September 7, 2013
What Makes A Good Antagonist (Part 2)
Be sure to read Part 1
Who did not like the Joker from the Dark Knight? Although relatable motivations and captivating personal histories can make for incredibly interesting antagonists, sometimes what a game really needs is a good, old-fashioned villain. One the players will not come to care about, but one they will come to revile. One they seek to wipe from whatever world they happen to be populating. One that lacks any semblance of ethic or even logic. A true psychotic. A real monster. Put one of these in your game as more than just a single encounter, and watch as your players come to despise this enemy with all of their being and take joy in the fact that you have given to them a monster to which they can focus all of their animosity.
Such antagonists can be very difficult to do correctly, which might seem odd. At a glance, they look easy to portray. Laugh a lot, do crazy, evil things, laugh some more, and be a constant thorn in the players’ sides, right? No, there is actually a great deal more to this sort of enemy than that. For one, you have to find the right balance of the unbalanced mind you are creating. Just how crazy is this enemy? Do they have any goals or are they true anarchists? What drives them? What gives them purpose? Most importantly, you have to strike a balance with your players and their perceptions of the villain. Done wrong, and you have not created a meaningful antagonist. You have created a comic relief. Someone so horrible that exists in this fictional world that it comes off as funny. There are only so many times players can be mortified by the same horrific acts. “Oh, so Mr. McEvilpants has burned down another orphanage? Wow, that is like three this week. A new record!” These enemies can easily come off as campy, two-dimensional, or even trite, and you do not want that. If the players cannot take such an enemy seriously, how can you, as a Gamemaster, take them seriously? Worse, if the villain of the game cannot be taken seriously, how can the game itself be taken seriously? This is the road to unfinished adventures and canceled campaigns.
But what if you can do it right? What if you can create that special sort of evil, that twisted type of monster within a man that makes your players cringe? Imagine the impact such a character could have on your game. An example I have of this is the villain Zadrael, again from a long running Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Born of a fusion of a forgotten deity and a mortal, the wife of one of the player characters – not by her choice, I might add – this enemy struck at the party while at their most vulnerable. He attacked their homes, their families, their loved ones. Worse still, he struck at them from within, torturing their thoughts and dreams with his cruel psychic powers. My players would sometimes leave my games claiming to be emotionally spent when dealing with him, yet they yearned for more. They sought above all else to put an end to him. But why? Why would this evil creature do all of these vile things. For him, the answer was simply for fun and attention. That was it. In the end, this god-like being was nothing more than a child trying to glean the attention he wanted from those he felt were most important, those who were responsible for his creation. He was a monster through and through, a monster with an angelic face.
I warn all Gamemasters to be very careful with such antagonists, and to use them sparingly. It is too easy to go too far with them. As always, you must know both yourself, your campaign, and most importantly, your players if you want to have such a foe create the desired struggle for your game. And never forget that, in the end, it is only a game. Go too evil and too dark, and you might have some players not having fun.
Ha! Thinking a Gamemaster can be “too evil.” That is hilarious.
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