Making a memorable villain is one of the most important tools that a Game Master can have in their GM Tool belt. While the players are the driving force behind the story; Villains are the ones that set the stage. They are the ones directly opposing the players, slowing, or even halting their progress, building the tension. If it wasn’t for Villains, your players wouldn’t have anyone to overcome.
So the question arises: What makes a good villain? Sometimes even low-level goons can steal the show away from their higher-ranking counterparts, but how? Much like any character, there are many formulas that can make an amazing villain, but the number one, most important part of any villain is to make them memorable.
Personality & A Quirk
A character’s personality is what shines through most in Tabletop RPG’s. All RPG’s are character-driven stories, and non-player characters (NPC) contribute to building the world and situations, just as player characters (PC) do (albeit with less agency). In this way, enemy personalities are some of the most important things that a Game Master can create. But you’re only one person, how can you make each of these characters stand out? The easy answer is to make enemies more unique than your typical NPC.
One easy way to create uniqueness is by giving your character a quirk. Quirks are a simple habit that can be easily role-played in order to give this enemy a distinct feel. It doesn’t need to be much, it just has to help establish this person’s overall tone. A great example of this is David Tennant’s Barty Crouch Jr from the Harry Potter series. With just a simple nervous tick of licking his lips, his character is set apart from everyone else in an easily recognizable and unique way.
The important thing to note, this quirk should embody some part of the villain’s personality. While Barty Jr’s quirk gives off a manic sort of energy, Jareth the Goblin King instead gives off a cool and collected vibe when he is contact juggling.
While this can be something to give the character a more sinister tone, you are not necessarily required to stay within these lines. As much as you can remember enemies like Darth Vader, Voldemort or Magneto, you also have to remember the other side of villainy. The somewhat sillier side, which is so often present in tabletop RPG’s. While it’s important to keep these sinister baddies in mind, sometimes it’s just as much fun to present your players with a Dr. Evil.
The second part of creating a memorable villain is engagement. How much interaction does this villain have with the PC’s, and is that enough to make it meaningful? Every good villain must have some dynamic with the heroes of the story. A big bad force that has been behind the scenes, hardly on-screen throughout the movie, if at all, doesn’t make for a compelling villain.
When you think of Team Rocket, I would be willing to wager you’re not thinking of the criminal mastermind Giovanni, instead, I’d bet you would more likely be thinking of these three goof-balls. And while Giovanni would be the more important “Big Bad” of the original Pokemon, it’s the ones that got the most exposure to the protagonist that pops up in your head first. Sometimes, mere presence is enough.
On the other side of the coin, it’s the impact of their presence. Let’s take a look at Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lambs. Right from his introduction, we know that Hannibal is a villain, even if he didn’t start as the primary villain of the story. The secret to selling it was his presence. His engagement is charming, witty, and his dialog was meaningful. In fact, it was necessary for Clarice to solve the case. But along the way, the audience becomes more invested in Hannibal himself than in the original baddy “Buffalo Bill”.
But what makes Hannibal more compelling? It’s his engagement. He converses with Clarice, shares a part of himself with her and the audience. He reacts, and interacts throughout the movie, allowing you to become invested in him. In terms of D&D, introducing the evil lich 5 minutes before you start bashing his face in isn’t going to build that tension, the feeling won’t be there.
Now, not every session end boss needs to be, or even should be, this much of a showstopper; that should be reserved for the final boss of a story arc, or even a BBEG (“Big Bad Evil Guy”). However, just because a villain might not be a big bad doesn’t mean that they aren’t memorable. Which villains will stand the test of time? You’ll just have to wait and ask your players in 6 months. Next week we’ll take a look at What Makes a Big Bad!