Villain Roleplay Tips – A Trio of Detestable Traits
How can we get players to chase our villains like frothing lunatics brandishing cleavers overhead?
It’s starts with someone they want to punch.
Someone who isn’t normal but has turned their difference into something cringey.
A monster on the inside, at the least.
We can achieve all these things for our villain in the roleplay layer.
Let’s start with the first one, which is a way to anchor your villain in player memories and imaginations.
Our makeover today involves a spy network leader who uses his business as a front for opportunistic and shady dealings.
His school of children translate all manner of material for merchants, lawyers, financiers, personal requisitions, and more.
The Scribe knows a person smart enough can piece together delicious secrets from many innocent sources. So he reads every inch of parchment on its way in, and its transcription on the way out.
He knows which lord is suffering from indebtedness to the Thieves’ Guild. He knows someone in the south is buying a lot of arms using several different client facades. He knows the King grows worried about his restless neighbours to the north. He knows that two bravados pursue the hand of a princess whose father has great ambitions.
The Scribe has several tools in his toolbox. One is blackmail. Another other is investment. A third is a group of highly skill thugs who do all manner of jobs for him.
Assign a Signature Trait
I’m going to assume you’ve already done some building on your villain.
You know your villain’s goal, a bit of personality, and a 3 Step Villain Plan.
Now we give them a signature trait to embellish and make memorable.
We could go for a physical trait, like frozen face or wears black leather.
We could go for a mannerism, like pulls wings off insects or crazy laugh.
We could go for a psychological trait, like fear of spiders or intolerance towards dwarves and elves.
Make sure your trait can manifest every session. At first, to remind. Then, to goad.
If wary of direct villain involvement to show off their signature trait, then take the indirect route:
d8 Ways – Signature Trait Reminders
- A decoy disguised as villain doing everyday things
- A minion poorly mimicking their boss
- A bard or entertainer doing an impersonation
- A painting of them
- They are on a business logo
- It becomes a meme
- Minions wield the villain’s likeness on uniforms
- A commoner gossips and complains about the villain
- A villain-directed action or event themed to the trait
- A party or social occasion where the villain is the topic du jour
Our polyglot wears fine silks with billowy arms, always in purple. A vault-worth of gem-studded rings and jewelry adorn his upper body.
His logo is a large, bright amethyst worn by a grey mouse – teeth bared and whiskers taut.
He always drawls, “My mice are mighty, but they have humble quills!”
Create Attitude You Wanna Punch
Now that we’ve made them memorable, which is a valuable attention hook for you if not used overmuch, we want the players to dislike our villain personally.
Repugnance, disdain, revulsion, disgust, and hostility. Emotions we wish to evoke in our players for the villain.
Keep it PG rated, but have the NPC behave with a terrible attitude.
I like the Super Rich Guy attitude. Players always hate that guy.
Then there’s the Self-Entitled attitude, which never fails to get players’ goats.
The Hypocrite is often a hit.
Just think about nasty characters from film, books, and life, and study their traits for potential villain fodder.
Give your villain an attitude your players will want to punch in the face.
This jerk explains obvious things to everyone as if he’s the only one smart enough to grasp the concept.
He mistreats his scribes in front of customers.
And he flaunts his wealth by way of his ridiculous clothes, jewelry, and a great air of superiority.
We now have a larger-than-life villain who will stick out like an anti-rainbow of repulsion.
Give players a reason to take your villain out, and you won’t have to work hard to get them to bite.
That reason should always offend beliefs and values, again, in PG rated fashion.
If your villain is the antithesis of some common, decent value, then you’ve built a powerful charge of game energy there. Something that could carry the weight of a campaign, for example.
But powerful as a Stage Boss or faction enemy too.
The villain should have some kind of agency upon your world.
Donning our Storytelling hat on for a moment, they must be able to show, not tell.
They must perform actions that demonstrate their negative traits.
We put them into situations that appeal to their weaknesses yet also give them ability to change the milieu.
Give your villain the kind of day-to-day so regular villainy occurs.
Whatever crimes your villain must commit to achieve their win state should reach your players:
- PCs interrupt minions performing a crime or villainous act
- News greets information skill rolls
- The party experiences the downstream consequences of a crime
- PCs see signs of a crime in the background of your encounter
Keep your villain active.
Whacking one’s opposition feeds well into some RPGs, setting up a likely combat climactic ending.
Thefts are fantastic. Each heist more daring until…the PCs become the next targets.
Converting innocent folks into a cult, or sacrificing them always draws attraction.
And growing and evolving tyranny hits the player characters’ agency, making them angry at the villain.
Give your villain a life that causes growing mayhem in your PCs’ lives.
Our purple spy ponders parchment that spells peril for the PCs.
He decides to choose sides, and going against the party gets him a potential new news source.
It’s nothing personal. The characters are just in the wrong place at the wrong time on someone’s naughty list.
To get the party to take the fall, he must first introduce his wonderful self. Hiring them for a job will do this nicely and gain their trust.
More jobs will lead the players deeper into a rabbit hole that closes ever tighter on them until it’s lights out forever.
Meantime, his spy network remains busy each day fact-checking, gathering proof, and extorting.
A Trio of Detestable Roleplays
First we give our villain a memorable trait that riles up our players. We play this up whenever possible.
Then we give them a terrible personality worth punching and portray that at every opportunity, too.
Last, our villain becomes the target of real player enmity by making them monsters who commit atrocities daily, stomping on what the players believe to be good and true.
This trio of terrible traits is sure to get players to chase our villains like frothing lunatics brandishing cleavers overhead!
More Villain Tips
From the archives:
- Lessons From The Movies — Alien and Aliens + Secrets To An Effective Villain
- How to Make a Villain-Based Plot Engine
- Villainous Banter: Using Propp’s Reconnaissance Scene
- Villain Plot Design Reversal: This Technique Will Make You Look Like an Evil Genius
- Villainous Escapes: How to Help the Bad Guy Live to Fight Another Day
- From One Tyrant To Another: Villainous Tips Inspired By A Real World Dictator
- Nitty-Gritty Villain Tips
- 14 Great Villain Tips
- Vile Villain Servants: 6 Flunky Tips
- Exit Stage Left: How To Plot Your Villain’s Demise
- 6 Devious Villain Tactics