DMB v. Villainous psychology

Just listening to the Dungeon Masters Block podcast by @DMs_Block, episode number 16 titled ‘Good, Bad, Unkillable Villain‘.

It’s well delivered and fun to listen to (yes, even the anecdotes, surprisingly!) which I think reflects the podcast’s sense of humour.

This podcast focuses on villains, and I will use it as a segue to expand on the ‘psychology of villains’.

I just can’t wait to be King!

First of all, it’s only in movies and games where a villain will actually think of themselves as a ‘watch the world burn’ kind of baddie. In real life everyone thinks they are the good guy. So let’s talk about fictional villains…

A lot of the aforementioned podcast discussed the personality and the motivations of the villain, and I reckon I can sum this up in one line… ‘Great villains are great characters.’ There is nothing that does not make your PC a great character, that will not also make a villain a great character.

Of course to move from being a ‘good’ character, to a ‘bad’ character, a villain also has to act in specific ways. But even more importantly, a villain literally has to be marketed to the players (not characters) and the best and surest way to do that is by creating an emotional tie with the player. Trusted techniques include:

  • Betrayal, because nothing hurts more, and hell hath no fury
  • Victimisation, nothing should gets us more angry that seeing people bullied/oppressed
  • Dismissal, an interesting villainous virtue because it directly attacks the ego
  • Hypocrisy, because double standards directly insult our intelligence
  • and lastly being actually Threatening, because it adds suspense and none of the above matters much if the villain can’t follow through on any of it!

The podcast also briefly touched the concept of ‘knowledge as the ultimate villain’, and I want to expand on that. The root of this idea is that ‘ideas have a life of their own’.

As proof of how this is done really well in fiction take a look at the Conan books. A major villain is the cult of Set. You could argue that the villain is the actual god, but in practise no particular individual has to show up for the cult to evoke a great emotional reaction.

Stepping away from fantasy for a moment, consider the recently created I.S.I.S. Seriously, I reckon that only a handful of people in the world know the names/faces of the ‘leaders’ (if it has any) but it is undoubtedly a modern ‘super villain’ at least to half the world!

Back to the game… how do you play against an Idea? In the Conan style of games the Idea is a foil. In modern games the Idea is an insidious force. Ultimately you face down an Idea by facing down it’s supporters. In fact, the personality of the villain should be accurately reflected through it’s minions. The podcast cites Star Wars ‘Stormtroopers’ as an iconic example.

Uniqueness should also be a trait of the villain themselves. Take a look at The Hobbit movies, and you will quickly notice that the director tried his hardest to distinguished the two leading Orc villains (who are in a way also minions) as unique from all other Orcs, both in brutishness and in simple appearance.

Tracking all this back to designing a villain for a game, can I suggest that you don’t start by trying to design a great villain. Design a great, unqiue, emotive, even complex character or idea first!

Finally, many thanks to the good people at DMB for sharing a thought-provoking podcast full of ideas; that’s the best kind of podcast there is : )


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