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Villains are an essential element of the pulp universe and require careful planning to be an effective part of a game. I have friends who will happily roll up a random monster to serve as the antagonist of the piece, but this is never as satisfying to me as a villain who “belongs”.
A three dimensional villain is one who is memorable, motivated, active, and relatable. Below are some tips and a template I find useful for designing villains.
The era of the pulp magazines was full of memorable villains. Most were two dimensional and cheesy – but since I personally have a great fondness for cheese, that has never seemed like much of an issue to me. One easy way to give a villain color is to add a quirk of some kind. It’s probably best to just add one or two unusual features to the character as any more will actually be confusing and work against the character being memorable.
Physical quirks include illnesses and disabilities (a hunchback, serious burns, a peg-leg or hook-hand, or a glass eye etc). Mental quirks include personal oddities (such as a hatred of the color blue, fear of goats, compulsive gambling, always requiring the company of two red-heads, only drinking chocolate milk etc).
Good villains also require motivation. A paragraph of backstory can be very helpful here explaining why the villain turned to the life of crime in which they now engage. Don’t make the mistake of confusing a reason for an excuse. Two characters facing exactly the same circumstances might attribute their, very different, future choices to those events but it is the choices rather than the events which matter. The most interesting villains are rarely black and white so giving them some motivations we can relate to (and perhaps even sympathise with to an extent) can add extra interest. Joss Wheddon once said that “the monster doesn’t see a monster in the mirror” and this is a good principle to keep in mind when defining a villain. The villain usually sees their actions as fully justified and logical. They rarely see themselves as bad guys – though the occasional villain that embraces their own evil with clear eyed self-assessment can be fun to create as well. In a pulp-game it is important not to overdo the shades of grey. Villains tend to be unambiguously black and white with just enough shades of grey to hint at something redeemable beneath the suface.
Lastly, and to my mind at least, most importantly, villains need to be active. A passive villain, sitting in his fortress waiting to be discovered by the heroes is never as interesting as a villain who is actively pursuing an agenda or plan.
When I designing a villain then, I write down a name, a backstory, a list of goals (or actions) they will pursue as the story unfolds, a physical description, and a couple of lines of sample dialog.
The physical description should be short and try to engage as many (though obviously not all in every case) of the senses as possible (sight: is the villain tall, short, fat, thin etc. smell: does the villain where an expensive cologne, have a body odor problem etc. sound: is his voice cultured, rough, high pitched, whiny etc, touch: are the fabrics he wears coarse, finely woven, textured; are his hands rough and workmanly or clerkly and smooth; is his face weathered and wrinkly or baby like and smooth etc, taste: does he have a kiss that tastes like strawberrys or rotting corruption etc.)
I have been saying “he” above but the guidelines apply just as much to femme fatales and female villains (no sexism intended).
A couple of lines of sample dialog is helpful in giving me a guide to how to play the character during the game. A catch phrase or two is usually enough to guide the delivery of any line the character might be called on to speak during the game.
The last thing I do is add any special powers or abilities and stat-blocks the villain requires. Just how I go about this is something I will leave for another post however.
Below is the profile for one of my favourite villains; the Technomaster.
Name: John Whistler a.k.a The Technomaster
Backstory: John Whistler was on his way to greatness when the Great War came along, a research scientist and inventor par excellence. He did his part and signed up but a bullet in the back put an end to his days on two legs. A victim of friendly fire, he was confined to a wheelchair and returned stateside, but once back he was considered an embarrassment. He received a letter of thanks for his service, a medal (in the mail) and a tiny pension. No-one wanted to hire a maimed researcher and his career was destroyed. He lost his home, his lab, everything. As his bitterness grew so did his desire for revenge. He has hatched a scheme to takeover the city’s criminal organisations as the first move in a much larger game. He has invented a machine which can listen into the homes and offices of many of the city’s wealthiest men and women (in order to gather blackmail material) and has invented a new kind of weapon (an electronic disrupter gun) that he is selling to the city’s criminal element.
Description: He is confined to a wheelchair and wears long, coarse robes of a rough woollen fibre with a hood that acts to keep his features hidden in darkness. He has piercing blue eyes which flash with anger at the slightest provocation. He has long slim hands made rough by his work with metals and machinery. His voice is hollow and bitter, a rough whisper that rises to a shout in moments of intense emotion. He is surrounded by the smell of machine oil, grease, and burnt electrical wiring.
Sample Dialog: The fools who live above ground and enjoy the light of day are mere cattle, too stupid to know their days as masters of the world are numbered. When I am finished they will all grovel before me and then they’ll regret their treatment of my genius. I will show them all!
1. Raise money by blackmailing large numbers of the financial elite in star city in order to begin production of electrical disrupter guns and begin selling them to criminals (already underway).
2. Broker a deal to gain a controlling financial interest in the major crime families of star city (with the lieutenants of the families) with electrical disrupter guns as an incentive.
3. Kidnap the son and daughter of the two major crime families and murder them to start a gang war.
4. Orchestrate the murders of the family heads as an outcome of this war.
5. Establish the new family heads (the lieutenants) and broker a raprochement between them (and start collecting a percentage of all crime revenue as payment).
6. Use the funds to encourage a destablising arms race among the nations.