If you’re big into tabletop RPGs, then you’ve hopefully read my guides to building characters with personality. If not, you should get on that. This time around, I’ve whipped up something special for the game masters. When you run your game, it’s totally fine not to build backstories for every NPC, but there is one NPC whom you should know inside and out. That’s your main villain. Here are some tips to building bosses that are as enticing as they are terrifying.
Your villains should outclass your heroes
This is the first rule of writing any major villain whether it be for a novel, a movie, or a game. The villain element of any story is the main threat to the protagonists’ well being. The harder the difficulty, the more drama you create. If your villain is a bumbling idiot who can’t do anything right, then they’re not a challenge. The struggle to overcome insurmountable odds is the root of most adventure stories.
When it comes to the mechanics of boss fights, you need to consider the math. Your villain element will usually consist of one to two boss-level characters, but your party will usually have three or more players. The higher the ratio of players to villains, the more the party can focus their damage while you have to distribute attacks among players. You can balance this with more minion NPCs, but it’ll be more interesting if you set your villains’ levels higher than your players’. It gives them more tricks to pull from their hat, it makes their abilities more effective, and it makes them more difficult to kill. Also try to avoid making a villain who can be killed just by straight-up hits. Try to come up with complications that require your players to figure out how to defeat the villain.
Villains Need Motives Too
If you read my first article about creating characters with personality, then you know that the most important element is the character’s “why.” Why are they going on the quest? What events from their past drives them to do what they do? The same thing applies for villains. All villains should have reasons for doing what they do. The only time evil for the sake of evil works is in children’s stories, otherwise, your villain needs a solid motive. Maybe they want to take over the world or just destroy it. Maybe they seek vengeance upon someone or something that wronged them in the past. Or maybe they think they’re truly serving the greater good. Whatever it is, your villain has somehow learned that their methods are the best way to get what they want.
One of my favorite out-of-the-box villainous motives is from season one of Galavant. King Richard has overthrown the monarchs of Valencia, kidnapped Galavant’s lady love, and now rules the kingdom. At first, you assume he’s a run of the mill evil monarch. That’s not the case at all. Richard decides that he’s tired of being a meanie and wants to garner the peoples’ love, but he never learned how to rule in any way other than being a tyrant. He has good intentions, but his clueless gestures of kindness only make the people hate him more.
The Slow Burn
If you ever study the element of suspense in writing or in movies, one of the key components to creating tension is the slow burn. Don’t show your villain fully right from the start. Perhaps there are mysterious things happening around your heroes. Or they hear whispers about the villain long before they ever get a glimpse. In the movie Jaws, you don’t even see the shark for the first hour and twenty minutes of the movie. You know it’s there. You know it’s lurking, and you know it’s going to kill.
The mystery is fun, so take your time. Give your players small tastes of what’s to come. Leave them warnings. Send minions. Maybe even let them experience a fraction of the villain’s power. An excellent example in tabletop form is in Critical Role’s Whitestone Arc (episodes 24-38). The players knew the Briarwoods overthrew Percy’s family, but they had no idea what they were really dealing with. The party was given rumors, and even had a very tense dinner with the Briarwoods, before all jenga broke loose.
Beyond the cliché
It’s very easy to fall upon cliché characters, especially in a fantasy setting, and especially with gender roles. We see men as knights, fighters, laborers, and usually the main villain. Women are often used as love interests, healers, sorceresses, and seductresses. We see necromancers as automatically evil and paladins as automatically good. Play around with your classes, genders, and races rather than falling into the same old expected archetypes.
It’s too simple to say “My villain is a _____.” and leave it at that, but a good villain has human qualities, even if they’re not human. What’s something they enjoy doing when they’re not plotting? Were they always evil, or did they have a different personality before something happened to change that? Think beyond archetype and remember villains are people too. Unless they’re Beholders.
Bring on the pain
You need to be at least a little sadistic to be a good game master. As I’ve stated before, conflict is the root of all storytelling. Plan for moments to hurt your players’ characters, physically or emotionally. Give them something they desire and rip it away. Make them think they’re going to win a fight then throw something at them that can bring a character to the brink of death. Have an NPC betray them. Lose a player to mind control and have them turn on the party. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to be brutal. Those moments of crisis test your players, bring them closer together, and evoke emotions. All of these enrich the gaming experience. I will never forget the game where my sorceress’s NPC boyfriend literally stabbed her in the back with a dagger that did constitution damage. All hell broke loose and the party had to kill him in order to save me. It was heart wrenching, shocking, and one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever played.
What are some of your favorite tips for creating villains? Let us know in the comments!
Featured image credit: EA Games