(Waterdeep: Dragon Heist cover, Tyler Jacobson, Wizards of the Coast)
Every so often on Twitter, you see the complaint get aired, “My villain got killed in the first act,” or something like, “My BBEG died in the second encounter! They were so cool though!” These grievances are shockingly common. Sadly, plot armor is not something that adds a bonus to AC. In fact, plot armor in most tabletop roleplaying games is strictly, in layman’s terms, bullshit. If you read any of Wizards of the Coast’s large adventures, not only do the villains have daunting challenge ratings, they tend to include the tactics they use to try to preserve themselves. Therein lies the problem most GMs have with preserving their villains. They fail to consider that a plot relies on characters, and by treating what would normally be characters, once combat starts, as nothing more than a stat block, that goes out the window because they are too focused on running combat, usually until the threat literally dies. Then, the plot ends, someone is angry because it didn’t go “as planned” and then someone is left with a bad taste in their mouth, and it was a bad time had by all simply because Doug played Thor-axe the Impaler like an idiot.
(Jarlaxle Baenre, Wizards of the Coast)
Dumb villains aren’t interesting. Dumb villains are predictable, and the inverse, omniscient villains aren’t fun. Of course, you can have the “mindless threat” but what is fun about the “mindless threat” is there is no outwitting it, only damage control. A proper villain should feel like a proper opponent, but the GM shouldn’t be the players’ opponent. The GM facilitates the game, and therefore the controls the villain, but a GM shouldn’t focus on winning. The GM should believably and realistically control the villain’s actions. Good GMing is contingent upon knowing the world and characters. This is where tactics usually fall painfully short. The GM will just ram a stat block into the characters and expect it to work. This might work if the villain is that much tougher than the players, but flukes happen. However, the villain’s motives, desires, and behaviors should stick with them in every instance they are present, and inform how encounters with them, in and out of combat take place. If a GM plays a villain like a convincing character whose ambitions propel them to survive and succeed, their chances for survival and tactics become that much more interesting. Jarlaxle Baenre is one of the best examples of this. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist gives full descriptions of what Jarlaxle is doing and why, and even how he navigates situations in and out of combat. This is especially important as Jarlaxle is a well loved and complicated character that people have known for almost thirty years. If Jarlaxle appears in your game, you want him to feel like Jarlaxle. If suddenly Jarlaxle doesn’t feel like Jarlaxle, your players will wonder what the hell happened and who was that imposter claiming to be the famed Jarlaxle Baenre.
(Darth Vader, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Lucasfilm/Disney)
The Power of the Dark Side
Villainy is about power, without power or the contest of power, the villain is not threatening. The way that a villain’s power is perceived in relation to the heroes changes the way the villains themselves are perceived. This is why there is a shift in the identity of the villain in the original Star Wars trilogy. Darth Vader is the villain until his villainy is put in question, and a new objective villain, Emperor Palpatine takes his spot in the narrative. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the question isn’t can Luke defeat Vader, is it can he save Vader and defeat the Emperor? Vader is effectively Luke’s foil at that point. An antagonist, but not the villain. This is a stark contrast where we see Luke fighting Vader on Bespin in Empire Strike Back, Vader in this instance is a terrifying villain who is merely testing Luke, and the contrast of their power creates much of the tension. The question isn’t “Can Luke defeat Vader?” The audience believes, if they have been paying attention, not a wampa’s chance on Mustafar can Luke win. In Return of the Jedi the audience is told that Luke is now a competent Jedi Knight. The only person who tells him otherwise is Yoda, with the caveat that he must face Vader and only then a Jedi knight will he be… er, only then will he be a Jedi Knight. Yoda is telling Luke and the audience that Luke is powerful enough to face Vader. He says nothing to compare Luke and the Emperor, and this makes Palpatine’s display of Force lightning, a shocking (bah dum tiss) display much more frightening and intimidating. (Also, keep in mind that in 1983, Force lightning was a new Force power we hadn’t seen!) The phrase “power is an illusion” is ever so true for villains, because their power is only relative. Without power, they are nothing.
(Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm/Disney)
Hole in the Plot (Armor)
Like I previously stated, plot armor is bullshit. Nobody in real life has plot armor. George R.R. Martin will throw that sentence written on a signed copy of Game of Thrones stapled to the severed head of your favorite character through your window in the dead of night to get that point across. The only thing we can do is make sure the villains survive, is making sure the villains do their best to survive. To dip back into our Star Wars analogy, we should take a look at the newest trilogy. Mind you, I personally love Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, however, I must concede that this kid is covered in plot armor. A giant fissure separates him and Rey at the end of The Force Awakens and he survives the destruction of Starkiller base, and then rather him getting killed by the Red Guard or Hux shooting him in The Last Jedi, his plot armor kicks in twice. This is okay in a movie, but in a roleplaying game, it’s groan worthy. As an audience, we don’t have agency; we’re nothing more than spectators, light might bounce off of a character’s plot armor and blind us, but we can’t do anything about it. In a roleplaying game, the element of choice is our primary power. Players hate when they can’t lift a finger against the villain, even more so if it is for nothing more than the GM wagging their finger at them. Don’t do this. Instead, play your villain like they are careful. Have an escape plan and remember that if their power is in question, they won’t make a stand unless forced to.
(Peter Capaldi as Richelieu in The Musketeers, BBC)
Best Laid Plans
Every villain should know that something can go wrong. They can’t plan and prepare for every eventuality, but any villain with an agenda knows what the risks and obstacles are, and usually takes the path of least resistance. A bunch of skilled players are not the path of least resistance. That’s what grunts, minions, mooks, and thugs are for. They do the heavy lifting and put a degree of distance between the villain and the risks. The villain’s scheme moves the narrative’s plot forward but the villain is often far removed from the action. The instruments of the scheme are present, but the villain is out of harm’s way, and it is important that they are out of the way if you want to make them feel like they are an elaborate threat. Big Bad Evil Guy doesn’t mean much if they are nothing more than the Apparently Evil Guy We Stabbed to Death Three Sessions in. Yes, I admit BBEG scans better than AEGWSDTS, but the point stands. Richelieu from the Three Musketeers is a perfect example of a hands-off villain. The closest he gets to getting his hands dirty is handing off tasks to his right-hand man, Rochefort and the Red Guard. Otherwise Richelieu never comes close to being in danger (in most tellings of the Musketeers). If he made himself the villain, King Louie could easily have him executed, thus he must operate from the shadows. The battle between the he and the musketeers is one of intrigue and wit over the back drop of clashing steel and swashbuckling adventure. A good villain is a careful villain.
At the Table
To boil down these ingredients to make them work at your table, keep the following in mind:
- Each villain’s personality informs their tactics. Learn how they think, and illustrate it in word and in action.
- Power is key. A villain who believes they are stronger acts on it. A villain in danger of losing seeks more power (training, weapons, manpower etc.)
- Plot armor sucks. If you want your villain protected, use the game and the character’s resources, not GM fiat.
- Villains should and must be careful. Create interesting cohorts that represent them and only employ your villain when they are safe or willing to risk it all.
Let us know how these work for your next BBEG! If you want to keep up with us, follow us on Twitter, and if you really like what we do, please consider subscribing to our Patreon! We love hearing from you and getting your feedback, leave us a comment below or send the Mage College or our team members a tweet!
Til next time, we hope your evil machinations inspire and make for good stories. Keep creating and stay awesome!