Going to be starting a posting schedule for this, every Monday and Friday for roleplaying related articles, and there may be occasional random posts of flavor topics, like my Sketchy Characters post. That way, there’s a regular schedule for people to view the ‘important’ articles.
Good heroes need good villains. Batman has Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, Luke Skywalker had Emperor Palpatine, there are so many good villains out there that do the villain thing great; challenge the heroes.
If you have not seen the movie Unbreakable with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, please watch it. It gives a lot of talking about what it takes to make a hero that I think is relevant to all this. One example being a quote that states: ‘in the comic you know how you can tell who the arch villain is going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero’, which is usually true of good villains in literature. They will cross lines heroes won’t, they fight in ways the heroes aren’t good at, making for challenges. Like with Superman, he couldn’t just punch Luthor when he was operating as a mastermind or when he was using the law and the public opinion on his side. Helps to have a good PR person.
Another example is from the Aladdin cartoon, a character called Mozenrath. He is probably the most epic villain from that show and was created as a foil for Aladdin, the plucky hero slightly distorted. His look, attitude and general style of doing things are completely opposite of Aladdin and thus such an interesting setup to watch and see how they face off against each other. Of course, the flip works too. You’ve got hero wizard who needs to be challenged; give him an agile foe who can dodge spells cast at them, intelligent enough to come up with plans to topple them that can work if the layer cannot find a way to adapt, etc.
When it comes to villain design, start looking at the lines the player characters have. Are they a party who won’t kill people, rare-ish, but it happens. Then give them a bad guy who uses public places to hide in, preventing players from nuking their place from orbit. Maybe your players are all super powered types, well, John Wick had talked about a character he made called Jefferson Carter in his book Play Dirty. I suggest you read that to see some ideas on how you can make things work for you.
In the end it all comes down to what things can the player characters not do. Unless you’re playing some epic game where your characters have tons of money, enough experience to get all the skills in the game up to max level, you’re going to have some weaknesses. Even perhaps separate the party if you have to. There are many ways from the ‘Maze from Nowhere’ appearing to separate people or maybe they were teleported or flown into outer space or grabbed into a moving car. Maybe you hit them at home and gas one of them while they sleep, shipping them off to Abu Dhabi along with Nermal.
Once you’ve got the players in a weak spot, where their back is against the wall, you can almost do anything to them, and most players want to be challenged. They want to be put in a position where they have to put forth 110% and feel like they’ve overcome epic challenges… At least some of the time. Too much high level and people burn out and you become a killer GM, too many low level and people get bored. It’s all about pacing. The Ravenloft 3rd Edition DM’s Guide gives three pacing options to consider; The Pendulum where challenges swing from low difficulty to high to low and so forth (such as exploring a dungeon, one room is a challenge, then maybe a few empty ones and then another fight), the Pit where you start off at an easy level of difficulty and then the floor drops out to a very difficult challenge level (ie finding out that the minor villain you are dealing with is actually the henchman of a major foe), then there’s Vise where the challenges keep growing stronger until they crush you (think a zombie apocalypse scenario where the little challenge zombie threats are depleting your resources).