Villains are some of the most integral parts to making a good story and a good game. As my colleagues so eloquently put in their posts during last weeks event (which you should check out if you didn’t get a chance to!), they are quite often responsible for some of the best and most memorable moments in a story. But how do we make a good villain? How do we ensure our players will remember them well past their time? I have a list of six tips or steps you can take to help you make your villain memorable. You can use all of them or only a couple that’ll help where you’re struggling. This is the process I use when I’m making villains for my games, be they the ‘big bad’ of the campaign or a minor villain that’ll only appears in a single scene.
First things first, when writing a memorable villain you gotta know your setting. As hilarious as it would be to see Sephiroth show up in an episode of SpongeBob or the Joker to show up in Kingdom Hearts, it really wouldn’t fit or make much sense. A well crafted villain fits perfectly into the world around them and is integral to the themes, unique qualities and concepts of that setting. If you’re making a villain for your homebrew campaign you need to be fully cognizant of what your world is and the kind of conflict that would make sense. If you’re making a villain for a module then you need to make sure they fit entirely into the context of the module. Let’s say you’re running Storm King’s Thunder and want to spice up a town on the road that has no entry in the module. You create a villain in one of those towns that is fanatically trying to win the favor of one of the groups of giants, convinced that if he wins their approval they can turn him into one of their kind. This can take the form of people disappearing at night as he kidnaps and ritually sacrifices them to the Giant God of Strength. And again, this villain wouldn’t make a ton of sense in a different setting like Out of the Abyss or Dragon Heist, so remember setting is super important! Make sure to remember that tone is part of the setting!
Second up is figuring out the type of villain you want to make. You want to know how they function in the context of both the world and the narrative and you also want to know how big of a fish this villain is. In other words, what kind of challenge do they present the party, how serious of a challenge is it, and how is this challenge represented? Are they a physical challenge, constantly battling the party and throwing kinks in their plans? Perhaps they’re more of a philosophical opponent that challenges a belief of the players on a fundamental level. The party wants to do good in the world but they keep offering them easy solutions to their problems that are evil and harm a lot of innocent people. There is no correct answer for this, you simply have to understand what YOU want to get out of this villain, how you want them to challenge the party. If you can’t figure out what kind of challenge you want them to be, players tend to remember confrontations so having them be a physical threat with a cool battle can be a safe bet.
Third thing is getting yourself into the right headspace. You’ve got a good idea of what you want the villain to be like, now you gotta get your head in the creative zone. Find some villainous music that gets you into the right place of mind. Pull some art up on a separate tab or monitor that helps you envision both the type of character you’re trying to make as well as the setting you’re making your villain for and really soak in the ambience. Your brain will kick into overdrive with inspiration and you’ll find your creative juices flowing much better. If you wanna make a badass swordsman that’s trying to destroy the planet that wields a massive katana, maybe listening to a certain track involving an angel with a singular wing would be perfect. If you’re making a medieval warlord then maybe some tracks from Shadow of War or Lord of the Rings will fit perfectly. This step may seem silly and may be entirely unnecessary for some of you that have no problem getting perfectly into the right headspace, but I highly recommend you give it an earnest attempt and see how much of a difference it makes. If you don’t end up needing it you can always skip this step in future creations, but this step helps me with so much more than just making villains. I use it whenever I’m creating content and when I’m prepping my sessions, it’s great for getting past a string of writers block.
Fourth up, we need to give them a compelling reason to be at odds with the party and for the party to want to fight them. They need a clear motivation and this needs to put them at odds with the party in an authentic and believable way. If it feels like they’re only fighting the party because YOU want them to, then they’re not gonna care about this villain because they’ll feel just like any other random encounter. This isn’t to say that they are specifically targeting the players, many villains will be enemies of the party strictly due to circumstance. The best way to make the party want to fight them is to either make them extremely hate-able or have them intentionally screw over the party with their actions. Having them appear as allies before betraying them twists the knife even deeper and your players will be gunning hard to bring them down.
As an example let’s say your villain is trying to gain as much power as they can so they can destroy a group of people that wronged him when he was young and killed his family. They’re also trying to go for the same artifact your party is going for. You can even have the party interact with him and learn about his past, making them sympathetic to his plight. He will even help out with a few fights along the way, further imbedding him with the party. However when they arrive at the dungeon the artifact is stored in, he’ll sabotage the efforts of the party in an attempt to get to the artifact first, getting past a trap he’s figured out. He’ll then activate it in hopes of it killing them or at the bare minimum slowing them down so he can get to the artifact and use it to gain an edge over the party.
Fifth up, give them interesting mechanics and figure out how they could ‘deal with’ the party. If they’re a physical threat, figure out their stats and mechanics, know exactly what they’ll do in a fight and how they’ll react to various abilities the party tends to use. If they’re a more political or behind the curtains type villain, figure out how they will impede the party. Perhaps they spread rumors that tarnish their reputation or maybe they mislead and sent the party after the wrong leads with false information and misdirection. Whatever the case may be, make sure you know how they’ll respond to changes in the world. Be they natural or caused by the party, have them take advantage of the setting you placed them in.
Lastly, find a way to make their defeat memorable and rewarding for the players. Give your players a good payoff for all their efforts. There are several ways to make their defeat memorable, I’ll list off some of my favorites: Having a villain taking their defeat ungraciously and like a total coward can be really satisfying for the players. To see that they’ve driven someone they hate to such a pitiful state can make their victory all the sweeter (however don’t use this for all your villains, it won’t make sense). Another way to make their defeat memorable can be to give them a brief redemption at the end where their final act helps the party in some way. Not enough to redeem their horrendous acts, but enough to show that they were just a person who was put on opposite paths of the party, maybe things could have been different in another life. Making their defeat horrific is another classic: Perhaps they made a bargain with a powerful entity and when they lose to the party, this nulls their deal. The entity can then forcefully take what it’s owed, dragging them kicking and screaming to the abyss or have a gigantic tendril pierce them and rip away their soul from their body, screaming and struggling futilely while the party can only watch. If they’ve been harming the reputation of the party, having their nefarious acts come to light publicly and watch their trusted people turn on them can also be really satisfying: perhaps even their own followers abandoning or even outright attacking them in retaliation.
Also, can’t forget about loot! Having them drop awesome loot for the party will fulfill the loot gremlin needs of your party (which when are they not?) and can remind them of the villains whenever they use said loot in the future.
And that’s a wrap.. Villains are great and so much fun to role play. I love to have a minor recurring villains that tests the water, finding out what buttons to push to goad the party and then transferring that knowledge into a big bad who cranks it up to 11. With all that said, thank you guys so much for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed, and stay healthy!