View Full Version : How important are visual cues in villains?

2019-07-01, 08:26 PM
There's a reason that so many villains are over the top in stories. The author doesn't want you to sympathize with them. This is not someone of a redeemable qualities, someone who is misunderstood, or someone who seeks justice in an unfair world. This is someone who is pure bloody evil.

One of the things Roleplaying games do is use visual cues and stereotypes to portray concepts more blatantly. Rather than existing in a high school of difficult to read humans we are thrust into a world of sneaky goblins, brutish trolls, lumbering ogres, fiendish devils, and manipulative dragons. As racist as it sounds, what you see is usually what you get, with players willingly partaking in the tropes by portraying drunken dwarves, goofy gnomes, or elitest elves.

But how vital is this for the bad guys of the campaign? Do you think they should be personable and potentially allow the players to choose NOT to oppose them? Or do the villains need to listen to Black Sabbath and eat puppies for fun? Usually this is visually portrayed with snake motifs, dark colors, lots of creepy stuff.

You know watching Aladdin that you should NEVER TRUST JAFAR. And that's before you even get to know him.

2019-07-01, 08:49 PM
Much of it imho is foreshadowing and expectation and evil by virtue of aligning with other evil characters. But you can play with that. In FF 8 you basically know Seifer is going to be a bad guy, and all you have seem of him is a fight during training where he scars his opponent. And while he imho does not pull completely through with that, the singular reason that he hurts someone during training is reason enough. (It is enforced in the first hour of gameplay that his recklessness was unnecessary, that a sword fighter should watch his defense, and that some pupils think he did it to injure Squall's pretty face).

Do you think they should be personable and potentially allow the players to choose NOT to oppose them?

They can be but the DM should be able to adapt then. If not, insane irredeemable asshat it is. But our DM flipped this on its head, when he decided the dude that threatened our kingdom via the riders of the apocalypse (and then finally freed them) needed their prison artifact to just imprison the REAL evil elder god.

The finale was pretty good and the other players were happy but holy heck was I pissed. We weren't even asked if we wanted to ally with him. And he really stole our thunder (with the last fight in the campaign basically us being a distraction for the villain to imprison the god).

But the same DM produced more believable villains too. The kind that makes you say: "I can understand why the dude went evil but enough is enough."

Koo Rehtorb
2019-07-01, 08:58 PM
That depends entirely on the style of game.

2019-07-01, 10:37 PM
That depends entirely on the style of game.

Exactly this. There's some games where visual signals are actively detrimental (or deliberately subverted), and others where you go heavy. This tends to be a matter of theme, genre, and gameplay style. For instance a hack and slash game needs clear opposition. In fantasy this often means "monsters", in space opera this often means enemy soldiers in imposing uniforms, in a modern game this usually goes poorly somehow. Then there are genres that lean towards more heavily visual than others; if there are visual cues in a romance they're probably relatively subtle whereas a superhero game will often go all out on overt costumes.

2019-07-02, 02:40 PM
That depends entirely on the style of game.

I wouldn't say entirely. It also depends on the maturity level of the players, what they want out of the game, and maybe even how good they are at playing the game. A bunch of players that just wants to smash things, you don't really need visual clues--just point them in the general direction of the enemy, and let them hack away. A group that wants something more subtle, like having to figure out who they should be fighting, you need to give them some clues, and some of those clues can be visual. If they really are into trying to figure out things, the visual clues can even be ambiguous.

2019-07-02, 04:17 PM
I quite agree with the last few posters. It depends heavily on the group.

A few years back, I decided to create a storyline where a Lawful Good character would be a significant antagonist to the characters*. I wanted to subvert the exact trope the OP mentions. He was a Paladin of Bahamut, and the party first met him when his group was clearing out the same demon cultists they were. After that, said Paladin (name was Alastor) began to rise in influence in the Church of Bahamut. He became a quest-giver, and sent the party on missions that put them in opposition to monsters, undead, fiends, aberrations, and more. He was a Good Guy. At one point, the PCs returned to find that the city had elected to put Alastor in charge, ousting the corrupt Lord-Mayor. Alastor had big plans for the city, to sweep away not only the city's distressingly high number of fiendish cults, but also reduce or eliminate crime. He sent them on a sacred mission for Bahamut, inspired by a divine visitor he received (party included a Dragonbrn Fighter who worshipped Bahamut and a Deva Cleric of Bahamut, so this wasn't an issue). They were gone for months, searching for a legendary sword once wielded by a champion of Bahamut. When they eventually returned, they found that Alastor's regime had become oppressive. So many things had become illegal, even swearing in public, alcohol, or charging too high for merchandise (and while he was a good Paladin, Alastor did not understand the concept of "overhead"). They returned to a city that was somber, subdued, and afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.

So, I had him all statted out, ready for a big combat fight. My players? They were ready to take him down, but they were really focused on the idea that this guy could be redeemed. So they fought him to about the Bloodied level, all the while, engaging in a Skill Challenge to try and convince Alastor that what he was doing was wrong in Bahamut's eyes. They eventually succeeded. Now, I had planned for this to be a fairly straightforward combat encounter, and I even toyed with the idea that Alastor's "divine visitor" was a disguised fiend, leading him astray. But this group of players, up until now, had been very reticent about exerting any kind of agency. They had literally asked me for a railroad plotline when I started the game. I was so tickled by them actually taking some initiative that I didn't even care that they flipped the script on me, and I quickly made adjustments to accomodate them.

Everyone was quite pleased with the outcome. Regrettably, however, that was the last session with that group, as I was changing duty stations shortly thereafter.

*Inspired by this quote from C.S.Lewis: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

2019-07-10, 11:06 AM
I would say that visual cues in storytelling (in general, not just for villains) are most important in movies or TV episodes where you only have an hour or two to tell your story and you need to cram in as many details and as much foreshadowing (or subversions thereof) as possible.

Visual cues still work in longer formats such as TV series, books, video games, and tabletop games, but you can also more easily get away with being more subtle about things or letting them develop more gradually. As others have said, it depends on the story you're telling and the expectations of your audience.

2019-07-13, 01:01 PM
I don't think I've ever made a mustache twirling super evil villain, but I think depending on the actions your PC's take and how good the DM is, then at the end of the day, when you find out why the baddie is doing the things he's doing, you should be able to go "I can see why you are doing it...I mean... You are clearly nuts... But I get it"
It's unrealistic to have the bad guy say "I'm doing it... For EVIL!" And if you want a detailed villain...I think it's Exemplars Of Evil you want, someone has likely already recommended the proper book.

But I think giving the villain a motive and driving reasons for doing things is important, you don't need them to be a sympathetic or relatable character... Just a believable one.

2019-07-13, 05:31 PM
First, I'll note that the comment about it depending on the game is relevant. Some games are going to be simple and straightforward: Here's the bad guy, kill the bad guy. As such, the signposting should be pretty clear and blatant. Feel free to have the villain sitting on a throne of blood and with evil necrotic energy billowing out of their cloak. There is little point to being subtle, so go ahead and give the characters something rewarding to fight. Some games, though, tend towards more grey tones and more of a relative perspective on things. In that case, you wouldn't want your potentially-sympathetic character, who is just fighting for their children, to be running around with spiked soul-draining armor and eating the hearts out of puppies. Or perhaps you would, but it would be an intentional tone and the characters doing it for some reason.

Second, role playing games tend to have different methods of getting information to the players than other media. When you're talking about a book or movie, you have a ton of ability to foreshadow, or to do a cut-away scene where the protagonist isn't present, or to give hints that the villain is wrong without the protagonist knowing. Heck, you can outright present the villain as the wrong party and have the protagonist just conveniently not notice. However, you don't have the power to direct the PCs in the same way a writer can direct the protagonist. The PCs are independent of your control, in the control of the other players who might just want to shove a broadsword into some villain's gut before the Big Epic Showdown. Plus, cut-away scenes are very awkward in RPGs. So I'd generally recommend against signposting your villain as a clear villain unless you're ready for a combat encounter right there. I find that it's better to have NPCs talk about the bad stuff that the villain is doing when they aren't present (this gives some good "cues" without allowing an instant combat) if you are working with a straightforward villain plot. Or give the players a good sense of the villain's motivations and situation as the players watch the villain make their choice. The second is for the more morally grey campaigns, where the PCs get to judge not just the "villain's" guilt but also choose how to respond to what they see.

I'm also guessing you mean general character descriptions for "visual cues" as opposed to strictly visual references. From personal experience, introducing a NPC that is very villain-looking will just put your PCs on guard and ready to attack if they suspect anything.

2019-07-23, 09:44 PM
this depends on the styte of game, just think out of the box