There is a real art to creating a memorable villain. They are the antagonist to the player character’s protagonist, so it only makes sense they should be blessed with at least as much depth and creativity as a player character. They are the focal point of an adventure, not just an XP and loot bag. Give them the love they need and make your bad guys memorable.
No One Thinks They are the Bad Guy
One key feature I see missing from a great many adventures is the motivations for the main villain, other than ‘because they are evil’. With very limited exceptions, people don’t just ‘be evil’ without either rational or irrational reasons. Even if you take mental illness into account, being mentally ill just means you see the world in an A-typical way, it doesn’t make you a villain.
Villains are most often made when they are motivated towards what they see as a worthwhile goal, yet their views are not in keeping with social norms. For example, if you want to protect your royal child you might want to ensure your borders are secure, which might require a little casual genocide and a campaign of fear. Not the usual method but potentially effective none the less.
Know why your villain is seeking the goals he seeks and you’ll not only give them a lot more depth, you’ll arm yourself with a powerful tool. When PCs act in a way that potentially enhances the villain’s agenda they then change the whole dynamic. For example, if a villain is taking vengeance for the death of a loved one, they might simply give up if the players happen to bring the killers to a suitable justice.
Knowing what the core motivations of your villains are also makes it exceptionally easy to ad-lib when players take a game off path. While your carefully planned plot might be going out the window, you can adapt your villain on the fly by simply remembering their primary motivators and planning towards those ends. It’s difficult to know how a villain will react to something like kindness if their only backstory is “He/She’s evil”. This opens your stories up to more deeply emotional resolutions which often favour the oft undervalued social characters.
Personality and Distinctive Features
A villain should be memorable. Remember the five basic senses of sight, sound, olfactory, touch, and taste. Sight is the most often used, which makes the use of the other senses that much more interesting and remarkable when used to portray a villain. An affectation in speech, an odd odour, anything which makes the individual stand out from the generic thugs.
You want to create a memory for players to hold onto, so even if you are using a generic pre-written adventure, it’s worth taking a little time to add about three things which can make the character more memorable. They do not need to be obvious things like an eyepatch or a lisp, simpler things like a brand of cigarettes or a slight regional accent work well. You want to provide things players can relate to and hold onto. If you’ve done it well, players will use those cues when they talk about their encounters later. For example, “Remember that guy we encountered who smelled of garlic and always smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes?” It sounds a lot better than a story starting with, “Remember that bad guy from the ‘Pizza Caper’” adventure?”
Keep things relatable and you’ll also make them memorable. Depending on the style of world setting, you might want to be more or less flamboyant. For example, a Pulp Fiction villain might wear a suit and top hat at all times. A low key Cyberpunk information merchant isn’t likely to stand out in a crowd, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can note about him, such as a unique pair of shoes he wears or his tendency to not look directly at people.
Play to their Intellect
If you are an intelligent necromancer bent on taking over the world, then unless you have some form of serious mental issues, you’re going to think about what you might do if someone tries to disagree with your scheme. This can be as massive and overt as sending out death squads at night to patrol the streets and keep the people afraid of your power. They might instead have a few subtle plans like an escape spell or a secret escape hatch.
If you have randomly generated their treasure, anything magical that they can use, will be used by the villain, meaning it might even be out of charges by the time the PCs corner the villain.
Terrain should play a factor even with sub-species within their home lair. They should understand how a volcano functions if they live under one, or how powerful the ability to breathe under water is when fighting normal humans. It is only logical that every tactical advantage be used by the foe. If no advantage exists, the villain should create a few.
Everybody has Friends/Contacts
In the words of Bob Ross, “Everyone should have a friend”. Unless your villain is some form of Hikikomori then they will know people. From the people they purchased their nefarious supplies from through to natural childhood friends. Every person exists within a network, and like a spider’s web, if you pluck one strand of that network the reverberations will be felt elsewhere.
When your villain has his back to the wall, who does he turn to? What names are in his contact list? Most important of all, who will investigate if the villain goes missing? While this is primarily a post game issue, the impacts should be felt in game as well. For example, if the necromancer gets meat from a butcher to practice her magic, that exchange should be evident in her lair somewhere. If your villain is an evil fighter, is there a place he trains and does his skill command respect?
This might seem like a small issue, but drawn out to logical conclusions it can go a long way to helping define your villain and make them a part of the world, not just a common encounter. Imagine the party up on murder charges when the family of the villain press charges for the murder of their loved one. If used correctly, the players should realise that being an adventurer is more than stats, it’s also about people.
Make the Villain Fun to Play
As the Games Master, your characters are the NPCs, the only difference between a primary antagonist and a primary protagonist is that the antagonist will likely die, so it doesn’t pay to get too attached to them. Providing you understand this difference, there is no reason you shouldn’t heap as much love on your villain as anyone should on their character.
One question you should ask when making any character is, ‘will this character be fun to play?’ The same question should be asked of your villains, because if they are not fun, why make them? If you make a character you can enjoy playing, you’ll start to think more from that character’s point of view, and that’s the secret to making really memorable NPCs.
The big trap you have to avoid though it the simple recognition that no matter how attached you might be to your NPC, you cannot change the rules to keep them alive unless it’s for genuine story purposes. It can be easy for a GM, especially a less experienced one, to abuse the power they have. Love your villains, but keep it fair.
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