Most villains in RPG’s, as well as movies and video games, are pretty standard – they either want to rule the universe, or destroy it. Sometimes they have interesting reasons for doing so, but often not.
Making encounters more interesting can often be achieved by considering the villains’ motivation and goals. Killing the PCs seems to be the default, but lets consider this example:
The PCs are travelling through an area of wild forest, and are confronted by an aggressive griffin. The griffin will behave differently if is hungry (maybe try and snatch a small PC and fly off to eat in peace) as opposed to afraid for its new offspring (in which case it will be protective of the area containing its’ nest, and try to scare off the interlopers). Unless the creature is desperately hungry (in which case, give hints to the PCs that the creature looks malnourished and wild) it is unlikely to fight to the death. It may well fight harder if it thinks its babies are under threat.
To make villains more interesting we have to look a little deeper and consider different villain goals (the what), methods (the how), and motivations (the why, which is often skimmed over). Starting with the motivations of the villain can give us ideas about the kinds of goals the villain will pursue, and how they will do it.
Villains are often portrayed as engaging in theft or murder for their own immediate gain. Another common trope is a villain that wants to bring about the end of the world, often without a strong justification.
Here are some other possibilities for why (and how) a villain might commit crimes or oppose the PCs.
The villain wants to rise up the ranks, to achieve a certain position, or to attain a specific goal. For example:
- A patriotic soldier willing to do anything to become a general.
- A bastard who wishes to earn a spot in her fathers noble house.
- A prince fourth in line for the throne, but who is determined to rule.
- A girl who grew up in absolute poverty who wants to be rich at any cost.
It is vital to identify what drives this ambition. Is it a vast sense of superiority or entitlement? Jealousy or a desire to compete with a friend or family member who achieved the same position? To make up for an ancestors failure? Or their own?
A villain driven by ambition will often need to impress or ingratiate themselves with their superiors, and orchestrate to embarrass or hamper their rivals or their next target in the hierarchy. Such a villain might be happy to murder their rivals, or may draw a moral line and refuse to commit certain acts in pursuit of their goal.
If they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they might engage in the promotion of that cause in a loud and strident way to try and convince as many people as possible (especially the PCs if they can be turned from a threat to an asset). A villain with a more selfish ambition may well keep their designs a secret until they are ready to strike.
Similar to ambition, lusting for power is often more about having control over your circumstances and the people around you. For example:
- A person bullied by her parents and her siblings vows to never been a victim again, and is willing to hurt others before they can hurt her.
- A man whose family was wiped out by a natural disaster blames the Gods, and will fight against religious authorities that claim to represent the benevolent will of the deities.
- Elven agents captured and tortured his brother to death, and now he blames all elves for this crime and seeks to make them suffer for it.
This type of villain will try to get leverage over others, to manipulate circumstances, and severally punish the slightest disloyalty. They may even be happier as the power behind the throne than actually sitting on it.
A villain wanting power may be reacting to feeling powerless at the whims of fate or the gods, they might be deeply afraid the world and what will happen if they do not exert their will, or maybe they had a domineering parent and now behave the same way. If the villain suffered through a deprived upbringing, he or she may be willing to go to any lengths to secure enough funds to ensure that they never suffer this way again.
A power hungry villain will often seek to use the PCs as part of their scheme rather than just kill them – the villain may even have expected and planned for the PCs involvement. This villain uses manipulation and layers of deception as their primary weapons, but may use brute force if they feel it necessary.
This villain is not really a villain at all -they have been tricked, and believe that they pursue a noble goal. For example:
- A good-aligned knight works for an organisation she believes protects the nation, but it is in fact a criminal organisation using espionage to eliminate it’s rivals.
- The Church of Light has been infiltrated by several powerful agents of Darkness, and they are sending the Churches agents out to do their bidding.
- The dupe has been lied to by the real villain and believes that the PCs are responsible for the crimes committed against him.
This kind of villain is convinced of their righteousness, and may go to great lengths to pursue their agenda. In the end, they may be convinced of the error of their ways by the PCs along with a lot of proof and persuasion, or they might realise it on their own and offer to help the PCs fight the true evil.
Another variation of the dupe is a villain too stupid to know that they are doing the wrong thing – maybe they blame innocent parties for a wrongdoing, they don’t know the full story, or they are delusional. Here the PCs should stand a chance to work out why the villain is acting as they do and to convince them of the nature of their misdeeds.
The Greater Evil
This type of villain is motivated by the knowledge that their wrongdoing is necessary to avoid a greater catastrophe. The villains’ intelligence may come from a prophesy, divination magic, a glimpse into the future, statistical analysis, or just prevailing trends. They may even have a little incomplete information on a situation that is so dire that they feel justified in acting on what little they have.
- A prophesy proclaims that the forces of chaos will break through into the world from the catacombs beneath the royal castle, and a woman who had the prophetic visions will stop at nothing to destroy the castle and stop the invasion.
- The leader of a mad sect has been killed, but her son has escaped to the city with a deadly weapon. All the villain (hero?) knows is that the boy is 12 years old and that he has red hair – and he feels justified in killing every red-headed preteen male he finds in order to avoid a greater death toll if the weapon is activated.
- Many half-orc refugees have flooded into the city after their homeland is embroiled in war with another kingdom. One man that lives near the refugees is convinced that the half-orcs are gathering in numbers to try and take over the city, and so he spreads rumours and riles up the locals to act against the refugees.
A villain that fears a great disaster and acts on secret knowledge is likely willing to go to any lengths to ensure that the disaster is avoided. The PCs might be able to convince the villain of an alternate plan, but it is likely they will keep their options open as a last resort.
To Change the World
Rather than to destroy or take over the world, this kind of villain wants to change things. Many of the motivations on this list include this desire, but for some it is all consuming and they will happily give their lives to see their dreams fulfilled. For example:
- A zealous druid protects a grove of ancient trees, but has been unable to broker a deal with the local loggers. The druid massacres some loggers in the camp closest to the grove, and attacks and scares off anyone else who enters the area. The PCs are hired to deal with the menacing druid – are they inclined to make a reasonable deal with the druid? What happens if the loggers then fail to honour the terms the PCs negotiate?
- The home land of a group of gnomes has been occupied by human invaders, and one group of gnomes is angry enough to engage in terrorist acts that kill human civilians far from the occupied territory.
Maybe the villain has a noble cause but takes it too far, or is too willing to hurt others to achieve their goals. In other cases, the change they desire will result in great suffering even if a group in society will benefit. The threat this villain poses is related to the cause they pursue and the methods that they employ.
Villains that pursue a cause, especially if it is a noble one, can offer some subtle shades of grey in an otherwise black and white moral landscape.
These are just some simple options for making villains a little deeper than your usual moustache twirler, musclebound thug or demon worshipper that populates many RPG adventures.