Readers’ Response: 14 Great Villain Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0030

A Brief Word From Johnn

We conclude Villain Month this issue with a collection of villain tips that I have received over the past few weeks. You have great ideas and advice–thanks for sharing with us and keep the tips coming!

My goal is to make this newsletter as useful and readable for you as possible. What do you think of the tips summary above? Waste of space or great for reference?

Do you have any feedback on the layout? Let me know:[email protected]

Here’s the best tip I’ve run across to date. It’s short and sweet, but it really sums it up well:

Weak Villain = Weak Story

Make time to roleplay this week–life’s too short.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Villains Plan Ahead & Learn From Their Mistakes

From Django Dunn

Something that always made me scratch my head was the GI Joe cartoon. In just about every show, Cobra basically had the world by the short and curlies. GI Joe saved the day only by some fluke discovery of a fatal flaw in the villain’s plan. What confused me was why didn’t Cobra just try the plan again but correct the flaw – you know – if at first you don’t succeed…

So, with that in mind, have your main villain set a plan into action that’s a small scale version of what he/she/it really wants to accomplish. The villain is basically waiting to see what the PCs can bring to bear against his/her/its idea. If the plan fails, he/she/it makes adjustments and tries again – and this time should meet with more success.

If the PCs manage to barely fend off one of the villain’s experiments then when they see the same pattern of events start to occur again they’ll know they’re in for a rough ride. They know they’ve succeeded before but they’ll have to step up to the challenge and become even more resourceful and tricky than ever before.

Use Phony Villains To Fool The PCs

Sometimes you don’t know if so-and-so is a villain or just some eccentric. Sometimes you don’t know why he’s a villain.

Imagine your RPG involves the Washington Press scene in the early 1970’s. Your PC’s are Woodward and Bernstein. You must figure out what is going on. Who broke into the Watergate building? Why? Players may decide that Nixon must be the story’s villain. But if they go off too soon, they’ll find that they’re making unproven accusations against one of the most popular (to judge by his re-election margin) presidents in history.

The same is true if you’re James Bond. You can’t just start killing eccentric characters. Everyone is eccentric. Which one is the villain? Is it the gold hoarding fat man who cheats at cards? Or is he nothing more than a rich man who happens to own a lot of gold?

When Bond went after Goldfinger, all he knew was that Goldfinger was smuggling and hoarding gold. His job was to find out why. His mission only changed to stopping Goldfinger when Bond figured out what Operation Grandslam really was.

Obviously Bond could not have shot Goldfinger in Miami or at the golf course, no matter how much Goldfinger smelled like a major villain. Bond could not have explained to M why Goldfinger was a villain, and killing eccentric rich guys is bad press.

His job was to find out what Goldfinger was up to. Until he had done that, he had to play golf, or cards, or roulette, or whatever game the villain wants to play, and try to acquire information.

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From Tom Bisbee

Play on the assumptions of your players. This may seem obvious at first, but can be tough to pull off. But when done well, it is a really effective plot device. For example, the players know that demons from other dimensions are bad. Let the PC’s run in to the handy-work of some of these bad demons, a ruined village, bodies, etc… Then have the PC’s encounter more demons from the same dimension who have nothing to do with the first group. They could be hunting the first group down, or maybe “just passing through”.

Do your players shoot first and talk to demons later? In my RIFTS campaign, one of the players ran in to several duplicates of herself from alternate Earths. She assumed that all of the doubles were the same alignment as her, and most of them were. Most of them…

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Play It Smart: Killing Heroes Just Raises The Stakes For The Villain

From Kenneth Gauck

Villains don’t want to just leave a trail of corpses. People come looking for dead heroes. Maybe not right away, but 007 was assigned any number of cases because another agent turned up dead, or failed to check in properly.

What every villain wants the heroes to do isn’t die right away, but report back, “I’m really not sure I know what’s going on over there.”

If the hero escapes from the villains lair ignorant of his villainous plan, he’s just another member of the opposition who has lost his cover.

“Gee Bond, we’re glad you escaped Goldfinger’s horse ranch hideout. What did you find out about his gold smuggling?”

“Umm, not much really, he is involved in something called operation Grandslam, but I don’t know what that is.”

Not much good as the gas cannisters are being loaded for delivery to Fort Knox, now is it? This is what every villain goes for.

Killing the heroes just escalates the stakes for the villain, and villains often depend on a bit of secrecy. If they anger the powers that be they might arrive with the Marines before the death ray is built.

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What To Do If The PCs Kill Your Villain Too Early


The cure for this is to let the players think they won for the moment, then invent a correspondence, clue, or other pointer to the fact that the “Master Villain” was really only a flunky herself… Then you can spend the next few adventures letting the PCs discover the hidden links in the chain.

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Love Your Villain

From Qalat

One other tip is to love your villains — not so much that you can’t let them go, but enough to make them a memorable experience.

[Johnn: I agree Qalat. The more care and attention you give your villain the more you will find he/she/it will drive your story and make it truly challenging and entertaining for everyone.]
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Give Your Villain A Plot Twist


In many movies and films, the villain has turned out to be either a trusted friend working behind the scenes (even to the extent of staging fake attacks on herself). Or, better yet, the trusted friend is yet another flunky, and the real mastermind is the shady majordomo/bodyguard she’s never seen without that to date has gotten the “Trusted Friend” to safety for the PCs while they fight off the threat.

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From Tom Bisbee

Give credit to Vader. Star Wars portrayed one of the best villain plot twists ever. The arch-villain? He’s your Dad! Or your Mom, or your mentor, you get the idea. This is a great “reward” for players who are too lazy to make any details whatsoever about their character’s past. Who trained you? You don’t know? You’ll find out…

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Get The Players Emotional About The Villain

From Anon

Create confusion, fear and hate of the bad guy. Get players emotional about the bad guy. Emotions intensify the roleplaying experience.

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Make Your Villain Unpredictable

From Anon

Do unexpected things. Be in surprising places. Seem to be everywhere at once. Genius intelligence means the ability to calculate the PCs’ next move and get there before them, and only occasionally being wrong.

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Use A Gift From The Villain To Confuse The Players

From Anon

Have the villain give the PCs something useful. Something they want but of minor value to the villain’s overall scheme. If you give the PCs something valuable out of the blue it creates doubt, suspicion, confusion.

The PCs will probably sabotage themselves in paranoia!

And the more useful the gift the greater the party’s confusion.

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Villains Don’t Have To Be Evil Or People

From Source Unknown

The hero is a constructive force in the story, whereas the villain is destructive.

Unlike the Hero, however, the villain doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a force of nature, or merely something as abstract as life itself. The villain can be the Hero’s insecurities, it can be an addiction, it can be poverty, or an illness or bigotry

Villains don’t have to be evil, or even bad. They can be well meaning individuals. After all, some of the worse crimes in history were caused by well meaning individuals. The Inquisition was supposed to weed out the sinners, the Missionaries tried to save people around the world by destroying their culture, the U.S. Government interred Japanese Americans during World War II to make our country safe. We know now that all these people were wrong, but at the time, they had “good” intentions.

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Villains Believe In Themselves & Their Actions

From Source Unknown

I guess what I like are believable villains – I don’t think anyone goes out and thinks “I’ll be evil today!”, so I like them to have a good reason for doing what they’re doing – they have to think they’re right, and have something to back that up; and ideally that should be something plausible, rather than wimping out and blaming it on insanity – both sides should consider themselves justified.

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Use The KISS Method For Villainous Plans

From Source Unknown

KISS. Keep It Simple Silly. Simple is better. Go directly to the path which accomplishes the villain’s goals quickest. Give villains simple plans and let the players create complexity for themselves.

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Villains Aim For Weak Spots

From Source Unknown

Aim for the weak spots first: Mages, familiars, family members, wounded, villagers, etc. This weakens morale, reduces a large number of threats quickly and makes the characters hesitate before crossing the villain again.

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Give The PCs Ownership And Then Jeopardize It

From Source Unknown

Give the PCs ownership or control over something. This makes them attached to it and therefore provides great villain leverage.

Reader’s Tip of The Week

NPC Names

From Tatsuki

Here is a tip for people.

It is prudent as a GM to have a pretty good idea of what various NPCs are named, and perhaps a little background on them, before your players ask. Inevitably in any game, players will pipe up and ask you for these sorts of details on an otherwise unimportant “extra” in your game.

It does no good to a game to have a bartender described to the characters as a middle aged, slightly overweight, Japanese Man…only to fumble around with his name and end up calling him “Bob”.

There are many good books on this, and my advice to GMs is to get their hands on one of these before they begin, if possible.

I recommend the “Character Naming Sourcebook” put out by Writers Digest. It is filled with ideas on character names, dividing them up by ethical origin and gender. The bartender will take on a whole new life of his own if you can give him a good Russian name that doesn’t end in “ov”. And then, not all Arabic characters in your game will be named “Abdul” or “Jasmine”.

If you are not prepared to shell out that sort of money for a source book, you can go far with one of those little “Baby Name Books” that can be picked up in the magazine stands at the cashier of your local grocer.

And failing that, a phone book can provide many inspirations in character naming as well. In this case, I would recommend that a GM go through the book well ahead of the game and jot down names that strike him. That way you aren’t fumbling with that unwieldy book in the middle of a game either.