Ten Ways to Help Your Players Hate a Villain
1. Give him a magic item or gadget that one of the players wants. Have him use it on the characters with great enthusiasm.
2. Have him take credit for cool things the characters have done. If possible, have him collect a reward for their effort.
3. Give him an ally who is a genuinely good and nice guy and who is also friendly and supportive of the characters. Have this ally try to get both sides to get along, and sacrifice himself to keep his friends from fighting. Then make sure the players see the villain’s absolute disdain for this ally.
4. The villain should only rarely defeat or thwart the heroes. Instead, he should make things much more costly enough for them, costly enough to taint their victory. Give him an objective that is tangential to the goals of the PCs, rather than in direct opposition, so he can take advantage of their efforts. Make sure he thanks them.
5. Have NPCs who do not respect the characters respect the villain.
6. Have the PCs find the one chink in his villainous armor—the one good thing he does that he keeps secret. It should be something hidden but clearly good, like charitable giving or teaching kids to read or something. Make sure that the characters get at least one crack at him while he’s doing this, so they would be forced to act in front of the people who think he’s a hero.
7. If the villain is going to kill someone, it should be someone who is about to help the characters. Ideally, he should also frame them for the murder.
8. Have him do exactly what the characters would do in that situation. If that thing has gotten the characters in trouble or made them look foolish, make sure that he is acclaimed for it.
9. At some point the villain should know something the players need to find out. He should be utterly civil and willing to help them out, but the price should involve them doing something for him that is difficult (but not impossible) and plays very much to their strengths, so it is very clear that whatever it is he could not have accomplished it without their help. Make sure the fruits of those labors show up again later.
10. Have the villain think highly of one of the characters, albeit in a very condescending fashion. Have the villain offer words of encouragement and suggestions for how to improve whenever possible, and make it clear he thinks the character has so much potential and it’s just a shame he’s not living up to it.
I’ve used this one many times to great effect: Have the villain destroy something of the PCs.
Now, this should not be a magic item or something with mechanical implications. It should be something personal. Family heirlooms are great. You know, the thing the player wrote about lovingly in their PC description.
In my current campaign, the BBEG just teleported to the PCs’ base of operations, slaughtered most everyone who lived and worked there, and razed it to the ground.
They are champing at the bit for next session.
Great villain-PC psychology you have here. I like 4 the best –it’s like a “villain tax” on the PC’s efforts. Or even better, “the I’mma let you finish” to the PC’s accomplishments.
“You saved that village, and I’mma let you finish, but I your best friend just died by my blade while you were tied up with my minions!”
As you elude to, the secret is creating a tension between the PCs and the villain. Humiliate. Condescend. Snipe. Steal. Fighting doesn’t produce that rivalry, but things tangential to direct conflict will.
Again, a tip of the hat. Great post.
These are all excellent suggestions and I shall have to remember to use a bunch of them with my dark spriggan prince villain in my Swordbridge game. I’ve already got some of the players thinking he’d be an OK guy if he weren’t such an underhanded, egotistical, murderous bastard.
Start there, and just click around to learn all you ever needed to know about magnificent villainy.
The biggest obstacle to having a good villain in an RPG is having them survive long enough to show up repeatedly. In Clockworks I added a rule that I could use a GM Benny to let bad guys escape at any point before the end of an adventure. If you don’t like that sort of meta-rule, make sure your bad guy has some sort of escape plan/magic/gizmo so they can show up, be evil, flee before they die, and then show up again.
I am deeply grateful to you for posting this. The players in my Eberron game won’t be, but I am.
This is an awesome list. 🙂 Good for writing, too!
Just reading these suggestions is getting my goat.
Also, uhm, some of these sound (and feel) familiar. Actually, they remind me of Laeric, and now I suddenly understand why I am filled with the desire to stab him in the face many, many, many times all over again.
… so, yes, very effective suggestions.
Number 7. Laeric did number 7 to us. Oh, god, that *bastard*. We were so FLIPPING close –
I need to not read this or I will be demanding to kill an NPC from a game that’s years over.
One method I like is to make the villain charming, honourable, and above all else, merciful. There is nothing like the suspicion that their arch-nemesis might actually be a better person than they are to really rile them…
Another nice touch is if the players are the only ones who can see what is actually going on and the villain realises this. Thus the villain has a ready-made audience who can appreciate his Machiavellian plans where no one else will. And perhaps he can’t help showing off a little bit, too.
After all, there are so few people worthy of him.
Then again, I’ve always enjoyed the “I know that you know that he knows that…” conversations when the two sides meet on neutral ground.