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There are so many guides on how to make a villain your players will truly hate, but I am trying to make a villain that the characters will feel for. How can I create a "good" villain, like someone who has the best intentions for all the races, but just doesn't quite seem to get the "good guy" act down, because of his methods? The villain does not have to be super-evil, just evil-ish and opposed to the characters.

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Please do not answer in the comments. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 23 at 22:30
    
Comments are not for extended discussion. I am pruning comments significantly per user request. –  mxyzplk Jan 27 at 18:33

12 Answers 12

up vote 52 down vote accepted

The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions

In the Screwtape Letters, Screwtape toasts at a banquet stating that all the best sinners were failed saints. Men and women with a powerful will and a strong virtue, such as justice or defending the natural world, whose zeal crossed the line or had their virtue perverted. Villains should have goals that, at face value, seem noble, even commendable, its just the means to achieving their ends that makes them terrible. Hitler rose to power promising to end the harsh war reparations, raise the standard of living, and restore to Germany its former reputation and glory. He managed to achieve those goals, but his methods (and true goals) were horrifying, as history shows.

An Antagonist should be a foil

Every great Villain is a distortion of the Hero. Examine the rogue's gallery of someone like Batman. All the major villains hold a reflection of an aspect of the Hero's personality, methods, and/or identity. This is not so easy to accomplish in a party campaign setting, but your villain can have a similar background or shared experience with the party to underline the comparison. He/She could be the NPC that helped the party in an adventure, an NPC they rescued from danger, or an adventurer like the party. The villain's misdeeds should mirror some of the party's past actions. As Dampne suggests, a past party member (PC) whom a player got bored with or the GM was playing before becoming GM can make an excellent villain as well.

He/She is not Stupid Evil

While they will do terrible things in the name of their goals, the villain should display good and laudable qualities in other ways. They could be incredibly dedicated to their underlings, repaying their loyalty. They may burn down a village for logging in the forest, but at the same time help a sick traveler on the road. Above all they should not be evil for the sake of being evil or even personal gain, but evil for the "greater good" that they are seeking to accomplish.

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This is a great answer. I would, however, add one other section. Ex-PCs tend to make fantastic villains. One of the best recurring villains in one of my own campaigns is a Bard who's player left the game early on. He was part of the group, and but for a day's worth of travel the other PC's would probably be on his side. –  DampeS8N Jan 23 at 16:30
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I think Raz al-ghul and Bane from Nolan's Batman exemplify this (Joker can't because he is actually stupid/crazy evil). They both have elements which mirror Bruce/Batman's identity and background, but are decidedly different in what they seek. A villain should always be written as a hero who chose the wrong path. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jan 23 at 23:03

Establish clear limits your villain won't cross, don't make his evil acts hit too close to home for the PC's.

As Stalin is believed to have said "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." make sure to keep the villains evil actions in the realm of statistics.

So the kingdom has just sent a 10000 strong army to push back the villains undead hoard ... and they all died, the PC's won't care unless they had personal NPC friends which died with that army.

The villain needs information from a NPC, torture is not something you should have the villain do, for the villain to remain sympathetic have him use dark magic to instantly get the information.

Rape is of course out of the question, racism as well and nobody likes sexism.

You should establish that the villain is as opposed to these evils as the PC's are in fact ...

The villain should share much of the motivations of the PC's (players) but take them too far.

Let's say your players are in college and frustrated by the various setbacks we all go through there, your villain can be a wizard turned evil because his masters at the tower were holding him back and applying arbitrary old timey restrictions against him.

So he slaughters all the old masters and starts to rebuild a evil mage order/take over the world.

Your players or the PC obviously have tons of motives why they can't punch their teachers in the face, but the villain can have their same woes (identifying with the villain is the key) and just decide to turn his masters into liche servants (or potted plants) at the same time giving the players the contentment in knowing that they're better than the villain in keeping their cool and giving them the satisfaction in seeing the in-game representation of their woes being destroyed.

And best part they don't need to support the consequences for the villains outbreak they can get some of the buzz without the consequences which the villain will foot the tab for (he's a known evil mage now).

Are your players worried about the environment/animal lovers ?

Evil druid who kills all the hunters/woodcuters around the forest, by the time the PC's stop her (say it with me killing humans is bad) everyone is too afraid to go logging any more and the forest can recuperate.

Maybe there's a kingdom in which the king is obviously incompetent and the prince has the same complaints as the PC's but he decides enough is enough coup time, the PC's fight the coup because it's still against the law but they don't fault the prince.

Love is another good motivator for a villain which can make him/her likeable especially if the love is requited but society/the death of the partner is what it's keeping this from being a happy story.

What wouldn't you do for your loved one knowing that a life together is possible and the only barriers is some crusty old timers mumbling about "forbidden magics"/"demonic pacts".

Another villain might be a fantasy communist revolutionary, the realm is faltering and the richest merchants own nearly everything and twist the laws so that they can't be touched. Fantasy Lenin might launch a surprise revolution and overrun the wealthiest most corrupt merchants.

By the time the PC's defeat him the tricky problems are solved, the greedy untouchables have been killed and the PC's defeated Lenin before he started getting to the sympathetic people.

More specific to RPG's have the villain build the PC's up as a way to get them on his side...

"Oh yes please take this artefact sword, I don't use swords anyway and once you use it you will see the true power of evil."

"Yes I do know the forbidden monkey stance here check it out ... very good you've mastered it ... now leave your master and join my temple and we will dominate the Chi ... here is my card for when you feel ready to give me a call."

"Look I understand your paladin's oath does not allow you to kill prisoners even this guy who will just escape and come back ... that's why I just threw a dagger into his heart ... yes yes there was nothing you could have done to stop me ... bye now"

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I've played with a couple of interesting variations of this, though I'm not sure if either is exactly what you are looking for.

One is a "villain" who basically foils the P.C.s at every turn. The annoying thing about him is that, even though events have placed him in opposition to the "good guys", he's actually a much better man than they are.

So, he might do things like K.O. or kill the entire party, arrange for them to get healed, and leave a note apologizing for the whole thing ("I really admire the work you've done in the past, but I think you're mistaken about this particular issue. I hope someday we will be in a position to work together."). He even returns their possessions. Or the characters finally have a victory by beating him to perform some task, then find out he was delayed by his noble side-quest (possibly the same one the players passed up). And so on.

The players probably won't like him though - they'll hate him more than anyone, possibly. But they will feel for him and respect him.

Another variation is the charming rogue. The GM I played with did this really well, and it's probably not easy to pull off. He was super friendly, often helpful, but he would also sometimes trick you and steal stuff from you (never enough to really ruin your life - he was an ego-maniac who really wanted people to like him).

The way the GM pulled some of it off was to improvise, but allow the Charming Rogue to (retro-actively) have prepared just the right thing for the situation to trick the PCs (within reason of what his abilities could have accomplished). Some players could really object to this, but I enjoyed it.

The thing about the Charming Rogue is that, at the end of day, as much as he wants to be liked, it's all about him. Every now and then somebody opposing something the Charming Rogue was doing would end up dead. It was a little bit shocking when that happened, because he was such a fun character.

This worked well, but I think it partially depended on the GM being able to role-play a charming character.

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Tragedy can also be a good tool. If you can give the villain a truly lamentable life and make him a victim of his surroundings it will probably have an effect on the players. Additionally you may wish to actually make the things that make the villain a villain simply traits that the player's (not their characters) themselves actually have, just magnified to a fault. You might have a player who's a little bit of a procrastinator, fine. Give you villain that trait, but make it extreme enough that it becomes something that makes him evil. eg: Maybe he has to do despicable things because of how much he procrastinated something important. etc...

Just be careful, you don't really want the player's to know where you got your inspiration...they might be a little offended if they do figure it out. :P

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I believe one of the most important parts is the way the character gets introduced - and it goes both ways. If you've read "A song of Fire & Ice" - take someone like Jaime Lannister. He seems almost like a villian at first, but once the reader sees the world from Jaimie's perspective he likely sympathizes with the character even. The same for the purposes of a villian can be used the other way around. The villian could be a very charming daredevil who enjoys games, betting, feasts etc., but once the players get to know him better they'll learn about some vile motives and alike. Or they'll meet and get to know the villian as someone who cares a lot for his sickly father and eventually they'll find out about all the dark deeds he partakes.

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The difference between heroes and villains is often their methods, rather than their motivations.

Think about the end result, and make it as "honourable" as possible; world peace, destruction of an evil artifact, stopping another super villain etc.

Then think about how a normal hero would achieve these end results, if they ever could; getting everyone around a table and talking, safe removal and storage of the artifact, incarceration and rehabilitation of the super villain etc.

A villain would not consider these options first (if at all), with their own justifications (its never worked in the past, it would take to long, the risk is still there etc.) and would normally use force or other extreme methods to achieve the end result.

As you haven't offered a system or setting, I'm going with easily demonstrable examples:

Doctor Doom has moments where his intentions are "good"; retaking his throne from an usurper, considering killing Hitler, solving most of the world's problems etc.

Ozymandias wanted to cause a catastrophic event to deceive the world into uniting against a common enemy, and thus avert nuclear war.

EDIT: to follow from Doc's comment about Magneto, a lot of the Brotherhood of Mutants ended up trying to be good guys - Quicksilver eventually became an Avenger, Bandit was on both teams, Scarlet Witch went between being a hero and a villain, Emma Frost had her heroic ups and downs etc. Then there is the Hellfire Club, with all the complicated politics that had...

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Magneto, from the X-Men series often had good intentions but just went about it in the wrong way. In fact, he even teamed up with the X-Men on multiple occasions. –  Doc Jan 23 at 19:31

Keep Q ever in mind: heavy is the burden of being me.

At the fringe are elements of

  • the jinn in Wish Master, "unlimited" power constrained by a plot element or world structure;
  • A. Lucard , Angel, or Nick Knight the vampires on course to redemption;
  • Londo of Babylon 5, a self aggrandizing egotist below a veneer of civility with occasional streaks of kindness amidst true cruelty (as opposed to the not-cruelty of killing animals (which have no rights): the moral context is not within the dead puppy but the heart of man).

Since you're developing an evil character within an RPG construct you might not have difficulty embracing the nascent evil in dungeons and dragons to access their chaotic-[evil|neutral|good] model.

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+1 for Babylon 5 reference. Even the Shadows were not Stupid Evil, they too wanted progress. –  Simanos May 13 at 22:44

The hero of almost any tragedy is responsible for all of the woes that befall him, and usually the radius of influence is much larger than themselves. Tragic heroes should be subdued or killed, but they are also typically very sympathetic.

Consider as a model, without reading too much into my own opinion of the man, Edward Snowden.

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One more key:

Layers of secrets

I don't think I have seen this listed yet - if it has been, sorry. (Adam Davis' answer is similar to a degree, I know, but there's one crucial difference: free will. What I'll detail below leaves the "villain" in control of their own actions. They could quit it practically any minute. But they don't. They don't want to, for their own special reason. So, let's see what I'm talking about.)

Let me begin with an example: Have you read / seen the Harry Potter series? Remember Snape? Wasn't he the type of villain you're looking for? He hurt a lot of people. He killed important people. He was hated by the protagonists, the readers, and the viewers universally... until almost the very end. I won't spoil the story, but I guess you know what I'm referring to: His Secrets. His part he willingly took upon himself.

So, the method: Introduce your villain. Have him do villainy things. Slowly reveal, though, and only to the PCs, if possible, that he's not exactly what he seems, and neither are his doings...

He had a whole village slaughtered. Yes, they were all tainted with incurable lycanthropy, and would've suffered terribly in the coming weeks, spreading the disease everywhere. He had a town's well poisoned. Yes, because this way he immunized, to a degree, the townsfolk to the poisonous snakes the evil witches he's said to be in league with unleashed on the town. He murdered the King. Yes, at the King's own request, so that the King's death could lift a curse from the country.

...and he cannot tell anyone, because he was sworn not to, and because revealing his own real motives would blow his cover amongst the ranks of the Evil Army (or simply opposing army.) And, when your players discover his real motives, they realize they can't, or at least shouldn't reveal his secrets either. What's more, they have to keep on fighting him. For everyone's sake.

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Character motivation boils down to "What do they want?" and "What will they do to make it happen?"

The way you've phrased it is somewhat backwards - there are tons of media villains who want to "Save everyone" but will do horrible things to get there and they're not sympathetic at all.

The sympathetic villains may have evil goals, but won't cross important lines. The key to a sympathetic villain is that they're not really a villain at all. They're heroic, but they have crossing goals to the heroes. The trick is that the players should be able to see it from the villain's perspective and say, "Well, if I was in the same situation, I'd do the same thing."

The easiest way to do this is show the villain helping others. Not manipulating, not secretly corrupting, but actually, genuinely helping.

See the both of the Idealist archetypes I describe in the Seven Types of Antagonists.

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You do not need to quote the question in your answer –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jan 23 at 22:28

Another option is to consider the villain that had no alternative or choice in their means and methods.

Take, for example, a queen with a destructive power or curse she cannot control. As it grows she finds it threatens the lives of those around her, and after a "straw that broke the camel's back" moment she flees her kingdom, but in the process destroys much of her realm, again unintentionally. She's gotten away, and she may even pose no further threat, but the townspeople certainly won't see it that way, and the later rulers may find themselves compelled by their subjects to rid their kingdom of the possibility of attack later.

She may put up a fortress, find servants to take care of her (she knows no other life than that of a queen), and provide for the defense of herself and those around her. But this looks awfully threatening to her previous kingdom, and some of her new subjects may be living better lives than they were before, but to the perspective of others they may be stolen, or slaves, or conspirators.

While ignorance, lack of control, and many other attributes don't excuse evil deeds, they are immediately understandable, and saddening to those who have a larger perspective. They can make one sympathize with the evil character, enough to hesitate at the final moment when faced with the choice of passing judgement on a person who wasn't bad, but who cannot be otherwise stopped from hurting others.

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I tend to lean towards some hints from 7th Sea. Characters that get an individual identity have the option to pick up what are called Arcana. If/When they pick this one and only one feature, it can swing positive or negative. Heroes have the opportunity to take Righteous which allows the GM to make a genuine hero take an unsavory action because the end justifies the means. Villains have the opportunity to take Mislead, which allows the players to cause them to hesitate because they think they're doing the right thing but are really doing something awful. While this game draws a nice thick line between the "hero" and "villain" categories, there is no shortage of gray area on either side of it.

Ultimately, your best tool is TIME

To pull back the microscope a bit, to me it's all about integration. If you park someone in front of the players and tell them that this is the villain or give them a name of someone and a laundry list of problems they cause, it's a mechanical problem. This is just a bullseye with a name. Give them a person not a character and they will be more inclined to identify with them or help them.

  • Show them the fledgling hero that's just a little too idealistic or heavy handed for the party. As the rift grows, Plucky over there decides to start his own adventuring group/enterprise/empire. His goals will coincide with or cross the party's path and he's not even out to get them - his lackeys might skirmish but when Plucky knows its the party he yanks the leash and goes about the rest of his work.
  • Give them the villain with style and panache. They may perform atrocities but they do it with undeniable flair. Pay attention to the things the party loves to see and do. And then create a villain with an expertise for exactly those things and put him on stage for them. But don't just make everything cinematic or they get bored because they're not involved. Oftentimes the players will look forward to the villain's cameos if you keep them brief enough.
  • Lastly, and a personal favorite: give them the recovering villain. Whether or not it's working, this villain is genuinely trying to do things differently. True effort is being put into arresting other villains but this one's been there and would rather obliterate their quarry knowing how crafty they can be. When the players disagree, this villain gets irritated and just winds up doing something terrible on the side to blow off steam. Ultimately, this character gets results whether the players like it or not.

In the end, having the likeable villain is a product of giving the players something to like enough that they won't kill on sight. Which brings up an important point: The System needs to be one with rewards that aren't based solely on slaughter. If you have games that reward by abstract values such as who acted the best, best idea, etc. or just a blanket "thanks for coming out" lump of XP players are more willing to take their time and get to know their villains. Once again, 7th Sea can be paramount because the players are supposed to be heroes and thus no matter how they overcome the villain, they still get the awards and the game very strongly discourages killing anyone - just knocking them out.

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