How does one build the character of a villain such that the players (playing heroic characters) hate the villain as much as possible without detracting too much from the quality of the game?

What motivations, habits, etc should the villain have to make them particularly despicable? Should the villain be based off of the PCs in some way or is it more effective to base the villain off of some objective standard of villainy? If the former, in what way should the villain be based off of the PCs?

In order to back up your answers, please either a) provide examples of published works making use of the technique/method you recommend, b) cite real-world RPG experience evidencing the success of your technique/method, or c) cite published material on the subject supporting your position (DMGs, Academic papers, Dragon articles, blog posts, etc)

The best answer will provide unique insight into the causes behind player responses within the character-driven framework, provide critically successful example works exemplifying the particular method advocated, and provide a source where for information on the method/subject, if desired, can be acquired.


2 Answers 2


My best villains are based off the what the players care about. I'll talk about methods and some recent (in the last 3-4 years) examples. You may want to check out my 7 Types of Antagonists as well.

What the players care about - Flags

So first off, I tend to play games with explicit mechanics for the players to tell me what kinds of conflicts they're into. That makes it easy for me to figure out what kinds of villains will press on those conflicts in interesting ways. As we play, a key point is finding out what exactly hits a player's hot button which is usually near, but not quite on the Flag they've given you.

As you play, pay attention when the players are really serious about winning conflicts, or when they're going above and beyond to protect something or accomplish something - all the physical cues (body language, voice) that tells you they're feeling suspense are key to getting more on point, though games where you can spend hero points can also give you a mechanical cue as well.

The General

About a year ago, I ran a game of Tenra Bansho Zero - the player had a character who was basically an adopted outsider to the daimyo - he was close to the family but still politically a second class citizen. Emotionally, he's like a step-brother to the daughter. In TBZ, mecha can only be piloted by children and adolescents - so usually daughters are put up to this task while sons are raised to be leaders.

Long story short - the country ends up having to fight a defensive war, and a general is pretty eager to send her out on the front line. The player character speaks way out of line at court, and gets exiled by the general's pressure.

The general has hammered on the fact the player character is an outsider, separated him from one of the NPCs he cares a lot about, is going to send her into serious danger, and also put the player character out to the border where he could possibly die.

This only worked because I had successfully played up the daughter as being sort of a great younger sister character - a nice kid trying to do her best - so the player CARED about her, and now the general was basically threatening all of that. The thing is, the general actually isn't entirely wrong about wanting to use the daughter to defend the nation - they're outmatched and a giant robot is actually one of the few things they've got to equalize. Because of this, it makes it harder for the players to argue against it. What finally made him absolutely hateworthy was that the general had nothing but trash talking to the player on TOP of everything else. (The general falls under "The Hater" category).

AU Star Wars

5 years ago, I ran a Primetime Adventures game in an alternate universe Star Wars (clones were not an army, but rather a way for the government to replace troublesome individuals in positions of power...)

We had several villians who were all very good and emotionally charged:

A senator - the father of one of the Jedi. He was kind of an ass and ended up getting in the way of their plans, though I made sure his motivations were clear. He was hated because it hit on the player's actual personal issues with his own father.

A clone of one of the player characters - absolutely there to take over someone's life, and threatened to pretty much do the opposite of everything the player character wanted to do. The player found themselves having to kill the clone and feeling terrible about it - it forced them to cross their own moral line in the process (see below for more on that).

A Jedi who was on the same side as the player characters, but was just a little too overzealous and violent. He took the player's goals but twisted the reasons for doing so, even though he often used the same rhetoric. He made the players question the very cause they were fighting for.

The moment of moral bankruptcy

What usually makes the villain click for players is the point when the villain crosses a single line that makes the players angry. What people often confuse is the idea that this moral line has to hurt the player characters, or their allies - it doesn't. This also can be how a character who is relatively neutral or even supportive of the player characters becomes a villain in their eyes.

This works best if the goals are understandable, but the methods are extreme or twisted along the way.

Transhumanism whether you want it or not

I recently ran a sci-fi game where a roboticist found out one of the AIs he had built had survived the destruction of his lab, and in fact, was still out there, doing stuff. Since the lab and it's fellow robots were destroyed by angry rampaging humans out of ignorance, it decided the solution was to improve and fix humanity. To snatch up souls from the dead and give them immortal bodies, better bodies, and more time to learn - eternity.

Of course, no one was asked if they wanted this. And the AI simply treated them as objects, to be turned on or off at will. ("Don't worry, if this unit bothers me too much I'll just reset it's memory. It's easier that way.") And the AI decided that in order to show how much better this new path was, it would destabilize the religion on the planet by supporting terrorist violence along the way - "If they die, it doesn't matter, I can simply bring people back. This is why my path is superior to religion. I can bring people to life, eternally, now. So who cares if they die in a bomb blast? They'll be back soon enough."

The casual disregard for human life, or human will was pretty much what made this AI a great villian. It stepped on the roboticist's sense of responsibility for his creations, and another character's sense of obligation to the dead soldiers he once led.

Drifter's Escape - casual racism

A friend of mine played a game of Drifter's Escape and relayed this event in play. The main character, a drifter, is picked up in a truck along with several other folks to do day labor. The character is white, but the other men are Latino. The farm owner picking them up, also white, says to the drifter, "Hey, why don't you sit up front, in the cab? We'll have some good work for you." and throughout the session basically offered the character preferential treatment to the other workers throughout the session.

For everyone at the table, it was a great example of a villain who didn't have to do anything overtly violent or say anything ugly - in fact, he simply offered the drifter good things - but everyone could see that part of that price was to participate in putting down/cutting out the other workers from a fair shake too.

A simple, moral line.

Justice delayed is justice denied

Along with the specifics of a villain being either an obstacle to goals or twisting ideals, etc. a key part of how you play that out is having a villain the players cannot pay back or overcome immediately. The frustration makes you hate them more, and you really can't wait to finally see them get theirs. Of course, when that time comes, it might cost enough that you have to really decide if it's worth going for.

A good extra is your allies or friends also like this terrible character. It turns the battleground into fighting for their hearts - convincing your allies of your cause and avoiding social fallout for taking action.

Troublesome Villains > Fiat Villains

In the games I run, I don't have villains who simply auto-succeed at doing terrible things - they don't just manage to kidnap your loved ones, or get you ousted without the players getting a chance to prevent it. I don't fudge the dice or simply play a "gotcha" on the players.

What this does is establish a position of trust for us as a group - the players know if they protect or save something, they really did it, I didn't hand the victory to them. They also know if they fail or things go wrong, they COULD have possibly succeeding and stopped the villain, which means they really rack their brains over "what could I have done better?"

In comparison, when you have a game where the villains do their evil by GM Fiat, the players don't feel like fighting harder, they feel cheated and angry at the GM, not the villains. I've played those games, they're not fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The last paragraph really got me. I like mastering games where I throw rules overboard mainly, and make everything my decision, for flow and fun. Players know, that some things are decided arbitrarily, but on the other hand their actions also often just succeed, and if the idea is appropriate, they have the same chance of turning the story around at any point. But that sentence made me think about writing down secret advantages of villains before the game & showing the text when the advantage occurs, in order to let players know that it is part of the story and doesn't come from thin air. \$\endgroup\$
    – Akku
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 22:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Remind me to find you and play in some of your games to improve my DM skills. Most people I DM for like my games, but I rarely have a chance to just play in a great game with a great DM. Really good advice, and similar to what I got from the Book of Vile Darkness when I read it. (3.5e D&D) \$\endgroup\$
    – Aviose
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Akku It doesn't always have to be a full fight or full mechanics, but what players need to have is the ability to interact. I've seen a lot of games where more than reasonable effort is dismissed by GM Fiat, established victories simply undone, etc. in ways that invalidate player input. One game, Apocalypse World, has a great system for this - "Soft Moves" are warnings or the beginning of trouble, they lead to "Hard Moves" where lasting consequences kick in. The Soft Move sets up players between dealing with THIS problem vs. others problems and makes fun choices. \$\endgroup\$
    – user9935
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 22:12

The following is from an article by Justin Alexander, found here. I won't re-post the entire thing, but this excerpt is the core of the article's thoughts. The main article goes on to refer to examples in media where the hero and villain dynamic is developed well (or not) and why, as well as giving some game table examples. It's part of the "Don't Prep Plots" series, which I highly recommend to all GMs.

First, build tension between the PCs and the villain without using direct confrontations between them. Give the bad guy minions. Have the bad guy do horrible things to people, places, and organizations that the PCs care about off-screen. Social interactions in situations where the PCs won’t be able to simply shoot them in the head without serious consequences also work well to build a personal relationship. (As do taunting communiques and phone calls.)

Second, when you’re prepping your scenarios include lots of bad guys. You’re probably doing this any way, so the real key here is to simply refrain from pre-investing one of these guys as the “big villain”. Basically, don’t get attached to any of your antagonists: Assume that the first time they’re in a position where the PCs might kill them that the PCs will definitely kill them. (This attitude will help to break any railroading habits you may still be secretly harboring.)

Third, remember that people in the real world usually don’t fight to the death. Have your bad guys run away. And not just your “big villain” (since you won’t have one of those any way): Unless their back is truly to the wall, most of the people your PCs fight should try to escape once a fight turns against them. (If you’re finding it hard to break the “fight to your last hit point” habit, try experimenting with some morale rules.) Most of them will probably still end up with a bullet in the back of their heads, but some of them will manage to escape.

The ones that escape? Those are your memorable villains. Those are your major antagonists.

This is the crucial inversion: Instead of figuring out who your major bad guy is and then predetermining that they will escape to wreak their vengeance, what’s happening here is that the guy who escapes to wreak their vengeance becomes the major bad guy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent example of a link-as-answer answer. You don't just post a bare link, but you let the linked content explain itself and only repost the most critical information. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 0:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer reminds me of one of our memorable campaigns. In the first adventure, our party was tasked with breaking up a heist of some low-level minions. The GM intended for them all to die, but by the chance of the dice one guy managed to just barely get away. The GM decided to start bringing him back with bigger plots, doing horrible things, and he just managed to stay one step ahead of us for the rest of the campaign. We hated that guy and it was so much fun. Thing is, he was never even meant to be the big bad guy in the first place. \$\endgroup\$
    – Seth R
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 4:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually managed this in one of Paizo's scripted Adventure Paths; there was an enemy (noted to be particularly vengeful and happy to take a break from what he was doing to harrass the PC's) who escaped like 3 different fights after having done things like interrupting rest periods and harassing the village the PC's were protecting. The relief when he finally fell was palpable. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 19:20

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