A hero is only as good as the villains they fight – but what makes a Villain great? It’s not exactly an easy question to answer, is it? I have three basic answers, for three different kinds of villain – the Mastermind, the Combat Monster, and the Character Villain. the final part of the article trilogy examines possibly the most dangerous villains of all (and one of my favorites) – the Character Villain.
So what is a Character Villain?
A “Character Villain” is a PC-standard personality who happens to be opposed to the PCs for his own reasons. “People of good conscience can have an honest disagreement”. That makes them more of an antagonist than an out-and-out villain.
These characters make great villains for a campaign because they are internally complex, with meaningful motives and intentions. The range of behavior open to them is far broader than that of other villain types, and that means there can be more variety in adventures that involve this villain. Temporary Truces can be called to deal with a mutual threat, or the villain can show up to ask the PCs for help, favors can be done for each other.
The archetypes that I always think of when considering this type of villain are characters like Doctor Doom and Magneto – no-one doubts that they are villains, but at the same time, they are ambiguous enough in their morality that one can never be entirely sure how they will react in a confrontation.
The PCs in my Seeds Of Empire campaign just resolved their conflict with just such a villain – at least for now. The villain had an intractable and fundamental ideological dispute with the party; had pretended to be swayed by their arguements and joined the party only to betray their trust both covertly and (eventually) overtly – but, except when actively engaged in an act of betrayal, the Character served as a totally loyal member of the party. While the betrayal wasn’t a total surprise to the players – his “conversion” always seemed to come a little too easily for their liking – they thought it would be a case of divided loyalties when matters began to approach a climax, not that the character had always been a mole within their group. They then destroyed him, or so they thought – but he survived by virtue of the power of his faith in his ideology and possessed one of their most trusted team members. All unsuspected by the PCs, he immediately resumed his acts of betrayal and sabotage, though a little more covertly; it was only when they began to approach the ultimate success of their almost-impossible mission that desperation forced the villain to act more overtly and tip his hand. In the end, they were able to once again “kill” him – but fully expect that he will return once more to plague them, somehow! (And yes, I do still have a plot twist in the back of my mind for this character’s return. In fact, I have two, but they may well be mutually incompatible. Oh well, it’s better than having no ideas.).
The keys to this character are directly relevant to the subject of this article. Consistency of motivation which implacably led to his opposition to the party, this was nevertheless a Lawful Good character, a genuine patriot, doing what he sincerely believed was right. His perspective cast the party as the villains, from his point of view. His situation was one in which he could serve both sides with a completely clear conscience. He could even regret the necessity of opposing the characters even as he did his best to destroy them and sabotage their mission.
Profile of a Character Villain
So, how should a Character Villain present himself in-game? What characteristics are common to virtually all examples of this villain type?
A Hero on the Other side
The Character Villain should always be convinced that he is doing the right thing. He should always be treated as though he were the hero of the plotline and the PCs were the villains. That means that he must be working for a cause of some sort, that he absolutely believes in. Whether or not this difference of perspective means that the character’s opposition to the PCs is obvious from word one of his encountering the party, or if his agenda is more covert, is a completely separate issue, but one that should be decided by the consequences and ramifications of what the character believes.
Remember too, if he’s a good guy (in his own mind, at least – objective reality may be a completely different story, or may be ambiguous), he should act like it. There may be lines that he will be reluctant to cross, and there will be acts that he will only resort to if forced to do so. The more successful his enemies (the PCs) are, the more desperate he will become. “If the world was different, we could be friends – but we are who we are, and so I must destroy you”.
The Character Villain should have a consistent personality – all else may be Inconsistent
What the character does with this tragedy of circumstance should be a reflection of the character’s personality. If the character has moral limits to his actions, he should respect them until left with no other choice. If he’s the type to try persuasion, he should try to convert the PCs to his point of view, or at least sow doubts in their minds about their own perspective. He may or may not be open-minded about the validity of his beliefs and assumptions – something that I discuss under the heading “Resolution Modes” towards the end of this article.
You may have noticed the second part of the statement. Protected by the purity of his purpose, explanations can be woven into the plotline for almost any other inconsistency. Deals with the devil, risky power-ups, bone-headed mistakes and clever tactics – anything goes.
There is an expression that appears in my games from time to time – “Moving with the speed of plot”. The Character Villain can be anything that the plot requires, from timid subversive to ideologue rabble-rouser, from comic relief to reluctant ally to cosmic threat. He can be uber-strong in this appearance and a shade of his former glory in the next.
I’ve even run a plotline in which the party restored a depleted Character Villain to full power after a mistake in judgment left him weak and threatened. The key to having such a plotline succeed is making sure that the Character Villain’s motives are respected by the PCs beforehand, and that restoring him to full power (or more) is the lesser of two evils. There is also the truth of “The Devil You Know” to take into account.
If you do your job right in creating and running the Character Villain, the PCs themselves will fight to maintain the status quo and sandboxing of the campaign. Which makes your job as GM so much easier :)
The Character Villain should usually be intelligent/educated
This is not quite so obvious a trait. Characters of any intelligence level can be intractably stubborn, after all, and cliché usually associates such characterization as the prerogative of the more intellectually challenged.
While it’s okay for a Character Villain cast in the role of a flunky to another villain type (more commonly the Mastermind but not necessarily so) to be as thick as two planks, if the Character Villain is genuinely to pose an independent challenge to the PCs, pathos demands that the Villain be able to justify his actions. Without this capability, a key “Greek Tragedy” element that adds depth to the character is missing, and the character lacks the appeal to recur in plot after plot.
If you don’t want to make the character a super-genius, simply make him a slower thinker, not a less capable one.
The Character Villain should be Shrewd
Where the Mastermind is typically smart and intellectually gifted, and the Combat Monster is Cunning and instinctive, the Character Villain’s great strength should be Shrewdness – the ability to assess people and motivations quickly. The character should be more reactive and less pro-active. Unlike the Mastermind, he won’t have backup plans – instead, he will commit to one plan and then start over if it doesn’t work.
The touchstone for this villain type is that he is adept at searching out opportunities to advance his cause, and assesses every situation with which he is confronted in terms of furthering or hindering that goal. Unlike the Mastermind, who carefully assesses risks and rewards (and is usually conservative on the risk side of the ledger), the Character Villain can take absurd risks if the prospect of reward is high enough.
It’s when his shrewdness fails him – or he grows desperate enough to ignore it – that the Character Villain finds himself on a collision course with destiny. A character villain is quite capable of doing a deal with the devil in order to do God’s work. The Ends may appear to justify the Means, and he will be quite willing to sacrifice his own soul if it saves the souls of others when that happens. That’s what makes him scary.
The Character Villain may be wise and/or enlightened
If it sounds like I am a little more uncertain about the validity of this attribute, I’m not. This is one of the big differences between the Character Villain and the other types we have looked at: the Mastermind blocks any wisdom or enlightenment with arrogance, placing himself at the pinnacle of existence; the Combat Monster places power ahead of wisdom in importance, inherently subverting any enlightenment. What makes the Character Villain interesting is that they may just be right in their beliefs.
However, there is a second subtype of Character Villain, who is not especially wise or enlightened. This type acts from an unshakeable belief in an ideology without necessarily understanding it, or understanding how they are subverting it with their actions.
Take McCarthy’s Senate Anti-Americanism hearings. Either McCarthy was insincere in his beliefs, simply grasping for political advantage – which would make him a Mastermind-type villain – or he was utterly sincere in his beliefs, making him a Character Villain. The former is more evil, the latter makes him more scary.
This variant on the Character Villain is rendered even more sharply by being the target satirized by the characters of Frank Burns and Colonel Flag in the TV series M.A.S.H.
The Character Villain should have an ideology or faith
I’ve made this point several times already in this article, but it is so important that it needs to be repeated. And then emphasized.
The Character Villain should be zealous and driven
Of course, a lot of people have a belief in something without becoming Character Villains; an essential ingredient is a propensity for turning belief into action – and not just any action, but Action with a capital A. There’s a hierarchy to such things:
- At low levels, a character is not even sufficiently zealous to obey the dictates of their faith. At best they will pay them lip service.
- Slightly more zealous are those who strive to lead by example.
- Next, we have those who try to convince others, or to serve the community of believers.
- More zealous still are those who actively speak out in support of the doctrines of their faith while earnestly believing in those doctrines. In more naive times, it was popularly accepted that the majority of Television Evangelists fell into this category. Even now, it is respectful to give such individuals the benefit of the doubt until their sincerity is shown to be lacking.
- Next come the legislators – those who want to reform people’s lives by authority while working within the system of government or theology that surrounds them. This is the absolute minimum zeal level for a Character Villain, and should be exceptional.
- Above the legislators are the Long-Suffering – those who will endure personal pain or depravation as an act of faith.
- Getting close to the top of the hierarchy of zeal, we find those who are willing to use force to reform others, whether they want it or not. The Crusades and Inquisition – if we treat those historical phenomena with the utmost benefit of the doubt and in the most charitable light – are examples of action carried out at this extreme. So are the actions of a number of Terrorists, again putting the most favorable face on their acts. Most Character Villains will be at this level of zeal.
- Finally, we have that level of zeal that demands that those who will not convert must be wiped out. Nothing in-between is acceptable. Repent, or Die. This is the true extreme of the Character Villain.
While a number of the examples offered above are couched in religious terms, it should also be emphasized that any belief or ideology can be the foundation of a Character Villain – from the belief in unrestrained Capitalism to the most rigid of Socialist Ideology, from a belief in Big Government to the members of the TEA Party. An absolute belief in Science as the solution to everything is just as bad as an absolute belief in racial superiority. ANY belief, carried to extremes, can be the foundation of a Character Villain.
The Character Villain should do whatever needs to be done
It follows that, in general, a Character Villain will feel that “The End Justifies The Means”, at least when put under pressure to protect that end.
The Character Villain should subordinate his morality when necessary
There’s a delightful line in Foundation by Isaac Asimov about never letting your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right. It fits the Character Villain to a “T” with only slight rephrasing. However, a character should never violate his sense of morals lightly – this is an extreme to which they have to be driven.
The Character Villain should have an array of believers
Sincerity can be awfully convincing. It follows that a Character Villain should attract a number of believers in the ideology that he espouses. Whether he wants it or not, he will almost certainly become the centre of a cult of personality.
These believers can force a Character Villain to adhere even more stringently to his ideology than would be the case. This occurs in two ways: reinforcement of belief and peer pressure. Reinforcement can be both positive, as described in this Wikipedia article or can be negative, such as a fear of the reactions of other zealots should the individual depart from “the true beliefs”. Nor is it necessary, as the Wikipedia article imples, for the character to seek out individuals who reinforce their own beliefs; simply by meeting others and speaking of or demonstrating his beliefs, the Character Villain will “pick up” any around him who subscribe to his philosophies, like iron filings being drawn to a magnet.
The Character Villain should reject any information that does not conform
Certain religious radicals would prefer to accept a God who plays tricks with the Geological Record (perhaps as a test of faith) than accept that the earth is Billions of years old. Similarly, any improvement in the economy as a result of Big Government Spending is either despite such spending or robbing Peter to pay Paul in the eyes of an economic minimalist. Ideologues and Zealots of all stripes have always been good at rejecting the validity of any information that conflicts with their beliefs.
In fact, some have simplified the philosophy of science into a bald statement that Science encourages fact-checking and continual testing of predictions from the best understanding of natural phenomena against reality, with the premise that experimental results trumps theory, always and every time, while Faith filters all reported facts through a doctrinal sieve, rejecting anything that is not in accordance with those doctrines.
For the record, I consider both those statements to be oversimplifications. The definition of Science ignores several key attributes of the philosophy, such as the need for repeatability and the exclusion of all other possible solutions and all irrelevant factors from an experiment. The problem I have with the definition of Religious Faith stems from the fact that hierarchies are inherently conservative, especially when promotion to senior positions is slow, and hence doctrinal rigidity is a function of bureaucracy and not inherent within the faith – most Churches are going to be 40-50 years behind the times (sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on their internal structures) simply because it takes 40-50 to achieve a senior position of authority within the Church. I think that is why the Catholic Church is only now coming to terms with Women’s Liberation (and the implication that Women can be Ministers of the faith) and is struggling with the issues of social responsibility that began to come into vogue in the 1970s. When the world moved at a glacially slow pace, this wasn’t a problem; but modern times move far too quickly for this type of multi-generational gap to be acceptable, resulting in a perceived lack of relevance. (Your views may differ).
I’ve wandered off the point quite badly – don’t let me stray like that again, or we’ll never be done!
The point is that if a Character Villain believes he is right, then any information to the contrary must be misinformation, misinterpretation, misjudgment, or outright falsehood. It doesn’t matter which of these it is, they all demand the immediate rejection of the information.
The Character Villain may be oblivious to the consequences
Here, once again, we have two subtypes of Character Villain: those who are oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions, and those who believe that any negative consequences are a small price to pay for achievement of whatever they think needs doing.
This variable is entirely independent of the others offered thus far, increasing still further the variety available to Character Villains.
The Character Villain should take insane risks – by proxy
Most rational judgments would seat the great Character Villains in the “Crazy, not Stupid” sections, to borrow one of my favorite lines from Speed. That means that it’s better to get a flunky to take the insane risks – voluntarily, if possible. It certainly doesn’t mean that the Character Villain will shrink from taking those insane risks – and that, again, can distinguish the character villain from the Masterminds and Combat Monsters; the mastermind won’t take those risks (unless they have misjudged the danger involved) and the Combat Monster would take those risks himself if anyone is going to, rather than risk elevating a rival to a position of being able to challenge him.
The Character Villain should be subtle
The more obsessed a character is, the more predictable they can be, and a predictable enemy is dull. To combat this propensity, a Character Villain should always be capable of great subtlety. In fact, in many ways, it is easier to think of the Character Villain as a PC run by the GM and not as a traditional NPC, with all the subtlety, shading, and depth that a PC would have – and a commensurate level of deviousness.
The Character Villain should be subversive
This maxim doesn’t refer to the Character Villain’s actions (though he can be subversive in that manner as well), but to the character’s very presence within the world. By virtue of that nature, he should occasionally raise doubts in the minds of all those who oppose his “vision”, especially if there are any morally ambiguous acts carried out in opposition to the Character Villain – and it’s easy for someone to get carried away (becoming a low-grade Character Villain in their own right), leading them to commit such acts.
Furthermore, the presence of the Character Villain should be a polarizing force. Sitting on the fence on the issues that his credo raises should arouse suspicion at the very least, and – probably – unfounded accusations of being a sympathizer. If a mob ever takes matters into their own hands (as mobs are wont to do), fence-sitters are the first targets – neither side trusts them.
The Character Villain should be surprising
I can’t emphasize this enough. Every major plotline with a Character Villain should involve some surprise for the PCs, whether those surprises are part of the plot itself, or a revelation about the Character Villain, or stem from the relationship between the Character Villain and the plot.
The Character Villain should be epic – in a low-key kind of way
The one thing a Character Villain should never ever be is safe to ignore. Ignoring one even just a little bit only gives them time to get into mischief that will eventually come back to haunt the PCs. That’s another way of saying that the Character Villain should cast a very long shadow within the Campaign. Whenever something important takes place, he should either be present, be represented, or be somewhere else stirring up a subsequent adventure at the time. Every major decision of the PCs should be scrutinized (however briefly) by the players to analyze how the Character Villain might react to it.
Even his absence – when his presence would be expected – should be enough to worry the PCs. Assuming they know about the Character Villain in the first place, of course.
Strengths, Flaws, and Characterization
Those are the attributes of the generic Character Villain at a game level. How should the GM play such a Villain? What should his strengths and flaws be, at a metagame level? In other words, how should those traits defined above manifest themselves in the choices that the GM permits the Character Villain to make?
The Character Villain May Be vulnerable to assumptions
Because the Character Villain is not deeply analytical like the Mastermind, and doesn’t live by his wits like the Combat Monster, the Character Villain may be more capable of self-deception than either of the other primary villain types. However, this can also leave the Character Villain open to unwanted Resolution Modes, i.e. ways to resolve their opposition that have an undesirable lack of dramatic impact. When this is part of a larger plotline by the GM and done deliberately, it’s fine to have the Character Villain be flat-out wrong.
Under all other circumstances, it’s infinitely better if there is some credibility to the Character Villain’s perspective – at the very least, there should be an ambiguity attached to the question of validity.
It’s probably worth noting that while it can make the GM’s life easier if he decides from word one how accurate or flawed the Character Villain’s ideology is, it can be far more inspiring and creative to leave the question unresolved even in his own mind. I’ve even treated some Character Villains as philosophically correct, at least in the essentials, one Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and alternated Weekends.
This works because it results in hints that the Character Villain may be correct alternating with clues that he’s way wild of the mark – suggesting that the truth is stranger and more complex (and hence more realistic) than either PCs or Villain think.
It also helps no end if the GM has already given some thought to his own moral, ethical, and existential philosophy. This is not the sort of thing that can be easily picked out of textbooks and reference books, and it can be deep wading at the best of times – but is ultimately rewarding for the GM as a person, so it is well worth the effort.
The Character Villain should be temporarily weakened by surprises
The Mastermind is the most vulnerable to surprises, unless the Villain has done some planning on spec in the region of “What If….”. The Combat Monster is the least susceptible to surprise because he reacts instinctively (for good or ill). The Character Villain lands somewhere in the middle – more susceptible than the Mastermind who’s done some speculating, but less susceptible than an unprepared Mastermind (never mind the Combat Monster).
This is because, when he has a plan, only a Combat Monster at the top of his game can reasonably expect to be better at coping with the unexpected.
The Character Villain has a relatively straightforward set of questions to answer about any unexpected development. Does this take me closer to my goal or farther away? Does this create an opportunity for me to advance my cause? Does it empower my opposition or create new opposition of significance who may be – possibly temporarily – vulnerable? As a result, it won’t take them very long to come to grips with a surprise. They may be hindered for a while, but this won’t persist. The more unexpected the development, i.e. the bigger the surprise, the longer it will take (as a general rule) for them to get their feet back under them.
Worse still, there’s a fair likelyhood that the Character Villain will have a Combat Monster or two on staff, with the authority to take charge if necessary, completely eliminating his own susceptibility to surprise.
The Character Villain May Be temporarily vulnerable to forced pacing
This same analysis shows why the Character Villain might be temporarily inconvenienced by forced pacing. The big problem is that I have defined this type of villain as Shrewd – and that implies that he gets to the central consequences of a situation fairly quickly. This enables him to take action without waiting for a full understanding of what’s going on. It follows that the first actions in a chain of forced-pacing events, which come as a surprise, can leave the character temporarily vulnerable, but he will quickly adjust and catch up. He may even be able to predict the “next step” for whichever enemy he judges to be responsible and prepare accordingly. It follows that one surprise is never enough – to really bring the Character Villain undone, what’s necessary is a series of surprises, or an orchestrated campaign over the long-term.
The comments about having Combat Monsters at the ready also apply to this vulnerability.
The Character Villain May Be temporarily vulnerable to brute force
The reasoning behind this maxim should therefore be fairly obvious. It doesn’t take long to realize that you’re under attack – and the Character Villain is perfectly prepared to cut his losses, go to ground, and begin to rebuild as soon as he realizes that his position is possibly untenable. Remember – crazy, not stupid. He may not be as quick to react as a Combat Monster (who generally won’t have to think about this situation at all, but will react immediately) – but he won’t be far behind his more instinctive compatriots, and that completely disregards (once again) the potential of Combat Monster underlings, who completely overcome this weakness.
The Character Villain may not be vulnerable to strategy
An orchestrated campaign against a Character Villain is aimed at depriving the villain of resources and authority, one step at a time. The villain’s vulnerability to strategy is therefore a function of his degree of dependence on those resources and authority; the more personal power the Character Villain has, the more closely they come to resemble a Combat Monster – without the vulnerabilities and blind spots.
When a Character Villain has been reduced as far as is possible using strategy, the greatest remaining vulnerability they have is a radical transformation of the environment (i.e. a big surprise) followed by a brute force attack while they are (relatively) vulnerable. Above all, the goal of the strategy is to remove any Combat Monsters whose presence shields the Character Villain from surprise, forced pacing, and direct attack while reducing or limiting the personal power of the Character Villain.
The Character Villain should rarely see through quality deception
When it comes to deceptions, a Character Villain is like a light switch – they are apt to uncover the slightest flaw in the deception and recognize it for what it is. They don’t have the capacity for self-deception that leaves the Mastermind vulnerable to subterfuge and betrayal, and are better at reading people than the Combat Monster (who tends to be better at reacting to circumstances).
Only when a deception deliberately panders and plays apon the central beliefs of the Character Villain does it stand a chance of success if it is less than perfectly planned and executed. It is fortunate indeed for the PCs that this villain type tends to advertise those beliefs, or they would be in real trouble.
It follows that a Character Villain who is also a bit of a mastermind poses the absolute greatest challenge to a party – because the Mastermind can be manipulative and deceptive, with a hidden agenda cloaked behind a more overtly displayed face.
The Character Villain should not be fixated on the mundane
No matter how astute and pragmatic a Character Villain might be, no matter how zealous and obsessive, their greatest blind spot is nevertheless a focus on the abstract and on general principles at the expense of more practical perspectives. This may translate as a fixation on the theoretical or ideal situations and not on real-world practicality. In a nutshell, they tend to be idealists.
While they aren’t susceptible in general to flawed assumptions, when it comes to these idealized philosophies, they very definitely can be blinkered – and an astute opponent may find a way to exploit the resulting blind spots.
Even without malicious exploitation, this blind spot may create enemies where none existed before, or result in the removal of potential allies, or in failing to observe the flaws in allies, or other forms of short-sightedness. That means that it is very important for the GM to consider how this blinkering will manifest itself in the case of an individual. This is one aspect of the Character Villain that is essential to a consistent perception of the villain, so make sure you get it right.
The Character Villain will always deceive when necessary
One aspect of the principle that “the end justifies the means the Character Villain has chosen to employ” is that the Character Villain will regretfully deceive others when he feels it is necessary. That conditional modifier is critical, though – unless there is more than a little Mastermind within the villain’s makeup, he usually won’t decide deception is necessary until it is far too late.
There are also lines the Character Villain will not cross. He or she may be willing to deceive about his immediate focus, or his long term goals, or about how far he will go to achieve those goals – but there is almost always at least one of these about which the villain will be candidly honest. The trick is always to know which one.
The Character Villain should possess character virtues and should be given the opportunity to express them
Character Villains are interesting because they aren’t completely dark in character. If anything, they are more white-hat than black-hat. The more morally-gray the PCs are – and some of them can be pretty shadowy – the harder it is to distinguish the Hero from the Villain – that’s why they are called “Character Villains”.
That doesn’t mean that they can’t be as out-and-out-evil as you want them to be – only that if you accept the fundamental premise of their ideology, they are heroes. To anyone who doesn’t, they can be utterly and completely malevolent.
Above All: the Character Villain Matters Ideologically & Philosophically
Creating a Character Villain inevitably means that the ideology and philosophies held by individuals and groups within your campaign will be explored in the course of adventures. There will be adventures which reveal feet of clay on the part of otherwise good and noble institutions and citizens, adventures in which value judgments will be called into question, adventures in which the differences and similarities of the Character Villain and the PCs will be scrutinized, adventures in which the topics of faith, dogma, idealism, obsession, and compromise are held up for inspection. There will be a heavier focus on roleplaying and a slighter focus on meaningless fights. There will be a lot of meaning and introspection, and your players will be directly challenged to define, understand, and work with not only what their characters believe but what they believe. Used insensitively, a Character Villain can offend someone so strongly that they will have difficulty continuing within the campaign, as it is much easier for in-game philosophical challenges to strongly-held views to spill out into the real world. Sensible GMs will strongly distinguish between the views that may be held by a Character Villain and their own – usually by prominently placing an advocate for the other side within the campaign.
Consider the potential for offense with a Villain who so strongly believes that abortion is wrong that he is prepared to incinerate any city containing an abortion clinic with weapons of mass destruction. Or who so strongly supports the right to choose that he targets any right-to-life believer or potential believer for Assassination.
If you, as GM are not ready to cope with the potential for disagreement on a subject within the confines of your game – and the possible severing of friendships that can result – DON’T use that subject as the central tenet of a Character Villain. Either avoid the subject entirely, or use something else as a metaphor for the forbidden subject – tattooing or body piercing, for example. Take some of the emotional heat out of the conflict as expressed within the game, and resist any temptation to lecture or preach. An arguement over someone’s real-world personal beliefs only ruins everyone’s fun.
Scratch the Surface Of A Hero
Which brings me to the construction of a Character Villain – not mechanically, but conceptually. The most important facet and starting point from which everything else should flow is what the character believes. Whatever it is, the character should believe themselves the hero and champion of what may be an unpopular cause – they have to believe that they are right and that extreme measures are necessary.
Almost by definition, this demands a twist of some sort – either blatant or hidden. Unless the beliefs the villain holds are unusual in some respect, the villain himself risks falling flat – when there are so many interesting choices that can be made, why take that risk?
The Winners write the History
With few extremely rare exceptions, no-one ever thinks of themselves as the villain. An individual may sometimes believe that they have the right to satisfy some desire, or that no-one is really hurt, or that they are entitled to carry out their actions. Even a contract killer will justify his murders in terms of loyalty to his “extended family”, or a sense of entitlement. Throughout human history, conflicts have had people on both sides that thought they were right. Usually, the winners of the conflict dictate who is seen as the good guys and who wore the black hats; only with long hindsight (and not even always then) can a more balanced perspective be seen. Even the Nazis thought they were right.
The second key ingredient in creating a credible Character Villain is therefore his motivation. What is it that he believes empowers and authorizes him to “right this wrong” or whatever it is that he is trying to achieve? What implications does that source of authority contain for lines the character will not cross, lines that he will cross only reluctantly, lines that he will only cross with respect to certain groups? What questions of morality and ethics and philosophy does the character pose?
This is occasionally a chance to build an additional twist into the character. Consider the zealot who believes that an enemy is needed to espouse a certain perspective that is considered anathema by common society and lose, martyring himself for the greater good? Motivations can be a very subtle and complex thing, and can impart serious depth to the character. Be careful not to overdo this approach; save it for when it really adds a new layer of complexity and impact to the character and the campaign.
Birthplace of an extremist
The next step is to decide where the Character Villain comes from, and what impact this birthplace has on his personality and beliefs. To some extent, this should be an informed decision, founded on the choices already made.
Once again, there is a limited capacity for the occasional twist in the character at this point, by selecting a birthplace that people would not normally expect, marrying an extreme viewpoint on one subject with an unexpected cultural twist.
Explore the Philosophy
The fourth stage in developing the Character Villain is to thoroughly explore the philosophy or ideology of the character. What actions does it mandate and what does it prohibit? What otherwise unacceptable actions become possible to the character’s conscience as a result? What will his ‘blind spots’ be? And, in particular, where are the flaws and how can they be protected from undermining the character?
Touches Of Mastermind, Touches Of Combat Monster
Examples of the Character Villain usually have one or more secondary aspects which may fall into the other villain categories. This step of the character design is concerned with determining how and why this particular Character Villain is going to be effective, and determining just how effective he is going to be. What is it about this character that is going to make him a credible threat?
Preserve the Mystery
You should now have everything you need to complete delineating the personality of the Character Villain. While doing so, you should carefully assess how obvious the various aspects of the character are going to be – remembering that for every aspect that you choose to conceal, an adventure plotline will be needed to reveal the hidden truth. If you can’t think of one, at least in general terms, you might be better off making that aspect of the character more obvious. Above all, you want to ensure that at least some aspects of the character remains a mystery throughout the early encounters. You might choose to conceal the character’s true objectives, or the reasons for his fanaticism, or the true extremes that he is prepared to countenance, or his motives, or his origins, or his allies. You will usually want to conceal at least some of his capabilities and resources.
The Character Villain As Pawn
Masterminds have a love/hate relationship with the concept of Character Villains as lieutenants and pawns. Because of their ideology, they can often use the Character Villain to conceal what the Mastermind is up to – but there is the constant risk that the manipulation will be exposed. Combat Monsters are more suspicious of Character Villains because of their unpredictability, but will also consider the possibility of using one as a smokescreen for their own activities.
Character Villains will rarely have a Mastermind as a subordinate, though they may accept subordinate Character Villains who have a strong Mastermind capacity. They will quite often have Combat Monsters as subordinates, because the two compliment each other so strongly.
Making the Character Villain Great
With the basic recipe perfected, it’s time to conclude this article with a few thoughts on how to make the Character Villain exceptional.
A Noble Cause? Justifiable Arrogance? The Power Of The Dark Side? Or None Of The Above?
Here are a couple of Character Villains that are accepted as exceptional.
Magneto wins allies because his cause is noble, enabling him to cross the line between hero and villain as necessary. There are clear analogies between the plight of Mutants in his environment and racial prejudice in general; but his standpoint also touches on positive discrimination and “equal opportunity” and several other social issues. What’s more, he and his followers are usually fighting for their lives – if you accept his basic tenet that the Human Race and Mutants are at war, and his World-War-II opinions on the subject of War Crimes and the justifiability of such extremes, his regular excursions into villainy are completely understandable. The character would probably be more consistent if he unconditionally opposed acts of Genocide, but a delicious irony would be lost, and the character’s effectiveness as a villain would be substantially reduced. There is also an element of tit-for-tat about his approach – what was done to him and his people justifies, in his mind, the use of the same tactics on his new enemies.
Doctor Doom is a European Noble from an essentially middle-ages political environment, in which the monarch has absolute power and authority. He may demand total loyalty and obedience from his subjects, but he also shelters and protects them from stronger neighbors; with a population so unprepared, every attempt at democratization is doomed to failure. Furthermore, their economic survival and competitiveness is inherently bound to his presence and technological sophistication. Doom is very definitely the lesser of two evils so far as his people are concerned. He also has a streak of nobility in his makeup; if approached with what he considers appropriate respect, he is quite capable of working in collaboration with heroes to protect the entire globe because his own little patch is part of it – though (in general) he leaves such menial work to commoners like the Avengers. Most of his hostile moves are personal, directed at the Fantastic Four and Reed Richards in particular.
Darth Vader initially appears to be the ultimate in extreme evil. But even in the first Star Wars there are hints that there is more to him than meets the eye. His relationship with his former teacher, Obi-Wan, acknowledges that his mentor was once stronger than he, implying a vestigial lingering of respect. Vader may have been “seduced by the Dark Side of the force”, but he is clearly doing what he thinks is right – a characterization that remains consistent throughout all six movies. Indeed, compared to the villainy of the Mastermind who is pulling his strings – the Emperor – Vader is clearly a dark shade of gray and not complete black, as shown in the course of Return Of The Jedi. After the fact, it is even possible to see a hint of “the good within him” when he is confronting Lando Calrissian – “I am altering the terms of our agreement. Pray I do not alter them further.” There are clearly advantages to the Empire in taking over the station completely, but Vader stops short of doing so. In the third of the prequels, Revenge Of The Sith, it is clearly shown that the pre-Vader Annakin Skywalker has an absolute belief that he is doing exactly what he believes to be right. From his point-of-view, then, Vader is a Character Villain – one with a large serving of Combat Monster and relatively little of the Mastermind about him.
These are exceptional villains because they are strong characters first and villains second. In many ways, it’s that simple.
Character Villainy is all about Consequences
The GM should frame his design of the Character Villain in terms of the consequences – those that the Character Villain himself expects to result, those that the PCs can expect to result, and those that really will eventuate. The Character Villain is a villain because he cannot see the harm that will result from his actions, or because he excuses or justifies them as acceptable. This consequences triangle should always be borne in mind by the GM.
I have never seen this demonstrated more clearly than in the extremely-readable ‘Dreadnought!’ by Diane Carey and its sequel, ‘Battlestations!’ (NB: These web pages might not display correctly with Internet Explorer).
Give a Character Villain a simplistic or weak primary motivation, and no matter how interesting the rest of the character might be, that villain will fall flat.
One of the more memorable creations that I unleashed in my previous Zenith-3 campaign was a gentleman named Torquemada by the PCs. It was his belief that planetary civilizations should be tested to the point of destruction according to an arbitrary standard of Piousness and Moral Purity – those that succeeded in driving him away earned the right to survive (until his eventual return), while those that failed to do so were eliminated, leaving room within the Galaxy for a better, purer race to expand. So far, of course, none had met this impossible standard of purity. In the course of the second encounter with the PCs (the first was not resolved definitively, from Torquemada’s point of view), it was discovered that his own society had doomed themselves to environmental destruction through corruption; Torquemada (under whatever name he was using at the time) created a device to restore the planet’s health, but an unplanned side-effect had destroyed the planet – and imbued Torquemada with his power and virtual immortality. He became obsessed with the notion of cleansing the universe of the impure because the thought that any other species could be more worthy than his own dead race was impossible to tolerate. In other words, he sets an impossibly-high standard out of guilt for the destruction of his own race, blaming them for what transpired and not himself. Since nothing can bring his race back, he is an absolutely implacable foe – yet, at the same time, he is deeply religious and peace-loving. This sensitivity is what makes him feel so guilty over his error, and makes him the Character Villain that he is. (That rematch was also not concluded to his satisfaction; he sees the PCs as the equivalent in his faith of the Antichrist, preventing him from properly testing the planet they happened to be living on at the time out of evil, villainous, corrupt motives. Everyone knows that there will be a return visit sometime….)
When creating a Character Villain, the GM should give thought to how he wants the conflict between the Character Villain and the PCs to be resolved, in general. Can the Character be reformed? Can the conflict be resolved without resorting to extreme measures? Or is the Character Villain implacable? What is the payoff with this character in terms of the campaign?
If the character is not to be reformed, the GM needs to ensure that the root motive of the Character Villain’s actions can never be resolved, deflected, or mitigated. Torquemada’s burden of guilt cannot be assuaged without bringing his people back from the dead – itself an action that he would find vile and corrupt. Since he cannot be reasoned with, cannot be bargained with, cannot be stopped in any other way, the only solution is a violent end for him or the PCs. It’s him or them, and that’s all there is to it. And yet, by his own lights, he is a moral reformer, a crusader for good.
Character Villains have a richness of characterization and a depth that neither the Mastermind nor the Combat Monster can touch. That generally means that they will form a larger part of the campaign in which they occur, simply because more time is required to fully plumb their depths. They can be more work to set up – but because they last longer, the return on investment of the GMs time is usually higher than with any other type of Villain.
A Great Villain is a fantastic character first and a villain second. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Character Villain; hopefully, this article (and this series) has given the GM reading it the tools they need to populate their campaigns with exceptional and memorable villains.