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Author Topic: What are the hallmarks of a good villain?  (Read 357 times)
So Warm and Cuddly
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« on: May 09, 2017, 06:09:42 PM »

I'm curious and thought I would ask your opinions. While I love a good, smarmy, unsophisticated, "evil for evil's sake" style villain for kitschier games, I find myself most endeared to villains I can almost sympathize with, or whose ends might be noble but their means are deplorable. At the same time, I also find the truly awful, easily hated villains the most satisfying to defeat. What, in your opinion, marks a good, memorable villain for you? Examples appreciated!
« Last Edit: May 09, 2017, 06:14:32 PM by Weave » Logged


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« Reply #1 on: May 09, 2017, 08:33:05 PM »

"No one thinks there the bad guy" is my basic premise towards making villains. Justification is key to a good villain. Aku and Mojo Jojo are fun to watch because they are caricatures of evil. But really, no one ever eats puppies for breakfast because evulz lol.

Let's take Paranorman for example (spoilers ahead). The "villains" of the film are a group of zombies running around chasing after our young protagonist Norman who can see dead people. What's the twist? Will turns out that these "zombies' were Puritans who persecuted  and hung a young girl they claimed was a witch, but turns out she just had a strange power to see the dead as well. So she curses them to have to walk the earth during the night of her execution each year so they know how she feels.

Who's the bad guy in that scenario? Both sides had justifications for their awful deeds. Fear, and vengeance. Making people understand their motivations is what makes a good character villain.

Real life examples. Well I won't be using that one German movement because that's lazy, so I will say just look at communist regimes. Think about the tens of millions of people that have been outright slaughtered in the name of communism and radical socialism. How have people justified this? Equality. We will keep doing whatever it takes until we achieve true social and economic equality. Nothing else matters.

And that really boils down a good villain. "I will keep doing whatever it takes until 'X'. Nothing else matters."
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« Reply #2 on: May 10, 2017, 12:40:46 PM »

LoA

Justification is key to a good villain.
I agree with this. However, I also think that it's not that difficult to create an "evil for evil's sake" styled villain with fairly realistic motivations simply by twisting the moral compass around until it's backwards and finding a perfectly "logical" justification in a horrible act, at least by that villain's own moral code.

Kali-Murti, the villain of an Asura campaign I ran some time ago, comes to mind. Superficially, she was an "evil for evil's sake" villain, because she wanted to invade Civilized Space and destroy as much as possible and had no qualms about doing awful things to anybody. However, her reason for doing so was that the world had become stale and corrupt, and the entrenched power structure was beyond redemption. The only way to purify and allow new life to prosper would be to forcibly burn down the old stagnant systems. In that way it seems a lot more like a radical political movement, with a badly misguided way of accomplishing a noble goal.

On the other hand, while it's possible on some level to sympathize with goals like that, it's pretty much impossible to sympathize with her motives on the whole. I'm not sure if "sympathetic" and "satisfying to defeat" are necessarily strictly zero-sum, but it does seem to be difficult to add to one without taking away from the other due to the moral tension involved.
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« Reply #3 on: May 10, 2017, 02:31:25 PM »

Three of my favourite villains, in no particular order, from various media.

Steerpike

Obivously: Steerpike, from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy.



Mervyn Peake

If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Limb by limb, it appeared that he was sound enough, but the sum of these several members accrued to an unexpectedly twisted total. His face was pale like clay and save for his eyes, mask-like. These eyes were set very close together, and were small, dark red, and of startling concentration.

Steerpike begins the novels as an abused kitchen boy, and hovers between an anti-hero and a villain. He's a Machiavellian schemer and a rapacious social climber - elegant, dastardly, incredibly clever, and utterly ruthless. He simultaneously resents and exploits the baroque traditions and hierarchical power structures of Gormenghast. He is an arch-manipulator and duplicitous snake, somewhere between an anarchist and an authoritarian. There's something of Milton's Satan to him - he's a horrible, amoral, even sadistic megalomaniac, but he's wonderfully charismatic, and we share his frustrations with an oppressive society. Even while it's hard to deny he's evil - or, at least, sociopathic - his individualism and intelligence and sheer will are also admirable.

GLaDOS

Probably my favourite videogame villain ever – GLaDOS from Valve’s Portal and Portal 2.



GLaDOS

“Don't let that ‘horrible person’ thing discourage you. It’s just a data point. If it makes you feel any better, science has now validated your birth mother's decision to abandon you on a doorstep.”

“Remember before when I was talking about smelly garbage standing around being useless? That was a metaphor. I was actually talking about you. And I’m sorry. You didn’t react at the time, so I was worried it sailed right over your head. Which would have made this apology seem insane. That’s why I had to call you garbage a second time just now.”

What makes GLaDOS great, I think, isn’t her malice alone, but the way she expresses it – with sarcasm, passive aggression, and, above all, black humour. No villain has ever made me laugh so hard or so consistently. Despite her boundless hate, she’s also tragic – a prisoner as surely as the protagonist, both of the Aperture Science Laboratory and of her own programming. I think she’s especially close to a lot of roleplaying game villains since she’s essentially an evil wizard running a maniacal deathtrap dungeon.

I think a good lesson to learn from GLaDOS is that evil and levity can go together really well. GLaDOS is really, really satisfying to take down because she taunts and belittles you so mercilessly.

The Xenomorph

The xenomorph from Alien is one of the best movie monsters of all time. I include here the creature in all of its forms, including the egg, facehugger, chestburster, etc.



Alien

“Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.”

“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

What makes the xenomorph great? Its utter inhumanity is definitely part of it: this thing doesn’t think like us, can’t be reasoned with, can’t be fully fathomed. It’s very smart, but it exists to breed and sees people as disposable food-sources and reproductive vessels. It’s a good monster because it’s so liminal, so between-things – is it crustacean, insect, reptile? It suggests both the monstrous feminine and abject – associated with birth, reproduction, eggs, womb-like spaces, envelopment – as well as a predatory hyper-masculinity – the phallic, juddering mouthparts, the facehugger’s ovipositor. It confounds the binaries and categorical schema we’re familiar with, disorienting us with its otherness, its refusal to participate in systems of meaning. It is utterly impure, not just terrifying but contaminating. It also brings out the worst in us, spawns sub-villains, reflects back our own “inhumanity” – the Weyland-Yutani’s boundless corporate avarice, its exploitation of its own employees, its reduction of everything to profit margins, to consumer and consumed. In this sense the fact that it blends in so well with the Nostromo – the mechanical and the biological blurring – seems particularly apt.

The xenomorph is satisfying to defeat not just because it’s so seemingly unkillable for much of the (first) film but also because killing it is both a kind of purity ritual – restoring a sense of human agency and order – and a political act, a way of sticking it to the company and the rapacious capitalist greed it represents.

The film is also a master-class in how to reveal a monster to make it scary, and I think a lot of the lessons of good filmmaking can be taken up by roleplaying games as well, particularly of the horror persuasion. The most important thing here is pacing – you need to slowly build up a sense of suspense and dread, teasing the monster’s presence, before revealing it, and ideally, you want the thing to appear multiple times in short encounters rather than in a single confrontation.
« Last Edit: May 10, 2017, 08:25:26 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #4 on: May 10, 2017, 04:56:10 PM »

Interesting choice of a character to name yourself (or at least your forum persona) after, Steerpike.  grin huh
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« Reply #5 on: May 10, 2017, 05:30:21 PM »

sparkletwist

Interesting choice of a character to name yourself (or at least your forum persona) after, Steerpike.

I've got a real soft spot for this sort of character - Milton's Satan, Frank Underwood, Tyrion Lannister, Edmund from Lear. In a lot of cases these characters are treated unjustly for some reason, be it due to their class, their legitimacy, their physical body, etcetera. I think they make good villains precisely because they call into question the moral foundations of the society they exist in, pointing out its hypocrisies and undermining the legitimacy of its rulers. This is sort of the opposite of how things work in texts like The Lord of the Rings or Narnia, where the bad guys, even when they seem nice, are unambiguously bad, while the good guys are rightful kings or leonine deities or whatever, and killing the bad guys solves the problem and restores everything to how it should be. Steerpike is a murderer and a liar and a manipulator, but he also exposes the cruelty and absurdity of Gormenghast, the way its power structures are arbitrary and oppressive and its traditions just a means of preserving those structures. Milton's intentions aside, this is also how Satan operates in Paradise Lost, as the Romantic poets observed - calling out God as a tyrant, insisting that he created nothing, only falsely claims to be the creator. These sorts of villains can be evil or amoral, but they often ask us to look at our own society and institutions with a more critical eye rather than assuming the status quo is morally defensible.
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« Reply #6 on: May 10, 2017, 05:56:49 PM »

Steerpike

sparkletwist

Interesting choice of a character to name yourself (or at least your forum persona) after, Steerpike.

I've got a real soft spot for this sort of character - Milton's Satan, Frank Underwood, Tyrion Lannister, Edmund from Lear. In a lot of cases these characters are treated unjustly for some reason, be it due to their class, their legitimacy, their physical body, etcetera. I think they make good villains precisely because they call into question the moral foundations of the society they exist in, pointing out its hypocrisies and undermining the legitimacy of its rulers. This is sort of the opposite of how things work in texts like The Lord of the Rings or Narnia, where the bad guys, even when they seem nice, are unambiguously bad, while the good guys are rightful kings or leonine deities or whatever, and killing the bad guys solves the problem and restores everything to how it should be. Steerpike is a murderer and a liar and a manipulator, but he also exposes the cruelty and absurdity of Gormenghast, the way its power structures are arbitrary and oppressive and its traditions just a means of preserving those structures. Milton's intentions aside, this is also how Satan operates in Paradise Lost, as the Romantic poets observed - calling out God as a tyrant, insisting that he created nothing, only falsely claims to be the creator. These sorts of villains can be evil or amoral, but they often ask us to look at our own society and institutions with a more critical eye rather than assuming the status quo is morally defensible.

And we love you anyways <3
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« Reply #7 on: May 10, 2017, 07:02:31 PM »

Yeah, I definitely like that sort of villain, too. From a gaming standpoint, it works really well to have a villain that the characters (and, really, the players) can actually engage with-- I like to give them some opportunity outside of combat to be able to debate their ideas, and these sorts of villains work really well to encourage the story to go in very interesting directions.
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« Reply #8 on: May 10, 2017, 08:18:08 PM »

In some ways I think the ideal gaming villain might be a character chosen by the players as the antagonist - in the sense that instead of having characters the GM envisions as villains or benefactors, the GM instead has characters with conflicting goals and agendas, and it's then up to the PCs which goals and agendas to support and which to oppose.

I've been trying to do something like this in my 5th edition game. Right now the players are engaged in a multi-part "rod of seven parts" style quest to retrieve thirteen volumes of magical lore which together make up a unified theory of magic as known to the elder civilization atop whose ruined metropolis the main city of the setting is built. Right now I've introduced at least two factions who want the books:

- Master Melchior, an ancient archmage who has become a brain in a jar, and who believes he can use the books to usher in a magical utopia. He's headmaster of the city's greatest magical university.

- The Velvet Shadow, a spy/assassin's guild of shadowy information brokers and manipulators, who claim that Melchior is meddling with powers beyond his ken, and who want to keep the books secret & safe.

Melchior may initially seem like the good guy and the Velvet Shadow the bad guys, but I'm trying to build them up to show that Melchior has made past mistakes in his long tenure as the city's most powerful mage, while the Shadow, although assassins, seem to actually have the city's interests at heart and want to try and forestall some sort of magical apocalypse. Who to collaborate with is up the the characters.

I'm planning on introducing several additional factions with interests in the books, including some vampires from a nearby metropolis who, though bloodsuckers, are also incredibly competent leaders with centuries of experience, effectively enlightened absolutists who've had many lifetimes to perfect the "enlightened" part of that equation (think Catherine the Great only 500 years old).
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« Reply #9 on: May 10, 2017, 09:33:11 PM »

Steerpike

In some ways I think the ideal gaming villain might be a character chosen by the players as the antagonist - in the sense that instead of having characters the GM envisions as villains or benefactors, the GM instead has characters with conflicting goals and agendas, and it's then up to the PCs which goals and agendas to support and which to oppose.
This seems like it'd work very well in certain styles of games, especially sandboxy games, or games with a fairly high amount of moral gray areas. If the game is supposed to focus on political scheming or the like, having different factions to manipulate towards various causes that may end up being either allies or enemies also seems like it'd work really well.

On the other hand, I'm not sure if I'd go so far as to call it "ideal." There is a certain amount of grayness here, and that doesn't suit every game. Sometimes players just want to be the heroes, and putting them in situations where there are difficult moral choices or every outcome seems suboptimal just makes the game less satisfying. That's not to say everything has to be 100% black and white all the time even in this sort of game, but sometimes it's nice to have a more overtly defined villain, too.
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« Reply #10 on: May 10, 2017, 11:39:57 PM »

That's true. I can see some players might not enjoy difficult moral choices. It feels like it maximizes character agency to go for a "pick-your-villain" strategy - but character agency doesn't always need to be maximized.

I do tend to have some truly black-hearted, unambiguously evil characters in my games too, usually more as "street-level" villains - so far in this particular game, a crazy death-worshipper slowly metamorphosing into a gigantic maggot, a necromancer who specializes in augmenting and reprogramming zombies (the city has a big undead workforce), a child-eating sewer witch, and a narcissistic, bloodthirsty fairy lord. In some ways these "cartoon evil" characters are more fun for me to play, especially as monster-of-the-week bad guys. Amazingly none of these characters has actually been killed, but have ended up in various prisons, or else have vanished back into the shadows, meaning they are becoming a proper rogues' gallery; I'm tempted to do a league of villains thing with them.
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« Reply #11 on: May 11, 2017, 10:11:23 AM »

Part of what makes villains in video games and movies so great is that you get to see a side of them that is fundamentally difficult to portray through the medium of D&D (or what have you). That's why I think villains like Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton from A Song of Ice and Fire are so resonant - they just act petulant and vile when you see them. Joffrey isn't a very complex character (I think Bolton is a little bit more complex, but it's not explored too deeply), but easily hatable (that's a word!) because of their simply portrayed dispositions.

I find the act of balancing an interesting villain difficult through D&D or FATE without having them come off closer to the aforementioned two examples. Or I should say, I find those types of previously mentioned villains the easiest and most resonant, especially if they somehow manage to stick around for more than a few encounters. The driving hatred and seeing them meet their inevitable end is extremely satisfying. However, the idea of making a fully realized villain often walks the line of DMPC too closely for me, and in the past I've fallen prey to the notion that the players should somehow know their story, and would MAYBE even think differently of them because of it. That fell flat, naturally, but lesson learned.

I do think the idea of making players create their own villains is actually really novel, and I think in some ways I've witnessed that without realizing it. When Kryzbytn confronted the Man in Armor it felt very special and rewarding to me.
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« Reply #12 on: May 11, 2017, 05:00:10 PM »

Steerpike

In some ways these "cartoon evil" characters are more fun for me to play, especially as monster-of-the-week bad guys.
I also think that just because you have characters that are unambiguously "the bad guys," it doesn't necessarily mean they have to be "cartoon evil." Naked power and ambition are pretty self-serving and can lead to pretty evil acts, but are also quite realistic motivations.

Steerpike

they are becoming a proper rogues' gallery; I'm tempted to do a league of villains thing with them.
That's always fun. I have a group of recurring villains that I've used in various games at various times that I've dubbed the 'The Evil Trio' because I've found it quite fun to use them together-- they started off as more simplistic but their motives have evolved as they've seen more use. At some point I think it would be fun to play one (or the whole trio, I like crazy stuff like that, as Alptraum shows you) as protagonists instead. They'd definitely tend towards being antiheroines but that's not exactly a bad thing.

Weave

However, the idea of making a fully realized villain often walks the line of DMPC too closely for me
It's a role-playing game and I don't think the DM should be ruled out when it comes to playing roles. I don't think DMPC's are inherently bad. They get a bad reputation because DM's tend to use the when they'd rather be playing and steal the spotlight, but as long as they don't do that, I think they can add to the game because there's a deeply developed character for the PC's to interact with.
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« Reply #13 on: May 11, 2017, 06:41:16 PM »

I think the "villain as DMPC" issue relates to a larger issue with DMing, which is DMs getting precious with their settings and characters and plots - being overly protective of them or trying to insulate them from the PCs wrecking/derailing them. Like, I spent a long time mapping and detailing various districts of the main city in my game, but if the PCs unleash a catastrophic conflagration, it's going to burn down (at least parts of it). Ditto with villains escaping - it's fine if they can credibly escape, but if the PCs fire off Hold Person and the save is failed and the bad guy gets offed, the PCs deserve the victory.

Speaking of good roleplaying game villains, there is a spectacularly good villain in Kyle Chenier's Blood in the Chocolate for Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Lucia de Castillo, a sort of "Willy Wonka meets Cortez" character except also a half Dutch, half Incan decadent.
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« Reply #14 on: May 11, 2017, 08:06:23 PM »

Steerpike

I think the "villain as DMPC" issue relates to a larger issue with DMing, which is DMs getting precious with their settings and characters and plots - being overly protective of them or trying to insulate them from the PCs wrecking/derailing them. Like, I spent a long time mapping and detailing various districts of the main city in my game, but if the PCs unleash a catastrophic conflagration, it's going to burn down (at least parts of it). Ditto with villains escaping - it's fine if they can credibly escape, but if the PCs fire off Hold Person and the save is failed and the bad guy gets offed, the PCs deserve the victory.

The only way I can think to have a fail-safe recurring villain is to have a villain that stays primarily in the background of everything, but is the final boss character, choosing to send goons after you, until either he/she/it decides to deal with you personally, or the players finally stumble into the correct situation to fight.
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