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Sure he’s the Villain, but is he the Bad Guy?

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On May 25, 2010 @ 1:23 am In GMing Advice | 4 Comments

Bad Girl or just misunderstood? You decide. In a lot of RPGs there’s an unspoken assumption that the PCs are the good guys, the villains are the bad guys, and everything is clear cut and black and white, but in real life, few if any people actively identify themselves as “Bad Guys”. They may not identify their actions as “Bad Guy” actions and even when they do, they usually rationalize their motives. When creating villains, give some consideration to why they do the “Bad Guy” things they do. It’s a small amount of prep that can pay volumes in realism, further adventure hooks, and fun sessions. Here are some common reasons why “Good Guys” do “Bad Guy” things. Of course, there are as many reasons as there are people, so feel free to make up whatever reasoning makes sense to you.

Culture: Different cultures see certain acts differently, even really big ones. It’s possible your villain comes from a culture in which the way they’re behaving is normal or their actions are justified. Examples: Cannibalism, Killing for revenge.

Political or Religious Views: Especially in settings where emperors wield supreme power and Gods walk the earth, Political and religious struggles can be large scale and violent. Who’s to say which God or King is right? Examples: Wars, Crusades, Forced Indoctrinations

Necessity: People will do a lot of things they and others consider immoral or illegal to take care of themselves and those they care about. Stealing seems less wrong when it’s to feed your family. Examples: Theft, Murder, Squatting, Poaching

Survival: Circumstances can sometimes force people to act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t to prevent the immediate death of themselves or others. Even highly moral individuals can betray their values in a moment of crisis. Examples: Pretty much anything goes

Once you understand why your “Bad Guys” do what they do, there are plenty of ways to make their motivations pay off in your game. By challenging the “Good Guy” vs. “Bad Guy” theme, you create a decision for the players to make, one that almost always leads to more fun. Here are some ways to use this new dynamic:

Unexpected Alliance: If your “Bad Guy” is being coerced, or is only acting the way they are because they have no other option, they may be able to convince the PCs to help them against their own foes, ending the need for their “Bad Guy” status.

Lesser of two Evils: The “Bad Guy” is acting the way they are because it’s the best possible alternative, regardless of how awful it is. Will the PCs help them, turn a blind eye, or stop them and deal with the even worse consequences?

Helping Hand: Maybe the “Bad Guy” just needs a little help that the PCs can easily provide? Will they give up their bounty/vengeance/whatever and even spend resources of their own to help someone who just needs a helping hand?

Seeing the Light: If the PCs and the “Bad Guy” are separated by ideological differences, can one group convince the other that their position is the better one? Does one of them even have to be right?

If your game is usually has a clear cut “Good Guy” vs. “Bad Guy” dynamic, you don’t have to completely discard it, but having an occasional villain be more misunderstood than evil is a fun and relatively easy way to spice up your game.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




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4 Comments To "Sure he’s the Villain, but is he the Bad Guy?"

#1 Comment By evil On May 25, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

I kind of prefer to switch this and make the bad guy do good guy things. Sure, he’s a murderous jerk intent on taking over the planet, but he’s also a just ruler and gives to orphans. These typs of scenarios often turn into the most fun, because the PCs then have to dance around the gray areas and come up with a better solution than just killing off this week’s baddie (what would all those orphans do if the ruler stopped paying for their food?). Anything along those lines that makes villains more lifelike helps. Heck, history is full of people with good intentions that were carried out poorly or backfired on them.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 25, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

In a shades of gray world, it’s very important to come up with good motivations for your villains. Your list is a great starting point for villains’ motivations.

Sympathetic villains can muddle a traditional black and white fantasy; be sure you want your players to think about the starving orcs before you make them gray.

#3 Comment By BryanB On May 25, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Or such was the case with Lianne Cyneon, a Jedi Knight in my KOTOR campaign. She followed Revan and Malak to war against the Mandalorian Clans in order to save billions of Republic citizens.

She manipulated dozens of planetary officials in order to cut through the red tape in carrying out the defense and counter attacks planned by Revan. Part of her began to enjoy the manipulation of “simple minds.”

When Revan and Malak discovered the Star Forge and ushered in the new Sith Order, Lianne had already taken steps down the path into darkness. She continued to serve her masters, and her fall was complete once her thirst for domination and expediency became her primary motivators.

Was Lianne wrong to ignore the Jedi Council and follow Revan to war? She had great intentions at the start, but the Dark Side of the Force can be a subtle and fickle thing. Once you have crossed the line, it is almost always too late to change your path.

And from her good intentions came a future Sith Master, one that provided my PCs with an excellent adversary. Behind the scenes for a time, and then in direct confrontation when the stakes were greatest.

Good article Matthew. It is a helpful kickstarter to some excellent foundations for villains.

#4 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On May 26, 2010 @ 3:01 am

I like the twist that comes from PC’s being the Bad Guys. To be specific, they are criminals in the eyes of society.

Consider the scenario where the PC’s are trying to overthrow a tyrant. Sure, he abuses his power and oppresses the populace, but he’s favored by the people because he got rid of a string of terrible rulers and made the kingdom prosperous. He occasionally imprisons and tortures innocent people, but he has cleaned out the bandits that were waylaying travelers, and trade has blossomed under his watchful eye. Starvation and deprivation has all but vanished, even if his taxes are a bit high.

While some of the citizenry might want him gone, many might just want things to stay as is. What do the PC’s do if, when they reveal that they intend to get rid of the tyrant, some of the locals call the watch on them?

The gray areas are where the best stories often come from. How the PC’s deal with it should always be interesting.


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