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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
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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
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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, 06:00 PM   #4
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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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?
Snappy dialogue and a sense of style. He has to be interesting to watch. Which may go some way towards explaining why I have zero interest in zombie hordes.

It also helps if the villain hurts the PCs (doesn't have to be much, but hurt them or their interests) and gets away without sustaining significant damage (to him or his interests). This gives the PCs a sense of grievance and a continuing interest in him.
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Old 10-09-2013, 06:05 PM   #5
Peter Knutsen
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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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?
I'd suggest studying Zahn's Grand Admiral Thrawn, from his Thrawn trilogy.

More generally, I have in mind writing an entry, on my OdinsDay blog, about some of my favourite villains. I very much doubt I'll get that done before early next year, because of several things coming up, including Nanowrimo, but here's an incomplete list of the villains I'm going to mention:

Hans Gruber
Thrawn
Al Capone, specificaly as depicted in the 90s "The Untouchables Show" by William Forsythe.
Sherrif of Nottingham, specifically as depicted in the 80's "Robin of Sherwood" TV show (which I do have a blog entry about)
Hannibal Lecter, the novel's version, especially from the 2nd novel (the 3rd gimped his memory from being born eidetic to a renaissance mnemonic trick!)

I had in mind writing a top 10 or thereabouts, top 9 or 12 or whatever, so I'll probably reply to this post later, and add a few more villains.
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Old 10-09-2013, 06:17 PM   #6
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, 07:04 PM   #7
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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.
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, 07:15 PM   #8
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Snappy dialogue and a sense of style. He has to be interesting to watch.
Fathomability helps too. It makes the conflict personal, where by contrast a villain whose motives the audience cannot fathom might as well be an impersonal thing like a volcano or a runaway train. The audience ought to "get" the villain.
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Old 10-09-2013, 07:21 PM   #9
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It's important that the PCs can score victories against the villain (or players will get very frustrated) without the victories being so big that they cause the villain to lose credibility. On the other hand, the villain has to be successful enough that players take him seriously.

Incidentally, one thing players really hate is being shown up, so if you introduce your future villain as a 'heroic' type who manages to show up the PCs you've created an immediate hook where they'll be delighted when he turns out to be a bad guy.
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Old 10-09-2013, 07:46 PM   #10
Peter Knutsen
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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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