What Makes A Good Antagonist (Part 1)
Good characters make a game, but what really makes a campaign is a good villain. Well, to be fair, I feel that “antagonist” is a better term than “villain.” Villains tend to be evil, megalomaniac, monologuist, paper cut-outs, and those are not the sort of antagonists I am talking about. I am talking about whoever acts against the player characters, the thorn in their side, their enemy. Often, I am talking about people who would otherwise be very likeable, very relatable characters. The only thing that makes them “bad guys” is the fact that they are on the opposing side of the characters. They have different goals and motivation. They do what they do because they feel they must. Often, good and evil have nothing to do with it.
One of the most memorable antagonists I ever ran in a game was a vampire named Zadras Tyran in a Pathfinder campaign. It was part of the Siege of Stormhelm story I had run many times before, and this character was a mid-boss of the adventure, in defeating him the characters would learn more about what was really going on behind the scenes of the story. Now Tyran was a skilled swordsman, a very skilled swordsman, in fact. He was confident, bordering on arrogant, and very powerful. When the characters confronted him, he showed them a small box in which he had magically preserved his heart as a way of indicating to them that he was not afraid of them. When asked if he would allow the characters a moment to prepare themselves, he allowed it. Immortality is quite boring, after all, so he wanted to give them every advantage he could. When at last they were ready, the fight began with the drop of a gold coin. The players quickly managed to bypass him, break the enchantment he had on his little box, and crushed his heart in their hands. Zadras Tyran applauded them for their ingenuity and skill in the moments before his body crumbed to ash.
And it was that which forever immortalized him as a wonderful antagonist.
Rather than having an enemy that was evil for the sake of evil, this enemy was courteous, honorable, disciplined, and even likeable. Though glad they had beaten him, the party was somewhat sad to see him gone. They would have liked the chance to see more of him, to learn more about him, and interact with him as characters, but alas, he was gone. His time with them was brief, but the impact he left on them is still felt, even years after that campaign has come to an end. It is quite the awesome feeling to have something like that happen, to have one of your NPCs leave that kind of impression on a gaming group.
Having a relatable, likeable antagonist makes for very interesting role-playing. When characters struggle with how they are going to deal with an enemy they do not necessarily want to kill, especially when they know that, were the situation different, that enemy could very well have been a wonderful ally, you know you have done something right as a Gamemaster. Now, while this sort of antagonist is fun, there is nothing wrong with a truly despicable villain. They can be quite fun too. After all, who does not love the Joker?
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