You want a villain your players will enjoy opposing, someone who is more than a collection of stats. Someone like Erling Yorik, a robber baron from the steampunk, industrial city of North End.
Step One: Give Them Goals
Kurt Vonnegut said that every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This applies to your villain in spades. It’s vital that you know what they’re trying to accomplish, because that’s the core of their ability to provide opposition. As the GM, you’ll be constantly reacting to what your players do, and knowing your villain inside and out will make you adaptable when the group throws you a curve ball.
Your villain can and should acquire new goals as the story progresses, but having some from the get-go is vital. It’ll provide the story with direction, and give you something to fall back on when you get stuck. Ideally, your players should be able to look back on the campaign once it’s finished, and see signs of what the villain was up to from the very start.
Despite their role as antagonist, your villain’s goals should not be to kill the PCs. First, this is something they will try to do anyway. Second, the villain needs goals that can be accomplished without ending the game. Otherwise, their repeated failures will lead them down the road to Team Rocket Syndrome. The players should be worried about the villain succeeding at their goals, and most players will know their GM isn’t prepared to arbitrarily kill their characters.
Also note that goals are not the same as plans. How the villain will go about getting what they want should be decided as the game progresses, but their most important desires should be baked in from the start.
Yorik wants power, that’s his defining characteristic. To get that power, he wants to take over North End, and then expand his influence to the entire Velden Commonwealth! Figuring out how he plans to do that will happen as the game goes on and the players show the GM what they’re interested in.
Step Two: Give Them Power
A villain must be powerful, otherwise there’s no fun in defeating them. How does your villain influence the world? What nefarious obstacles can they throw in the PCs’ way? In this step, you must get a basic idea of what your villain can do. Extra abilities can be added later of course, but the more you can get down at the start, the better. Note that these are not actual game stats; those will come later, if at all.
There are many different powers your villain can have, depending on the kind of game you want to run. Does your villain excel at hand to hand combat? Are they a master of occult sorcery? Do they control a powerful political machine? Some villains, like Agent Smith, are dangerous primarily because of their personal ability to fight. Others, like Linderman from Heroes,* act almost exclusively through minions. Decide on the mix that’s right for you!
What resources can your villain call on when they’re in a bind? Do they have any major lieutenants that need their own names and abilities? Knowing this ahead of time will make using your villain much easier, because you won’t have to pause the game to figure out what they’ll do next. You’ll already know that their first instinct is to release the hounds, and that they only go for their Infernal Scepter when things get desperate.
As much fun as this step is, it’s important not to go overboard. Give your villain too many powers, and it won’t be credible for the PCs to defeat them. Players should always feel like they have a chance, even if it’s a slim one. Otherwise they’ll get discouraged, and find some other way to spend their Saturday evening.
Like any good robber baron, Yorik has lots and lots of money. He’s also got more than a few local politicians in his pocket, and a cadre of loyal hired guns if things get really ugly. Not only that, but he’s a talented fencer, which will come in handy if someone tries to ambush him in a dark alley.
Step Three: Make Them Bad
Villains need to be bad, otherwise there’s no impetus for the PCs to oppose them. Since stories thrive on conflict, villains who stay home and care for their sick parents aren’t going to cut it. They must have dastardly plans and selfish desires! They must disregard or actively hinder the well-being of others in pursuit of their goals!
Some of fiction’s greatest villains have been irredeemably evil. Think of the Joker, or Emperor Palpatine. These enemies are scary because their thought process is so far removed from that of a decent human being that they become some sort of other. They are so malicious, they unnerve us despite not being real. If you make a villain like this for your campaign, then the PCs will soon be shaking in their boots.
At the same time, there’s a lot to recommend a more sympathetic villain, someone the players can more easily understand. Admiral Cain of Battlestar Galactica works as a villain because she represents a path Adama himself could easily have traveled down. No one in real life thinks of themselves as being evil, and bringing that realism into your campaign can help players invest in the story. There are great moments of drama to be had when the PCs look at a villain and ask if they are really so different.
It’s up to you where on this continuum your villain should fall, depending on the game you want to run. A hack-and-slash dungeon crawler might need an evil lich who wants to annihilate all creation, while a game of political intrigue should have someone with a bit more nuance to them.
Yorik doesn’t care who he steps on in his quest for power. He believes those with less than him deserve whatever they get because of their own failings. He is not a nice guy. At the same time, he loves his family, because he’s still a person. He also respects real talent where he finds it, even if it comes from a no-good PC.
Step Four: Give Them a Connection to the PCs
While you could probably get the PCs to oppose a villain who’s doing something bad in a context unrelated to them, it’s much more fun to make things personal. The villain should affect the PCs’ lives in a direct manner, otherwise the players may lose interest in the conflict.
A direct relationship, like that of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, can work well here. PCs should be the center of any roleplaying, and that’s even easier to do if the villain is personally related to one of them. There’s also a bit of extra kick to a story about opposing your childhood friend or beloved sibling.
On the other hand, it can feel a little hokey to have a villain too closely related to the PCs. Instead, they can share something that’s important to both of them. Deep Space Nine’s wonderfully evil Kai Winn has a great connection with Colonel Kira because Winn is the spiritual leader of Kira’s religion. Religion’s important to Kira, so when Winn uses her position for selfish political gain, it’s a source of great conflict.
It’s also possible for the villain to have a connection with the entire party. This can work even if they don’t know each other. Also from Deep Space Nine, Gul Dukat used to run the space station that the main characters now work on. His desire to get it back means he has an automatic connection with every character.
None of the PCs personally know Yorik, so instead, he’s the owner of the factory where they all work. As part of his quest for power, he plans to overtax and grind down his workers, so the PCs will have a built-in reason for opposing him.
Step Five: Put on the Finishing Touches
The previous four steps have all been important under-the-hood decisions. They are primarily for you as the GM to know who your villain is and how to use them. In this final step, you add on the bits that the PCs are most likely to see. This is the presentation stage, where you try to impress your players with all the work you’ve done.
What does your villain look like? Because roleplaying games aren’t a visual medium, focus on a few essential details that will be easily remembered. You don’t need to describe an evil queen’s entire costume, but the coat that’s sewn from banners of her defeated enemies is pretty important. These details are a visual shorthand that will give your players an introduction to the villain. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even send contradictory signals. Perhaps the murderous serial killer has a kind, grandfatherly face.
You should also decide on a few mannerisms that will make your villain stand out from other NPCs. Do they have an advanced vocabulary? Do they always drum their fingers when speaking? Don’t go overboard on these, because you’ll have to roleplay them. A French accent is great, but only if you can actually speak in one. Unless, of course, your villain is supposed to have a bad French accent, which opens up entirely new possibilities.
This is also where you write down any necessary stats. Write down the stuff that your villain is most likely to use, and leave the rest for later. Even the stats you do record aren’t set in stone, but it’s good to have guidelines so your villain will stay consistent.
Yorik wears the suit and top hat of a Victorian gentleman. He never uses one word when ten will do, and he’s always coolly polite. His stat sheet includes a few social and administrative skills, because as a mastermind villain that’s what he’s most likely to use. His resource stat is his most powerful trait, since he’s got money. A lot of money. He’s also handy with a cane-sword, because cane-swords are cool.
Once you’ve followed these steps, your villain will be ready to be unleashed upon your players while you cackle in glee! Of course, no plan ever survives first contact with the PCs, so you’ll need to stay flexible. But you’ll have a solid foundation upon which to build.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.