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Old 10-09-2013, 07:59 PM   #11
Peter Knutsen
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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Originally Posted by Anthony View Post
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.
The historical Olav Tryggveson, who in Ärth's timeline is pretty much a Nazi Paladin and has achieved Kingship over Christian Western Denmark (after the death of Harald Blacktooth - his son Sven became king over the still pagan Eastern parts)) could be good at the "shown up" thing. Depending on how powerful the PCs are, of course. Olav is a 180 Goodie Pointer (as fits his biography, a very manly and heroic man indeed), one among only a few score (at most) in the world, and most campaigns will feature PCs that are significantly more mundane than that. Although a "high level" campaign of 180 Pointers obviously isn't out of the question.

Although of course, it depends on your perspective whether he's a villain at all. From a pagan point of view, he's terrible, especially for counter-missionaries, and some Christians also disapprove of his violent and often murderous methods (I'm not kidding with the "Nazi" part), although for many others it's okay for a King to use brutal methods to expand his power.



Another example, one I haven't done much with, is the First Emperor of China, that Qin-something guy, directly inspired by William Stoddard's writeup on GURPS Who's Who.

Ärth's version became a Lich (as suggested in the sidebar in GURPS Who's Who) due to his fear of dying, and so still rules China about 1200 years later. Although Liches obviously becomes less and less Human-like over time (due to the absence of endocrine glands, for instance), he's still basicaly fathomable, due to his fear of dying, and his profound paranoia, and his deep xenophobia. He banhammers anything he doesn't understand, including Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Ärth's China is nothing like our China, in terms of technologicla innovation either. Or if it is, then it's deep undergrund, out of sight of the various anti-innovation police forces.

If I ever do anything with Eastern Ärth, the Lich Emperor will be resisted by (more or less) Buddhist proto-ninja, and probably also Christian missionaries infiltrating from the West. He's a formidable enemy, in his own way, but also very vulnerable in several ways, due to his rigid thinking. The historical version was bad enough already (as depicted in various movies), and this one's mind has had over a millenium to become even less flexible.
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Old 10-09-2013, 08:14 PM   #12
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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.
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).

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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   #13
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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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 10-09-2013, 09:16 PM   #14
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

A good, memorable villain never thinks of himself as a "bad guy". He might be doing bad things, but it's always for some higher goal (Magneto in Marvel Comics, for instance, fears that the Holocaust will repeat itself, this time against mutants, unless the rest of humanity can be controlled first).
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Old 10-09-2013, 09:22 PM   #15
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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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.
Yes, that's a definite possibility. I don't use it much myself because I run a lot of investigations, and think the "smug and complacent criminal taunts the investigators with personal contact and ridiculous puzzle clues" trope is way over-done. That wouldn't be an issue in a different sort of adventure.

I guess that if you were doing such a thing that there might be some danger of making the villain seem petty rather than stylish, but I reckon there is probably a broad margin of safety. Do you have any pointers on that?

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Old 10-09-2013, 11:44 PM   #16
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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Yes, that's a definite possibility. I don't use it much myself because I run a lot of investigations, and think the "smug and complacent criminal taunts the investigators with personal contact and ridiculous puzzle clues" trope is way over-done. That wouldn't be an issue in a different sort of adventure.

I guess that if you were doing such a thing that there might be some danger of making the villain seem petty rather than stylish, but I reckon there is probably a broad margin of safety. Do you have any pointers on that?
Well, he can do things other than taunting. I've discovered that having the villain show up and have a perfectly reasonable conversation with the PCs can confuse the players, even if it's just "here's why what I'm doing really isn't evil, and really shouldn't you be helping me with this project?"
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Old 10-09-2013, 11:48 PM   #17
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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Well, he can do things other than taunting. I've discovered that having the villain show up and have a perfectly reasonable conversation with the PCs can confuse the players, even if it's just "here's why what I'm doing really isn't evil, and really shouldn't you be helping me with this project?"
Show up by telephone etc.? I have done that.
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Old 10-10-2013, 01:34 AM   #18
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

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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?
Arranging circumstances so that the villain will have opportunities to speak with the characters or with the characters overhearing without a fight immediately breaking out. No matter how interesting a character might be in theory, he usually won't be a person to the players unless he gets some lines.
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Old 10-10-2013, 02:46 AM   #19
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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Old 10-10-2013, 03:42 AM   #20
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Default Re: What makes a good villain?

The villain the PCs don't even recognise to be a villain until half way through the arc - ideally the villain who starts off as a patron.

Imagine, for a pop culture example, if Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer had not lampshaded Mayor Wilkins as a villain from the beginning but instead introduced him as a sometime ally of Buffy, playing up his apparently benevolent and paternal (if somewhat over formal) side. Perhaps letting him act as a patron to some degree, effecting the image of a good guy with some understanding of the supernatural problems that Sunnydale faced.
And letting that run for a season or so before revealing that Buffy had just been killing off his enemies and those supernaturals that refused to work for him.

Now that would have been an impressive bit of villainage. Try that on your PCs.
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