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In my early years of GMing it was simple enough to say that the badguys were evil and that was all the justification we needed. They are attacking the village because they are evil, they are stealing the princess because they are evil, etc.

Over time, my group needs have grown to need more complicated and detailed villains. It is important to consider motives. What is it that defines them as 'evil' to the party? In terms of a fantasy setting, what would you consider to be an interesting villain?

What qualities make a villain that inspires your party to rally against him? What kind of villains have worked for your games in the past?


A member of nobility is using trade connections to move valuable pieces of art into another country that is secretly paying him quite well and is framing a member of the party to take the fall. In addition, someone important to the party member has been taken hostage with a promise of release once they party member takes the blame for the crime.

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12 Answers 12

up vote 37 down vote accepted

An interesting villain has:

  • Motivations for doing what he does. There's this cliche, "nobody thinks of themselves as evil." That's not true for all settings, but I think it is fair to say that very few villains are just evil for the sake of cackling. So you should figure out what's driving your bad guys.
  • Shades of grey. The degree depends, again, on the setting and the genre. However, if you want your players to really think about the villain, there ought to be a few things about him that don't meet their expectations. Maybe the example noble wants to both make money and save the art from danger.
  • Reasons to interact with the characters. Faceless villains only go so far. Villains who don't talk to characters don't get very interesting -- speculation only goes so far. Interaction can be non-verbal, although that's harder.

Rob Donoghue wrote an excellent series on this topic: Helping Players Hate the Villain; Hate the Villain, not the GM; and The Villain's Monologue.

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nice summary. I'd add this: Don't be afraid to shamelessly rip-off characters you like from other sources. Examples: For pure evil Richard III (from shakespeare not history) is one of the best. For a monomaniacal genius Captain Queeg from the Caine Mutiny is hard to beat. – SteveED Nov 25 '12 at 5:36
How to create a vilain : This article goes in depth on how to create a vilain that has more than just an evilish behavior. – Saffron Jun 20 '14 at 8:31

My personal preference goes to villains that have a personal grudge against players. It's more intimate if the enemy hates the players for something they directly did to him, and not for some devious plan of world-conquering. A setup I used was the following: to defend against an attempt at mugging, the PC killed the son of a local, powerful illegal goods trader, who then hires a hitman for vengeance. With this setup, the players' enemy is hidden, and it's their task to figure out who he is, and why he is trying to kill them.

Another villain I love and has no motivations: earthquakes, pestilences, a drought, lack of food. These villains cannot be handled directly, but stress the players on thinking outside the box, and finding the optimal solution against an enemy they cannot control or beat the hell out of it.

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I think advice to have a villain with strong, believable motivations is good. So is advice for an interesting backstory. The thing is, this is good advice for any NPC.

I consider a villain especially successful when the players have a deep hatred of the guy. It can't be the kind of hatred where they never want to hear his name or have him show up in the game. That's a sign that I've failed. Instead, they need to assume he's behind every bad thing that happens. They need to talk about him when he didn't show up this game, and think about what they'll do when they catch him, and they need to take their plans for how to off him much too seriously.

So, how do you inspire that? I think Eric Weilnau was right on: you have him beat them. If he shows up just every once in a while to foil their plans at the last minute, after everything else seems like it was on rails, they will hate him passionately. It can't just be a deux ex machina defeat: it should be done with style, so that they have to at least admit that they got beaten. I like to hear the players laugh at how thoroughly they got beaten, and then swear a blue streak about the guy who did it. Also, the more face time they get with the villain or his minions, the better. "You could kill him, except it would not work out for you in the end" scenes are good for this. I like to imagine villains as "the guy with whom you have a sporting competition, except that you really really want to murder him." This is Ben Linus from Lost, or that jerk who steals your chest in Zork 3.

There's another category of big bad guy, though, who I wouldn't call a villain. I'm not sure what I would call him. How about "the alpha monster?" This is the big evil horrible thing that's performing horrible deeps just out of reach, and clearly has to be stopped -- or just survived -- by the PCs. You never want direct face time with this guy, because he will TPK you unless you absolutely know just what you're doing. He doesn't foil the PCs' plans, because he doesn't "foil plans." He is an 800 pound gorilla. This is the smoke monster from Lost, or the thief from Zork 1.

Building this guy up isn't too hard, either: you spread rumors at first, then let the PCs get a glimpse of the kind of destruction the alpha monster wreaks. Then maybe a few close encounters where the PCs feel like they're in a lot of danger (whether or not they are). Eventually, a climactic battle. I'd probably recommend against more than one battle with the alpha monster. Either he gets killed or he commits TPK. That's just how he rolls.

If it turns out that the alpha monster is the fault of the villain? Hey that's just gravy.

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TSR has a "Villains Lorebook" on their website here that I think has some good example villains that can be mined for your use. AD&D had a book called the "Complete Book of Villains" that had good advice. A post about it here. Wolfgang Baur has a series about villains that I liked a lot. Click here.

Here's more of the Baur stuff -- Wizards doesn't make it easy to find... Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7

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The most memorable villians in my experience are the ones that defeat the PCs especially if it happens more than once. Nothing drives the passions of the players more than a familiar villian who has managed to outwit them. I was once had an entire campaign revolve around defeating a single recurring villian. The key was to allow the players to frequently win. Each time creating set backs for the villian and his minions but not fatally.

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Providing context for your setting. Define enough of your cultures, religions, and society so that there is conflict. This will generate motives for PCs and NPCs alike.

For example all the gods in my setting hates demons which are considered universally evil. One of the common traits of my "evil" gods are extreme philosophies in dealing with Demons. For example Set believes in absolute order, a rigid hierarchy, blind obedience. Mitra likewise believes in order, hierarchy, and obedience but tempered with virtues like justice and mercy. So this aspect of my campaign setups a three way conflict. I had PCs utterly at odds with the Church of Set and yet had to ally because they discovered something demonic that was beyond their ability to handle. Then in the aftermath they are at odds again because of attitudes of the adherents of Set.

You don't have to be a Tolkien, a M.A.R. Barker (Tekemal) to do this. Just think about the consequences of some of the assumptions you and the rules make about the fantasy setting and write up it in a page or two.

Then fit your NPCs motivations within that framework and play it out from there. On the flip side give PCs a background embedded in that framework. Make their association with the various elements of the framework beneficial. This give a bigger chance that they will care about the Villain NPC's motives and truly despise him for it.

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There are some excellent, thoughtful answers here, and I'm glad you asked this question, because it has made me think about how I use villains and how I cold do a better job of it.

In campaigns I've run, the villains the players talk about the most, the ones they relish confronting and talk about long after they are vanquished, are the villains that lasted. That is, they impact of a villain on the player characters is directly related to the amount of interact the PCs have with her.

There are a variety of ways to build a progression of interaction, but in general I like to use one of two approaches:

  1. Initially the villain is tremendously powerful and the PCs are comparatively weak. The villain doesn't even see the PCs as a threat. He is busy with big plans, and in the process of carrying out those plans, he creates tremendous hardship for the PCs. The fact that the villain doesn't even care about the PCs at all and sees them essentially as gnats enrages the PCs. They can do nothing about it now, but the seed is planted. Periodically as the PCs grow in power, they start to bump into more and more of the villain's operations, sometimes at a distance, and sometimes up close. The villain starts to take notice of the PCs. To paraphrase Gandhi: at first he ignores them, then he ridicules them, then he realizes he'd better crush them before it's too late.
  2. The villain and the PCs start on level footing and progress at roughly the same pace. For example, the bad seed from the village the PCs grew up in was always causing trouble. After the PCs went off to find glory, she found a tutor in the dark arts, and became a necromancer. At first there is animosity, but also a shared history. Killing someone from your own town isn't exactly going to win you favors, no matter how bad she has become. Gradually the animosity builds, and the PCs are surprised by the resiliency and deviousness of this person they though they knew, who is now a villain through and through. Over time the villain begins to direct all her efforts toward thwarting, and perhaps even wiping out the PCs.

Sometimes PC interactions with a villain or his minions are incidental to the primary adventure at hand, and sometimes they are central to it. Mixing it up like this makes the villain seem like he is busy doing a variety of things, just like the PCs. It also keeps the PCs off guard. They never know when he is going to show up and throw a wrench into their plans. It also starts to make them paranoid, which makes for some great gameplay. When they see the villain behind every tree, it will color their perception of other events in the game world. The players may even start to roleplay their characters in a fashion that makes NPCs (or other PCs) wonder why they're so obsessed.

When a PC is that engaged with a villain, and the personal stakes are so high, the impact of vanquishing the villain can be immense.

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I tend to agree with Eric W - but instead of letting the "bad guy" win, I just let him escape and then come back with more henchmen. A guy who was "the right hand man" manages to escape (especially after pulling off a pretty spectacular hit against a party member), then comes back three missions later as the ring leader, but escapes again and then comes back as a warlord. Now they really hate him! (Meanwhile, he's been gaining experience and more magic items too!) Then make them work together. This part can be difficult, but if you pull it off, they'll remember this villain forever.

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While being in favour of all the ideas I read here I have 2 special kinds of vilians that my players liked the most and it gave us all a lot of adrenaline.

  1. The unexpected vilian. A person that does his/her business while making characters think it's somebody else. The unexpected vilian of the best kind is a friend of the team. They get along and help him a lot before he betrays. An experienced mage that tutors them or a funny kid in a village. [they obviously have to have the motives and all the stuff mentioned in other answers]

  2. A teammate vilian. If the team is playing together for a long time it gets interesting to start creating some sparking situations in the team (if your team always had a good teamplay - we don't want them to say goodbye forever :P). One of the characters might get a great offer of power and knowledge from a necromant who wants the character to do a tiny little sabotage or cause somebody to die by suicide ;) It's a satisfactory experience for GM and the player to have a character that hesitates between the good of the team and power; honour and greed... yummy

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Yes, it can be interesting when the villain turns out to be a old friend, ally, team mate, and similar. It is also interesting if it's a close relative, brother, ex-friend that for some misunderstanding feels betrayed by the players or for some sad story becomes devious and the players will find difficult to strike the final blow. – Yaztromo May 2 '12 at 18:07

Have the villain evolve from a group to become a singularly interesting and hateable type. Some ways to do this include:

1) Begin as a competitor to the party. When a party starts out and is sent on a mission, let them be surprised that there is another party also hired. This is threat to both finances and also, makes them feel a bit betrayed by their patron.

2) Evolve their individuality. Let them start as a member of a group (or opposing group above), but drop targeted signals to individual party members that differentiate this one from the group, as they evolve from the group. Party members will egg each others hatred...

3) Introduce a controlled social element and dangle some interest. Put the players into the position where they cannot outright kill the bad guy(s), and then put in something of special interest. For example, a party of bad guys that includes a 'sexually charged' member of the opposite type - think "Catwoman" here.

4) Escalating vengeance. As above, maybe the competing bad guy party is trimmed down, and 2-3 emerge as smart opponents. Escalate a feeling of personal vengeance - so that the bad guy isn't just striking against the party, they are striking against the individual character.

5) Build Respect. A villain that learns to respect the PCs are individuals make it more exciting. For example, I ran a game in which there was an escalating conflict between the PCs and a (huge) demon. On the final encounter, the demon terms, eyes narrow and he points at the leader of the PCs and says "YOOOOUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!". The PCs feel the hatred and respect at the same time better than any long winded soliloquy.

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I like the "unscripted villain" myself.

Just keep notes on any surviving NPCs from adventures you've run the PCs through and see which ones your characters reacted strongly to—usually I keep a notepad file on NPCs. If one seems to spark interest I'll add a few notes to the "NPC card" and put them in the "recurring NPC" file and make a note to try to make them appear again. If they still get a good reaction, I'll escalate things again and move them up another category.

If you can get them to react strongly to an NPC in multiple settings, then you should do a full flesh-out of the NPC and start building up the structure behind them to make them become a major recurring villain.

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An interesting method is to let them develop naturally. Perhaps an unnamed NPC survives when he wasn't expected to, and gets a name, and comes back later, indignant that the PCs don't remember him, or even an already named NPC survives and swears revenge.

I've seen a lot of reports of GMs saying recurring villains are quite great, but you don't want to force it on the players. Selecting survivors to be starring villains works a bit better since the first time they survived it was entirely natural, rather than contrived, and the players also get the feeling that their characters were somehow responsible for creating that villain. They might try to hunt down all survivors as a result, and then acquire another enemy because they were so heartless. That subsequent enemy is again the result of their actions, and shows them that trying to prevent one just brings a different one into play.

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