Villain Secrets And Weaknesses
From Aesma Daeva
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #704
I was recently reading some of Johnn’s articles and other sources about creating villains and realized that, in many gaming tables, little focus is placed on the villain’s secrets, flaws, and weaknesses. Maybe that’s because when we think of villains, the first thing that comes to mind is creating the perfect rival to challenge our players and giving them a hard time before the final confrontation and its subsequent moment of joy, glory, and bliss.
But I believe, if we want to create villains players find engaging and can identify with, we have to think of them in the same terms as PCs, NPCs, and humans in general. That means giving them secrets, flaws, and a reason behind their workings beyond “wanting to take over the world.”
I’m going to quote my exact words regarding “Villains and Rivals” in reply to Johnn’s thread in his Adventure Building Workshop:
“I would add ‘Give the villain flaws’ and make the PCs get that knowledge in the course of the adventure.
“Sometimes it can be frustrating to go up against a rival who’s always ahead of you. Even if the characters will eventually catch up with him, it can be daunting if the campaign is meant to last several sessions and your character is always being outmatched.
“If, on the other hand, characters know secrets and flaws that the villain doesn’t want to be known, the characters will have a sense of power and hope, and they will feel they actually have a chance of defeating the villain.
“Nothing feels more rewarding for the PCs than having small but meaningful victories over the villain. For example, having the PCs acquire something the villain holds dear, and then taunting the villain, leaving him messages in the raided dungeons or doing things that won’t kill the villain, but will embarrass, enrage, humiliate, or morally wound him.”
I was asked to give some examples, which is the reason for this article.
A Word Of Warning
These kinds of scenarios are somewhat advanced stuff. I’m assuming you are already familiar and comfortable with dealing with murder hobos, keeping your story moving forward even if your villain is slain in the first session, using player input to drive the plot, and preparing your sessions so you don’t waste effort on things that probably won’t come into play.
There isn’t room here to cover all of these subjects, and most of the pertinent info is already available in Johnn’s articles, specialized books, or on the Internet. I can only say that you should only try these examples for your games if you already feel comfortable with GMing and want to take your villains a step beyond the classic “wanting to take over the world.. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s fun, but sometimes you want villains who move on the gray line and make your PCs wonder if just killing them outright might be the right thing to do.
Finally, I just want to list some recommendations for these scenarios to work better:
- Think in terms of antagonists rather than villains. That way your plot won’t suffer if your villains are killed or discovered in the early stages of the game. Have them develop as villains over time depending on the interest the PCs show in any antagonistic NPC. Design your games so not even you the GM know who will be the ultimate villain of your campaign.
- These examples work better for games in which killing outright is never the best option for the PCs. They are meant for games not overly combat-oriented, but for games in which you suspect the vizier is immersed in illegal secret stuff. He is rude and contemptuous to the PCs, but they know just killing him could bring more problems than solutions. Even that doesn’t make the vizier a villain – maybe he was just a grumpy man.
- Personal interaction between the PCs and the villain should be heavy and roleplay-oriented. That’s why you shouldn’t reveal or develop him as a villain right away, so he can be expendable (at least in the early stages).
- When thinking of your villain’s motivations, try to imagine yourself as the villain. If you don’t identify with him, you will not be able to make him grow in a deeper and interesting manner.
- Don’t think on your villains as “bad people,” but as people with motivations we can identify with. Due to their past, scars, or experiences, they are making wrong decisions and have egos too big to recognize their mistakes.
- I’m using epic fantasy for my examples because many of us are familiar with the genre, but I think they actually work better for games with heavy social and political interaction.
Example 1: They Care
Make one of the villain’s allies someone meaningful to him, such as a relative, friend, or sibling. Even dungeon-dwelling monster can be the villain’s most beloved pet.
The important thing here is you make some of the villain’s allies more than just expendable minions. Even in the case of an extraplanar monster, the lesser baddies who populate a fortress or a tactical base can be the protected or babies of such a monster, and he/she/it can take it personally each time the heroes squash them like mere bugs.
You might deliver this information to the PCs via letters and messages from him. The PCs might spot a minion paying regular visits to one of the NPCs who lives in town and is someone the villain cares for deeply. The villain could deliver a present to the PCs or one of their loved ones – a bomb, for instance – with the message, “Stop killing my babies” or something similar.
Example 2: It’s Not Their Fault
The villain or one of his beloved ones could be suffering from a strange, incurable disease, and a great deal of the villain’s efforts are put into finding a cure.
The PCs can learn about this if some adventures lead to the villain’s laboratories or research facilities, where the party might find books and other documentation on finding a cure. These might include documents in which the villain rants about how the heroes are interfering with his progress.
Example 3: Relive the Past
The villain could have awakened from a very long sleep (centuries perhaps) and be confused as to where he is in time.
Such a villain would likely be interested in anything to do with the past and might even develop antipathy for anyone who doesn’t show interest in or respect for his own past. This same longing for the past could be developed further into a psychotic obsession and a deep desire to revert back to the way things were before his sleep began.
In such a scenario, the villain would likely give strict orders to his minions not to damage any piece of art, library, relic, or any other object that could reveal information from the past.
That in itself can constrain him in interesting ways, as he could be reluctant to fight amidst ancient ruins or where objects of art could be damaged.
At the same time, there could be parts of his past he doesn’t want to reveal. Maybe he lived a great part of his life as a slave. Maybe he was condemned for robbery and his right hand is now a prosthesis that he hides with a globe. Perhaps he has a shameful curse or mark he wouldn’t want anyone to know about.
Example 4: Obsessions
Almost any kind of obsession or compulsion a villain might have can work in the favor of the PCs, especially if the villain has a reputation to take care of or is an important figure in the town or kingdom where he dwells.
You can be as inventive or imaginative as you want with this one, because a villain doesn’t have to be limited to just one or two weaknesses or compulsions.
The villain might always wear a mask because he has a body dysmorphic disorder and thinks of himself as the ugliest person in the world (maybe that’s the reason behind many of his wrongdoings). Maybe he is obsessed with perfect beauty and would do anything to achieve it (like the queen from Snow White).
You can give him a phobia (rats, darkness, ghosts, or something related to a feared enemy everybody thinks is gone) or weakness (a superstition, greed, passion for dance to the extent he cries when he watches a performance). Then make these bits of information available to the PCs through several means:
- The PCs intercept a messenger who was carrying the villain’s object of obsession or a message revealing one of his fears. “Don’t forget to avoid placing any kind of mirror in the new tower the master is building. You know how much he hates them.”
- One of the villain’s minions who guards a fortress, barracks, or dungeon has a diary in which he records the strange behaviors he has noticed from his master.
- A traitor of the villain who no longer agrees with his master’s methods (remember, not every minion agrees with its master’s philosophy or way of doing things) tells all.
- Town or tavern rumors might be shared for a fair price.
- A defeated minion begs for his life and offers information about his master in return.
- The villain himself being spotted when indulging one of his desires, be it by the PCs themselves or through spies.
Example 5: Secret Identity
The villain wants to keep his identity hidden at any cost, as revealing it could take down his whole plan.
Imagine a kingdom that, after many rebellions and civil wars, has turned its government from a monarchy into a democracy. Among the candidates, there is a charismatic outsider (our villain) or even a well-known wise man who has lived in the kingdom for many years, but is a hermit who prefers to keep interaction with others to a minimum. This new candidate is gaining popularity quickly among the inhabitants because he is a good speaker, seems to know much about ruling a kingdom, and has introduced many innovations to generate wealth and progress.
This villain could actually be a golem that has perfected a way to kill people and use their skins as a disguise. It’s in his best interest to keep his cover if he wants to build a government in which more covert golems take places among high government ranks, to guide humanity to a better future (whatever that means for the golems), because he believes man is too stupid to govern himself. He could have a backup plan and not care who will win the elections, because if he doesn’t, he could kill the winning candidate and adopt his life.
This can lead to many secrets, weaknesses, and impairments that the PCs can gradually uncover and use to their fun and delight, and you can help deliver them as discussed above. For example:
- One of the villain’s cooks tells them that on more than one occasion, one of his apprentices accidentally spilled the salt over Lord X’s meal. Nobody noticed until too late, but Lord X claimed it was delicious.
- He avoids any contact with women and has never been known to have a wife or girlfriend. Some say it seems as if he fears women.
- One of his “dungeons” or secret places could be a laboratory where people are dissected and studied. There is a large collection of books and lore regarding human anatomy.
- He seems to be very interested in human activities, although he finds it hard to understand that different people enjoy different things, so it’s easy to make him enthusiastic and participative in any activity you propose to him as long as you imply that “many people enjoy this.”
I hope these examples inspire. Treat villains as antagonists and real people caught up complex situations. Make them human and just evil for evil’s sake. If you use any of these ideas in your games I’d love to hear about it.
Happy gaming and bunny hugs to you all.
– Aesma Daeva
Brief Word From Johnn
Roleplaying Tips has undergone tectonic changes in 2016. Major projects have been launched or wrapped up. I’ve switched email service providers. I’ve consolidated my various sites and most of my products under one roof and login for you. Even the nature of the newsletter has changed.
I’m going to experiment yet again in November. I’m really enjoying writing the shorter Musings type emails for you. They are faster to write, punchier, and more focused.
I think this makes them easier for you to follow, read, and apply to your games. Many subscribers report a lengthy backlog of RPT Newsletters they have to catch up on. But the Musings type emails make it easier for you to stay up to date.
So for November, I’m going to write Musings emails only. To see what you think and how you feel about that experience. This means pausing the Gems and Newsletter type emails, but I’ll be spreading those out into Musings throughout the month, so you won’t be getting less content.
My hope is you get more from me with simplicity and concision.
Your feedback is always read and appreciated!