This entry is part 5 in the series Making A Great Villain


Something got me thinking the other day about the villains trilogy that I wrote last year – Part 1 – The Mastermind, Part 2 – The Combat Monster, and Part 3 – the Character Villain and about something that wasn’t included. What makes the scariest villain?

Beginning at the Beginning: What is Fear?

Wikipedia has a reasonable definition of Fear that makes a good starting point. A bit of rephrasing, paraphrasing, and disassembly and recombination of that foundation material gives me the following:

Fear is an emotional reaction to an acute and immediate sense of danger or threat which causes instinct to override rational control of actions, or to the anticipation of such acute and immediate dangers or threats.

In humans, the instincts are generally fight or flight. There is a clear evolutionary advantage to such an override of the higher functions – the hesitation and indecisiveness that result from taking the time for complex analysis can get you killed in a dangerous situation.

It’s somewhat off-topic, but a large part of military training is aimed at replacing those instinctive responses with a trained and conditioned response which doesn’t automatically exclude rational control. Clearly, if the survival of the soldier is deemed less important than the survival of the species, or the nation, or the perpetuation of their national values and/or agenda, the basic instinct is unsuitable, simply because it places the welfare of the individual ahead of the welfare of the social collective. That’s why descriptions of Military Training such as the first half of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie) often read like brainwashing. Many of the terms used to describe the process are clearly analogous – compare “Breaking them” to “Tearing them down and rebuilding them as [Soldiers]”.

It is for these reasons that I have long advocated that soldiers leaving the service should receive mandatory “re-entry training”; the instincts that have been built into their personalities, and the acts they have witnessed, give them a set of automatic responses that can impair a successful reintegration with general society. They often have trouble fitting into a civilian life as a result. It’s not enough that we treat these problems when they arise; sometimes, that’s too late. Whether we agree with the politics that led them to be deployed, or with the missions that they were tasked to undertake, is irrelevant; they have risked their lives to protect and serve their nation, and deserve better preparation for life outside the military than that.

Almost as far off-topic: This is also the foundation of my personal pet theory as to why the ordinary German Citizen embraced Nazism in the years prior to and during World War II. The combination of the humiliation visited on them by the peace terms at the end of WWI and the Great Depression did the “breaking” part of the brainwashing process; All Hitler had to do was offer a half-convincing way out of this corner. When this sort of humiliation is inflicted by a torturer, the way out suggested by the torturer is for the victim to offer something to appease the torturer – information, conversion, whatever. Cults use the same basic processes to brainwash recruits. WWII Germany was the world’s largest cult (with the possible exception of the Communist Bloc), and that’s why good and honest citizens found themselves approving of and supporting the acts of barbarism that were inflicted by the Nazis, who redefined humanity to exclude not only anyone who was non-Aryan but anyone who opposed the state, making it possible to treat people as sub-human.

Fear and the Mastermind

While a Mastermind may employ fear as a stimulus, and may even be driven by Fear themselves, their actions are generally not going to induce fear themselves. They are too psychological, too intellectual, too philosophically-oriented. Their plans may, by virtue of their projected consequences, invoke a form of intellectual pseudo-fear, but this apprehension is never going to come close to causing “instinct to override rational control of actions”. No matter how good an opponent might be, and how inevitable a humiliating defeat may be, a chess game is never going to invoke fear in and of itself. To introduce fear to such an equation requires the attachment of some further threat to the progress, or outcome, of the game.

Fear and the Combat Monster

It might seem, then, that a Combat Monster, who poses a direct and physical threat to the welfare and survival of the character, is more prone to induce fear – and yet it never works out that way, for some reason. The character may be intimidated, may be presented with clear evidence that their opponent is superior, but the players – and the GM – clearly expect the characters to behave as soldiers, and engage the enemy – or make a tactical withdrawal until they can manufacture circumstances or strategy to equalize the odds in battle. No matter how threatening the Combat Monster may be to a character, the character sheet keeps any fear at arm’s length.

This is exactly the way things should be. The Mastermind may pose an intellectual challenge, and the Combat Monster a tactical challenge, but these are games for heroic actions on the part of the characters, and introducing genuine fear into the equation is usually counterproductive to the game – the objective of which is for everyone to have fun. Vicarious thrills, yes; Fear, no.

Fear and the Character Villain

Which leaves the character villain as the only archetype which should be capable of inspiring genuine fear. Because of the insulation between player and character provided by the character sheet, this will still be a watered-down, relatively tame form of fear – and once again, this is exactly as it should be. As a GM, you don’t want your players to be scared into inaction – or into inappropriate real-life action. You need to keep the fear at arm’s-length while still permitting the player the vicarious thrills involved.

Not all character villains can, or should, achieve this. A character villain is one whose personality is the dominant factor in their makeup, and the reactions to that personality can be anything from laughter to empathy to horror – or fear. So what we are talking about is a specific subtype of the character villain.

What sort of character could be so terrifying as to induce fear, not only in the character, but in the player? We’ll get back to that.

The Attributes Of Fear

There are various techniques that the GM can employ, taken directly from the Horror Movie playbook, that can be employed to induce a vicarious form of fear in the players. It’s worth looking briefly at these.

The Building Of Suspense

Prior to a manifestation of fear, you need to prepare the ground with a buildup of suspense. Suspense derives from the absence of expected activity. In a horror movie, you show the villain, or his shadow, or whatever, in proximity to the characters with whom the audience are identifying without those characters being aware that he’s there. Atmosphere and tone contribute.

I found two excellent articles on Suspense in writing that apply to RPGs as much as to any other medium: 6 Secrets To Creating And Sustaining Suspense from Writer’s Digest, and 41 Ways To Create And Heighten Suspense by Ian Irvine. I didn’t have to look very hard; this is both a common topic of discussion amongst writers and something that most would-be writers know that they need to learn.

One of the big tips that neither mention is to focus on individual micro-actions that would normally go unremarked. Describe each step that characters take, one by one. When they open a door, describe each step of the process in detail – reaching out for the doorknob, a momentary distraction just as the character is about to grip the knob, taking hold of the knob and starting to turn it, hearing the slide drawing back within the mechanism, a click as the knob reaches the end of its travel, the door slowwwwly opening to reveal… This is all about building the expectation of release, and it’s a Clayton’s promise in the context of the writer’s guide. What you are actually promising is not that there will be a dramatic release of tension when the door opens, but that there will eventually be an even bigger release of tension.

No let-up

Above all, there must be no release of the suspense. Don’t let the players take a break, don’t call an end to the game and expect to take up where you left off next time. Players may seek to discharge the suspense with humor – laugh right along with the rest and then carry on without let-up; such discharges are strictly small and temporary so long as the big pay-off lingers on the horizon while never quite manifesting. Don’t permit the characters to do anything decisive – if they try to do something that would end or reduce the threat, like turning on the light switch, don’t let them get away with it. Either whatever they are doing doesn’t work (they lights stay out) – or give them hope by letting it succeed, only to dash it (the lights come on – and then, one by one, or all at once, wink back out).

An equally big key is not permitting game mechanics to break the mood – No dice-rolling, no consulting character sheets or rule-books, and as little side conversation as possible. Yes, there are advanced techniques for using die rolls to build additional tension, like not asking a player to make a skill check and not telling them whether they succeed or not (or, if that is inherently obvious by virtue of the game system, not telling them what the significance is). Experiment, if you want to, but cautiously – a little of this goes a long way, and for the most part you will still want to design the encounter to minimize such things. It’s better, for the most part, to assume that a character will succeed in doing anything that doesn’t puncture the mood than to require them to make a die roll – and if it is something that will puncture the mood, let them succeed anyway (and then negate the benefit), as described earlier.

One of the scariest encounters that I ever ran worked like this: it started with an attack without warning from the shadows – a single attempted blow that was a deliberate near-miss doing enough incidental damage to the landscape that it was threatening to the character, with the attacker vanishing back into the shadows. Then the PC’s shadow began moving and twisting as though the light source that was casting it was moving – when it wasn’t – so that it was always behind the character. No matter what the character did, he could not make the shadow go away, it always seemed to be creeping up on him…

You can even tease the characters a little with a slight easing of the tension, a false release before again turning the screws.

This works because even though you are addressing the characters and their actions, the targets of you suspense are the players running those characters.

The Inconclusive Release

When it finally comes, the release of the tension should be sudden, dramatic, inconclusive, and unexpected. A whirlwind of violent action that ends just as suddenly as it began without terminating the threat. Then start building suspense again. The second time around, what was suspense will be suspense plus a tinge of fear.

Scary is not Scariest

These techniques are great for making any encounter scary – but they don’t make the villain scary, just the encounter. For a villain to be inherently scary, we have to look further.

The Anathema

All player characters have values of some sort, even in an Evil campaign. One of the most obvious Character Villains is the anathema, the villain who is everything that the player character hates and fears. That makes the villain something uniquely personal to the player character in question. It’s still not enough to make them scary, but it’s enough to get the character’s attention. It’s a starting point.

A more fearsome approach would be the Character Villain who twists or perverts every ambition the character has for the future, whose very existence threatens the character with impotence and despair. Note that it is not enough for the GM to simply describe the villain to the player in these terms; the villain has to actually engender these reactions in the character, which means they have to do likewise to some extent to the player who owns him. You want the player to feel this reaction, at least in part.

But that’s still not inherently scary. Disturbing and Depressing, yes, but not yet scary. It’s part of the picture, but to get the rest of it, we will need to pursue another avenue.

There but for the grace of god…

Villainous versions of heroic PCs are a staple of the superhero genre. Their roots trace all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, or perhaps Adam & Eve and the expulsion from the Garden. It’s not at all uncommon to extrapolate the principle into other types of campaign, like Pulp or Fantasy. GMs love them because they are fun. Players love them because they explore the roads not taken, and give them a chance to display aspects of their characters that don’t often get an airing. Characters hate them because they are everything the character doesn’t want to be, and yet are branches from the same root.

Like a snowball rolling downhill and gathering mass and momentum, the smallest change can accumulate consequences until the end result is as different as night and day – and yet it is familiar, with substantial common ground that it shares with the original character. These characters play with the primal forces of why the character is who they are, and that’s what makes them so fascinating to everyone.

What if, instead of aiming for a character who was the “evil twin” of a character, we aimed for the personality profile I identified in the preceding section? Call it… the twisted might-have-been.

The Twisted Might-have-been

Our character villain, then, is enough like the character that they have all sorts of common ground. Similar backgrounds. Similar experiences. Similar desires, similar flaws. Close enough to be brothers, or to be sisters. And yet, they are so twisted that their very reason for being is anathema to the character; not merely everything that the character hates and fears, but the antithesis of every principle and ambition the character holds dear. A Character Villain whose very existence implies that the character could become everything that he hates, and everything that the player doesn’t want his character to be, because of that common ground?

Have you ever encountered a snake in the wild? Potentially poisonous, potentially deadly – you can’t take your eyes off it, you don’t dare even blink. And it feels just as threatened by your presence – so it stares back just as intently.

Okay, maybe the Australian experience is a little different to that of the rest of the world – there are only a few species of deadly snake in North America, for example, and most are of a temperament that would just as soon leave you alone if you give it the chance. In Australia, most of the snakes are deadly, and there are a lot of them. And some of them can be very aggressive and bad-tempered. Children are always taught to be careful – especially since what might not be deadly to an adult can be very deadly to a child – and that childhood training is carried forward into adulthood. Just take a look at Wikipedia’s list of snake species native to Australia. If you consult AustralianFauna dot com’s page on snakes, you will find the following:

In Australia most people are well afraid of snakes. And with good enough reason. If you step on one accidentally you might well be bitten. And that has consequences. Perhaps that is why Australians even in snake free countries such as New Zealand can’t relax in long grass.

It’s actually more a matter of sensible precaution and common sense, even here, as the comments at the end of the AustralianFauna page makes clear:

Many Australians can tell stories of nearly treading on a snake, being frightened by a snake, or even killing a snake.

One of the best known snake stories is ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson which tells of a women’s all night vigil to protect her children knowing that there is a snake in the wall of their slab hut.

Although deaths from snake bite do occur, (eg one elderly women was bitten by a tiger snake while she pruned the ivy on the fence in Kew, an inner suburb of Melbourne, in 2003), many more deaths from snake bite occur in Asia and Africa.

The difference is that in the US, most people are warned about Rattlesnakes and there aren’t that many other common species of dangerous snake. Most snakes can be considered relatively harmless. In Australia, we are taught that any snake is potentially deadly, especially if mishandled. In the old days, they used to killed if they infringed on a populated settlement; these days, most are a protected species, and there are government services you can call to come and safely remove any snake you find if it’s somewhere it shouldn’t be.

The Outback Australia Travel Guide’s page on Australian Outback Dangers makes no bones about the reality.

Snakes are the number one fear of most Outback travellers. Australian snakes are the most dangerous in the world. Or so they say…

Well, fact is, the “most dangerous snake in the world“, the Australian Inland Taipan, never killed anyone. To date not a single person died from the bite of the Inland Taipan.

Precious few people have died of any snake bites in Australia. The people who get bitten are usually herpetologists (people whose job involves playing with snakes), people who act as if they were herpetologists (a surprisingly large number of drunk males get bitten by snakes…) or idiots trying to kill snakes. A bit of common sense wouldn’t go astray here…

Yes, there are poisonous snakes in Australia. No, they are not dangerous, as long as you leave them alone.

(For the record, I agree with everything the Outback Australia Travel Guide’s page has to say).

Getting back to the point, a Character Villain who meets this description should hold the same level of fascination for the PC and for his or her player, and for exactly the same reason: They are scared stiff of each other, and what each other represents. It places the character at the same crossroads as the point of “Evil Twin” divergence – but it does so in the here-and-now, with an uncertain future, rather than in the past, where it can be an intellectual exercise combined with a “thank goodness it wasn’t me”.

You can get a similar effect by bringing a broken and twisted version of the character back from the future – the very existence of the character is inherently scary, and the more plausible the road from who the character is to what he or she may apparently become, the more scary it becomes.

Making Proper Use of the Scariest Villain

It’s very easy to squander the potential of the scariest villain. The GM is undoubtedly proud of his handiwork, and there’s a natural tendency to want to show it off.

Less is more.

Take all those tactics and techniques for creating suspense and treat them as an analogy for how you should employ the Villain. Start by showing the Villain to be a threat, and keep the encounter inconclusive. Then actively search for ways to emphasize the common ground between the PC and the Villain in subsequent encounters. Each such item is the equivalent of focusing on the relative minutia. Have the villain finish the PCs thoughts occasionally. Build up to the revelation of their ultimate similarity little by little, building the tension within the relationship until it is ready to explode.

The Scariest Villain – A shortcut

The scariest villain is actually relatively easy to create. Take a copy of the PC, with exactly the same hopes, dreams, ambitions, and motivations. Give them the same personality traits, the same psychological quirks, the same family structure, everything. Make any changes only in areas that have never contributed to the PC becoming who they are. Then add one incident that convinces the Villain that achieving these hopes, dreams, ambitions, and motivations justifies any means, however regretfully. Then turn them loose…

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