Greetings, evildoers! In the last installment of Proper Villainy, we discussed what makes a villain tick. Now it’s time to talk about some good practical evil you can do in your own backyard.
Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD)
More than any battleaxe marinated in the blood of the innocent could ever be, FUD is the true weapon of the villain. Villains need to keep people afraid to have power over them. This goes for villagers, kingdoms, kings, soldiers — and even heroes.
A gang of criminals could terrorize a village demanding protection money. Together, maybe the villagers could defeat them. But they burn down one guy’s house to make an example of him. The others, fearing they are next, capitulate and give them the money every time they come by. This is how terrorism works. The goal is not to destroy a building or assassinate someone — that could be handled discreetly, perhaps with a surgical strike. The goal is tofreak people the hell out. Make them worry they’re next, make them paranoid, make them wall themselves in. When you’ve scared them that badly, then you can do two things. You can make them dance to try to avoid whatever they’re scared of, and since all their attention is focused on that, you can do something else now that they’re not looking anymore.
Now, granted, it might not be so Machiavellian as that — that gang terrorizing the village probably doesn’t know any of this. They just know how to scare people to get their money. Different villains use this in different ways. Some might be much more subtle than others.
Uncertainty and Doubt
Fear’s best buddies, they dovetail very nicely with each other. Part of the reason the gang could terrorize the villagers is because they’ve managed to convince them somehow that they can’t fight back. They can’t prepare, they don’t know when the next attack is coming, and for that matter what the next attack will be. Suddenly the rationalizations start flying any time someone tries to rally the crowd. “We don’t have weapons! We’re just farmers, we’ll never win!” When you’ve destroyed someone’s confidence in themselves and their allies and friends, then you can control them.
Good villains, especially those facing heroes, do this job very well. They must either shake the heroes’ confidence in their ability to win. This can be as simple as deliberately killing off the healer first and letting them know he did that on purpose. Alternatively, they can grasp the PCs by their heroic genitals somehow to prevent them from acting — “This place is wired to explode if my heart stops beating or I leave these walls!” It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not, they’ll wonder if it’s such a good idea to be here instead of swinging swords. Either way, the heroes are (hopefully) left shaken and unable to do their jobs — giving the villain power over them and possibly the advantage that spells doom for the pesky do-gooders.
Make Them Love To Hate You
As a DM, you should use FUD in two primary ways:
Advance the plot.
Kick things off with a little evildoing. Let the bandits raid the village. Kidnap the princess and use the ensuing FUD clutch the entire nation in your taloned grasp. Scare the hell out of everyone, and give the PC’s no choice but to come try and stop you.
Engage the players.
You need to instill fear in the players (notice I didn’t say player characters) to make them do something to stop this madness. Get them involved by doing something nasty to someone they know – or one of them. You can do this while advancing the plot, or seperately — just do it. And while you’re at it, make them afraid enough of your baddie that they’re worried about facing him because then the real horror will begin. Nothing brings excitement to a battle like a sense of danger and desperation. If you can make the players a little scared, for them there will be no quarry more satisfying than your villain.
Learn From The Master
I’m going to make a distinction here. There are bad guys, and there are villains. What’s the difference? Well, let’s go a little less fantasy and a little more sci-fi for a moment. Let’s take everybody’s favorite Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. I don’t think too many people are going to disagree with me when I call him a true villain. He’s one of the classics, despite (in my humble opinion) a poorly-executed backstory in the prequels. What makes him a true villain?
Your standard evil minions are bad. They can be heartless, cruel, sadistic, murderous, you name it. But one thing they’re not is infamous. And that’s one thing a real villain has going for him. The seasoned villain has spread fear throughout the land with an iron fist, people quail at the mention of his name. People might not want his name spoken aloud for fear he might hear them!
You can get infamous quickly or slowly. You can take the fast road by, say, murdering an entire village. Then sit back and watch as your name spreads fear across the land for awhile. Depending on how heinous your crime was, you might get the coveted persona non grata status at several local eating establishments and be considered a threat by some of the local do-gooders for a time.
Good, long-lasting infamy, however — that needs slow-cooked in a giant black crock pot with a skull on it. Vader had a very nice crock pot, and he used it religiously. You have to cultivate this kind of infamy, and Vader waged a campaign of terror across the galaxy — and to do that, sometimes you need theatrics. He makes examples of people at staff meetings by choking them with the Force. He blows up entire planets to make his point. But most of all, his official title has “DARK LORD” in it. Everybody everywhere knows you don’t want Vader showing up on your front porch for any reason, and that’s completely on purpose.
Not to say all your villains have to wear a black cape and look malevolent and shadowy, but keeping the FUD flowing by staying mysterious certainly isn’t going to hurt. What I mean by this is, people are way scarier when you don’t know how, when, or even if they’re going to come at you. This could mean several things. People could just be ignorant or wildly misinformed about a villain’s battle capabilities (like when Han Solo fires a blaster at Vader in ESB and Vader just stops it cold…. thats gotta demoralize a scoundrel). Or the villain could simply be known for being unpredictable – and frequently catastrophically violent. Think about it, if Darth Vader goes to the grocery store to buy a carton of milk, the dude working the counter is PRAYING LIKE CRAZY that there’s nothing wrong with the credit card reader.
Vader had FUD down to a science. It seemed like he was everywhere, in a TIE fighter, lightsaber duelling, pointing Death Stars at planets. You couldn’t escape him, and you had no freaking idea what evil rabbit he was going to pull out of his hat next. His breathing made you wonder what the hell was really under that suit. His Force powers made all of us go “he can do WHAT?” more than once. Come on, being able to sense Luke had a sister and gloating that he was going to turn her to the Dark Side? I’m going to guess Luke wasn’t expecting that. That’s some evil genius right there. The fact that he could pull stuff like that out of his mystical cyborg ass just made him that much scarier.
What’s that you’re saying? My villain isn’t a Sith Lord, and doesn’t have all those cool powers? No problem. The human mind has a tendency to blow things out of proportion, and that’s what villains need. Your villain may simply be an ordinary S.O.B., but you want people to think of him as an unstoppable dark force who can destroy everything they hold dear with but a passing thought. Incite unrest in the people with tales of your dark army by raiding some villages — but try not to let anyone see the whole thing. This way they think it’s huge — and panic — regardless of whether it actually is. Save an evil twist for the end of an encounter. Do horrible things to people by proxy. Don’t let them steal your villain’s power away by letting them see the real him. When they know what they’re facing, they can plan and move against it.
There’s gotta be a little. It’s just no fun to finally beat the giant emotionless killer robot at the end of the game. It’s much more satisfying to finally put that smug son of a bitch in his place. Vader was right on here too. Not only is he sure he can crush the rebels, he’s gonna turn his kids (and mortal enemies) to the Dark Side. Because he can. It’s so great seeing the villain’s reaction to their world crumbling around their dark, evil ears when the heroes bring them down. Can any of you tell me you didn’t feel just a little awesome at the end of Star Wars when Han Solo shot Vader just as he was about to blow Luke away? Vader’s reaction was simple, but great – “WHAT???!”
If you want a villain people love to hate, arrogance is a good place to start.
Haters Gonna Hate
Now, for contrast, let’s take Darth Maul from Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Evil? Sure! Hell, he even killed off a Jedi. But nobody has any idea who he is. About the only thing Darth Maul had going for him was some seriously amazing Jedi whoopass skills. But once he got chopped in half, nobody cared anymore. Even at 8 years old, I didn’t want Vader to die. Maul was just a bad guy. Vader was the real deal. Vader even out-evilled the goddamned Emperor. What’s that, you say? He turned good at the end? Pardon me, but I think turning your back on goodness and justice and terrorizing an entire galaxy for 30 years and STILL getting into the shiny guys’ club when you die is the best con job ever performed.
Darth Vader had Proper Villainy down to a science. Learn from the master.