accordingly. You will enjoy the game a lot more if your GM doesn’t suck total ass.

      • I’ve always thought that it’s more interesting to play up the scarcity of diamonds rather than worry about the number of high level clerics at large. If not exactly interesting, at least points the players toward trying to control the diamond supply instead of plotting clergicide.

      • Don’t burn the body – raise them from the dead as a zombie and keep them somewhere safe. Even true resurrection can’t raise an undead creature (though it can once the creature has been destroyed, hence why you need to take care of your new zombie pet).

  12. Awesome article Angry. You know, I’ve been running a campaign for a couple years and it’s going to end in the next few sessions, and in all this time I have never once let them see or meet the villain. He’s always one step ahead of them and has his own quest, and so the results of his actions create the adventure the PCs have been on. I’ve always felt bad about this, even now, when it’s about to end. When they finally see the villain he will be trashing a local cathedral in order to use the teleportation circle carved into into floor of the building, and he will teleport himself to the final area of the campaign – a sunken and magically preserved giant city – as soon as they see him. Now. After reading this, I feel better about my choices. As always, your wisdom is appreciated!

  13. Reading this article and the commentaries made me realise something:
    I’ve done a few adventures where the players HAD to fail or couldn’t win because the odds were too much stacked against them. I did that because I thought that it would be cool for them to watch their enemy in the eye, get stomped and come stronger for some reasons. Well that was crap: I was just me fooling myself and bullying my players.
    These adventures are bad. My attempts, with everything playing as planned and also the few times I’ve played these situations as a PC have never felt good in the end: the players all feel frustrated because it’s unfair and because it removes the all important agency from them. I understand that a few genius GM can make these situations real cool and/or make their player love getting their asses kicked, maybe they have a special SM player group. But mostly it’s probably a bad idea to make scenes like that.
    In many articles, Angry stressed the point of allowing the players to fail. I think that the most important thing I’ll remember about this article is that they also need a possibility to win, which brings me back to the point:
    I won’t make recurring villains.

    Which won’t stop me from making recurring enemies, I’m pretty good at making them leave the battlefield alive when they start to feel threatened (after a couple rounds usually).

    Thanks Angry.

    • Yeah, I think I’ve been in a couple of adventures of that sort that worked (been gaming for 25 years), but MANY more where it didn’t. It requires a lot of trust between the players and GM.

      I have GM friends where my reaction would be “Ok, I’ll see where this goes, this isn’t his normal style” and I have friends, GOOD friends, mind, who would not get that benefit of the doubt.

      • Well, I think it also should be said that the characters are adventurers, able to measure their own skill against an opponents. (Angry on providing players with target numbers)

        Now, level obviously is beyond that scope, but there are some flavor hints that you can use to great effect, especially when the players know something about the way the BBEG is.

        For example, every player knows ‘the bigger the dragon, the tougher it is’ but maybe your big bad has character classes. Well, a fighter would be pretty effective at sizing up any martial opponent. A monk would presumably be effective at discerning another monks abilities. Or a rogue may notice how a monk moves with precision, a wizard may notice a spellbook far more advanced than anything he has ever seen. And so on and so forth.

        Hell, even with non-human opponents too. Ranger vs beasts, cleric/paladins vs daemons, Anyone vs the tarrasque.

        Now, I will not defend intentional screw jobs, fuck those things. But maybe within a CR of +1 or 2 of the parties? Could be great fun. Maybe. If done absolutely correctly. Which is unlikely. If you are just gonna fuck the party over, then put em against the tarrasque and be done with it.

  14. So someone mentioned Clone and resurrection and similar, but what about demons/devils.
    In a lot of systems, killing a demon/devil on the mortal plane just banishes them. If one were to take a particular liking to the pcs, couldn’t they feasibly return again and again while also dying in every encounter (or many encounters)? Particularly a devil that is working its way up the devil chain. (Maybe his deaths have been ordered by someone higher up the command in order to position the pcs where they think they want them).

  15. I wonder if I went overboard writing my villain NPCs. That is, in quantity, not backstory. In the hopes of culminating in a 20th level showdown with a group of PC-class foes, I ended up with a sprawling organizational chart to make sure anyone who got taken out early would be appropriately replaced.

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