| Back to RPG Index
© 1998-2001 Dru
All rights reserved.
How to Run a Good Bad Guy
Sometimes we DMs get
so busy counting turns, rolling dice, and keeping track of our monsters'
hit points and spells that we forget to act, which is a pity, because
acting's a big part of the fun of being DM. Some of my favorite times
as a DM are when I get to play the obstructive secretary, the blustering
father-in-law, the arrogant aristocrat, or—my favorite—the
shifty villain. I love villains. I'm the kind who tends to cheer for the
bad guys to win. And I think that a good, er, well-played archvillain
can make or break an AD&D campaign.
or Moff Tarkin? The first thing you have to decide is whether
your villain is major or minor. A major villain—an archvillain—is
one you're hoping to keep around for a while. A minor villain is just
a cameo role, a one-adventure baddie. Major villains deserve to have some
work put into them, to be given personality and depth. Minor villains
don't need to have much attention paid to them—you'll have plenty
of fun just using an instantly recognizable cliche (e.g., the dumb thug,
the sleazy weasel, the bragging windbag, the grim killer, the knock'em'dead
vamp, the psycho loon). They're relatively simple to roleplay. But the
archvillain—now, that's a challenge. This essay will address how
to create major villains—the kind your characters will swiftly learn
to swear at and blame for all of their misfortunes, regardless of whether
the villain was actually involved.
Nemesis or Hidden
Mastermind? Your major villain is either somebody who will (you
hope) plague the characters for levels and levels until The Final Showdown,
or somebody who has been operating behind the scenes throughout the campaign
and has just been unmasked.
The Nemesis is hard to run, because this villain must escape justice every
time s/he has a run-in with the adventurers. This is a comic-book cliche
that can be very frustrating for the players if handled poorly but a lot
of fun if engineered to seem natural. A good DM should be willing to sacrifice
the Nemesis if there's no way to weasel out of it, but should try hard
to keep the Nemesis one step ahead of the characters whenever possible.
Moreover, there should be only one Nemesis in a given campaign, although
it's OK to create a new Nemesis if, despite all your planning, the previous
Nemesis is killed (in this case, it's a time-honored tradition that the
new Nemesis be a lover, spouse, friend, or relation of the slain Nemesis,
and that s/he now specifically seek revenge against the player characters).
If the Nemesis is captured,
do your best to convince the characters to "do the right thing"
and send the villain to jail. That gives the villain a number of opportunities
to escape—on the way to trial, in the middle of the courtroom, on
the way back from trial, out of jail, or right before the execution. You'll
only get a chance to do this once—after that, the characters will
be likely to kill the villain the next time they get a chance—but
it's always fun that one time, and it's guaranteed to elicit a round of
groans and thrown dice from your players.
Other ways to keep the
Nemesis alive is to give the players the option of either capturing the
villain or saving an innocent (preferably one of the character's family
members or friends); of capturing the villain or capturing an even worse
threat (or at least one who poses a more immediate danger to society);
of letting the villain bargain free by offering to swap vital information
for his liberty; or resorting to less satisfactory methods, such as having
the slain villain melt away into a puddle of icewater ("Argh! A simulacrum!")
or having a Contingency Teleport activate just as the sword blade touches
the villain's neck.
The Nemesis should start
at a slightly higher level than the characters—no more than two
or three levels higher, though—and should keep going up in level
as the characters go up. Ideally, the Nemesis should be seen or alluded
to about every fourth or fifth adventure. Remember, the Nemesis doesn't
always need to make a personal appearance. Just a note with the villain's
name mentioned in it, a familiar seal on a discarded envelope, a whiff
of the villain's favorite perfume or cologne, a business record mentioning
that the shop is partially owned by the villain, or a trademark mutilation
on a dead body should be enough to make the characters gnash their teeth
and swear undying revenge.
The Mastermind is the one who's been behind all the minor villains in
the course of the campaign, the evil genius who has been manipulating
the players as though they were pawns on a chess board. (The Mastermind
can be behind the Nemesis if you really want to make your campaign complex,
but this may be too much of a good thing.) The Mastermind is a much easier
villain to throw into a campaign, but does require a bit of preparation.
You should plan on introducing the Mastermind toward the end of your campaign,
if it's naturally winding down, or when the characters are beginning to
reach a point where dungeon-bashing for gold is starting to bore them.
It's best if you make up your mind to include a Mastermind when you first
start your campaign, because it's easier to weave plots together if you're
doing it from the git-go, but it's not too hard to bring the Mastermind
in later if you're willing to take some time to set up the scene.
First, you'll need to
look at all of your previous adventures and decide how many you can possibly
link together. Maybe this unrelated kidnapping really had to do with that
robbery and the presence of that monster in that mountain range yonder
... but how and why? That's what you have to decide—and then let
the players figure out. I often sketch out a sloppy diagram with arrows
pointing from NPC to NPC and notes jotted on the margin when I'm at this
stage. Don't be afraid to get a little crazy with your initial ideas—you
can always go back and smooth out the rough edges and add a little more
logic later. Any NPCs, including intelligent monsters, who have escaped
in previous adventures should be placed into future adventures, creating
definite links between the events (as hirelings of the Mastermind, they
are naturally involved in the Mastermind's other plots and criminal activities).
Some of these can become mini-Nemeses, if they keep surviving from one
adventure to the next!
The second step is to
start building this information into your campaign. Slowly but surely
the characters should realize that there are links between what they're
currently doing and what they've done in the past. If you can show how
their past actions actually helped a criminal in some way, all the better
("The 'innocent little orphan' you saved from the kidnappers and
placed with a fine, upstanding aristocratic family just revealed herself
to be a polymorphed archmage who kidnapped the family's only heir!").
Make the characters angry—make them feel like they've been manipulated.
Make them paranoid. And then listen carefully. Once the players realize
there's some kind of master plan in the air, they'll start trying to second-guess
you, and at that point their combined imaginations will begin to spin
webs of paranoid delusion that will leave your ideas in the dust. Take
notes. If they come up with some twist that you like, use it. They'll
never know that you hadn't planned it that way all along, and when they
find out they were right, they'll be that much more satisfied with themselves
and the game.
The third step is figuring
out how to finesse the inevitable Unmasking. Who is the Mastermind? In
some campaigns the characters may already know who the Mastermind is—for
example, if they live in Ravenloft, they won't be surprised to find out
that the Lord of their Domain is behind all the evil in the area. But
I think that's too easy. Your players deserve more of a challenge. Make
the Mastermind somebody the characters know and trust. Is it a family
member? A trusted mentor? Their most valued NPC friend? The king or queen
they've served faithfully for years? The DM has two options at this point—make
the characters suspect their best friend and find out they're wrong—or
find out they're right. A truly nasty Mastermind might frame somebody
else, who will only be proven innocent at the last minute in front of
a Detect Truth spell in court....
Making the Mastermind
somebody the characters love and trust provides the maximum of angst and
roleplaying opportunity. However, I suggest you don't make it somebody
too important to the characters—for example, probably not a husband
or wife. The goal of the game is for the players to have fun, and completely
devastating their characters' chances at a "happily ever after"
ending is unlikely to be much fun for them. But you know your players
best. Choose a Mastermind who will provide the most emotional impact without
souring the game. And remember, the Mastermind is an evil genius. Just
because the characters finally realize who it is doesn't mean the Mastermind
won't have long since vanished to a secret hideout in preparation for
The Final Showdown.
(continued on next page)
originally written June 13, 1998
Back to top of page