We all like to root for the heroes, but it’s easy to discount the significance that villains have on heroes. I would make the case that heroes are defined by villains. After all, who would Luke be without Darth Vader, Harry without Voldemort, or Jon Snow without Ramsay Bolton. Villains are crucial for a great story but it can be difficult to create and run them effectively. Here are my top three tips to making epic villains that your players will love to hate.
Hero of Their Own Story
Everyone is the hero of their own story, even - no, especially - villains. It’s easy (and boring) to make a villain who is evil and embraces their own evil. However, it is much more interesting to make a villain who believes they are doing the right thing. Often, this manifests as the villain being a victim. One of the reasons Breaking Bad was such a good show is how well the writers did this with Walter White. When a promising chemistry genius is pushed out of his own company, has to teach high school chemistry to disrespectful teenagers, and then gets terminal cancer, he decides to cook crystal meth to sell so that he can leave money for his family when he dies. Because he is “doing it for his family,” he is still the hero of his own story when he murders drug dealers, poisons children, manipulates everyone he knows, and works with Nazis. The more vile his actions, the more intensely Walter insists that he is doing it all for his family. When you are making your own villains, think about what has happened to them in their life and how it shapes their thinking now. Why do they do what they do and how do they rationalize what they do. The best villains are the ones who justify doing terrible things for good reasons.
Villains are People Too
All good heroes have flaws (there a reason character sheets have a whole box for them) and villains do as well. Think about what your villains flaw is and how it manifests in their actions. Is the villain a narcissist who craves attention? Maybe they are extremely confident and lack hubris and underestimate the party. Perhaps they are lustful for a good time, unable to turn down a stiff drink, attractive face, or the thrill of a gamble. Just like with PCs, coming up with an interesting flaw can help inform how you roleplay the villain.
One of the reasons that the Curse of Strahd is such a successful campaign setting is that the villain is made clear almost immediately and the party meets him quickly. In many campaigns, the BBEG isn’t revealed until late in the game. By doing this, the story misses out on the tension of hyping up a great villain. I think the main reason for this is that GMs fear the party attacking the villain early on and then they either end up with a TPK or the party beats the villain early on and then what do you do? There are ways to introduce the party early without risking these things. First off, if a fight does break out, the villain can attack, defeat the party, leave them for dead, and then you can have an NPC nurture them back to health. Alternatively, you can have the BBEG revive the party and ransom then back to their NPC friends. Finally, you can simply have the party be so far below the villains contempt that they simply laugh at the party and then teleport away. You can also be more creative in how you present the BBEG to the party. What if the Villain begins the campaign as an NPC friend of the party when something terrible happens and the villain blames the party?
Finally, the Villain should pose some sort of critical, existential threat to the players. This could be an epic threat such as unleashing an army of undead upon the land but it doesn’t have to be on that scale. The villain can simply threaten something that the party cares about: a village, organization, their reputations, or even a single NPC. The scale of the threat is up to you but just make sure that it aligns with the villain!