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Old 10-09-2013, 04:37 PM   #1
Anders
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Default What makes a good villain?

I've just finished watching two movies with excellent villains - Die Hard and Wrath of Khan. In fact, both movies (especially Wrath of Khan) are made by their villains. And the same holds true of many roleplaying campaigns. But what makes a good villain? What makes a villain memorable? What makes him or her someone your players come back to the table to defeat, time and time again?
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Old 10-09-2013, 05:16 PM   #2
whswhs
 
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Originally Posted by Asta Kask View Post
I've just finished watching two movies with excellent villains - Die Hard and Wrath of Khan. In fact, both movies (especially Wrath of Khan) are made by their villains. And the same holds true of many roleplaying campaigns. But what makes a good villain? What makes a villain memorable? What makes him or her someone your players come back to the table to defeat, time and time again?
Usually, not getting into fights with the player characters. Such fights commonly end with the villain permanently out of action.

Though there was the Black Scorpion, whom I eventually wrote up for GURPS Villains. The PCs sent her to prison, and later she and some other prisoners broke out and she led them on a quest for revenge. She quite terrified the players!

Bill Stoddard
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Old 10-09-2013, 05:41 PM   #3
Anthony
 
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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Originally Posted by whswhs View Post
Usually, not getting into fights with the player characters. Such fights commonly end with the villain permanently out of action.
Unless the villain has a way of avoiding or recovering from defeat -- robotic villains who get rebuilt (often with different powers, either reflecting the style of rebirth, or removal of the weakness that allowed the previous defeat), possessing villains who merely wind up somewhere else to rebuild, demonic entities that get banished rather than killed, immortals who cannot be killed and must be contained, etc).

On the other hand, a villain can be good without being recurring, as long as it's memorable enough the one time it does appear.
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Old 10-09-2013, 06:17 PM   #4
Peter Knutsen
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On the other hand, a villain can be good without being recurring, as long as it's memorable enough the one time it does appear.
It's a pity the badass assassin from 1st season MacGyver got killed the first time he appeared. He'd have been a much better recurring villain than that silly Murdoc (who kept dying, except they never found his body).
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Old 10-09-2013, 07:46 PM   #5
Peter Knutsen
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I posted a vague sketch, using GURPS mechanics, for a Satanically empowered villain, over in the GURPS forum, probably about 2 years ago. A master manipulator, with a huge stack of Limited Smooth Operator Talent, and other Limited Advantages too.

It's not something I've done anything with yet, but it's an obvious thing for my Ärth setting, where Satanic demon-worship is an existing (underground) religion, inspired by the freeware RPG system Quest FRP (v2.1 and 2.0). In Quest FRP, in exchange for signing over one's soul (the main effect of this is to make resurrection impossible, which is a lesser deal in Sagatafl's magic system, as it's a rare in-world effect), one gets various Granted Powers, and can also call upon certain Grades of Demons, to bargain with them (usually the bargain price is a nasty deed, such as torturous Human sacrifice) in exchange for the Demon doing a particular thing for one (often using its specific power).

My suggestion for GURPS was based almost exclusively on the Granted Powers thing, but I actually think the Sagatafl version will be more like in Quest FRP 2.1, with options both for Granted Powers, permanent as long as the character lives a "proper" Satanic life, and summoning Demons to bargain for specific favours.



Another possibility is mind control. I'm fascinated by the possibility of mechanizing a control structure system such as Tolkien's One Ring and subordinate rings, or indeed the psi-tech torcs from May's "Pliocene" series.

So that's another possibility for a villain, crafting magical items that both empower and enslave the wielder. Naturally Sagatafl's magic systems has, among them, an inborn Ring-Maker Power, and of course it's extra good at making these kinds of mind-controlling finger rings, arm rings and neck rings.

Mechanizing that, how the control acts as a game-mechanical force that is not absolute in nature, but instead has a certain strength defined in game mechanical terms (a numerically rated strength, that interacts with relevant character stats), is somewhat of a challenge, although it's become a lot easier after I added Flaws to Sagatafl (think GURPS' Self-Control roll mechanic for mental disads, just in a wider and more amokky version).



Another option again is a necromancer, not one who's specialized in raising hordes of boring zombies, skeletons or ghouls, but rather one who has one or a very few powerful Undead Minions, either incorporeal Wraiths or corporeal Wights.

One possibility here is a Wight who can achieve a very convincing fakery of being a living Human, thus infiltrating Human society that way (something that the necromancer himself may find hard, if he has accumulated unPopularities bad Reputations, or GURPS-style OPHs, or has become a Lich).

Another is a Wraith who's a sort of ghostly sorcerer, wielding strong powers of Fear, Shadow and Cold. Fear and terror can be particularly useful weapons. (Another option is as captain or general of a large Undead army, or even an army of living beings.)

One interesting possibility is that such Minions, or indeed any non-Lesser Undead, might retain shards of its pre-death personality. That may be the default state, and by default an annoyance that the necromancer must expend precious Essence to get rid of (getting himself a "clean slate" Minion), but potentially pre-death memories, skills and particular passions (such as protectiveness, or various forms of hatred or desire for revenge) can be cleverly exploited, basically getting a slightly more powerful Minion relative to its Essence cost, if the right dead person is chosen as its basis, instead of just any random corpse or soul.
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Old 10-09-2013, 07:04 PM   #6
whswhs
 
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Originally Posted by Anthony View Post
On the other hand, a villain can be good without being recurring, as long as it's memorable enough the one time it does appear.
Sure, and I've had some of those. But Asta's last sentence makes me think he's not looking for them. I could certainly say something if he's actually also interesting in memorable one-shot villains.

Bill Stoddard
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Old 10-09-2013, 08:14 PM   #7
Agemegos
 
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Originally Posted by whswhs View Post
Usually, not getting into fights with the player characters. Such fights commonly end with the villain permanently out of action.
In movies the omniscient point-of-view of the camera (usually, though I do like me some cinema with a more restricted point of view) allows the villain to show off his snappy dialogue and sense of style in scenes that the heroes aren't in to shoot him. That's hard to do in RPGs (or at least, I've had little success with it).

I have two techniques for bringing PCs in contact with villains for badinage and displays of flair, and they both involve framing situations in which open warfare will not occur.

Method one involves conflict within and subject to the constraints of a social situation in which the PCs killing their enemies for being enemies is not permitted or will cause problems worse than it solves. For example, I run a lot of stuff in which the PCs are law enforcement officers or other public officials who will be investigated, disciplined, fired, prosecuted, and subjected to criminal penalties if they just gun down whomever they dislike. They investigate a crime or commence a non-war-like operation, in which they meet a bunch of NPCs who display varying ranges of wit and flair; generally the most trenchantly witty and vividly stylish NPC is a villain of the darkest dye. But the PCs can't just kill him for being nasty, or even kill him for being their opponent. They have to either investigate the crime (or other disordered condition) and prove that the villain did it or something else they can bust him for, or else engage in a rising conflict in which the villain will be manipulated into doing something that they can bust or shoot him for. This often means repeated encounters at ever higher levels of conflict until the conditions are right for an arrest, fight, or wet job.

The other method involves starting out with the stakes not high enough to justify violence, and then drawing the villain and the PCs into a rising spiral of escalations until violence is adequately motivated.

For an example of the second method, I ran a campaign once in which the villain was a king modelled on Charles II, with a political situation borrowed from Charles I and a family situation based on George IV, in a setting based partly on Stuart England and partly on Japan before Sekigahara. With Hellenistic trappings. The campaign started with the princess being kidnapped by foreign pirates and the king ennoblement and an estate to whomever should rescue her. The PCs forced their way through a press of rescuer-suitor wannabes, and there was a bit of skulduggery, but no reason to kill the king. They rescued the princess, brought her home, and found the king furiously angry. He raised them to the absolute minimum social rank that met the terms of his original proclamation (one wasn't actually raised in rank by this appointment: like knighting the younger son of a duke). And he gave them, between the three of them, an estate that was technically worth much more than what he promised, but that was uninhabitable and not producing any revenues. That was pretty disappointing and it provoked some resentment, but it wasn't reason to kill the king. The PCs became darlings of the Opposition. Then the king sent a writ requiring them to pay the taxes on their non-productive estate and do in person their ward-and-guard duty in their lethally haunted castle. Now this was just spiteful, and the PCs got very cross, but it wasn't enough to make them kill the king. They went to their ruinous estate, made an alliance with the ghost, and render the place habitable again. Their friends in the opposition lent them the money to clear their land, rebuild their villages, repair their paddies, and resettle the place with peasants. They became wealthy, and easily paid their taxes. Hah! That's the way to revenge yourself on a spiteful ingrate of a king! Then one of the PCs fell in love with the princess they had rescued, and asked publicly to marry her. The king was almost apoplectic, but had no reasonable grounds to refuse, so he demanded an item out of folk tale (The Sword With No Name) as bride-price. How the people cheered! That was grossly unfair, and the PCs really hated the king now. But it wasn't adequate motivation to kill him. The PCs had to do seven impossible things in a year to pull that off, and one of them was killed while they were burgling the lair of, murdering, and robbing the oldest, richest, and most terrifying wizard-dragon in the world. The king was plainly their enemy now, but they didn't quite have motive to kill him. The PCs ended up with a staggering mound of treasure that made them hundreds of times wealthier than the king, and vastly more popular than the king; one was now the eldest son of the leader of the noble opposition, and the other, being married to the king's only child, was next in line to the throne. Then one of the PCs married the daughter (only child) of the head of the secret police and armed forces. The king had no choice. He entered into league with a demon and attacked the PCs. They killed him. One ascended the throne in his place, another became his chief of the armed forces and inherited the secret police, the third became court magician. End of campaign. The key here is steadily rising tension with no jumping conflict, but you have to (a) have players who understand not to jump conflict, and (b) be prepared for someone to miscalculate and for open conflict to break out unexpectedly (when it does, don't try to jam the lid on, go with it).

Quote:
Originally Posted by whswhs View Post
Sure, and I've had some [villains who make only one appearance and don't recur]. But Asta's last sentence makes me think he's not looking for them. I could certainly say something if he's actually also interesting in memorable one-shot villains.
One of his inspiring examples (Die Hard) features a one-shot villain, and the other is the final appearance of a recurring villain rather than one of his intermediate recurrences, so perhaps you ought to say on.
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Old 10-09-2013, 08:43 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Agemegos View Post
I have two techniques for bringing PCs in contact with villains for badinage and displays of flair, and they both involve framing situations in which open warfare will not occur.
A third I've used is telepresence of one sort or another -- the villain is possessing a minion to taunt you, or talking over radio, or using an illusion, or something.
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Old 10-10-2013, 06:28 AM   #9
Hans Rancke-Madsen
 
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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They rescued the princess, brought her home, and found the king furiously angry.
Everything else you write I get, but there seems to be something you forgot to mention here. Why would the King be angry?


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Old 10-10-2013, 02:46 AM   #10
Anders
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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Sure, and I've had some of those. But Asta's last sentence makes me think he's not looking for them. I could certainly say something if he's actually also interesting in memorable one-shot villains.

Bill Stoddard
Oh, yes. Both are good for a campaign, although you could have a memorable campaign without a recurring villain.
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