The Gassy Gnoll: Thankful for Gleeful Villains (RPG Blog Carnival: Tricks & Traps)

Finally had an opportunity to see Hanna this past weekend, which has a very interesting modern fairy tale (Grimm-style) approach to a revenge fantasy. Though Cate Blanchett did fine as the first fiddle “bad guy,” it was Tom Hollander‘s Isaacs that really caught my attention. In much the same way that Saoirse Ronan‘s Hanna could seemingly be both a child and a killing machine, I found the glee with which Isaacs did his job (to find and capture Hanna at any cost) to be very refreshing.

Another villain in recent years that caught my attention was Michael C. Hall‘s Ken Castle in Gamer with Gerard Butler. Though the movie itself was a bit of a bust for me, I truly relished how Hall dove headfirst into the role of a complete megalomaniac as he took whatever measures necessary to achieve his goals. And how better to do that than to control people like pawns on a chessboard or soldiers in an online game with real bullets, explosions, and deaths.

I think in my own games, I tend to offer up one-dimensional villains in a sandbox because I only have partial control as I rush to figure out what my players are going to do next. But I’m drawn to these more complex villains who really enjoy their work.

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival topic is “Tricks or Traps, or How to think like a Villain” at the Ethos RPG blog. Getting into a villainous mindset is tricky, as VBWyrde points out: “Learning to think like your villain is a bit tricky because if you think too well tehn your players may not survive very long, but if you don’t think enough… well, it is just too damn easy.” (To see past topics for the blog carnival, be sure to check out the archive at Nevermet Press.)

In future games (I’m just playing these days, but am getting the itch to GM for more than my kids again), I want to approach my villains more like Isaacs and Ken Castle. These are characters with a past, living in the present, potentially attempting to achieve some sort of goal. Isaacs seemed very much like he lived in the moment as he attempted to recapture Hanna. And Castle seemed to love his life, managing life and death both virtually and in real life.

Now, I’m not saying that I want all villains to be over the top, just that I want to consider more than one move on the chessboard and examine those moves in more of a three-dimensional space involving inner and external motivations. That said, the trick is to not go too crazy thinking out full-blown strategies that are never implemented or totally overshadow what your players have come up with.

The one lesson I’m taking from Isaacs & Ken Castle is to let the past inform the present and foreshadow the future a bit. What do I mean by this? Ultimately it’s the 2-dimensional villains that we all forget. Sure, you can have a minion or henchman who has some personality, but ultimately they’re like the “Red Shirts” in every scene. One or two lines if they’re lucky, then exit stage left.

So why not treat your villains like those PCs you’ve known and loved over the years. Each of my characters usually has a bit of backstory explaining how they got where they are today. I think for villains it might be easy to go crazy with background or offer a solid three or four motivations for why they do what they do and probably get along just fine.

Let’s examine Isaacs for example. When we first meet him in Hanna, he’s in a bar watching rehearsal of some sort of show. He shows a love for snarky comments, a lack of appreciation for authority, and a few control issues by the end of the scene. Later, we discover that he likes to dress (even in Morocco) like he’s at a tennis club and loves to whistle a happy tune while he’s stalking his prey. There’s plenty there to work with…

If I was to bring Isaacs in as an NPC, I’d describe him with these main qualities:

  • Quick with a quip
  • Snappy dresser (if you live at a tennis club)
  • Whistle while you work
  • And ruthless when achieving his goal

Just a few phrases captures the bulk of his essence and now I can drop him into my next modern campaign in whatever system I decide to run a game in.

The upshot of all this being a) let your villains enjoy their work, b) come up with a few high-level phrases to describe their behaviors, and c) have fun. See where these villains take you. Don’t force them down paths they don’t want to go through… Maybe even interview your villain on paper for fun to see what your subconscious/creative self will come up with.

Gassy Gnoll signing out..

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2 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Thankful for Gleeful Villains (RPG Blog Carnival: Tricks & Traps)

  • alenros

    Well, I have to mention Colonel SS Hans Landa of Inglorious Bastards. if you haven’t see the movie I’d highly recommend it, and then you’d really want to employ such a character in a game.

  • Creighton Broadhurst

    Raging Swan
    Press have produced a range of supplements presenting hyper-detailed villains. You can grab free samples at! They are imaginatively named Villains, Villains II and Villains III.

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