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GM’s Journal – Villains, Part I

In the GM’s Journal we will discuss all things role playing. From tips for running a successful table to reviews of various systems, you’ll find it here.

In the last GM’s Journal we discussed the importance of heroes in storytelling. In this post we will discuss a topic of a much more sinister quality… villains!

In most roleplaying settings villains are an important aspect of the story. They help to progress the plot, act as a foil for the players, and create new and dynamic trials for the heroes to overcome. In short, villains are a direct (and sometimes indirect) threat to the players. As GMs it is our duty to create interesting and challenging villains for our characters to face. Over the next few blog posts we will discuss some villain basics, as well as some helpful tips and tricks I have picked up along the way. This is not a comprehensive guide for how to build every villain archetype, but it is a good place to start.

Villains fulfill many different roles and come in a variety of different types. Some villains we can understand or even sympathize with, others are so inhuman that it is difficult for us to relate to them at all. When we are using villains, one thing that we must consider is their lifespan. Is he or she a major villain or a minor villain? Are they to be a one-shot villain who poses a threat for an entire session before being dispatched with dramatic flair? Or will they be a recurring villain who assails the players with henchmen before finally revealing themselves near the end of the campaign?

The next thing that we need to consider is our villain’s motivation. Put simply, why is she engaging in villainy? A barebones villain building exercise can be done by considering three things. First, what does our villain want? There are countless motivations including: fame, fortune, power, survival, revenge, freedom, and even love. Second, what prevents them from obtaining their goal? This could be any number of things: social injustice, rival villains, lack of resources, or even the player characters. Finally, what will the do to obtain her goals? This is where we really start to see the villain emerge. Even if her desires seem pure, and her obstacles unfair, when she commits a terrible act she has marked herself as a villain.

After considering the villain’s lifespan and motivation we need to consider their modus operandi. Put plainly, what does the villain do that is villainous? Do they work alone or do they have hirelings? Perhaps they are a loner mercenary selling their blade to the highest bidder. Or perhaps a nefarious criminal mastermind building a shadow network. What if the “villain” is a faceless corporation bent on pursuing its own agenda? Some villains are not serial offenders, they commit a single heinous crime in a moment of passion and are done. This “one and done villain” often works better as a one-shot villain.

Not every villain the players encounter needs to be the “greatest there ever was”. Villains, much like characters can grow, but in very different ways. Villains often work to escalate their plans. They work to acquire more territory, a higher body count, more renown, more underlings, or more power. This insatiable desire often brings them into direct conflict with the world at large, the player characters, and even other villains, leading to some powerful showdowns.

There are so many different ways that you can use villains to drive your story. This should give you a good idea of how to construct villains by considering their motivations, modus operandi, and lifespan. Once you know who they are, what they want, and how they do it; the villain begins to take shape. In the next article we will discuss how to make threatening villains, some things to avoid when making villains, and what to do when they are inevitably defeated.

Meeple Karington Hess - Small

Karington Hess is a lifelong gamer whose passions for hospitality and all things game-related led him to Ravenwood Castle, where he served as an Innkeeper before joining The Malted Meeple. When not pouring beers, crafting milkshakes, or teaching boardgames, Karington can be found behind the DM’s screen, weaving intricate stories for his fellow gamers.

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