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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

SMART for the Bad Guys

Professor Poo strikes again!
photo credit: betta design via photopin cc

When it comes to bad guys, some adventures just fall short.

We've all experienced it. Bad villains might be boring, irrelevant, 2-dimensional, or a variety of other negative buzzwords or anti-patterns.

On the other hand, good villains inspire oppositional heroism.

I've been ... slowly ... working on a new adventure for my Monstrarium game. I wanted to really focus on having a more memorable BBEG, and I started thinking about what makes villains memorable in movies, books, or popular adventures.

I think that good villains have good goals. And by good I mean horrible. And by horrible I mean the kind of thing that practically forces heroes into action.

This doesn't have to be from "depth" of evil - sacrificing children and raping schoolteachers and stuff might be a form of shock-method, but it gets old fast and is little more than a poorly-tasting trick.

Let's take a page from the Holy Book of Business Management and consider the acronym SMART. Yea, that boring thing that comes up once a year (if we're lucky) during annual employment reviews. When properly used, goals motivate employees by providing confidence in future success.

I recognize that isn't how most employee reviews actually go, but let's fantasize for a minute.

SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Temporal.

Let's start with an amusing idea for a Monstrarium villain - a Weresnake - and see what happens.

The Weresnake's goal cannot be "to take over the world". That doesn't mean anything. Taking over the world is a time-proving adventure call-to-action, but really it is more specific than that.  Sauron wanted to take over the world, sure, but that's more a personality trait. His goal - in the LotR novels - was to reclaim the One Ring. His motivation for that goal was to take over the world, arguably, but that's different than a goal.

So if I localize the weresnake and say, "he wants to take over the town of Mergle", that doesn't feel strong and memorable at all. Taking over the town is a method towards an end.

What if there was an artifact buried somewhere near Mergle, and the Weresnake wanted to recover that? He would need slaves to search for it, food for himself, equipment and a base of operations...

Suddenly there's a lot of interesting pieces to taking over Mergle and there is instant "depth", in that we already want to ask a bunch of questions. What does the artifact do? How did he learn about it? Does anyone else know it's there?

Making the goal more specific is already paying off.

In the context of adventure writing, this is the easy one. Either the artifact gets found, or it doesn't. Note that "taking over the world" is not very measurable. Does that mean eliminate all resistance, or just occupy? What is "the world" - known, unknown? Just bodies, or souls too? It's simply too hard to quantify.

Human brains turn off when something can't be measured. Think about the last time your boss gave you a goal of "get better at X".  How motivational.  "Pass your Bar Exam" feels a bit more solid, right?

"Get better control of slaves" is not a fiction goal. "Use the slaves to find an artifact" is a fiction goal.

It sure would suck if the artifact wasn't even there. Yea, red herrings, blah blah blah. I don't buy it. In the context of an adventure, maybe the Weresnake is still trying to locate the artifact, but the artifact should almost always exist once revealed as a story goal. Otherwise it is disappointing.

That doesn't mean there can't be a false lead here and there, either for the PCs or for the Villain. But as soon as one goal becomes invalid, another one should pop up and replace it. A Villain without an achievable goal can be safely ignored - because if he can't achieve it anyways, why bother risking life and limb to get in his way?

Red herrings are tricks best used extremely sparingly, so that they have maximum impact when revealed, and don't sour the feel of the campaign.

What is the artifact? Does it belong to a sky-god? Why does the Weresnake care? Does it make birds fly faster? Why would a Weresnake want birds to fly faster?

Relevance must be answered. This can be done by making the artifact obviously related, like The Holy Poison Gland of the Great Snake God. However, combining the villan with something not immediately obvious, like the Sky God's Faster Bird Stick, can be more interesting if a believable reason exists. This might take the form of another goal.

For instance, perhaps the Weresnake is working for an even bigger BBEG, and is tasked with improving communications speed for a coming invasion. Faster carrier pigeons are the plan.

Last, but certainly not least, the goal must have a time limit. If the PCs have forever to accomplish something, they'll most assuredly find a way to take forever. The story needs to keep moving, regardless of whether the PCs succeed or fail, and establishing a time limit is essential to that.

Let's say the Weresnake's boss wants to do the invasion by the end of Autumn, because winter is too harsh in this region to wage a war. Now we have a timeline - and, this is key - the timeline must be achievable to interrupt by player action. It is horribly irritating to have an impossible goal at work, and that applies to adventures. If the players have no chance of success, why bother?

Because, really, this SMART goal for our Weresnake villain directly corresponds to the SMART goal for the players. Now the PCs have a Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Temporal objective to accomplish.

Stop the Weresnake before he gets the artifact that enables an enemy invasion in Autumn!


  1. Reading your article, I wondered how much room there was for villain growth. On a personal level, my favorite narratives are when the antagonists grow with the hero. As the hero's personality develops, so too does their opponent. They also adapt and change their goals to meet the continual defeat at the hand of the heroes.

    This isn't a great example of this, but take Kefka (bad guy in Final Fantasy 6), often considered the best villain of all time.
    I don't think he met any of your five characteristics. Then again, video games are different to RPGs, so maybe apples and oranges.

    That said, the weresnake sounds awesome.

    1. I'll argue that Growth, from an antagonistic perspective, is the movement from one goal towards the next. Personality connects the dots.

      Kefka started off with a goal to find Terra. Then he goes to Doma to win the siege, but since he is crazy and annoyed he just poisons everyone instead, which further develops the Cyan character. Then he goes after Valigarmanda.


      A series of discrete goals that could be termed in SMART form.

      Each goal represents an "adventure", but the "campaign" is the evolution of goals based on personalities and success/failure.



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