Playing an Interesting Villain at the Table

I don’t know if this is a feature of everyone’s twitter experience or just mine because of the particular intersections of my interests, but I feel like someone starts a discussion at least once a month about how to play, write, or depict interesting villains. Or how a specific type of villainy can make for a more interesting story than heroics. Or how a different specific type of villainy could actually be the most ruthless and most difficult to fight against. It is always interesting to read through these discussions and then the counter arguments people frequently make that villains don’t always need a sympathetic reason to be acting villainously, but there’s one specific argument that always catches my attention and interest.

Consider that people often say they will go to extreme lengths for the person they love. Now, most of us know this is hyperbole when it comes up, but there’s plenty of fiction out there about heroes leaving on adventures to make good on such a promise. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a perfect example. The hero asks the woman he believes he loves what she needs from him in order to take him as her suitor and beloved over the man she has currently chosen. Not wanting to reject her old friend outright, she asks him to fetch a fallen star, thinking such a monumental task will discourage him from pursuing her. Instead, though, he packs his things and heads on his way.

Of course, we readers cheer him on. This is a mighty quest, after all, and the various events of the story prove entertaining and properly heroic as he makes good on the promise he made in reckless, youthful impetuousness. However, if you don’t temper such noble intentions with good will and sense, it is pretty clear how this same story could have had a horrible end. If the hero had actually made good on his promise, if he hadn’t been a caring person who wanted the best for the people around him despite whatever cost he himself might have had to pay, it would have been a tragedy. The idea that someone would do ANYTHING to be reunited with the person they love, that they would do ANYTHING to earn someone’s love, that they would do ANYTHING to reach their goal is terrifying. Most of the time, this kind of hyperbolic language is tempered with an implied “within reason,” so it can be terrifying to think of what a person might wind up doing if they truly meant it when they said “ANYTHING.”

Which is what has always interested me. So, when I finally got the chance to play D&D, I decided to create such a character. The DM told me it was going to be an evil campaign, after all, and I’ve been interested in this representation of evil for a long time. It felt natural. As I’ve played it out, though, I’m not sure I can keep it up. Not only is it not terribly interesting to roleplay when every outcome is determined by the “will it help me achieve my goal?” question, but it’s actually difficult for me to play someone that selfish. I was raised to be considerate to a fault and while I’ve managed to dial it back a bit to a more healthy level, I still like to do what I can (within reason) to help (or at least not hurt) people around me. Playing this character who has not only murdered a naïve youthful adult in a back alley to protect a companion whose trust he saw as instrumental in his quest to gain enough power to return to his beloved but has committed many more ruthless murders in broad daylight and behind locked doors for the same goal has been difficult. I don’t particularly like the feeling of having power and using it to hurt people who haven’t done anything to deserve it.

A much more interesting situation to roleplay, though, is what if the character THOUGHT he’d do anything but learned that he apparently had a line only after he crossed it. What if he suddenly has to recognize that maybe his goals aren’t worth the costs to other people and then live knowing that maybe decisions he made in the past were the wrong ones. He’s killed a lot of people to get where he is and while most of those killings were in self-defense, meant to protect himself after someone saw through his disguise (like in yesterday’s fiction post, though that still doesn’t excuse his villainous behavior), many of them weren’t. Some were pre-emptive. Some were convenient. And it’s not like he isn’t selfish or willing to mete out his notion of justice when he thinks someone deserves it. He is still a bad person for a lot of reasons at this point, but I think he’s at a crossroads of deciding whether he’s going to be a Villain or just a bad person.

Either way, I can’t wait to continue exploring this space.

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