Big Bad Evil Guys

Jon Irenicus, the greatest RPG villain of all time.While I run games fairly regularly, I haven’t had a chance to sit down as a player in over a year. When I don’t get to play in a game, I tend to turn more to computer RPGs, specifically the excellent Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series, which offer nearly limitless hours of gaming. Playing a lot of these games, I’ve done some thinking about the big bad guys at the end of each campaign, and what makes a good villain.

Both series have their hits and misses as far as villains go. The Baldur’s Gate series has Jon Irenicus, who is the best villain I’ve ever seen in a video game (sorry Sephiroth), but it also has Amelissan, who is a good fight but lacks a sense of menace. The Neverwinter Nights series used the devil lord Mephistopheles in the Hordes of the Underdark expansion, who was a true menace, but it also has the King of Shadows from Neverwinter Nights 2, who is almost entirely forgettable. So what makes a big bad guy an effective villain and what makes them a pain in the butt?

My biggest problem with the idea of a big bad evil guy at the end of a campaign comes from the first Dragon Quest video game. There you played a hero who had to take on the Dragon Lord. But you couldn’t just walk into his lair and fight him; you had to go from level 1 to level 20 and get powerful enough to finally face him. And my problem with that was that the rest of the game became a moot point. Every slime and golem you killed was only a way of farming XP to gain the next level. There were few real quests, and everything was done with the notion that you were building to fight the Dragon Lord. If the game wasn’t inspired from D&D, if it didn’t involve the same level 1-20 scale, the whole thing could have been wrapped up by the great hero marching into the Dragon Lord’s tower and kicking his butt. Basically, my problem with this and the other quests of destiny that involve the heroes knowing from the outset that they have to level up to beat the bad guy is that it’s the RPG equivalent of a carrot dangled on the end of a stick. You keep going not out a desire for adventure, but because you know that you’ll die if you don’t face the bad guy at the peak of your own power. Moreover, it takes a lot of the drama out of the final fight – you go in well-armed and ready, making victory almost a certainty, unless the designer/DM happens to be a total douchebag.

The Baldur’s Gate series deals with the big bad evil guy problem in two ways. First, it gives a personal motivation for the hero to want to take the guy on. In Baldur’s Gate, the villain Sarevok kills your foster father in front of you. In Baldur’s Gate II Jon Irenicus tortures you, kidnaps your sister, and then steals your soul. Second, the games focus less on the end fight and more on the mystery behind the villains. In the first game, you’re investigating an iron shortage on the Sword Coast, and it isn’t until very late in the game that Sarevok even becomes connected to the overall plot again. In the sequel, Jon Irenicus’s motives don’t get revealed until he’s almost completed his goal. In both those games, the hero doesn’t know from the outset that he’s going to be building up to face the big bad guy; he’s left slowly uncovering pieces of the plot.

The Neverwinter Nights series takes a different tactic. Since the games are intended for multiplayer use, they need to be more generic in their plots. As a result, there isn’t as much of a personal reason to kill the villain. Instead, the stories focus on a series of escalating events that only get revealed as intertwined after the PCs have become embroiled in them. In Neverwinter Nights, the PCs are first out to cure a plague that has struck Neverwinter. Then they’re investigating the cult that caused the plague. By the time the true villain is revealed, Neverwinter is under siege and the PC doesn’t have time to run around grinding for more experience.

Both of the series have their misses as well. Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal features Amelissan, who shows up at the last minute at the villain who has been manipulating the PC and his foes. She has no emotional connection to the PC, but her eventual appearance was fairly easy to predict, resulting in the game seeming like little more than a long XP grind to prepare for the last battle. Neverwinter Nights 2, for all the good things it did in its main campaign, has the King of Shadows, who is outshined by several other characters that could have been better villains and whose presence is foreshadowed from the very first line. Worse, the PC is effectively the chosen one who is the only person able to stop the King of Shadows, which takes away any semblance of personal freedom when approaching the quest.

In looking over the villains that seem to work and those that don’t, it seems that there are some keys to making a good end-of-campaign villain.

First, a personal reason for the quest helps a lot. In Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, the villains are people who have personally wronged you. In Neverwinter Nights, the villain is responsible for the fall of Lady Aribeth, an NPC paladin and your benefactor. In the expansion pack Hordes of the Underdark, Mephistopheles actually does kill you, banishing you to Hell while he sets about wrecking the world.

It’s also worth noting that arguably the best campaign out of the Neverwinter Nights series, the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion pack Mask of the Betrayer, doesn’t really have a traditional quest-to-save-the-world thing going on. In that campaign, your soul has been stolen away and replaced with a curse that causes you to devour spirits in order to survive. The quest isn’t about saving the world, but rather making sure you don’t become consumed by the curse. And the final end boss isn’t even a real person – it occurs in a dreamscape against the embodiment of the hunger inside you, with your soul the prize for winning. Even without a traditional end boss, though, there is once again a personal motive in seeing the quest through.

Second, if there is going to be a final battle of ultimate destiny, it shouldn’t be built up from 1st level. The whole chosen one idea works even worse in a D&D setting where there are usually a number of skilled and powerful NPCs capable of doing the job. And if the ultimate bad guy is the sole focus of a campaign, it pushes everything else in the game to the sidelines. Only in a few select instances can I recall the quest of “get powerful enough to take on the bad guy” actually working. In Paizo Publishing’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path, the PCs have to forge weapons imbued with the seven deadly sins in order to take on the final Runelord, but that quest is introduced near the end of the campaign, meaning that once it’s done the PCs get to move on and see the immediate results of their hard work. In Mask of the Betrayer, the game is on a constant buildup to a war against the god of death in an attempt to regain your soul. But this isn’t a matter of grinding out enough levels; it’s a matter of building an army capable of challenging a god, which is an epic task in and of itself.

Mysteries work pretty well in this regard, because they move the action along and keep the game moving without focusing entirely on the end goal. In fact, a mystery might last a whole campaign, with the PCs only figuring out who is behind it at the very end fight. By then, they’ve already done the level grind, but they haven’t noticed it because the action has been going on all along.

A third key that helps keep the end fight interest but is not strictly a necessity is a surprise during the battle. If the PCs have prepared their utmost for the final fight, they are almost certain to win without much difficulty. When the villain pulls out a trump card, though, it can inject an element of suspense back into the game. After defeating Jon Irenicus in Baldur’s Gate II, for example, he pulls the hero’s soul into Hell with him, setting up one final set of trials that was unexpected at the outset. In the Neverwinter Nights expansion pack Shadows of Undrentide, the villain Heurodis is protected by an aura of magic that makes her invulnerable. Breaking the stones that supply her with her power is a way of defeating her, but doing so has a cost: it causes the flying city you’re on to go crashing to the ground. (As a minor interjection, I’m still pissed that the hero lives at the end of Shadows of Undrentide instead of getting a final and awesome heroic sacrifice.)

A final key element to a good end boss fight, but one that again is not strictly necessary, is the option to do things in more than one way. That gives control to the PCs, which is only fair since it’s their story. The best example in computer gaming comes from Hordes of the Underdark, where you can put an end to Mephistopheles either by fighting him in a final epic battle or, if you were cunning enough during the preceding trek out of Hell, you can circumvent the whole battle by learning the devil lord’s true name and banishing him with mere words instead of swordplay. These kinds of things let the PCs show off their personalities and cunning, and it’s usually a nice reward to win a battle without having to rely on dice to do the trick.

Games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights definitely have left a mark on the tabletop RPG industry, with adventure paths being extremely popular among gamers. The danger an adventure path runs, though, is being more like Dragon Quest than Baldur’s Gate. The last thing any PC should go through is the feeling that what he’s doing doesn’t really matter. Even if the whole campaign is building up to a final end battle, there are ways to keep PCs engaged without having to use the old “destiny quest” cliché.

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