This time, it’s personal: tips for making villains worthy of player grudges

Not just for the cinema: vengeance motivates RPG heroes, too. Image Copyright Paramount Pictures.

A primary goal placed before a dungeon master (DM) is finding ways to connect players emotionally to the group’s Dungeons & Dragons game; after all, while it may be exciting to defeat a statistically superior foe in combat, such an event can be made even more meaningful if the player secures an “emotional victory” at the same time.

For the purposes of this post, the best way to define “emotional victory” is through example. Years ago, this writer ran his D&D group through the classic D&D module, Night’s Dark Terror. The module led the party in an ongoing struggle against a slaving operation known as the Iron Ring, and against one of the ring’s agents in particular: the yellow-robed wizard, Golthar. While the module provided several opportunities for the party to cross swords with Golthar and his subordinates, the wizard always managed to escape as the heroes were securing victory, typically delivering an insult or two toward the party’s fighter during the escape. After letting the wizard slip through their grasp a couple of times, the players – espeically the fellow who played the fighter –  became obsessed with the idea of capturing or killing him. When Golthar was slain near the end of the adventure, some of the players were eager to see what treasure or information the wizard carried. The player who ran the insulted fighter had no interest in such things; when asked why, he responded, “Who cares what he’s carrying? I just killed Golthar! I’m going to Disneyland!”

Clearly, the victory over Golthar meant more to the player than treasure and experience points. It was so memorable, in fact, that the Disneyland quote found a permanent home on our D&D Quote Sheet

There are several methods through which a DM can create villains that evoke visceral responses from players, responses that add to the emotional quality of the game for everyone. They include:

Have the villain attack the heroes’ reputation. Players tend to be very thin-skinned when it comes to negative rumors about them, and are even more sensitive if a villain is credited with any of their accomplishments. After tracking down the source of the rumors, it is almost certain that the heroes will want to set the record straight, preferably in a manner that is violent and embarrassing for the villain in question. Be cautious not to overuse this device, as no player wants to be the object of constant ridicule; often, just a rumor or two is more than enough to elicit an emotional response from players.

Create goals for the villain that are mutually exclusive to specific player character (PC) goals. Most PCs have more goals than to amass treasure and experience. Some seek to have magic items made, others seek to research new spells and rituals, while still others seek social advancement or ascending military ranks. Whatever the heroes’ goals may be, design one or more villains with mutually exclusive goals; the villain doesn’t even need to know he’s opposing the heroes. If a PC sorceress needs a rare component for her favorite ritual, have a villain legally buy up the entire regional supply for his own purposes. If a PC fighter wants to be promoted to the rank of sergeant of the watch, allow a villain to be promoted to the post instead. As long as the temporary setback to the heroes’ goals is legal, the party cannot retaliate with violence; the best they can do is find ways to exert social or political influence to avenge the “wrong” done against them. When the heroes start looking for ways to do that, the DM knows that an emotional connection exists.

Push player “buttons.” Everyone is annoyed by something. For players who develop complex histories and motivations for their heroes, the DM needs to select villainous attributes or deeds that conflict with those motivations. For players who focus more on powergaming and min/maxing, the DM can choose villainous attributes that annoy the players in real life. Like most of us, players complain from time to time, and by listening to those complaints, a DM can uncover villainous traits that will annoy the players as much (or more) than the villain’s evil plans annoy the heroes.

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Apart from deliberately tampering with the heroes’ reputation (which is really nothing more than engaging in idle gossip), the methods discussed so far for getting players to emotionally connect with villains could be accidentally committed by a villain. The villain from the previous example who bought up ritual components may have done so without knowing that anone else would need the same items so soon after his purchase, and the villain who was promoted to sergeant instead of the hero may simply have been trying his best to win the promotion, just like the hero was. But what happens when a villain deliberately offends a hero? Such offenses can range from a disagreement on the finer points of honor to the execution of a hero’s family, and players will nurse growing rage toward such villains as the campaign progresses. Periodically giving the offended heroes a taste of revenge from time to time, and final vengeance after an appropriate number of experience levels, provides the stuff from which tales are spun years after the conflict was resolved.

Have you used methods not discussed here to make villains players love to hate? If you have, please consider sharing them in a comment to this post.


9 comments on “This time, it’s personal: tips for making villains worthy of player grudges

  1. vbwyrde says:

    Good thoughts. Another thing I would add is that you can get PCs to be emotionally involved by making your villains have personalities that are obnoxious in some way. Maybe the villain is not evil, or does not have a diametrically oppositional goal set, but is just plain haughty as hell, insulting, vain, and cruel. That’s enough for most players. Other personality attributes that are good fodder for villains might include any of the seven deadly sins, or vices. Sometimes a respected NPC in the community turns foul under the influence of corruption, but still clings to the ideals he left behind. Maybe the villain is a corrupting force himself, but does not realise that because he’s following his ideas but is being manipulated by someone else. Etc. There’s a lot that can be done with personality traits that can bring players to the boiling point.


  2. ClefJ says:

    Oh my, another nice one! I finally have something worth sharing too. Attacking ones reputation, pushing a players buttons, and even drawing for them an unwavering need for vengeance, is for a villain I’ve been employing in the last few (long) sessions.

    I suppose the best analogy for this man is that he’s a spirit constantly re-possessing a race of telepaths. He wants vengeance on the son (a PC) of a mother who had made him so un-dead. However, he is a telepath and loves to use mind-games against the party, and one of the other PC’s is Vehemently against mind-control of any kind (Other enemies in this land have irked his hatred of telepathic control). This villain has also slowly orchestrated thievery that the party stumbles upon, and weaving even a major prophecy that the party had followed for half the adventure.

    The villains threat to family (the mother) was a major button-pusher for that PC too, as this character also has a Character Flaw of blind rage concerning threats to family. Then he tarnished the reputation of their entire Guild, framing one of the party members with high murder. He also violated the party and stole all of their equipment, setting them in a game of cat-and-mouse in his own fortress before choosing to possess one of them as his next host. Only then was his true identity revealed as well. And to date, he has escaped capture, causing the party to even accidentally attack each other.

    Through six sessions, this villain has managed to affect the deepest emotions of nearly every member of the party in different ways. And even now every player is brainstorming how to capture or eliminate this menace. And they love it. How’s that one? ;D

    • Alric says:

      I like that a lot. Nobody likes losing control of their characters – mind control really is something players love to hate.

  3. max.elliott says:

    Be careful. On one occasion in a SF game I vaporized a villain from this school ages early in the campaign. Long story short, we got ourselves into one heck of a mess and he showed up to blackmail us with our freedom. However, I judged that his sudden appearance when my hair trigger merc character was at his most helpless dictated a strong response. Only his hat survived.

    That character loved that hat, and wore it from that day on.

  4. […] This time, it's personal: tips for making villains worthy of … […]

  5. […] The RPG Athenaeum talks about other such tips to make the NPC conflict built up in some ways as well, and you can see a number of examples of it in popular media with TVtropes article It’s Personal. It can be hard to make this sort of idea work without figuring out how to tailor it to your campaign, as you can see in some of the examples listed above, but then that is what this is here for. I will try to spark some ideas to help out. […]

  6. Travis says:

    Lol we made vladimir putin as a villian/demigod he didnt like my character and picked on me wile helping and giving cool stuff to my other party members lol i hated that guy i turned him to sand once but he came back and took one of my arms….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s