Cracking Open the Skull of Evil (11-2011 Blog Carnival)

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by Elthos RPG on the topic of “How to Think Like a Villain.” It is a daunting topic to be sure, but one with which every GM has to deal on a fairly regular basis, even if the primary sources for their games is printed adventures and setting material.

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Although I am neck-deep in fantasy games right now, I do not tend to run them as a general rule, so this post will deal primarily with villains of a different stripe – particularly those found in horror RPGs such as Call of Cthulhu, and in Heroic Pulp games such as Hollow Earth Expedition or Adventure!, but the odd Fantasy villain may steal the spotlight from time to time.

What’s my motivation?

It is no easier to be a villain than it is to be a hero, and it tends to come with fewer perks, so without significant motivation, and at least the perception of a worthwhile payoff at the end, most villains will be armchair villains spouting off about what “they would have done if…” for the rest of their miserable lives.

Your typical hero is often touched with the brush of altruism, and responds to pithy phrases referencing the greater good. Motivation for them can even be reduced down to the simple idea that they are the hero. It can be enough. Villains on the other hand are selfish by nature and act in order to receive a direct benefit for those actions. It is much harder to find examples of villains who are villainous for the sheer sake of villainy, and when they do, they are often insane – or considered to be so. After enough time as a GM, however, the idea of using a typical anything gets to be a tough sell. Anti-heroes, respectable villains, grey morality… these solve the problem for a while, but eventually those fall by the wayside as well; used up and boring.

Desperate, we return to basics and discover that tip number one carries more weight than at first we thought… motivation. What is forcing this person to do what they are doing? That, when fleshed out and kept fresh, can always hold an edge of interest (unless in your advancing years you start to repeat yourself).

To build a motivation it is easier in my experience to look not at what an imaginary person of ill-intent might want to do, but rather to look at what in your game world can be done. Is there a juicy collection of supposed Atlantean Artifacts which can be robbed and held for ransom? Does the mayor have a scandalous affair simmering in the background of an otherwise impeccable campaign which can be used as leverage? Can the relations between two neighboring nations be strained to the point of breaking? Is there a doctor of no small skill whose access to patients is perfect for collecting the Gibbering Man’s toll of 50 pickled livers? Starting with what is out there in your setting to be used, abused, taken advantage of, robbed, coerced, or otherwise corrupted can lead you more naturally and quickly to dreaming up the sort of person who might see that as a worthwhile activity, and whose motivation will spring to mind even more easily as a result. In my experience, coming at this from the other direction leads to too many direct ties with the PCs and the current plots and can lead to problems like “monster of the week” or the “case of the recurring plot point.” Eventually, even the most prolific hero has to wonder what makes all these villains cross his path, and if the villains themselves have “that second dot in intelligence” which qualifies them as ‘average’ then you know that they themselves are wondering what in blue blazes was wrong with all those other villains who got themselves caught by the hero because they just could not leave him alone. Smart villains don’t get caught; they feed dumb villains to the heroes and retire like Kings in Patagonia.

Villains need a motivation which keeps them in motion and focused on a goal to the point where the interference of opposition is seen as a hurdle, not the reason to move to the ‘burbs to content yourself with reruns of Sons of Anarchy. The best of these motivations will have the forces of good run afoul of the forces of evil through the normal course of activity. Grudge matches and recurring villains can take care of themselves – revenge being one of the primary motivators for just about any activity from binge-eating to college football. Good motivations will allow the villain to focus on their villainy, and allow the hero to stumble across said villainy and choose on their own whether or not to get involved. If that choice is made, you know that you have a good villain, if it isn’t – move on.

As an example: Alcome the Summoner

In my Palladium Fantasy PBeM, Long Winter Shadows, the hero of the story was tempted to forego both his current employment and his great quest in order to track down a Summoner possessed of a fearsome reputation and a reportedly loathsome character.

The PC, Marlin Tyrell, high from triumphing over a band of curiously competent and cruel kobolds, had just reached Luna Beach with a band of refugees and survivors, and was feeling on top of the world. Within hours of his arrival he had changed all of his plans and was heading out into the wilderness intent on duking it out with Alcome, who had done nothing to the Marlin directly. Nonetheless, Marlin is busily risking everything to chase him down.

Prior to this, Marlin had really done nothing which could be characterized as being anything other than self-interest. His primary motivations were loot and finding methods to fan the blazing bonfires of his ego. All of that changed when Alcome, just by going about his own business without even a glimmer of concern about our hero, outwitted him and in so doing slapped that massive ego right on the nose as a form of collateral damage..

The villain was revealed as a villain by a wanted poster. Seeing that poster made the player and therefore the character realize all in a flash that a person he had taken as simple background coloration and detail among the refugees was actually the person responsible for the surprising competence and cruelty of the kobolds, and not only that was actually something of a local legend in infamy circles… and he Marlin Tyrell had escorted him from the wreckage of the kobold lair, through the dangers of the wilderness, fed, armed, and clothed him, and then set him free to work his evil magics once more.

It was more than he could bear.

As the GM, I was quite glad of this, and seeing how fired up the player was to sink his hooks into this blackguard, it gave me great pleasure to ramp up the stakes by having Alcome continue his own agenda, but reveal to Marlin during his investigations into the Summoner’s whereabouts that he and the villain shared a last name… a last name most famously owned by Marlin’s father, a known traitor. Marlin had until that moment, believed he was the only one of his line, but now…?

And why hadn’t Alcome, who certainly knew Marlin’s name, said anything?!

Motivations. Good ones let the villains focus on their villainy, and drive the hero to distraction.

They are evil, AND they are misunderstood

I find that a little mystery goes a long way, and getting to the bottom of a problem can be a good device to retain player interest in a villain, but it is important to ensure that that interest doesn’t blossom into either sympathy or justification for the villain’s actions. If you are going to go through all of the effort of creating a villain and plotting out his requisite villainy, you are doing yourself no favors by dabbing him with moral grey until he is just one of a million cookie-cutter mass-murders whose culture we are trying to embrace and feel empathy for. Yawn. If the villain is not a villain… you are.

However! That is not to say that your villain cannot confuse and confound the characters until they have no idea what to do. That rocks.

As an Example: Oberleutnant Braun

In my A Time of War RPG the PC mechwarriors have just now reached the point of interacting with actual villains and are busily trying to sort out what to make of them. They have tussled with a femme-fatale killer-for-hire, Ms. Goetz, ostensibly willing to gas hundreds of college students in order to kill one man. They have scary stories of the enemy commander whose reputation is vile and whose actions reveal him to be a merciless and rapacious opponent. They have first-hand experience of the trickery and lack of concern for life of Aaron Schmidt, a Lyran mechwarrior whose attempt to lure them into an ambush resulted in numerous civilian casualties and whose utter contempt for the sanctity of human life caused him to spark off a battle in the middle of a commercial and residential district using green pilots in terrible conditions. In contrast, they also have first-hand experience with Oberleutnant Braun, whose rigidly honorable dealings with them, even to his own apparent detriment have them nervous and looking for the other shoe to carpet bomb them.

Are they all enemies? The hot Ms Goetz, the soulless Baronette Axthelm, the glory-seeking Leutnant Schmidt, and the honorable Oberleutnant Bruan? Are they just doing their duties? Are they from a culture where gassing college kids, and firing salvoes of missiles into morning traffic are commonplace and required to survive, so therefore we should accept the cultural difference and try to get along?

Questions. Good villains will come with as many unanswered questions as cruel acts that they have performed. The pursuit of the answers will both prepare your heroes to face the opposition, and help them figure out how to proactively trap them without you having to resort to “and then the villain makes a mistake which enables the PCs to cotton onto his plan.”

You are not what you or people say you are, you are what you do

In games like Call of Cthulhu, regular people do atrocious things in the name of things no sane person can pronounce. Often in trying to present a believable villain and root their villainy in something equally believable GMs will try to simply invert the meanings of Good and Evil. That works for some cases, but really in the grand scheme of things is not a sustainable formula for ongoing villain production. People do things for many, many reasons, and “because it’s the right thing to do” is just one of them. What it is important to note however, is that just because the villain does not cite evil as a direct motivator, if what they are actually doing is evil, or has evil side-effects, it still counts. The villain does not have to be insane, the villain does not have to be the victim of a compulsion or lack balance in their brain chemistry. The villain only needs to make a value judgment about an action or course of actions which place them at odds with the hero of the story. The villain does not even need to justify these actions. In fact, the villain should not have to justify them unless you want to use up more of your supply of satin finish moral grey. The villain is working hard to reach a goal. Each step on the path to that goal is dictated by the goal itself, and with each step, our villain’s perspective on what they are doing evolves, and can be as confusing and buried in layers of emotion and reaction as what we experience in our daily lives. This does not free them of the villain label, it just makes them the last person able to comment intelligently on why they are holding a bowl of frog’s blood in a circle of tattooed virgins out in the bayou screaming in a language first developed by cannibals bred to wax the wings of alien visitors to our planet in the hoary frosts of pre-history.

Actions. Actions define our characters and their opponents. Interestingly, if your heroes grow adept at cracking open the skull of evil, and stare long enough into the abyss of villainy contained within, you may note that aspects of that villainy come to claim them. Eventually, your crops of villains might be gunning for your group of heroes with a badge on their chest and a hymn in their hearts… and won’t turnabout make play soar miles over merely fair?

Enemies are where you find them

Ultimately, no matter how much preparation you put into a villain’s schtick, plot, and objective, if the players do not care to stir themselves into action seeking his capture… he is not the villain of your story. In the end, the players choose who their characters grow to loathe and oppose, and it is by being sensitive to what sorts of villains they love to hate, that you can get your best ideas to answer who the villains are, what they are doing, when they will strike, where they will strike, why they will strike, and how they will strike. Your descriptions of the game world do not contain it, they allude to it, it is the players and their actions which really give it form, substance, a past, and a future. Keeping track of repercussions, consequences, curses, blessings, and all reactions in between is the surest way to have villains rooted in the reality of your game world, with an agenda that will matter to the players and their characters, and that leads to very memorable gaming.

4 Responses to “Cracking Open the Skull of Evil (11-2011 Blog Carnival)”
  1. vbwyrde says:

    “Smart villains don’t get caught; they feed dumb villains to the heroes and retire like Kings in Patagonia.”

    Brilliant. Thanks for a great post! Very thoughtful and entertaining with plenty of meat on the bone. Love it. 🙂

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] always an interesting experiment. This month’s blog carnival asks that very question, and Runeslinger at Casting Shadows has a long, detailed response that really boils down to what the players think of your villainous NPC. Design for them and […]

  2. […] like a villain’ with a focus on traps and tricks. My first entry this month was focused on the villains. This one is focused on the traps, and covers my pentacle of trapping; the five principles on which […]

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