Series Info...#11: Darkest Villainy

by Travis S. Casey
June 29, 2001

Well, it's villains week here at Skotos, so it's my turn to chime in with my thoughts on villains. There's a lot I could say here, and not much space to say it in, so be prepared for a ride with a lot of quick turns...

An almost inevitable part of any RPG is the villain -- or, more likely, villains. Players like villains because they're concrete foes who the players can get mad at, revile, insult, and otherwise interact with. While you can use nature or mindless monsters as foes, there's not nearly as great a potential for interaction with them.

Traditionally, villains in RPGs are non-player characters, created and run by the game master (for tabletop RPGs), or created by the game designer and run by the computer (for computer RPGs). However, there's no reason why an online multiplayer RPG has to stick to either of those traditions; villains could be player characters, or there could be a person or persons "on staff" with responsibility for the villains.

Players as villains has potential as an idea, but there are a lot of problems with it, especially working within the literary traditions of villains. Let's take a look at a few:

Literary villains tend to work alone, or by controlling an organization of "faceless minions", who they consider to be far beneath them. If this tradition is followed, then villain players won't tend to band together into groups. This makes them less effective -- especially since heroes traditionally do band together. (Literary villains manage to be effective because they generally are much, much more powerful than the heroes; the heroes are forced to band together because none of them can defeat the villain alone.)

Breaking this tradition is a good idea -- but in order to do it, you'll need to create reasons for villains to band together. Thieves' Guilds and circles of evil mages are both in-genre for fantasy; science fiction has its own equivalents in conspiracies led by circles, and so on. You'll also need to make sure that joining those organizations is actually attractive to players. Doing that will require some care -- you generally don't want to force villains to start out as "faceless minions", since almost no one wants to be one of those, but you also don't want to give them too much power to start with.

Another problem that can arise is inter-player grudges. A GM in a tabletop game plays both foes and friends of the player characters, so the players don't generally take what he/she does personally. The same applies when villains are run by a computer -- players are less likely to take it personally. When a villain is run by another player, however, a player affected by that villain is much more likely to take things personally -- and that can cause a grudge against the other player, which can lead to side effects with other characters who belong to those players. Villain organizations can help with this aspect as well -- some of the blame can then be shifted to the organization, instead of the individual villain player taking it all.

Separating player knowledge from character knowledge can also help -- e.g., if the game allows players to have multiple characters, try to work things so that it's difficult or impossible for other players to tell which characters belong to which players. (Administrators need to be able to tell this, of course, but players have much less of a need. And, of course, if one player wants another to know who his/her characters are, that player can always just tell the other.)

One method that can work well for getting player villains is an us vs. them setup to the game -- for example, in a Star Wars-themed mud I worked on, players could choose to be Rebels or Imperial (or try to stay neutral). There was a natural rivalry between the Rebel and Imperial sides. There was also a distinction between dark jedi and light jedi, although that tended to have a lower level of rivalry, since the way the game was set up made it harder to tell which sort of jedi someone was than to tell if they were Rebel or Imperial.

Which leads to another point -- for rivalry to really mean anything, you have to know who's who (unless you're going with a conspiracy type of theme, in which case the fact that you don't know who's who is a necessary genre requirement). In some cases, this is easy -- e.g., if you set up a game that's orcs vs. humans, it's not too hard to tell which is which. For something more abstract, like Rebel vs. Imperial, it may help to give players that information, even though its something their characters might not "really" have access to. (This also brings up the whole subject of disguises and how to handle them in games... but that's enough material for another column.)

Another fun player bit that comes up with organizations is the possibility of intrigue. On our Star Wars mud, we had a couple of cases where people joined the mud, created characters, picked a side and joined it, wormed their way into where they could learn about strategies and plans -- and then either switched sides, or started passing information to the other side. With individual villains working alone, this sort of thing just isn't possible.

Not everyone's ready to try having players as villains, though -- and even if you are, it's often necessary to have NPC villains as well. So what goes into making a "good villain"? First off, a good villain needs to have presence. Think of Darth Vader, with that menacing black mask, sweeping cape, and chilling voice. Why did he put on all those things? Because nobody's afraid of a sandy-headed blonde kid named Anakin, that's why! Even a villain who works behind the scenes should have presence, in the form of a reputation -- nobody may know who the master thief, "The Bishop", really is, but everyone's heard of him and his exploits.

For a villain who you expect or want the players to bring down, it can be good to make the villain a truly nasty one. There are mixed hero-villains in literature, but those are better to use as continuing rivals, or as leaders of villain organizations that PCs can belong to. For an old-fashioned, let's-hunt-the-monster-down-and-kill-it sort of adventure, make a really vile villain. (Of course, how vile you want to get is likely to be limited by your audience -- if your game is going to include children as players, for example, you might want to avoid certain kinds of nastiness. In an adults-only game, though, just about anything goes.)

I just mentioned the hero-villain, so now's a good time to talk about that type. Such a character can be someone who has gone too far down the path of "the end justifies the means", seeking a good end, but using any means to do it -- Marvel Comics' Punisher is an example of such. Another type that's good to use is the character who's a villain to some, but a hero to others -- Robin Hood being the classic example here.

As the example of Robin Hood shows, who's a villain and who's a hero can depend a lot on point of view. Such "borderline" types can make good options for PC villains, and exploring their waverings back and forth along the border between heroism and villainy can make for wonderful roleplaying opportunities.

An interesting plotline that comes up often in literature is the hero and villain who are forced to work together -- often in response to an even more powerful villain. If you have player villains, you might want to set up plots like that sometimes. This is another area where online multiplayer RPGs have an advantage over tabletop RPGs -- it's difficult to set things up so that a heroic character and a villainous one can keep adventuring together over a long term, but a MORPG makes it much easier for characters to normally adventure apart (or even be at odds with each other), but to sometimes work together.

There's a lot of possible opportunities for villains and hero-villains in gaming -- think about it and see what you can come up with!

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