Proper Villainy

Villains add a great element to a campaign: an opposing force that the players can invest themselves in fighting against. But what exactly makes a good villain?

Twisted Reality

I’ve never been real crazy about declaring alignment for characters. If you have a Good character and he’s homeless and penniless and he steals some bread to survive, does that make him not Good anymore? What about a man who kills someone in a jealous rage but is otherwise good? Is he now “evil” or is he still a good guy who made a horrible mistake?

In cartoons and crappy movies, the bad guys do bad things because they’re EVIL. That’s simply the way it is. A realistic villain probably won’t see burning, raping, and pillaging as acts of blackest evil. They’ll see it as “Things To Do Wednesday Afternoon”. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a bad person. The human mind has a lot of powerful emotional defenses against this. My favorite of these is called cognitive dissonance, in which a person’s mind perceives reality in a way that supports what the person believes. Any ideas presented that challenge these beliefs are almost always discarded (and in many cases, violently attacked). Through this, our villain can justify what he’s doing in a variety of ways that relieve him of the responsibility of his actions:

  • It’s YOUR fault!

    The reason I’m burning down your house? You didn’t pay the protection money that you clearly owe.

  • I was just following orders.

    A character works for someone who asks him to do something reprehensible. He may be motivated by fear or material wealth but in his heart he knows damn well it’s not right — so he justifies it by “just following orders”. This is not to say that a mistake flips the switch and makes a character evil all of a sudden, but if this character continues to do this sort of thing and starts thinking of this as “normal” behavior…. what then? What better way to relieve yourself of guilt than to relieve yourself of the responsibility of your own actions? Don’t blame me! Blame the Dark Lord!

  • Cold, Emotionless Logic.

    It’s a whole lot easier to do bad things if you just view it as a bunch of stats and abstract concepts. For instance, deaths turn into “acceptable losses”.

  • A sense of entitlement.

    You can do whatever you want because you DESERVE IT. Whoever invented prima noctis was totally into this. The right to deflower all virgins in the land because you’re the lord of the place, dammit — that’s some USDA A-1 prime grain-fed angus entitlement right there.

    A variation on this can occur if someone justifies their actions by declaring someone else deserves a particular fate. They may not even know the reasons for this. “My family has been enslaving the dwarves for 87 generations, there’s nothing wrong with it, and I don’t see any reason why it should change now!”

  • You fools have no idea of the power you are dealing with.

    A massively inflated ego is a wonderful tool for dismissing naysayers. And when you cultivate it long enough to get dreams of world domination, you say cool things like the previous statement! You can’t believe you’re doing anything wrong when you won’t listen to anybody. Yours is the only opinion worth listening to, and who cares that it stopped being grounded in reality decades ago?

Once again, evil people are still people. They still have to live with themselves somehow — even if that means descending into a big pit filled with neuroses. The really scary part is that in many cases, this isn’t even a conscious decision. The easiest way to live the lie is to believe it yourself.

Emotion: The Root Of All Evil

Any Jedi master worth his stylish burlap robes will tell you that strong emotions lead to the Dark Side. In many cases, they’re right. People frequently do bad things when their feelings overwhelm them and distort the world to their eyes and minds. If you look at the justifications above, you’ll see emotion at the root of every last one.

  • Desire

    When a person wants something badly enough, they might start doing morally questionable things to get it. This could be anything: money, power, sex, even love. Countless evils have been rooted in desire.

  • Fear and Anger

    You get someone scared or angry enough, and you’ll find that their perception of morality (and even reality) shift. In their head, committing horrible acts upon the cause of those feelings may seem perfectly justified!

  • Jealousy

    Who knows how many the Green-Eyed Monster has claimed over the millenia? A person who bottles the anger over an unrequited love or envy over wealth or power that he feels should rightfully be his may eventually vent those feelings, and may the gods help those in the way.

  • Motivation

    This might seem an odd one to you, but consider this: the person with the blackest thoughts in the universe will never be a villain unless they actually do something. Such a person finding a reason to act may simply be the spark that touches off the explosion.

Of course, simply acting on one’s emotions doesn’t make one evil, even if those actions are utterly wretched. It may, however, make one a villain. Take that and a suit of black plate mail, and you’ve got yourself a campaign. More or less.

Later in this series, I’ll discuss how to play a villain so that you might better torture your poor, hapless players. Until next time!

<evil laughter>


Photo Credit
*note: Readers of Stupid Ranger may remember a similar series several years back. I have thoroughly plagiarized this material without the consent of the original author. I hope he never finds me. I also plan to continue where he left off. You know, just to piss him off.


  1. Arbanax says:

    This is a great article, and gives a lot more meat to making a villain a realised NPC with personality and distinction rather than a block of numbers a sack of xp. But I’d love to see both some example villains to slip into a campaign, and also how people use the villains, in game terms. Are they ultra powerful and you fudge rolls so they get away as the plot demands, or do you build them better so you know that if the PC’s are foolish enough to take them on, they’ll still win.

    I guess for myself I struggle with things like, why does the villain let the party go? How does he get out of this now, without killing everyone or not having a cheesy escape plan. And what do you do when you roll bad, no matter what? I hope in the course of this series you might help me/us with a few thoughts on these things.



  2. All very true, with a few exceptions. There are ways to make villains who are evil for evil’s sake while still making them seem real. One option is to make them not human. Sure, humans (and in fantasy settings, other humanoid sentients) have to rationalize their behavior, but maybe intelligent monsters from other realms don’t have the same brain structure. Like demons, they view evil as the right thing to do simply because they want to see the universe in chaos.

    If you want to give the PCs something to think about, though, a villain who tries to convince them that he/she is right (and actually makes a convincing argument) is a lot of fun, and those are great tips!

  3. Excellent phrases and one-liners to reinforce the themes of authentic villainy. I’m going to write these down in my notes!

  4. Gargs454 says:

    Excellent article! The “I don’t believe I’m evil” really does apply. Most “villains” truly believe in their cause, both fictional and real life villains. It doesn’t mean that they are not evil, just that they don’t see themselves as such.

    In my current campaign, one of the main villains is an individual who honestly believes that he is doing the right thing. He is actively attempting to thwart the other main villain. The problem is that for a variety of reasons, the authorities do not trust this particular villain and thus, he is unable to get assistance through the normal means and has had to resort to more . . . ahem . . . direct and/or brutal measures. Its very much an “ends justify the means” kind of thing. His ultimate goal is more or less the same as the PCs’, but his methods are most definitely evil. The result is that the PCs hate him as much, if not more, than the other villain. Now the cool thing about thinking of villains in these terms is that from time to time, the villain and the PCs can actually end up on the same side and end up helping each other out. This is sometimes even better because the PCs hate actually helping the villain, or accepting his help, but they end up conceding that it is for the best.

  5. Great breakdown of villainy. I loved the Complete Book of Villains back in 2nd Edition. I still use its guidelines to make my 4E villains. One of the concepts it mentions is that every evil motive stems from an overly dominant virtue. The desire for a better world becomes ethnic cleansing. The sympathy for one victim’s plight creates a vicious trail of retribution. Or the desire for food becomes gluttony. That helps keep villainy motivated, empathetic, and complex.

  6. Darkplane DM, thanks for the reminder on that classic! I have a bunch of old 2e and 3e books I need to go grab again for villain inspiration. The specific ideas and tips you mention alone are invaluable, great comment.

  7. I usually find your articles really neurotic and hard-to-read but this was a good one. Maybe a little less self-deprecation in the future?

  8. Iceman says:

    I like the mention of emotion. It reminds me of something I read on one of these blogs not too long ago – doing things for emotional reasons removes the need for logic or planning. If the villain needs to make a mistake (or did and you Just realized it), then he does/did so because he reacted emotionally.
    I’ve used this to keep smart foes in the fight longer than they should’ve (when flight is available) or to have them focus on one party member regardless of the tactical situation. Imagine getting pissed or scared or overwhelmed – then try and make the decisions the villain needs to make, in that state. 😉

    @Arbanax – Personally, and in general only, I start my villains out way over the PCs head and then let them catch up through the campaign. But I do bake into the villain some reason for not killing the PCs the first time they try something foolish – be it that he’s toying with them, that he doesn’t view them as worth the fight, or that he has somewhere else to be right now. Or, as in my current home game, that he wants to convert one of the PCs so he’s playing the long game and therefore Won’t kill or harm anyone… yet.

  9. Good, solid breakdown of motivations for villains. I’m not sure I’m in complete agreement with you over alignment (I’m OK with a fantasy universe that has objective good and evil even if I don’t really believe it in real life), but all of your suggestions are still valid for GMs who use an alignment system.

  10. Shilling says:

    Here’s something that goes with well with open ended situational play: let the players create their own villains.

    Example: set up two competing nobles, with diametrically opposed goals and values. Neither is ‘evil’ though, they just differ politically.

    With a bit of incentive the players will choose one or the other to support (which can be quite revealing) and have adventures along the way. Being adventurers, they are very likely to succeed in bringing their patron’s goals to fruition.

    Now for the fun part. They think that this adventure is over and move onto the next one, but the defeated noble has now had his life ruined and harbors a grudge. Throw in a few knock-on effects that the PCs hadn’t actually planned (say the noble’s wife commits suicide because of his disgrace). Very soon the noble has gone from being Option B to being a fully fledged villain out to get the PCs.

    This can really go as far as you want – every time the players defeat him, they just make him MORE bitter and evil. It’s great because the players feel like they are responsible and personally connected to the events even though the same thing would have happened if they had backed the other guy. And it requires much less railroading – just look out for opportunities for ordinary folk to be badly affected by unfolding events.

  11. I think my son will be interested in this. I found he was talking about some “Villains” yesterday 🙂



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