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$%&ing monster. But because they only serve a limited role in the story – sell me a latte, have my fist rammed down their throat – that’s all it will ever be: an assumption. And we’ve talked about that before. Right? I talked about how the more “screen time” an NPC has, the more details they need in order to seem real. It’s just like in real life. If I keep coming back to Starbucks and seeing the same barista, I’ll probably get to know more about her as a person. I’ll recognize her moods. Some days, she’s happy. Others, she’s not. And even though she is always driven by working for a paycheck when I see her, there are going to be more dimensions to that story. She loves coffee, that’s why she chose this job. She’s putting herself through school, that’s why she needs a job. She’s studying medicine so that she can become a surgeon. She only works during the school year because she lives out of state and is only here for school.
My point is that there is nothing wrong with one-dimensional NPCs in a story. Dimensions are for main characters and the supporting cast. But when an NPC starts showing up more and more often, the NPC will start to develop moods and variations that you, as a GM, can bring across. And, honestly, you don’t even need that much detail for most recurring characters. You could get away with just rolling a random “mood” every time you have to play the NPC. Hell, you could probably invent a table and system for NPC moods. That might be fun. I should do that.
Now, here’s where things get complicated. Because that whole system above where NPCs become more detailed as they have more screen time? That thing gets totally f$&%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.
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$&%ing Backstory.
The other danger of writing a backstory is that you run the risk of creating a sympathetic villain. A sympathetic villain is a villain who, despite doing evil things, is somehow justified in his actions. Or thinks he is. The sympathetic villain is the end result of the bulls$&% 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.
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.