[GMing] Safely Introducing Your Villain’s Backstory

Posted: April 25, 2013 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

Once in a while a GM falls in love with a villain they’ve created. With a little bit of care and thought, they’ve put together a character of their own, with relevant motivations and a certain cunning that marks this character as more than just an ordinary encounter.

Then the players pretty much curbstomp the said character in their first encounter.

Needless to say this is possibly one of the little tragedies of GMing. Most of the time, players won’t really care about the villain’s motivations or backstory. They exist as obstacles, and the more pragmatic the players are, the less they’ll probably listen to the villain.

So what is to be done in such situations?

Well, if the villain is already a stain on the dungeon floor, there’s little else you can do, unless you plan to pull the old “clone / twin / doppelganger” trick out of the closet, but that usually just cheapens the victory of the players.

The better option is to present a means by which they might interact with the villain in a “safe” environment. This isn’t a foolproof plan, of course, but there’s been a few ways by which this has been enacted in fiction.

  • Before the big reveal: I’ve seen this happen a lot in the Gundam anime. Hero meets villain but neither knows the other and it’s an otherwise mundane and often romantic encounter. They eventually discover that they’re fighting on opposite sides, but it opens up opportunities for them to talk rather than to just gut each other on sight.
  • Neutral Ground: Espionage and cop show tend to have moments when a hero and a villain who do know each other meet in the middle of a public space and exchange words. Sometimes it might even be a meal, but it is clear that they are not going to get along and the next time they see each other the circumstances might not be so civil.
  • Capture: Maybe the hero or the villain gets captured, and the two have a chance to chat. Often the better option is to have the hero caught since often when the villain is captured, some players tend to resort to torture first before interrogation. Still there are ways to make both approaches work.

That said, while these three scenarios are applicable, what is the purpose of this encounter? Well, it serves as a vehicle to humanize the villain. Sure they might still deserve to become a stain on the dungeon floor, but at least the heroes have something to remember them by rather than “bad guy #2.” It’s an opportunity to expose the players to the idea that the villain isn’t two dimensional, but actually has reasons that could very well mirror their own mindsets.

Not all villains deserve this kind of fleshed out treatment, but having some in a campaign can bring out all sorts of interesting situations for your players.

  1. before the big reveal is a favourite of mine. Mind you, I tend to run games with about half a dozen NPCs, any of which could be the bad guy, but until the hand is played, the PCs just have guess work and gut feeling to go off. Sometimes, they actually guess right.

  2. dirty_yasuki says:

    I would add: Putting the Pieces Together – It implies that the bigger picture of the villain is heavily implied like in the case of Neutral Ground. The only difference is you already know/suspect there is a villain, you just don’t know anything else about them yet, or that they are aware of you. You/the PCs gather more information on the villain, most likely while on his trail, and piece together clues to form a picture of who you face. The obvious trick needed here is to safely and quietly gather info while avoiding notice, or suddenly the trail will run cold as your quarry covers their tracks or conflict may be forced in case the villain feels cornered and needs to deal with the PCs meddling, personally.

  3. […] [GMing] Safely Introducing Your Villain’s Backstory (philgamer.wordpress.com) […]

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