Scum and Villainy

Posted on December 27, 2012 by


Sorry, but the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition has to come later. I haven’t had much time to explore the new content in the game, and, to be honest, I forgot how tedious a lot of the quests in the first Baldur’s Gate were.

I am honored this week to introduce the art-work of Sean P Corwin to our blog. Sean is a good friend of mine as well as a fantastic artist. Please welcome him to Dungeon Remastered; we hope to see more of his art gracing our pages, and giving us some credibility.

So let’s talk villains!

Nothing makes a campaign shine like a compelling villain. In order for the party to triumph they need an antagonist to drive them. The big bad guy at the end of the game, or the minor ones throughout, are what keep your party striving more than anything else.

Well all want to be original, and create original, exciting villains. The idea of using tropes may seem offensive, but tropes exist for a reason. They can be used a template, they can be inverted and dissected, and they can be compelling as is, so long as the DM has dedicated himself to the role. Here are five tropes for the new, and experience DM, to use:

1. The Big Bad


This is the archetypal villain. He (or she) probably shows up early on in the campaign, if not in person than at least in name. This villain represents everything the party hates and fights against. In Miranda, this character was the God Bane, lord of conquerors and tyrants. He was diametrically opposed to the group, which stood for freedom, personality responsibility, and community. In my undead game, it was Orcus. In Tyler’s Feywild game, he was Thrumbolg, the Formorian king.

Gods, Kings, Evil wizards, all work well in this role. And, while this may be criminal to say, the Big Bad doesn’t always need to be a full character. The BB can be more of an allegory for what the party is fighting than an actual character in itself. This doesn’t necessarily make it less compelling of a figure to fight against, and it doesn’t mean the character has to show up that much in the game itself. Still, it’s hard to get as emotionally enraptured with this villain, especially if they are more of a vague threat.

2. The Mysterious Evil


This is the sinister threat which the party seeks to uncover. In my first fourth ed game with this group, the party hunted an evil cult, while all the while their leader remained anonymous, as did the strange creatures commanding them from beyond the stars. It turned out to be one of the character’s own mother, seeking to summon the Foulspawn.

This trope can work well, especially in a shorter game. In a longer game, the mystery becomes less interesting, and more annoying. Too many red-herrings can be incredibly tedious. With this particular villain being so vague and mysterious, the consequences of its actions must be obvious. For instance, the cult being commanded by the mother slaughtered an entire village in the first game, hung their skinned bodies from the ceiling of a temple, and resurrected their skins as undead monstrosities. With too much mystery, and not enough clear consequence, this trope falls flat. Done right, it can be an intriguing and exciting opponent.

3. The Sympathetic Villain


Arguably the most compelling of the villain tropes, the sympathetic villain is difficult to portray well, but satisfying if done so. The Sympathetic Villain is forgivable, to a point. His views may coincide with the party’s, but his actions set him at odds with them, like a zealous witch hunter. Or, her plight and pain is understandable and pitiable, but she has been transformed by it, seeking vengeance over all else. There’s more grey area available here with than with the others, and this villain can give the party a more conflicting battle, and a more bittersweet victory.  Adam brought us a fantastic Sympathetic Villain in his first Zombie game, with a character seeking revenge against a man who murdered his son. As much as we sympathized with him, his plan would have seen many killed, something many of us refused to aid in.

4. The Betrayer


This was the party’s ally for the story, only to stab them in the back at the end of it. It’s possible that it was even a member of the party itself, though that has its own dangers and pitfalls to execute well. The betrayer may have been working against the party the entire time, or perhaps was converted by evil somewhere along the line. Either way, the shock of betrayal  can be painful, and inspire the group to strike back against The Betrayer. This villain is a complex enough puzzle that Kyle has dedicated a post to it.

5. The Animal


The Tarrasque. The creature from The Host. The Crystalline Entity from Star Trek: The Next Generation. King Kong, most famously. These creatures lack villainous motivation, but instead are simply acting on their animalistic urges, to the detriment of others. Perhaps the creature draws sympathy because it is simply trying to survive, with no cruel intent. Yet, if it survives, many, or all, will die because of it. It needs to be put down. This villain is an easy source for inter-party conflict, as some players may wish to just kill the creature, while others look for a different way. Also, probably not the best for a long term campaign, thoughit would work well as a weapon for a different type of villain.

So those are just five basic tropes with which to start a template. Any of them can be compelling, with the right tools. After running numerous campaigns, including the epic Miranda campaign, I have learned a few tips on villains:

1. Don’t be afraid to have a truly evil villain!

This doesn’t work all the time, as they quickly become two-dimensional, but having a purely evil villain who revels in it can be a lot of fun. I was surprised by my group’s love of Ixion, the insane Rakshasa crime lord of Sigil I came up with. He was intended as a minor NPC to give them a quest, but he was popular enough, and incredibly fun enough to play, that he came up again for another game, this time serving a catalyst for a major turning point for the crew.

Think how likeable Moriarty is from the new Sherlock series, or how Heath Ledger stole the entire Batman movie franchise with his Joker. Insane, evil, diabolical can all be fun to play! And if you’re having fun, you’re doing something right.

2. Don’t be afraid to have morally “good” characters the villain, even in a “good” campaign.

On the flip side of point number one, your villains don’t all have to be clearly evil. Look at the Sympathetic Villain: There’s a reason the party needs to stop her, but that doesn’t mean she’s evil. In the real world, all people are capable of doing good (besides the Westboro Baptist Church), so let that effect your game. A layered, complex villain is an interesting one, and makes for a layered, complex campaign. Hero is a good example; the conquering warlord and our protagonist end up wanting the same thing: Peace for China.

3. Don’t be afraid to switch up the villain of the story.

This is especially true with longer campaigns. The character that starts the game as a villain may end up as an ally when faced with a greater evil, or may have a change of heart. Many popular comic-book characters began as the villain, and their transformation made for compelling story-telling. Crais from Farscape, Rogue from the X-Men, and Spike from Buffy are all examples of this.

4. Try to introduce the villain as early as possible

If there is one major villain, introducing them in the first few games, especially the first one, builds the relationship with the players, and it’s all about relationships. When I had the party fight Bane at the end of the Miranda campaign, it was the first time they had met him. It worked all right, as they had fought his army and avatars, and he was more of an allegory than anything else, but it was less compelling than it would have been if they had faced him repeatedly before, and gotten to know him.

Think Star Wars: Darth Vader is one of the first people we see onscreen, and that follows us through the entire series.

5. The villain doesn’t have to be one person (but it’s usually good).

There can be multiple villains in a story. The villain can be a race, an organization, a zombie plague. However, even in a zombie outbreak, there’s usually a face to the final villain.

Think of Christopher Eccleston in 28 Days Later, and how much more interesting he is as a villain than the rage-infected.

6: It doesn’t have to be original.

I know, it’s criminal to say, but really: You don’t need to go crazy trying to come up with a completely original villain. The tropes are used for a reason. Any trope, no matter how cliche, can be compelling when you are honest. You are unique, as is the story you are telling, and the group you are with, no matter how “unoriginal”.

All art copyright of Sean P. Corwin

Posted in: Game Talk