Villains for the Old World

As I was writing on the idea of Hope & Heroism, someone pointed out to me the importance of motivations for the antagonists. Coming up with a list of heroes who represent all the ideals I am looking for in protagonists was very easy. But examples for good antagonists turned out to be a much more difficult task. I had a few ideas for villains who I think are cool and who I would love to put into the Old World, but thinking of any reason why the heroes would be fighting them was a lot harder.

The more I was thinking about it, the more I came to the conclusion that good motivations for an antagonist are much more dependent on the specific attributes of the setting than it is the case for heroes. Heroes are generally easy to create as they really just need to be good people with the determination to take action against villainy. You can quite easily move these from one setting to another and their motivation to do good always works just fine. But antagonists don’t have to work just with the heroes, but also with the many unique aspects and elements of the setting. They need much more than just a hero to oppose them. They need to have a goal that benefits them and a plan that is actually feasible. And these things really depend a very great deal on what and who else is all in the setting.

So I’ve decided that a post on Villains of Hope & Heroism wouldn’t be making any sense and not be useful. The same narrative principles can be applied to a huge range of very different settings. Instead I am focusing on the nature of antagonists in my own Old World setting.

After going through all the examples of books, ,movies, TV shows, and games for ideas what kind of antagonists could work in such a setting, I narrowed it down to four main types of antagonists.

  • Warlords: Perhaps the most classic type of antagonists. These people are military leaders whose long term goal is to hold their territory against their many enemies, and often to destroy them before they attack on their own terms.
  • Sorcerers: If there are antagonists for Sword & Sorcery type tales more iconic than warlords then it’s the sorcerers. Masters of dangerous arcane powers who are always looking for more knowledge and power and often try to take direct control over the domain of the master they serve.
  • Bandits: Simple but reliable. Some antagonists don’t have any big elaborate plans or higher goals. Some are simply content with taking what they want and killing those who resist them.
  • Avengers: In a world where might makes right and the law is in the hands of whoever carries the biggest stick, vengeance is the way to put the offenders in their place. In many tales the protagonists set out to avenge their fathers and masters, but in a tale of Hope & Heroism nothing good can come from that. But a lot of bad for a lot of people who are only tangentially involved. Whether the tool of vengence is poison, an army, or a horde of demons, it’s always a great source of trouble for the heroes to take action against.

Regardless of who the antagonists and their minons are, every heroic tale needs some type of villainous plot that the heroes are trying to stop. (I wonder how far back this convention goes. It doesn’t seem to be common in ancient hero tales.) For a setting of city states and barbarian tribes I found these following ones to be a good set of templates to work with.

  • Conquest: Sometimes an antagonist of the warlord type simply wants to expand his territory for greater wealth and fame. It is simply ambition that drives him and a need to show his prowess. Not a particularly interesting motive but a simple and uncomplicated one. Probably works best as an additional complicating factor in situations where tbe heroes are already busy with going after someone else. The conquest might be just an opportunistic small warlord seeing a chance to make his move or be the backdrop for the tale of the heroes. In either case, the conqueror is probably not being to be the focus of the adventure since he’s not very interesting in himself.
  • Resources: In this situation a warlord is in the whole conquering business just for the sake of it, but it really is just the means to get access to very important resources. Something that the antagonists needs, and needs so badly to kill for it and take it from others who need it as well. This is much more interesting as it’s probably easy to see that the antagonist had to do something to keep his people fed and save. But it’s going to be the method with which the heroes will take objection. Simply beating back the antagonists forces won’t end the conflict, only delay it for a while at best. This doesn’t have to be a military invasion of a neighbor. It might very well be the antagonist’s own subjects who have to carry the burden.
  • Defense: Things get even more ambiguous when the antagonist is taking drastic actions as a measure to defend his domain against another foe. The measures taken to improve defenses might lead to hardship for the farmers and workers, but can also mean attacks on and annexation of vital territory. Many of the locals might even support a change in leadership which will only make the antagonist to resolve to even more draconian measures.
  • Magic Power: True magic power is in a wholly different league than ruling over land or people. This alone might lead sorcerers to see the hardships of others as a very accepable price and warlords might very interested in getting their hands on a magic weapon that can secure and expand their power. The plans to attain a new source of magic power can be very complex, but as a motive for an antagonist it’s actually very simple. Many of the lunatic sorcerers who want to destroy the world can be made much more plausible if they are simply searching for magic power and are willing to pay a very high price for it. Or rather, have someone else pay that price.
  • Vengeance: A relatively simple and straightforward motivation, but one with endless possible applications. Pretty much any character imaginable can be motivated by vengeance and the possible plans to gain it are endless. The main use of vengeance in tribal society is to scare away enemies and prevent further attacks in the future. Retaliation as a show of strength. In societies with no police this can put the heroes in quite difficult positions. For a short adventure a group of warriors seeking vengeance against someone in the protection of the heroes makes for a great conflict. But revenge for past crimes that have already been mostly forgotten can be a much bigger source for a lot of trouble that is still to come and the heroes are probably going to much less sympathetic to such a cause. Especially when the revenge comes in a form that affects many other people mostly unconnected to the original offense.
  • Plunder: And sometimes all that bad people want is some wealth and comfort. Other people’s wealth to be specific. Greed is as basic a motivation as it gets and there is little about it that would justify negotiating some kind of compromise between parties. But used for minor antagonists or as an easy break between more complex adventures it’s still something that does the job. Antagonists out to burn and pilage (and that other stuff) might either be in addition to the primary opponents of the adventure, or they might constitute a particularly unpleasant segment of the main antagonist’s minions.

These lists are both not very long, but I think each of them comes with so many variables that they can be reused many many times without becoming overdone. Especially when you switch between them regularly to avoid falling into a regular pattern. Even when not looking specifically for something to use in an adventure of Hope & Heroism or something set in a Bronze Age setting, all of these motives should easily work in most types of tales.

2 thoughts on “Villains for the Old World

  1. Cafaristeir

    The latest edition of the D&D5 Gamemaster Guide has random tables where you can generate a villain type as wellas his motivations and even his secret weakness. Several “Savage Worlds” supplĂ©ments have “random adventure generators” including at least one dice for villains (and a very few have another dice for his henchman).

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  2. Philipp

    Your villain types strongly resemble those of Shadow Weaknesses of The One Ring. I guess it’s becaus they’re archetypes. But I think its a mistake to describe them in terms of their occupation (Warlord etc.). It’s generic and potentially repetitive. TOR describes the weaknesses colourfully: “Lure of Secrets”, “Curse of Vengeance”, “Dragon-Sicknes, “Lure of Power” (and the elusive “Wandering Madness”).

    Remember that the best villains usually have complex motives. Thulsa Doom was a warlord, and later a sort of guru, who not only wanted power, but had a whole philosophy constructed around his pursuit. The Emperor was probably more concerned about bringing people over to the Dark Side than his own position and even life. In Planescape: Torment the main antagonists were a fallen angel that tried to push a wicked city into hell (oh and he kinda did an inside job against the heavens to increase war spending), a hag that is in love with you and your own mortality (that wants you to remain pseudo-immortal so it can continue its own existence). Such personal and philosophical are quite absent in your list, probably because they can’t be generalized easily. But without them, any work of fantastic fiction remains stale!

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