I got to thinking about this a week or so ago while working up some details for my latest Star Wars adventure (to be run in South Dakota this coming January). I started thinking back over the breadth of my campaign and the various ways I handled villains within it.
Coming from a D&D gaming background, I always had the outlook that the 'main villain' was the guy who you found at the 'end' of the dungeon, and once he was beat, it was just a matter of 'mopping' up the rest of his minions. You would then move on to the next adventure and the next villain. I should point out that this kind of 'serial villain' was never expressly demanded by the rules- but it did seem to be reinforced by the official game modules that I played. For instance, there is a cave full of Orcs. You battle through them, kill the chief and its over. Next cave.
The 'one boss villain per adventure' thing may have been the case for stand-alone adventures, but what I didn't really notice at the time was the over-arching enemies to be found in adventures 'series'. A good example of this would be in the D&D 'Slavers' series. Here, your players are ostensibly pitted against a group of 'Slave Lords'. They battle against the various minions of these people before finally reaching the 'big bosses'. This takes place over the span of four different adventures. So maybe the 'one adventure, one boss villain' thing wasn't as common as I perceived, but in a sandbox type game like D&D, there isn't a whole lot of room for the development of villains- at least not in a traditional dungeon crawl. Sure, your players might hear rumors of the big-bad, they might meet his minions, but when they reach him it will usually result in a life or death struggle that will 'settle the matter' right then and there.
It wasn't until I started playing Star Wars that I REALLY began to think of what made a good villain. The story-focus of the game encouraged development of the bad guys- so that your players (and hopefully their characters) would get some personal impression of the villain they were up against- would have reasons to dislike them other than "they are bad". In the earlier Star Wars modules, much of this was accomplished via the use of the 'cut away' story-telling device. Here, the GM would break away from the in-character actions of the players and 'cut away' to describe things that the characters themselves might not be privy to. Here the Villain can rant to his henchmen about how the heroes are foiling his plans. He can drop threats and insinuations about what he's going to do next. He can show his PERSONALITY. In this way, players get a better dramatic feel for who they're up against- he becomes a character, not just a block of stats that they're going to have to fight later.
But by itself, the cutaway isn't enough to create a truly memorable villain. In my opinion, one of the best ways to do this in a cinematic RPG is to borrow other cinematic devices. One of these is the initial meeting with the villain- and perhaps subsequent clashes that are NOT climactic in nature. For great examples of this, just about any of the James Bond movies will suffice. Bond almost ALWAYS has one or two mostly 'civil' meetings with the villain. Having the hero and the villain actually TALK to each other in a non-combat situation is an awesome way to build enmity. You can play the villain as smug and superior. They can try and press the player character's psychological buttons- to make them angry. And the PC can do the same in return. Again, the villain suddenly has a face and a character- and the PC has a reason to dislike them on a personal level.
Unfortunately, with so much of RPG history being geared around combat, it is sometimes difficult to finagle situations where the players won't just try to gack the villain the first time they meet. A GM has to be VERY careful with his villains if he wants them to survive long enough to become memorable.
But then, I've probably said this all before in other posts (some of it I am sure I have). What I wanted to do here is lament some of my failures in building villains- and perhaps celebrate some of the successes. I will do this by going through some of the pre-fab adventures I ran for my party and describe how the villain in each worked (or didn't work) as the case may be.
Jodo Kast. This Boba Fett wanna-be got killed in my play-through. He could have made an interesting recurring villain...but at the time, I had no idea this one-shot adventure would spawn a long-running campaign. Though glimpsed a couple times during the adventure, Kast never had much development other than a vaguely threatening background guy.
Zardra. This Femme Fatale was 'left for dead' by my players following a gun battle. Since her 'death' was ambiguous enough, I felt no qualms in bringing her back during Otherspace and subsequently throughout the remainder of the campaign. She eventually turned from foil to ally and became the wife of one of the PCs.
Battle for the Golden Sun
Karak. The evil leader of a tribe of seal-men. He was a minor dark-side user. Due to his physiology, however, he probably wouldn't have made a good recurring villain, so I wasn't too broken up when he died in the final confrontation. Karak's only real development as a villain was through his cut-scenes. Though there was at least one point where the players got to interact with him (I think) in a non-combat setting. Oh, and btw? Karak gets my vote for the most obviously evil villain name.
Captain Kolaff. A cruel and at least somewhat competent Imperial Officer. As a GM, he just didn't stand out to ME as a great character. I didn't really even try to give him an obscure (and escapable) death. He WAS able to evoke some character throughout the adventure, however, through cut-scenes as well as by addressing the players via the shipwide coms as they battled through his ship.
Lira Wessex. A beautiful, haughty and corrupt Imperial noble. The group actually encountered here on several occasions AFTER this adventure. She made for a relatively memorable villain, but I could never quite seem to get a handle on just what to do with her. In this adventure, she only really appears in cut-scenes, but in a later appearance (during Crisis in Cloud City) she had some great non-combat interaction with players during a memorable sabbacc game.
Generic Quarian traitor guy. I honestly don't remember his name (and don't have my books with me at the moment). This guy bumps into the players very early on in the adventure. He's surly and mean and (surprise surprise) turns out to be a traitor. There isn't really much development of him beyond this and he was gunned down in the climax of the adventure. Though billed as the 'villain' of the piece, he was rather weak. Much more interesting was..
Bane Nothos. The players never meet this Imperial ship captain face to face. He doesn't even really appear in any cut-scenes. Rather, they face off against his ship in the last bit of the adventure and pretty much humiliate him- at which point he comms them, states his name, and vows revenge! I went on to use Nothos in a semi-homebrew series of adventures set in the Minos Cluster. Here, he was (ultimately) defeated AGAIN- only to show up in the Otherspace adventures, where he finally met his doom. Even so, he made enough of an impression on me to warrant having a female version of him come back into the game: His niece, Rina Nothos. SHE became one of the most memorable villains in my campaign.
This adventure brought back several old villains (Zardra and Bane Nothos) and introduced a couple new ones- though only one of these really caught my attention:
Moff Ravik. A conniving old Moff who tries to 'ally' himself with the alien Charon. Needless to say, this doesn't end well for him- though he does make an appearance in the series next installment (Otherspace II).
I would be remiss to say that the Charon didn't make an impression, too. They became one of my favorite villain 'group'- in this case, as a species.
Though this is by far one of my favorite adventures, I look back and don't see much in the way of a memorable villain. There is a devious Imperial officer early in the adventure, but... well, there just wasn't much of a 'hook' to him at all. That just leaves me with:
The Engineer. I mishandled this adventure a little when I ran it. If I had it to do all over again, the Engineer could have been an awesome villain. The premise is that the players hijack a huge imperial freighter. The Engineer is a crewman onboard who launches a one-man campaign to get 'his' ship back. As presented in the book, however, the Engineer's stats were woefully inadequate to deal with an entire group of PCs, even WITH his preferred tactic of not facing them directly. It still ended with a nice little duel between him and the party's Tusken Raider (don't ask)- crowbar vs. gaffi stick. But if I could do it over again, I would make the Engineer an 'evil' version of Steven Segall from that one movie about the battleship- a complete badass ex special forces guy. THAT would be a bit more interesting, I think.
Riders of the Maelstrom
Big Jak Targrim. He was a pirate captain who mutated himself by splicing the genes of various other 'villains' into his own genetic code. This (supposedly) made him the 'ultimate' pirate captain (and also a little insane- he would 'switch voices (personalities)' between the various genetic imprints). This sounds cool enough, but.. Jak actually doesn't meet up with the players except for the big fight, and his stats are a bit less than impressive, especially if he's going up against an entire party. At the time, I didn't really futz with the stats in modules- and in this case, it bit me in the behind- Jak went down like a wuss and became something of a joke. But beyond that, there was no real build up to his unique 'mutant' status- in fact, there was no real 'reveal' to the players- just a note to the GM and a few odd cut-aways.
Crisis on Cloud City
This adventure brought back the beautiful but treacherous Lira Wessex- and had a great non-combat encounter. But I've already talked about that, not the module's other main villain:
XO-X1 "Exo". Here we have a full-fledged droid/supercomputer bent on destroying all organic life (or rather, changing it into more 'perfect' droid life via a virus that actually changes organic matter to metal, etc.). In my campaign, Exo died in the final scene. But you know? Who's to say a 'copy' of his program doesn't exist out there somewhere...I just never explored it in my campaign... yet.
Game Chambers of Questal
Moff Bandor. A ruthless Imperial determined to develop a means of controlling his subjects via a machine that generates fear- literally. Not only do the players have to somehow destroy this machine, they must also brave the Moff's private playground- his 'Game Chambers' where he hunts down live prey through a series of death-traps for his own amusement. Yeah, he's suitably vicious. Unfortunately, my guys put him down pretty hard. So... not much chance of him 'recurring' again.
Here we have the Charon showcased again and the return of Moff Ravik. The evil scheming of this moff was enough to overcome his being 'rebuilt' by the Charon. He hijacks their ship and intends to use it to start his own private conquest of the galaxy. So, yes. He is insane- but dangerously so. Though he 'survived' the first Otherspace, he met his end here, finally- though in hindsight, I wonder if I couldn't have found some way to use him again.
Death In The Undercity
All in all, the villains of this adventure fell kind of short. The adventure it self was memorable, but the 'team of enemy agents' were just kind of generic. Meh. I suppose some effort on my part could have spruced things up, but.. you know, sometimes the PLOT of the adventure maybe should be the focus, not so much one (or two) main bad guys. This was one of those times (or else, I was just lazy)
The Isis Coordinates
In this adventure, I completely TRASHED most of the as-written enemies and replaced them with my own- namely Rina Nothos, neice of Bane Nothos. Rina was a memorable villainess who escaped this adventure with her life to become a big part of the campaign. There was also an Imperial Admiral or General involved, but.. he was kind of generic and 'meh'.
Domain of Evil
Halagad Ventor. He was a fallen Jedi night. Having been tortured by Vader, he escaped to self-imposed exile on the remote world of Trinta. Unfortunately, his shattered mind was further broken by the presence of a dark-side 'nexus' on the planet. Halagad lived in a fevered 'dreamworld'- into which the players are pulled. Halagad was interesting in that he was a 'reluctant' villain- driven to it by insanity and grief. His death at the end of the adventure came through redemption rather than combat- and that felt right. I can't see using him as a recurring 'villain' or even as a new ally after his redemption.
Crutag. A taloran bounty hunter. Supposedly a bad-ass. Unfortunately, despite the fact I had actually tweaked his stats to compete with my players, he became something of a joke. The PCs called him "Toe Tag" or "Body Bag".. and.. that's kind of how he wound up, I recall. Gunned down and left for dead in the swamps of trinta. Hmmmmm... actually, he did have a rather obscure death... hmmmm....
Graveyard of Alderaan
Though there was an Imperial officer in charge of the main 'plot' in this module, he was of the 'generic' sort in my book. Likewise the scavengers who are the foils of the PCs fall kind of flat. In fact, in retrospect, the whole module kind of falls flat. That being said, there is the fact that (due to a case of mistaken identities), Darth Vader himself makes an appearance at the end of the module and is foreshadowed in several cut-aways prior. Of course, there is no REAL chance for him to square off against the pcs (thank goodness), but... still, was a nice brush with greatness (or death).
Planet of the Mists
Vost Tyne was a ruthless Imperial overseer at a mining operation. He was a step above the standard villain due to the fact he had some minor force powers. He wasn't a 'sith lord' or anything close, just a crafty officer with an edge nobody really knew about. I actually did have some plans for Tyne, but at the climax of the adventure, one of my players did something unexpected- he blew up the escape pod Tyne was on- despite the fact he had a hostage (of sorts). This put an end to Tyne's recurring villain career before it had even started.
Darci and Marci Sertim. Twin female mercenary gunwomen. What's not to like, there? In my campaign, one of these twins survived (the other was the hostage killed with Vost Tyne). The surviving twin, though ostensibly an 'ally' to the PC party at that point, was left in a rather ambiguous position- not at all liking the people responsible for her sister's death...
Anyway, that's all for now as I'm just rambling. But this was fun for me, and reminded me of a few loose ends that could (at some point) come back to haunt my PCs... muhahhaaa.