If Players are the Protagonists, then the Antagonist is the Villain. Or Villains, as the case may be – nothing says that a Villain need be a singular being. The stories told through role-playing games are not the stories of the Villain. The stories are about the Heroes, the PCs, overcoming a problem.
Villains are always a problem. They may merely be a problem, they may often be the problem, but either way, they are still a problem. They are a problem for the wider world, a force that is fundamentally aiming to disrupt and distort the world as a whole, and they have motivations to do so and they have plans, schemes, and ploys to achieve their goal, which is always going to be a problem that, with luck, the PCs will solve.
In some way.
Villains, as a whole, do not care about the PCs. They are, most often, not even aware of the PCs when the campaign or adventure starts. The most compelling villains do not have a personal stake in the PCs – heroes are a bother and Villains are usually well aware that they are better because they have a scheme, plan, and/or ploy in place that will take care of them long before they could even think about being a challenge.
What they are concerned with and focused on, however, is their plans, and their backup plans, and how to achieve their goals despite the problems and how they treat their minions and so forth. The only time a Villain generally becomes aware of the PCs is shortly before the final showdown, or if they disrupt a particularly sensitive element in their plans. Another possible way is that the renown of the PCs becomes such that they come to the attention of the Villain – who will want to know how much of a threat they might pose.
There are a whole host of possible kinds of Villains, and while the following will help you get an idea of some of them, it is by no means exhaustive or complete.
This is the take no prisoners, has no loyalty, no morals, nothing stopping them from manipulating their way to their goal of gaining wealth, power, authority, and status. Once they have that, they hold on to it at all costs.
Personality wise, they see things in a framework of Win or Lose, and they never see themselves as a loser under any circumstances. They are manipulative and cunning, collecting minions, lackeys, flunkeys, stooges, and sycophants, as well as a few henchmen and devoted fanatics, of which they are abusive and dismissive at best, murderous and deadly should they fail or prove no longer of use. They often disguise themselves, being one way in public, then their true selves in the sanctity of their personal spaces where they do not perceive risk.
This is your basic capable critter, filled with cunning, experienced as a predator, wary and watchful, never giving prey a chance, always seeming smart enough to get around things while it pursues its sole set of standard goals: provide food, defend territory, protect young, destroy threats, and play with what will become the first goal. This is not a reasoning creature, nor does it necessarily have to be a predator or even carnivorous. It cannot be bargained with, cannot be stopped, and cannot understand things that are of importance to people. Beastly villains are often considered “misunderstood” by those who are outside of the range of it, and considered beyond saving by those who are victims of it.
No villain would ever deign to be considered common, even those who are indeed common villains. Brilliant, thoughtful, perceptive, elegant, arch, and absolutely confident, this villain is the patient sort, the kind of planner and plotter whose machinations can take great lengths of time to unfold, each step meticulously researched and crafted with a precision that makes even their foes look on with admiration.
They are ruthless, merciless, and exacting, punishing failure swiftly and without warning. They do not care who knows they are the Villain. That knowledge will do little to help them by the time they have learned of it. They do not mess with traps or games; they are direct, pointed, and brazen when it is useful and subtle when it is called for. Their plans have layers, and there is always at least three backup plans for each primary plan, and there are false plans to lead the suspicious astray, and there are cut outs at every level of every scheme, ploy, or scam. This is the villain who reads Machiavelli and Sun Tsu.
When they do finally feel that something may be a threat, they will seek to get close to them, to aid them, to be their friend and trusted advisor, the close friend, a colleague, that houseguest who hides a psychopathic killer mentality behind a normal facade. Then they will choose a moment of calm and strike in a way that is calculated to cause the greatest harm with the least risk.
Some Villains are good people. People with good and noble intentions, a history of good and noble works, a life and recognition of things that are admirable and idealized. People who used their power, authority, influence, wealth, or status for the best of reasons and in the best of ways.
Or at least, they once were. Then, as ever, something happened; something tragic, something embarrassing, something endangering, something that enabled them to be corrupted, to seek to keep that hidden, secret, to keep their hold on their comfortable life, their authority, their influence, their position, their reputation.
For some, it may be a hidden past as the cast away embarrassment, the black sheep; for others it maybe a moment of indiscretion, in speech or action, while for others it is little more than raw ambition kept hidden beneath a crafted veneer. In all cases, their plans and schemes seek to preserve and further their position, while also keeping such things as far away from their clean and pleasant image as possible.
This villain does it for the money, and benefits of wealth. They will tend towards crimes which do not shed blood and may even have a kind of code that they follow, even though they trust no one (even their own helpmeets). They can be bought off, they can be negotiated with, but they are always looking to the money, fist and foremost, and that is what they do. They will pay well, but then betray or turn on their helpmeets, and they will have few scruples about letting others kill for them if it means a large amount of coin in their hands.
This is a villain who is desperate, trapped by consequences, running, escaping, fleeing something – physical, emotional, imagined, psychological, spiritual. To survive, they will do anything, become anything, by any means, at any cost, in any way that they can. And it is this that makes them villains, for they will use others in whatever way they can to achieve that goal.
This villainous type constantly tells people it wasn’t their fault, they were forced to agree to some nefarious plan. They can deny any responsibility for the things they have done because they truly believe that their hand was forced, it was someone else’s responsibility, and genuinely feel they are being wrongly judged. So long as they remain safe and secure, this villain is capable of doing anything all while resolving themself of any blame or guilt because somebody else made them do it, they didn’t have a choice. They are unreliable witnesses, and will seek to shift the blame onto anyone else.
This Villain uses their charms, good looks, sexual prowess, and creativity to prey on others. They seek wealth, power, control, and adoration; usually all at once and they will take it by any means necessary. They may have started off as powerless victims, but now they are powers themselves. They often use their playthings, their victims, as followers and helpmeets, people to do the dirty work, to bear the burdens, to provide for the lifestyle and adulation they deserve.
This Villain has a goal, and that goal is absolute and unwavering, their reason for living, their purpose for being, and the sole sum of their life. The agenda, the ideology, the religious belief, the adherence to tradition, the extremism of their goal is always complete and utter, with black and white thinking an essential part of it.
They are on a mission, rigid, disciplined, exacting, precise. Their own well being is tertiary at best to the goal, and they are obsessive and focused to the point that self-sacrifice is an ultimate expression and culmination. They instill this into their followers, a total sense of subservience, and a complete awareness of the end goal, even if they do not always understand the path to achieve it.
These are the Villains that love the game of it all. From Devils and Demons and Hags bent on corruption to narcissistic intellectuals, this is the villain that ruins not only days, but years. They are the ones who select targets, lay traps, and play with their victims, before an often-gruesome ending that was carefully arranged.
This villain is a grand master when it comes to reading actions, guessing thoughts, predicting behaviors, identifying weaknesses of the emotional, social, psychological, and moral sort. They are masters of temptation, of lulling, of manipulation and deceit, and they use all of it liberally. The see themselves as the smartest person in the room, in the settlement, in the region, in the realm. To them, all of it is a game, a challenge, a competition, and none of it is ever personal, merely play, for the joy they gain from matching wits and watching failure is the ultimate goal they always have.
They will intentionally leave cryptic clues, maneuver heroes into sets of puzzles and games, all of which will be rigged and structured to ensure this Villain’s victory. There is only one thig one can trust about them, which is that it is always foolish to trust them.
These are the villains who have lost connection with reality in many ways, yet retain a deep sort of cunning madness, and may often seem to be quite normal, ordinary even, everyday, commonplace, typical, unremarkable. They are, however, completely insane, likely aware of it and even how it happened, but utterly unconcerned by it. Usually, they have an inverted set of values, ideals, and beliefs, and so seek to bring to the broader world an expansion of the poor quality of awareness, an increase in the amount of joy that they see as pain, a hilarity that they see as grief in their small little minds. This kind of villain is one of the rarest to directly go after the heroes and will react in an exaggerated way whenever a plan or scheme is disrupted, but then will calm down quickly, dismiss any losses or consequences of that loss of control, and come up with a new scheme or ploy.
This is the kind of villain that likes to keep things secret. Plays their cards close to their vest, so to speak. They often have no origin story, and their background is shrouded in mystery and has no ties to anything, because they long ago erased any evidence of it. On Wyrlde, for Mages, This is a fairly fruitless task for those seeking to become a power, as True Names can always be ferreted out, since that is part of the magic of True Names, but for those seeking secrecy the power they want isn’t obvious, isn’t overt, isn’t direct.
This villain will even keep their identity secret from helpmeets and followers, all except for their confidants in few cases, but normally even they won’t be aware, and instead will be apparent face of the overall effort, seeming to be the one(s) who are the makers of the plans and schemes and ploys and scams.
This Villain will initially seem to be someone who has been ostracized, cast out, living alone and isolated but still nearby to other people, who will shun them. Often, they will offer salvation or succor to those in need, and they always seem to be in need of care and support themselves. They are the kind of person you feel sorry for, the sort that brings up empathy and sympathy, and shows a sharp wit, a deep intelligence, and carries experience and wisdom with them. They will turn away offers of kindness, however, because they are doing all this kindness for a single reason that they share readily and easily: the seek to be accepted once again by the nearby community. Those they help are often mistreated, solely for accepting their help.
This is all a front, however, for they are not what they seem.
The truth will only out after the foiling of some ploy or scam, but what it reveals is that the local settlement cast them out for vile and unspeakable things crimes such as they had never seen, perhaps even service and sacrifice to the Dread Host. They really do want to be accepted back into the community, and are bitter and angry, resentful and jealous, filled with a desire for revenge. Revenge and redemption best gained through the very acts that got them expelled, such as cannibalism, sacrifice, torture, and such, with unsuspecting new friends who show a lack of awareness.
One of the more common Villains, they have one focused goal, to destroy the hero normally. They are generally unstoppable and terrifying, have little or no remorse, and they can’t easily be harmed, stopped or killed. This bloodthirsty villain takes no prisoners. This is a hut, a sport, and they favor violence and brutality, and do not plan anything intricate or involved – they are simply going to keep coming and keep hurting, maiming, and killing anything in their path as they seek to directly face off with the heroes. They will kill friends, family, people talked to, animals, pets, hamlets, villages and they may be slowed down, but they will just keep coming.
When the final fight does happen, it will take something outside the arsenal of the heroes, often something in the environment, to end them once and for all.
Terminating Villains are sadistic, craving the fear and terror they cause as they rampage; the do not worry about be found and captured because they will escape by killing everyone around them. They cannot be reasoned with, cannot be bought off, cannot stop their quest, do not turn away or take shortcuts or the long way. Abou the only emotions they ever do show are satisfaction once they kill the heroes, and often a smile as they kill.
At some point in the past, someone or something hurt this Villain. The pain of it, the humiliation of it, the trauma of it, it still lingers in them, and they remain unable to move on. That was then, and this is now – now they have the power to fix this, to punish those responsible, to stop others from doing the same, and now they have the power, authority, or wealth to achieve this goal. They have no faith or trust or concern about the system of justice beyond viewing it as a hindrance, and consider themselves above and beyond such a system, out of its reach and not under its authority.
Villains generally have a series of things they are trying to accomplish, all in service of a greater thing they seek to do that is drawn from their Motivation. Motivation is often suggested by their archetype, but otherwise can be anything.
Motivations shape the Plans, Schemes, Ploys, and Scams of a Villain. For each of these things, there are a few questions they have to ask themselves about each little element.
- What is it I want?
- What is my goal?
- Why am I doing this?
- How will I accomplish that goal?
- What do I need to do to accomplish that goal?
- When do I need to accomplish this goal?
- Who will I need to accomplish this goal?
- Where will I accomplish that goal?
- What will I do to achieve this goal?
- What do I need to have under my control to accomplish that goal?
- Where will I find those parts to do it?
These questions help to outline the size and scope of a scheme, plan, ploy, or scam. These efforts often mean turning to and relying on followers, also called helpmeets.
All intelligent Villains have helpmeets. Hired, recruited, bribed, cajoled, whatever. They are the people who keep hands clean, who keep distance and can be a pair of hands and legs and a strong back when needed.
Helpmeets have similar cravings and amorphous morals to a villain they work for. This is because although the henchman craves the same profits from their crimes, they don’t often believe they have the ability or status to run the plans. The Villain who leads them uses the Helpmeets for the dirty work they possibly don’t want to take part in. Some may have ambitions to take over the business as soon as they can dispose of those above them or even the villain, but these intentions will never be displayed. Many are expendable, while a few will end up in hospital or running away.
Helpmeets come in different sorts, ranked by their overall level of closeness – confidants, inner circle, middle circle, outer circle – and generally have a structure.
6th – Unrelated
These are people who don’t know anything, but go along with whatever because they get something out of it or suspect something that they will benefit from.
5th – Outer
The cut outs, the fall guys, the scape goats, the ones who get the blame if something goes wrong.
5th – Outer
The ones who go along because this is what they do, don’t really see anythign wrong with iit, just a thing they do and hey, they can have fun.
5th – Outer
The smarter of the least of them, ambitious, angling to move up to Henchman, dreaming of being an overseer, maybe one day runnigh the whole show themselves.
4th – Middle
Fanatics are the highest ranking followers, usually given higher position because they demonstrate absolute loyalty and commitment.
4th – Middle
These are the folks that are part of something through bribes, coercion, and greed, the ones who enable others to achieve things. They are corrupt officials, usually innocent at first before becoming too deeply embroiled.
4th – Outer
Supervisory Role; those who handle the outermost ring of folks, the flunkeys, lackeys, and minions. Henchmen are always present in person.
3rd – Middle
Supervisory Role; answering to Chiefs, these are the folks who run the crews and projects being undertaken. They are oly rarely at the forefront.
2nd – Inner
Supervisory Role; these are the folks who support the Bosses and are considered part of the Inner circle, privy to the villains most closely guarded things and able to assume the role of the Boss if given a chance.
1st – Confidant
Supervisory Role; these are the highest ranking, most important, closest to the Villain followers. They will be the sub-villains, charged with tasks.
The table above serves as a kind of guide to the followers of a Villain, showing the role they occupy in a plan, scheme, ploy, or scam. There is also an occasionally useful CR modifier to guide how powerful the helpmeet might be in relation to the Villain.
Not all Villains have huge organizations, and so may not use all of the assorted kinds of followers, but the general roles and descriptions remain within nearly any grouping, even if the Villain themselves is only a Henchman of some greater power.
Nevertheless, the role of a Helpmeet is to ensure that the Plans, Schemes, Ploys, and Scams come to fruition.
Plans, Schemes, Ploys, and Scams
A Plan is the overarching idea, the whole big deal of the Villain. “I will own the Docks of this City!”
A Scheme is a portion of the larger plan. To take over the docks, first you must have the dockworkers, then you must have the harbormaster, then you have to get the gangs under control.
A Ploy is the way that a Scheme is done. Cajole the dockworkers, bribe the harbor master, take over the gangs.
A Scam is a betrayal of some sort that is the truth of a ploy. After taking over the gangs, they all found themselves sold into indenture on board ships headed for faraway ports.
These are the tools that a Villain and their Followers, or Helpmeets, will use.
At the heart of a Villain lie the plans and ploys, schemes and scams, machinations and connivances that make them a problem for the world as a whole, and which n turn becomes a problem for the Heroes.
First, be aware that these are not ploys and plans about the Heroes. These are the designs of the Villain in a world where there are no heroes, for in their mind they will always act to avoid the notice of those who could thwart their schemes.
Which is not to say that sometimes the whole point of a villain is to cause harm to the heroes – but if so, they have a reason, and the most common reasons involve them interrupting or ruining some ploy that Villain had, or else it is something deeply personal and obsessive – but that all too often comes across as cartoonish and trite, the mustache twirling evil doer whose only purpose in life is to cause the heroes’ pain.
Well, on Wyrlde, that kind of person generally does it in a way that is direct – they hire assassins, they poison supplies, they expose foibles and ruining their reputation, they kill family and friends, and the like. That is, a Villain who is realistic of that sort isn’t going to create a complex plan, they are going to go straight at the PCs in the most devastating and brutal way possible, because Wyrlde is a brutal and devastating place.
Those villains of Wyrlde who are more common, though, are those who seek to effect a change in the world that they perceive as benefitting them, or as being of the greater good for all (if they lean towards the more crazy, helpful sort).
Mistakes are what you can use as plot threads, as the bait to lure the PCs into a story, and the hooks to drag them into it. All Villains make mistakes — that’s kinda the whole thing about the Heroes and the Villains. Those mistakes are in things that will allow the PCs to unravel the plan and ultimately find out who is behind it all
The other part to this is that sometimes those mistakes are success in their plans. Perhaps they burnt a village, or allowed a prisoner or turncoat to escape, or perhaps they did something that picked up on a backstory of some character.
These things aren’t directly about the PCs. None of it is “this happens to this PC”. They happen to things around the PCs. Often the things the PCs care about. Or need. Or maybe even want. They are always things that affect the PCs, but indirectly — and the reason is that the Villain doesn’t give a damn or even think about the PCs.
The next thing is to answer the question “What did they do wrong?”
Villains always do something wrong. It is how the heroes and them end up facing each other.
For this, look to the PCs backstories for some hook, but not in terms of something that is direct to the PC personally – that is, nothing that was done to them as an individual, but rather something that was done to someone or some place around them, that ultimately had the effect of causing the PC a problem.
For example, it wasn’t that the Villain attacked the PC, it was that the Villain attacked the parents of a close friend, or the family of someone who trained them. Always keep at least one degree of separation between the PC and the Villain when looking to back stories for this planning stage. There will be enough time for direct stuff later.
Then look at other things. Maybe they burned down their town. Maybe they kidnapped a good friend. Maybe one of their followers robbed someone close to them because the Villain wasn’t keeping a firm grip on them. Whatever it is, try to think up a half dozen things.
Sometimes that means something like this:
Early in my career, I used a spell to turn my best friend into my most loyal ally — and I did it because he was going to turn me in. I wasn’t aware until the end, but he nurtured a huge grudge, and wanted to be free from the spell and to take me down and end my blight upon the world.
These Plans, Schemes, Ploys, and Scams happen on a timetable, and unless stopped, these nefarious and dastardly things will come to fruition, and thereby have an impact on the world in which the PCs live, and that means they will be affected; something that happens unless the PCs stop it, a lesson so often learned early on that wise Players will try to do their best to stop the plans.
This is why there is a calendar provided – to help with planning out when things will happen. And there are always timetables for complex plans. Knowing the timetable for all the little parts of the plan also gives you an interesting ability to introduce hooks and bait that don’t come from what they did wrong, but more likely what they did right, as each little thing the Villain does has an impact in some way on the world around them.
One of the interesting things about timetables is that they make schemes, ploys, and scams dependent on each other. If the gangs are controlled but he harbor master isn’t, then the plan becomes unwieldy and there will need to be a corrections made.
Initially, Villains have no clue the PCs exist. Villains are above them, they aren’t a threat, Villains won’t even consider them until and unless the Villain sees a beautiful plan unraveling and finds it is too late to fix things and get back on track. That is when a Villain will get angry — and either the Villain will plan a faceoff so they can have their revenge, or they will get the hell out of there and hope the Heroes don’t find them (usually making another mistake that inevitably leads the PCs straight to the Villain).
Such an event happens very late in the game, as well – so for most of the time, the Villain won’t usually know the Heroes are a problem, even if the Villain here’s about a group causing problems. They are likely to just send some followers to take care of it.
That impact is always in the form of some kind of change. The Docks are closed down. Ships are having strange fires. The trade ins the city is getting strange. Grain prices are up.
Something always changes. And this is not just important for the little things that lead up to the final confrontation, it also must apply to what happens if the Heroes never get involved at all — or lose.
When you are figuring out the Plans of your villains, always have two outcomes prepared: Success and Failure.
You should know before you even start to run a session what the possible outcomes of the plan are, just as your Villain would. But also, be aware of one more thing.
Time. As the DM, your job includes tracking the time as part of your responsibilities to run the NPCs, and in this case, Time itself is an NPC. All Plans are linked to a timetable as we just noted, so you should know what is going on around the PCs that they do not see or may not be looking for, in relation to the plans of your villains.
Because if the Heroes don’t act in time, the plan will succeed.