Whether I’m running a pre-written adventure or something I’ve put together, I spend a lot of time on my main villain. The player characters are the heroes of the story, and I feel they deserve a mighty and memorable villain that challenges and, if possible, scares the bejesus out of them. I have three main tips to get started.
1. The villain wants what the characters want – Or has. Or wants to destroy something of value to the characters. The point is to tie the villain to the characters’ motivations and desires somehow. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But many people forget this and give their villain some esoteric goal the players (and therefore characters) don’t care about. So make sure they care. If a character has loved ones, the villain must threaten them in some way. If a character is after a particular item, the villain wants it as well. If a character wants a specific person dead to avenge her family’s murder, that person is of particular importance to the villain and under their protection. The more specifically you can tie the villain’s desires into the characters’ stories, the more memorable they become. After all, many villains want to destroy the world, but only yours needs to sacrifice villagers from the character’s home town (including the character’s family) to do it.
Tip 1(a): This doesn’t mean the characters keep bumping into the villain at every turn, or will even be fully aware of a singular villain at first. They may not know that the thugs threatening the village, the thief that tried to steal that artifact from under their noses, and the assassin which attacked them while they slept all came from the same source. After all, smart villains have lackeys and henchmen to carry out their schemes and act as a buffer. Which brings us to Tip 2:
2. A villain is known by the company she keeps – Every memorable villain has had memorable lieutenants, someone to lead the minions into battle. Sauron had the Witch King and the Riders; Goldfinger had Oddjob; Emperor Palpatine had Darth Vader. Yes, each also had scads of less memorable minions, but the trusted servants all stick in the mind. Why is that important? Well, if the lieutenant is powerful and scary it offers you two things as a GM. First, if the characters haven’t encountered the main villain yet, they might mistake the lieutenant for the boss. Which makes for a fine bit of surprise when they discover the truth. And second, when the truth is revealed the villain seems that much more frightening because she is controlling (even if just barely) the already frightening lieutenant. This reveal is particularly fun if the characters are still a ways off from being a match for the main villain, because it drives home how serious their situation is and what they might need to achieve to finally win out. Yes, it takes a bit more work, but trust me, exciting mooks make for memorable bad guys.
3. Pass the salt, it’s time to chew some scenery – You can be excused for not coming up with distinctive personalities for every goblin or thug the party encounters. But when it comes to the main villain, now is the time to pull out all the stops! The first encounter is the time to lay it on thick! The villain should have a distinctive voice and style, a way of talking and acting that is clearly theirs and no one else’s. Give them a catch phrase, a specific vocal quality (a lisp, a rasp, or a higher/lower pitch), or have them speak only in the characters’ minds. Maybe the room gets noticeably hotter/colder when they enter. Maybe there’s a distinctive smell that accompanies their arrival and lingers after they’ve gone; I had a villain who kept bees; there would always be a (harmless, but the players didn’t know that) bee buzzing around the room and a sickly honey smell would linger after they’d left. Maybe their eyes glow with a sickly green flame whenever they cast spells or become enraged (which they should become around the characters often). The point is, now is not the time to be subtle. Once the villain has chosen to reveal themself they should be larger than life and scarier than death. So pull out all your acting chops, and make sure the characters never forget them.
What do you do to make memorable villains in your games? Share your tips in the comments.