Villainy in a Vacuum: Antagonists Need Motivations Too

Protagonists need antagonists. Heroes need villains. This is a basic requirement for any story and for time immemorial heroes sallied forth to battle dread forces of darkness. Sadly, many

The  Bloody Rorschach
Why is this person trying to kill me?

campaigns (and books for that matter) tend to ignore the villain’s motivation, turning them into shallow incarnations of evil, motivated only by the plot’s needs. As much as I dislike this tendency, it is a time-honored technique. Read “Much Ado About Nothing” by Shakespeare. Don John does his mischief because Shakespeare needs an agent of evil in his happy garden, not from a quirk of Don John’s personality. Evil needs purpose, not ambiguity, not a bloody Rorschach test of motivations for player interpretation.

This post will discuss some of the cliched motivations for villains and how some simple changes make them from stereotypical moustache-twirling agents of evil to fully realized characters.

1. Racial Evil

Drarg is an orc. All orcs are evil, therefore Drarg is evil. Syllogistic arguments make life so simple, yet they also remove most of the subtlety from a plot. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. By making an entire race evil it removes the need for irritating introspection or even circumspection from the players. PCs kill orcs and that is all there is to it.

Philosophical arguments regarding inherent evil aside, there are ways to make an entire race evil without “Don Johning” the plot. My personal favorite was in the TV series “Stargate: SG-1.” The primary villains for most of the series were parasites called Goa’uld that took human hosts, conquered, enslaved and murdered and thought of themselves as gods. Thoroughly evil in all respects, but there was an excellent reason for the behavior. It had nothing to do with race, it was the life-prolonging technology they used. One of the heroes took it for a spin and went megalomaniacal in short order. Of course, parasites are not humanitarians to begin with, but the technology made them really vicious.

A small plot point turned them from monolithic evil into pathetic victims of their stolen technology. Oh, the pathos! PCs might feel the need to rescue the opposition from their own technology. See Star Trek’s Borg for more of this plot type.

No race is entirely evil, there is always a portion that goes against the grain and therein lies the great role-playing moments.

2. Conquerer

Oh no! The evil overlord rides to conquer our peaceful nation for no reason! Sally forth and do brave battle, oh heroes!


Warfare is incredibly dangerous, time consuming and expensive. No nation or individual undertakes it for the sole purpose of conquest. Conquest is just the tool, not the goal. Historically water, religion, treasure, honor, population pressures and food are all common reasons for invasions. Give the warlord a reason to call, not just for the fun of the conflict. Rather than a stand up fight, the PCs might discern his goal and thwart the reason for the attack rather than the attack itself. It gives the warlord some depth instead of a blood-thirsty warrior, he is now a workman going about his duties.

3. Rubber-Room Crazy

As much as I would like to rail against this one, it works all by itself. Sometimes the crazies do get out and do evil things for reasons known only to them. Hard to get much depth out of a madman, but if you can get even 10% of the personality of Dark Knight’s Joker into a crazy NPC you are doing well. One of the most difficult types to make three-dimensional but some backstory helps. Give a reason for the madness and then let him run wild. Motivations will not matter to the PCs once the blood starts flowing and the PC’s world begins to fall apart around them.

4. Honorable True Believer

I saved my personal favorite for last. Nothing, nothing is more dangerous than an honorable man that decides the ends do justify the means. Our villain feels bad about the genocide he wrought, but in his mind he is doing the right thing. I am such a fan of this type of villainy because they cause serious moral issues with the PCs. Exterminating a village to stop a plague or murdering children to prevent them suffering a worse fate are such great role-playing moments that this NPC brings to the table. Their schemes may be local or grand (see Ozymandius in “Watchmen”), in either case they present the most difficult of quandaries and the very best in game storytelling.

I hope my suggestions encourage you to add a bit of depth to your villains and give them the personalities and motivations they deserve.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

3 thoughts on “Villainy in a Vacuum: Antagonists Need Motivations Too

  • October 21, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Wow no one has commented on this, I did not need any of the information here, but I do agree with all of it, and you share my favorite “Bad”-guy type.

  • December 5, 2009 at 11:01 am

    I’ve been saying the same things for a while now. The villain should be as much a main character as the protagonists, fully fleshed out with strengths, flaws, emotions, and everything that makes a complete being.

    I would like to comment on the tired idea of entire races being evil. This has led to quite a few characters in fantasy and sci-fi literature that “go against the grain” and turn to good even though their people are wholly evil. Does the name Driztt (spelling?) ring a bell? Hugh the Borg is another example although that was more the result of outside influence on the part of LaForge than any actual inner reflection on Hugh’s part. There seems to have been a trend of such outside-the-box thinking characters, so much so that this type of character has become cliched as well.

    Babylon 5 is a great example of what was essentially a cast of 2D characters in the early seasons with so little depth it’s a wonder the series lasted as long as it did. However, as the series progressed, all the characters, particularly those originally cast as less than wholesome if not outright evil had developed into virtual living, breathing people. They had grown and changed as a result of the events surrounding and directly impacting their lives.

    Star Trek mostly failed in this area, however, as the main characters hardly changed or developed at all. Events could drastically alter the physical appearance of characters to such an extent that there should have at the very least been some psychological impacts. But mostly at the end of each episode, the miracles of Star Trek medical science made things all better with nary a trace of the traumatic alterations that had recently changed certain characters.

    Now on the flip side of things, I much prefer the pre-prequals Darth Vader of Star Wars than the result of all the “character development” of Anakin Skywalker that George Lucas attempted in Episodes I-III. Now I cannot look at that black helmet without seeing the sniveling, whining, angst-driven teenager that was portrayed by Hayden Christiansen. That’s character development I could have lived without.

  • January 23, 2010 at 11:32 am

    This runs parallel to one of my pet peeves. The PCs are not just people who were born and spent their whole life waiting and prepping for the big bad to come along. (Although that could be an interesting story line if created to be that way.) The problem is so many of my players have such cliched, archetypical nonentities that I only know them as “Wizard guy” and “Angry chick.” I always stress that players need to create normal people with normal goals and lives and let the amazingness of the story transform them into something special. Oh well. Gripe over. It’s a pity that some players out there have put me off roleplaying. I used to enjoy it.

    As for your article: Great work! I do approve. It does put the Evil Villain down and makes them more interesting. Personal favourite though are the villains that are not actually bad and stopping them would be morally ambiguous. (Like 2 kingdoms fighting over farm lands because both are starving.)

    Keep up the good articles!

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