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So You Want to Play an RPG?: Recurring Villains

March 4, 2014

It’s been almost three months since I updated this section of the blog, and there will be explanations eventually, maybe, if I get around to them. In the mean time, I’ve been thinking about the concept of recurring villains and teasing in larger arcs into more episodic games (and episodic moments into games with larger arcs).

Many times in this series, I’ve talked about the importance of people over places and events. Adventures and settings should be driven by the characters that inhabit them. There’s no sense in having a villain in an adventure that is just doing evil for the sake of evil, this is what makes monsters and out-of-the-box interpretations of “monster races” like Orcs and Goblins so boring. On top of that, if you’re planning to use a villain more than once, having them cackle like Skeletor and act like a Captain Planet villain will be more annoying and perplexing than endearing or intriguing.

The best villains are ones that while we might not be able to sympathize with (since they’re often evil) we can respect and understand. Of course, I’ve touched upon how to write good villains as part of writing good NPCs and good adventures before. The real question here is how do you make a villain who’s able to survive in a game where combat can often be inevitable.

There’s three ways to really go about this and they all possess their own challenges.

The first and perhaps most cartoonish is the villainous bolt hole. This is when the villain always has a secret escape hatch, or when the heroes reach his lair they spin his chair around and find it empty because he’s already gone. This is actually the hardest method to pull off successfully because ultimately the frustration it can cause in the players will make them doggedly determined to not let it happen again. While it may allow for dramatic escapes, it more often than not will feel like you’re just bending the rules to let your favorite character get away, essentially robbing the players of a victory because you said so. I wouldn’t suggest it outside of certain genres. In games inspired by comics and cartoons, it can be a nice fit but still wear thin.

The next method is similar but driven by different circumstances, and it’s when the villain is so above the party that he can fight them to a standstill single handedly or simply has methods of escape that they couldn’t hope to replicate. He doesn’t have a physical bolt hole because he can cast a spell that shifts him to another dimension. Or perhaps, his body can be destroyed but his soul still lives on ala Voldemort or a Lich in Dungeons and Dragons. This method is great for driving home the threat and power of the main villain because it inherently drives up the stakes. Like the bolt hole though it can get annoying unless you provide a frame work to help the party find a way to actually defeat the villain or trap their soul.

At its most basic level, where the villain is just overpowering because they’re a higher level or built on more points or whatever, it’s clear that this is a villain the players are supposed to ‘grow into.’ Of course, being swatted away like flies is insulting and it also raises the important question: If this guy is so powerful why does he still run his own errands?

Which is what brings me to the last method which is that a recurring villain not actually get much “screen time” as it were, instead letting their presence be felt through minions and influence. This is perfect for evil rulers, mob bosses, or really any character who spends their time insulated from the day-to-day villainy. Evil wizards who are researching new spells in their hidden tower on another plane, shouldn’t pop into a dungeon to go pick up the skull of an evil witch, they have interns and mercenaries to do that for them. Dark Gods don’t just materialize before their challengers, they have cultists and monsters that pledge allegiance to them. The players still want to take them down, and still need to build toward it like in the above method but they have more attainable goals in the mean time. They have the chance to construct plans, implement them, and the villain has chances to respond.

More importantly, an insulated villain who has more presence than screen time, also allows you to create minions that can use the other more annoying methods. Their lieutenant might be the type of person who uses bolt holes once or twice, but just before he gets annoying, the players can finally triumph.

Per usual, this brings me to what is always the main thrust of these articles, which is to synthesize these frameworks into something more complex. As I said above, good recurring villains have motivations and personalities that we can understand if not relate to. Villains should always start out by flitting about at the edges of the players ‘vision’, they’re inherently above the scope of things at the start of the story, but as the player’s goals become more broad or complex, they start encountering the villain more and more.

Maybe their first encounter ends in failure, and maybe another time the villain gets away using a bolt hole that infuriates the players to no end. All of this sets up a grand finale that ties everything together and provides a satisfying narrative conclusion.

The prime example of all this is Darth Vader. For the majority of the first Star Wars film, Darth Vader is more of a presence than an actual villain. He appears when it’s dramatically appropriate and does terrifying things. At the end though, a little bit of complexity is revealed when he realizes that Luke can use the Force. Sure, he is ‘defeated’ in a bit of a throwaway for a villain but at that point in the series he’s more of the face of the Death Star than he is a full villain anyway.

In the second film he strikes back, and more of his interests are revealed. He’s still above all the other characters, able to take over entire cities while expertly disarming Han Solo. His main goal though is investigating Luke and his burgeoning connection to the Force because evil in the Star Wars universe isn’t about doing evil, it’s about temptation. The Empire doesn’t destroy, it conquers and it tempts. All of this builds to Vader and Luke’s first real fight, where Vader completely trounces him.

In the last movie, while Vader becomes a more tangible obstacle for Luke to overcome, the Emperor’s presence is felt more and more. He finally reveals himself as the real villain who cackles and does evil, while Vader is humanized more and we begin to fully understand all of his motivations. All of this comes to a great ending, that while hard to pull off in a roleplaying game, still showcases how to make the most of your villains.

Xykon and Redcloak from the Order of the Stick provide another interesting interpretation of the evil commander/evil executive officer trope, while also standing as a great more RPG oriented example of recurring villains.

The ultimate key to good recurring villains boils down to believability. First, they have to be believable and interesting characters, and then the way that they actually survive their encounters with the party should be equally believable. Bolt holes are frustrating because they leave narrative threads hanging, but an insulated villain can sometimes feel untouchable. Recurring villains are about the slow build believable interactions and clever escapes.


From → Opinions

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