Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about choosing a villain for your campaign.
When PCs think ‘adventure,’ they often think about crusading against a major power, a peerless antagonist designed to harry their attempts and soundly defeat them should even a hair fall out of line on the PC’s side. Strong villains make or break an adventure, but with so many ways to build a villain, how do you choose a villain fro your campaign? Today on GM Guide, we’re going to take a look at what, exactly, makes a compelling villain and different ways to implement them into your story.
Before we get started, I want to clear up an abbreviation that I’m going to be using frequently in this article: BBEG. As you might have guessed/known, ‘BBEG’ stands for “Big Bad Evil Guy” and it usually refers to an Evil villain of a campaign who serves as the adventure’s final boss battle; the boss battle that makes you say, “When X is slain, the adventure is over and we win!” I’m going to be using it slightly incorrectly: I’m going to be using it to refer to any character in a campaign that serves as the primary antagonist for the PCs. In my definition, the BBEG isn’t always Evil and the adventure isn’t necessarily over when/if he dies. And he isn’t necessarily male, because women want to rule the world too, you know!
What Makes a Good Antagonist?
One of the major problems I see in campaign design is motivation: what MAKES a good antagonist? Motivation for an antagonist boils down to the goal that drives the antagonist to be at odds with the PCs. For the best antagonists, this goal is NOT PC-oriented. To see what I mean, compare the following antagonist goals:
- Killrog the Decapitator’s goal is to stop the PCs from obtaining the World’s Heart.
- Killrog the Decapitator’s goal is to obtain the World’s Heart and use it to awaken his dead god.
Without adding glorification to either goal, which one sounds more menacing? The first goal sounds like something you’d expect a toddler to do: “I want it because you want it!” is not good motivation. Real people, antagonists included, are not motivated by a petty need to best others. While they might enjoy besting others or do so for petty reasons or motivations, a true conflict revolves around conflicting motivations. For example: Killrog wants to awaken his dead god vs. the PCs want to protect their homeland from an orc invasion.
Another mistaken that I commonly see GMs make in regards to antagonist is in the character’s presence in the world. I admit that this was an aspect of antagonist design that I struggled with as well. Perhaps the most challenging thing about presence is a conflict of GM goals: you want your players to be invested in your villain but you also want your players to understand your villain. When designing and using antagonists in your campaign, its important to remember the Arthas/Illidan Axis (AIA). What’s the AIA? I’m glad you asked!
The AIA is a measurement of how much you’re using your villain in your campaign. Ideally, you want to be dead center on the axis, because that’s where primary PC enjoyment lies. At each far end of the axis lies an extreme: Arthas (High-Frequency Presence) and Illidan (Low-Frequency Presence). Let me elaborate on these examples, which are both drawn from World of Warcraft.
- In World of Warcraft’s first expansion, the main antagonist was Illidan Stormrage, a popular character from the RTS games. In The Burning Crusade, the PCs had marched onto a strange new world, a world where Illidan ruled with an iron first. At least, everyone SAID he ruled with an iron first, because we never actually saw Illidan rule. Or fight. Or leave his fortress. For almost all of the expansion’s two-year run, Illidan sat in his fortress and did absolutely nothing. Sure, his minions talked about him and his name was plastered all over the place, but he was a villain with absolutely no presence: the PCs did not feel connected to him or understand his motivations because he didn’t do anything and was never actually seen. Illidan’s motivation was to sit on his throne consulting his magic skull waiting for the PCs to grow powerful enough to strike at him. As you can imagine, this utter lack of presence made Illidan into an extremely unsatisfying antagonist.
- After the utter flop of Illidan Stormrage in The Burning Crusade, Blizzard absolved to fix the problem in their second expansion; they cranked up Arthas Menethil’s presence so high that his name even appeared in the expansion’s name: Wrath of the Lich King. Arthas was EVERYWHERE in Wrath of the Lich King. Over the course of the 10 levels of gameplay players received, they count expect to encounter him at least once, sometimes twice. And when the players reached Level 80, he taunted them in Naxxramas, there was a flashback including him in Ulduar, he crashed the PC’s party in Trial of the Crusader, and he was the focus of three 5-player dungeons AND his fortress home of Icecrown Citadel. This guy popped out to taunt and sneer the PCs around EVERY corner, and while the end payoff of why he did that was pretty good, while you’re leveling you’re just sitting there thinking to yourself, “Man, why are you concerned with me? I’m Level 71 in questing greens!” This runs into the other major problem with too much presence: if you keep surviving your encounters with the BBEG, your PCs start to wonder how it is that you keep surviving? It begins to make your BBEG look artificial if he has absolutely no motivation outside of the actions of the PCs and while this increase in presence did ruin Arthas in the same way that a lack of presence ruined Illidan, it did make Arthas look foolish and incompetent which is something you want to avoid for your villain.
Personal Anecdote: The Yellow Prophet
And now, story time with Alex! In the very first campaign I ran for my friends, I was really into the “let your PCs SEE your villain” mindset. Their campaign was essentially a kingdom building/conquering game and early on I introduced a cult led by an individual who only called himself the Yellow Prophet: they were a cult of Hastur, and ultimately the Yellow Prophet wanted to bring Hastur into the world.
Looking back on this character, there’s a LOT I regret about him, mostly because he fit squarely on the Arthas axis of the AIA. I used this guy a LOT, and what’s worse, my PCs knew they couldn’t stop him. He’d show up and more than player would sit back and get a look on their faces that basically said, “Okay, now this guy’s going to have his way with us for a little bit. Again.” It was actually the opposite problem that I described Arthas as having: in Wrath of the Lich King, you fought and beat Arthas too often. In my campaign, the PCs faced the Yellow Prophet but were ultimately powerless before him far too often. They became hyper-paranoid because they figured that if so much as the possibility of the Yellow Cult gaining any ground was visible, they had to snuff it out before the Yellow Prophet could reinforce their position because they felt they ultimately had no hope against him otherwise. That campaign ended when a friend of ours had to drastically alter his working schedule, but in all of the stories of that campaign that my friends talk about, they don’t really talk about the Yellow Prophet because all they remember about him was a sense of frustration, and that’s not what you want your players to remember when they tell stories about their adventures in your campaign world.
And that’s all I have to say about BBEGs for now. In the future I’d like to do another GM’s Guide article on the major types of villains present in storytelling, but I’m not sure if that topic is something my readers would be interested in. What do you think? Do you want to see more story structure articles, or do you think that information’s easy enough to come across? What do you think makes a good villain? Who are your favorite fantasy villains and where do they fall on the AIA? Leave your comments below and I’ll see you next time for another GM Guide!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune blackguard, and his favorite type of Pathfinder campaign is a heroic one.