Scum of the Earth or Tragic Antihero?
Is the villain redeemable or irredeemable? Does the villain “just need killin’,” or can s/he be convinced of the evil of his or her ways? Some villains—demons and devils, for example—may be evil because they were created evil and have no free will to change their alignment. I don’t find those kinds of villains to be worthy of archvillain status, though. Too shallow, too unidimensional. For example, take a look at TSR’s AD&D novels. All of the most interesting villains in them are multifaceted characters with complex histories—Lord Soth, Raistlin, Strahd. They all had reasons for becoming villains. That’s the kind of archvillain you want.
To decide whether or not your villain is redeemable, you must first determine the villain’s motivation. Why is the villain doing whatever s/he’s doing? There are three classic motivations for villainy: culture, psychology/history, and misguided ideals. All three motivations can lead to the villain either being scum of the earth or a tragic antihero, depending on the villain’s personality. However, you’ll find that it’s harder to hate somebody whose motivations you understand (I, for example, instantly forgave The Smoking Man for his crimes in X-Files as soon as I learned he was a frustrated novelist). As a result, it’s always a nice touch if the DM manages to reveal the archvillain’s motivations to the characters before The Final Showdown. Try to avoid those longwinded James-Bond-movie diatribes from the villain, though. Leave the cheap theatrics for the minor villains. Far better if the characters learn the archvillain’s motives from the archvillain’s spouse, child, parent, ex-lover, best friend, mentor, trusted servant, or personal diary. Archvillains should never whine or seek to explain themselves to others. Archvillains have confidence. They’re cool. They don’t ask permission to be evil.
This is a pretty uncommon motivation, but it can provide an interesting ethical twist to the game. This villain comes from a culture or has a personal background that provides good reasons for doing what is considered criminal in the player characters’ cultures. White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade campaign is a perfect example; in that game, the vampire characters may not have chosen to be vampires, and they may being doing all they can to promote good, but like it or not, they have to drink blood to survive and they have to obey the rules of the Masquerade or be hunted down and killed. They’re victims of circumstance; victims of their natures; and victims of the vampiric culture. As another example, a villain might come from a culture where all elves have sworn their souls to evil, and it’s considered a good and holy act to kill the pointy-eared little demon-worshippers. But now the villain has come to the player characters’ culture and is still killing elves, not realizing that the elves in this land have never made such an unholy pact. The villain’s not intrinsically evil—just misinformed or unable to break out of his or her cultural assumptions. Culture can also be blamed for a villain’s racism, sexism, or other forms of prejudice. Good players should realize that they may be able to change the villain’s cultural beliefs without resorting to violence—whether it works or not will depend on their powers of persuasion and the DM’s plans for the villain.
We all know enough pseudoFreudian cliches to come up with psychological motivations for villainy. These motivations tend to be a little gritty, though, and the DM should make sure to find one that won’t offend the players. The villain was abandoned as a child, abused in a series of foster homes, finally found a “family” in the local street gangs, and the rest is history. The villain was molested by her father and has grown up hating all men, especially those in positions of authority. The villain suffered a series of terrible life crises, turned to drugs for comfort, and now commits crimes to support the habit. The villain was mocked as a child for being (choose your minority social category of preference—race, gender, religion, sexual preference, physical difference from the norm) and now seeks to prove he’s just as good or better than anybody else. The villain had trained for years to become a paladin (a cleric, a mage, a fighter) but, when it came down to the crunch, failed to live up to her ideals—and, as a result, has abandoned them completely. There are thousands of possibilities here.
The DM may need to decide whether such a psychologically motivated villain can be “cured” of his or her social maladjustment by magic. I feel that it’s ridiculous to argue that villains who are motivated by past mishaps in their life are insane, but if there’s a high-level priest with a Cure Insanity in the party, a thoughtful DM may want to decide where “sanity” ends and “insanity” begins before the question comes up in the game.
In this case, the villain is completely convinced that what s/he’s doing will better the world—that the ends justify the means, no matter how terrible the means may be. In this category can be found the villain who says “no woman has ever started a war in this realm, so I’m going to kill all the male heirs to the throne until they have to put a woman in the seat of power” … the grown-up survivor of abuse who murders abusive parents and takes in their abused children, promising the kids that they’ll never be hurt again … the vigilante who will kill any number of innocent bystanders to take out that single corrupt king … the drug smuggler who channels all proceeds into the campaign funds of some politician s/he feels will really make a difference if elected. Misguided villains may or may not be able to be reasoned with, and good characters may feel some qualms about killing them out of hand.
After you determine the villain’s motivation, you have to decide whether the character can be convinced of the error of his or her ways. Keep your decision loose—the characters’ actions are likely to affect the villain’s attitude. Cold, callous characters may make the formerly redeemable villain irredeemable; reasonable, sympathetic characters may make the irredeemable villain do a little soul-searching. You should have an idea of how you’d like the adventure to play out (e.g., the characters finally kill the villain, the characters convince the villain of the error of her ways, characters and villain both team up at the last minute to save the city/kingdom/world against a greater evil), but you should always remain flexible.
I find redeemable villains to be the most interesting to roleplay, but over the course of five or six campaigns, I’ve thrown in one or two archvillains who were just bad to the bone. A DM shouldn’t become predictable, after all! However, if I decide to make a villain redeemable, and drop plenty of hints to the players that the villain isn’t completely heartless or evil, and the players don’t try to negotiate with the villain … well, then I’m afraid I start docking experience points. In my opinion—and in my games—there’s far more merit in redeeming the bad guys than in killing them.