One couple, two perspectives, tons of geekery

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Warlock's Tower: So You Want to be the Bad Guy?

So you want to play the bad guy?

Obviously, cause you’re reading the Warlock’s Tower article. Normally it takes years of practice to play a good antagonist in a game but fortunately you were clever enough to go straight to a knowledgeable source so maybe there is hope for you getting out of minion status and to become a true master mind that will be remembered throughout the ages.

So let’s look at what you should be thinking about as a player who wants to play an antagonistic character in a game. Most of these tips are good food for thought regarding NPCs as well. There is a temptation for you to get a ‘me vs. them’ mentality that often leads to bad blood between players. But you are still telling a story with the other players, and you are playing a necessary part of that story, so just try to remember you are there to collaborate not compete.

These tips work best in large player settings, and obviously not for games set up strict PvP games. But I’ve found there is a lot of difficulty with people playing one of these characters in large online games or LARPs that are trying to include a high amount of RP. You can apply some of these to a table top game but in most of those cases I feel you will be playing more of a spy or traitor than trying to build yourself up to be a true antagonist, so if that’s what you’re playing just take the parts you need from this article.

Lesson One: Know what game you are playing, and what game the other players are playing. Not everyone is there for the same reasons you are. It’s ok to change your level of antagonism from player to player. There may be a competitive player, an introspective player, a beer and pretzel player, and a player only there for the role-play and social interaction. These players will all have very different reactions when you attack/backstab/take advantage of them. It’s OK to use different approaches for each, and if you want to be remembered as the best villain of the game, you should. Be everyone’s favorite person to hate and you’ll go down as the highlight of everyone’s war stories. Seeing as you want to be a foil, try to play the opposite of the character you’re targeting. If the other player is aggressive, be deflective and try to get them get them in positions they can’t muscle through, like legal binds. If the other player is defensive, attack a bit, force them to step up to defend their territory. You‘ll need to determine what to do on a case by case bases, but always try to be engaging the other player and exploiting their flaws.

Lesson Two: Use minions. Getting others to do your dirty work may go against the very sensible thought “If you want something done right then you have to do it yourself.” But if you’re in a game you have to remember to be inclusive of the other player. You’re there to tell a group story, and you don’t want to isolate yourself from the rest of the game. Strong arming, hiring or tricking other players into helping you involves them in the plot, and gives them things to do during a game. You may be more limited in a table top, but this is a great strategy for an online role-play centric game, or a LARP. Again look for the players that would be best suited and find ways to included them. One of my favorite relationships in a LARP was with a player who became my flunky early on, and failed at almost every assignment I gave him. Perfect, I thought! I sent him after new players, weaker characters I knew I could easily kill, and people more interested in RP. He would scare them, give them some plot, give clues that I was “after them” in some way, but they weren’t going to lose their characters, and it lead to lots of fun scenes.

Remember you are there to add drama and antagonize the story not necessarily to win. So…

Lesson Three: The lost art of Counting Coup. For the most part killing PCs in most of these games has one of two effects. First you killed someone’s favorite PC, they now hate you, (The player not the character like we would have wanted) don’t want to play with you anymore, and leave the game or cause drama you don’t need in real life. Or they don’t care, think of it like going down in Modern Warfare, and just bring up their next life with a character that may or may not have an inexplicable grudge against you. Now on the other hand, if you leave them beaten, humiliated, or having lost something they care about… it becomes about the role-play. Creates the back and forth rivalries and sets up the epic showdowns of legend that we go to the movies for.

Alternatively nothing adds to a story like temptation. Fallen characters are always a fan favorite, while those who resist temptation often become great characters. So if you don’t think you can beat them physically, see what you can offer, money, power….everybody has a price. If you can make them become the thing they fight (that’s you) then you have also won.

Lesson Four: If you want to be remembered as the biggest bad of all time, be consistent. This may feel like a contradiction of the first lesson but it’s not. Not only do you need to know your game but you need to know yourself. There are so many examples of people changing a villain’s motivations just to get the most “evil” or dramatic scene. Know what drives your character. Remember major villains have 3 key attributes. Selfishness, Arrogance, and the sense of victimization (yes there are more, but you’re game may or may not allow you control of them so we’ll just stick to these for now). The first two are going to be the same as everyone else’s attempt to be the bad guy, so you have to make the last one meaningful. Lex had his hair/looks, Magneto had the holocaust, Sephiroth had mommy issues. It doesn’t have to be rational but it does need to be meaningful and drive the character. For example if barbarians wiping out your village is your driving victimization, then try not to let the other characters be killed by a wild mob, even if it’s in your interest to let them die. Now you have a much more interesting character. He works against the other players at most turns, but wants to fight disorder more, or at least won’t let it steal his victory. So don’t switch motivations just to be evil.

Hope that helps you on your path of becoming everybody’s favorite person to hate. Just remember you are there to work with the other players to tell a story, and most stories are only as good as their villains… so make your count.


  1. How the heck are there no comments on this? Good post, and a lot of great stuff here. Stuff for GMs to keep in mind for tabletop, and the person looking to be the villain in larger games.

    I especially like the point about PKing, and how you can get more mileage by shaming, not killing.

    Looking forward to more like this in the future.

  2. Excellent work. Having generally enjoyed the corruption of white or light gray hatted characters by black hats of this sort of insidious nature (some played by the Warlock), my masochism has caught up with the joy of the descent.

    Well done, sir.

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  4. Of course, one can create an interesting villain who isn't necessarily 'evil' or even 'selfish'. Just because an NPC's motivations are opposed to the players', that doesn't necessarily make him (or her) the 'bad guy'. I think that grey hat antagonists with real feelings and clear motivations usually make for more compelling (if somewhat less dramatic) villains than black hats.

  5. You do make your bad guys extremely memorable. I would know out of anyone, after all, I did kill you... oh..., TWICE?! AHAHAHAHAHha.. (I totally just went there, but I did it out of love.)


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