For my first post, I thought I would combine two things which are near and dear to my heart: 1) the Washington Capitals hockey team, who I have been a massive fan of since my family moved to the DC area in 2000 and who this past season won their first-ever Stanley Cup, and 2) deep, complex villains. This will likely be the first of several posts over the lifetime of this blog on the idea of creating complex villains, since it is an important subject to me. In my experience, players remember the villains more than anything else. The game is much more engaging if the players have someone to hate, someone to work towards defeating over the long term, rather than just facing a series of one-off villains that never have a real threat or weight to them (see 99% of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The main villain, the “big bad evil guy/girl” or BBEG, should be memorable, and it should be someone the players love to hate.
One way to make the villain memorable is making them complex. In fact, I think it’s a necessity that the villain be complex. What better way to make a villain complex than to make them relatable and understandable? It’s often said that “everyone is the hero of their own story,” and that includes villains: “villains are the hero of their own story.” I think equally as often, however, it’s difficult to really make that seem impactful outside of the villain just thinking they’re doing the best thing. Villain characters are often feared and/or hated by their own troops and men just as much as by the players. Stop me if this seems familiar: one of the villain’s henchmen fails a task, and the villain executes him to make an example to everyone else. While it goes towards making sure the players know how bad the villain is, is it really conducive to making them relatable or complex?
But how to make them relatable or complex? What about making them truly a paragon for those who follow them, even if their intentions are evil? I propose a slight change to “villains are the hero of their own story”: “villains are the hero of their own side.” Villains can be just as heroic to those who follow them as the heroes are to the innocent villagers they just saved. If the villain truly believes they are doing what they do for the “right” reasons, there are probably a lot of people who not only agree with them, but who support them wholeheartedly. Especially in a large faction such as the Empire from Star Wars, villains can be loved as leaders, heroes, and champions.
Enter Tom Wilson.
For non-hockey fans, Tom Wilson plays right wing on the top line for the Washington Capitals, alongside Russian stars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov (though their lines have been shifting around lately, this was the group he played with through all of last season and their Stanley Cup run). While a talented player who can score and assist, his primary role on the team is as an enforcer. He lays crushing body checks, starts fights with players on opposing teams, and generally exists to make sure the other team feels the pain. Many times, Wilson gets penalized for a hit that was a little too late, or a little too high, or for simply instigating a fight. Around the league, he is viewed as a bully, a dirty player, or a villain. To the Washington Capitals and their fans, he is a hero.
As a Caps fan, I understand that some of Wilson’s hits, like the one against Ashton-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2 of the playoffs last year, might cross the line. I fully admit that had the roles been reversed, I would be crying just as much foul as the Penguins and their fans did on that crushing hit delivered to Ashton-Reese’s jaw that sent him out of the game. But Wilson’s job is to lay those big hits, to start those fights, to get his team amped up and demoralize the other team with his play, and it works. He does what the team needs him to do, even if some of what he does crosses the line, and the team and the fans love him for it.
The main villains in your campaign should be the same. The rank and file, the subordinates, even the average civilians of the faction your villain belong to should look up to your villain as someone they respect, someone they believe is necessary. Even if they don’t totally agree with everything the villain does, they should believe that what the villain is doing benefits them, and is what needs to be done. “That town was a safe haven for Rebels; the Moff was totally justified in blowing it apart from orbit. Sure, some civilians died, but honestly they probably deserved it for letting the Rebels hide there, and now we have no more Rebel problems.” Strive to make your villains not only the hero of their own story. Make them the hero of their side’s story.
Make your villains like Tom Wilson.