Let's Be Bad Guys: Playing the Villain

Villains are the classic heart of a good story. As much as we love to say the heroes are the beating heart, it comes down to how they respond to the world around them and how the villain of the story is maneuvering. The heart felt moments, the beautiful moments, the breathtaking action sequences happen on screen for your heroes. But behind all these dynamic, flawed, beautiful heroes is the villain, classically twirling his moustache and spouting out his secret plans for the viewer.

In gaming though, we don't really give screen time to our villains. In fact, we make a lot of effort to hide what our villains are doing. In Trad games, our villains are the classical types, whose plots are laid out like breadcrumbs for the heroes to follow. In many story games, the villains aren't anymore grey than they are traditionally. Except sometimes there aren't villains. There's just some people who can be bad guys if you piss them off.

But in that transition from trad to story, how did we lose sight of a bad guy? Did he get boring? Did he get overused? Was the trope problematic? Or did we want to start being villains ourselves? With the commonality of "evil" campaigns and the movement towards grey and gritty heroes in media, we're often left questioning our heroes. Yet these movies and television shows still have a classic villain or two. 

Yet I know in my campaigns, despite my efforts to keep things fluid and without set baddies, I end up with some folks that people hate, that people peg as the bad guys, and those are the villains, in a way. I don't think they're baddies, not really, just complicated people who struggle deeply and whose actions can be seen as bad. But my players see them as the villains and really that's the view that matters.

Most of my villains are baddies you love to hate. They're people you wouldn't automatically turn down and they're, well, people. I don't tend to run things black and white if I can help it. If I'm running something more geared towards children's stories, the villains are black and white then. But anytime I'm running something focused on adults and adult stories, my villains are just complicated people.

Even when I'm running something like Trail of Cthulhu, I try to make my villains nuanced. Straight up bad guys are hard to find in real life, and even harder to have as your villain and invoke any emotional response from the players. My goals always include invoking emotional responses, so my villains have to be framed around that. Additionally, they have to dominantly show off this world and show what this world is like. They have to feel real. They have to be compelling. And they have to offer reasons for their actions because they don't live in a vacuum of reality. 

But how do we make someone all these things when they're never on camera? The only time we really have to show off these characters is during interaction with the PCs. We can leave tidbits and clues behind for the PCs to discover, but realistically, they won't feel anything about a few journals they find along the way. 

The first thing you need to consider about your villain is how they demonstrate what the world is about. If we consider Sauron, we see how well he sets up the world of Lord of the Rings. There are rings of power, there was a Great War that has on going social ramifications, and there's a geographical location that regularly assaults neighbouring countries. We know that magic is real, that rings are powerful, and that one group can dominate the other groups. We learn immediately that power corrupts in this world, in a very terrifying way.

When you create your villain, figure out what they're saying about the world. If I'm running something more militaristic, my bad guy has to reflect that. If he's part of the military, I'm commenting on the military. If he's a rebel fighting against the military, I'm setting up rebels to be bad guys. If my villain is set in an urban setting, I have to be careful about what I'm saying about modern politics and social situations. If I'm planning on exploring some problematic territory, I need to examine how that territory will influence and be demonstrated the most in my villain.

The easiest way to look at this is to think of things like Die Hard, where villains exemplify the stereotypes that America had on people of other nations. These villains demonstrate common views that set up the reality around them. Aka, Germans are bad guys. When looking at more complex villains, like Hannibal from the television series Hannibal, we know that Hannibal's existence shows the way killers can hide in plain sight and be felt to be trustworthy. He also sets up that killers are, at the end of the day, fallible people, which is a compelling way to start the world.

Regardless of what kind of world you're running in, think about how your villain will add layers to that but also exemplify that. Bad guys need to feel real to the world, be loyal to the fiction, and be compelling. You want to ensure that your heroes have reasons to hate them, even if you want to make them also quite likeable. 

Being real and compelling is one of the hardest steps, I find, for making a villain. For me, when I'm setting up the world's problems (fronts, threats, etc), I tend to create a few npcs that are connected to PCs. I make bad things happen without having a face for the first few episodes and then gradually connect those important npcs to the problems so that it all ties together. Why do I do this? 

Well, partly because I play to find out. I find following that principle of Apocalypse World, one I did even before it was codified, makes it easy to choose your villains after the heroes are already waist deep. It also allows you to tie them back into the fiction and look like you've been carrying some long game plot even though you're just tossing an npc in at random. My advice: if you do this, take decent notes to avoid continuity errors.

Villains, to be real, should have foibles, weaknesses, and humanity. They should have problems, real reasons for doing things, and legitimate reasons for their hates. They may not even hate. They do, though, see themselves as the good guy. Just like the heroes see themselves as the good guys, even though they may not necessarily be. When we rob a tomb, we see ourselves the heroes, even though we're desecrating the sacred ground of another culture to steal their goods. So, you know, perspective matters. 

The reason can often be one of the hardest parts because it's often hard for us to imagine our problems amped to 11. When I do this, I try to think of a series of small things or one or two decently sized things that have consequences that didn't equal the action. I wonder how I would feel if I was told one thing all my life, then had an event or five really nail that down. I may be prejudice then. I may want to eradicate supernatural creatures if I've only seen them harm others as a cop. 

There needs to be consequences in the villain's life that has made them respond the way they are. Those are your reasons. This ties back into how they exemplify the world, and ultimately, how the world is broken. When we look at our historical villains, they often are extreme examples of their time. We can trace or ultimately try to explain their behaviour with whatever we think happened to them along the way. What is often lacking in our gaming villains are these stories, these moments, and thus, these reasons.

Someone in an rpg is often just a someone. They don't get the ultimate back story, or if they do, it's often so heavily put into the game that it feels like a game about the villain and the villain becomes precious so they can't just be killed by the heroes. Don't do this. Take a note out of Deadwood's book. When they think they've met he worst person ever, make someone else make that first person look damn good. And when they think the second person is the most evil, introduce another. Show them the world has no end of bad people that have compelling stories. Sure, maybe they're all evil, or maybe the world is the problem?

Generally I'm a fan of the world being a dominant character more than ever finding any npc too precious to kil. No one wants to feel like the story progression hinges on a single villain, so give space, create multiple potential baddie, and make them all real. This is how I've managed to juggle multiple campaigns and not let hem burn out, is by having those believable characters who are villains but forming relationships with the heroes rather than just being an adversary from the get go.

This is all good and well for when we're gming. But what do we do when we're playing the villain? How do we play bad guys without ruining the game for everyone else? And more importantly, how do we add to story when we're being the evil characters who should be thwarted by the heroes? Even as I play a villain and bad guy in a game now, I sit there and consider how this will turn out long term and how I can make this into a good story and not just another douche who wants to play an evil campaign of D&D.

To start with, we need to think about what kind of story we're hoping to tell with a bad guy character. Often, redemption is the name of the game. Or else we end up with an anti-hero story, one where circumstances force the bad guy into being a good guy for the sake of survival or to get out of whatever stupid situation they managed to get themselves into. And mercenaries aren't heroes. If we've learned anything from Jayne, it's that being a bad guy means not always caring about the side damage, and seeing self sacrifice as foolish. But it also means that when a kid sees you as a hero, it impacts you.

If you're going to play a villain, make sure your character can find ways of working with others and not being a lone wolf. Make sure they can have dramatic moments as long as everyone is cool with it being based on your differing approach and philosophies. Checking in is a key point in playing a villain. Also, make sure that you spend time showing your character as a well rounded individual and not just a one trick pony who hates the world. It's boring and useless and needs to die.

Many, many shows and media sources show anti-heroes and grey-scale characters that can be seen as villains or bad guys who are still main characters with lots to add to the story. Take time to consider how you'll relate to other characters, build deep relationships with them so that your own habits of being a bad guy are impactful and meaningful and not just gleeful idiocy to add colour. Don't be a character with no depth and no reason for being evil. The Joker is fun to watch, sure, but no one wants to play with that character at the table. 

The guidelines on making believable villains as a GM apply to being a villainous character. Have reasons, be real, be human, be vulnerable at times, and show what's wrong with the world through your character. It's important that you be connected to others and be a real person, not just a characters of what you think villainy is like. Villains are people with friends and loved ones and things they value and find interesting other than just being bad guys. This is your task. This, combined with being useful or compelling enough to not be killed.

Which brings me to my final point about playing a bad character: don't go crying when someone kills you if you run your character into the ground through being an ass and an idiot to other characters. Most real life villains are pretty smart. They know how to play the game. If you light everything on fire and then get killed by another PC, don't be upset or act surprised. Being an asshole will get your character killed. If you do this, then thems the breaks. Pull up your adult panties and learn from your mistakes. 

Villains can breathe life into a world. They can demonstrate the heavy flaws in our world and help make the world feel alive and true. They can break our heroes emotionally, they can be brutal and beautiful and gentle and profoundly insightful while also being terrifying. They should be real. They should feel like a real possibility and that, in part, should be part of what makes them so terrifying. Make your villains sing with vulnerability, with ferocity, and with the milk of human kindness. Make them too real. Make them the heroes of their own flawed stories.