Humanizing your villains: Redeeming Qualities and Flaws

Welcome DMs, Wizard Charlie here with another radical idea for your monsters, NPCs, and worlds! Today we will discuss some more abstract ideas: enemy qualities and flaws.

Welcome DMs, Wizard Charlie here with another radical idea for your monsters, NPCs, and worlds! Today we will discuss some more abstract ideas: enemy qualities and flaws. And no, I am not talking about an Achilles Heel although there is nothing wrong with that and it still works in the context of this article.

    Let’s kick things off. You might be asking yourself “Why would I need a flaw for my bad guys Charlie, what’s the point? Why would I give my bad guys a redeeming quality Charlie, they are bad guys?! Should I give all of my enemies qualities and flaws Charlie?” or “What kinds of flaws and qualities should I give my villains Charlie?” To all of which I say please slow down you’re hurting my brain. But we can discuss all of those things promptly. 

    First, why go through all the trouble of giving your villains these traits? What’s the point? Well I ask you this reader, what living person do you know that doesn’t have a flaw? More so what person have you met that doesn’t have at least one redeeming quality? Ok don’t answer that last one for I am sure we all have our own Jills…never mind let’s move on. The point is, every single person out there has at least one flaw and one good thing about themselves. Now, you might be thinking “well what if my bad guy isn’t a human?” To which I say that’s okay! If you have a rabid beast or some murderous monster then you are all set, you don’t always need a complex villain; in fact those types of enemies are incredibly important in changing up the flow of things! If your players felt bad for every single enemy they killed then they would probably stop having fun and stop playing. However, sharing in this trait humanizes an enemy to us, it makes it more difficult to simply see them as just a “bad guy doing bad guy things”.

The most memorable villains are the ones that could do some serious good in the world if they just changed that one thing about them; or the villains who could change the world for the better if they weren’t so selfish. Giving these traits, in my opinion, would make your big bad guys seem more believable and sometimes even likable. There is nothing better than a tragic enemy that could have been saved. And if you don’t like all that then there is still this, giving them a flaw also reveals a weakness to be exploited that the party can use to defeat them. You give villains these traits so that they can; seem more realistic with ambitions & desires, feel like a real threat, be a memorable and/or tragic villain, and to have a weak point that the party could use to defeat them. Every flaw is an opportunity for your players to inevitably stop the villain.  

To our second proposed question, should you give all of your enemies flaws and redeeming qualities? Put simply no, let me explain. As previously mentioned, if you give all of your enemies a flaw and a good quality, and I mean every single one, then it might get to the point where the simple act of fighting an enemy becomes too exhausting for the players. If every enemy they fight is a complex individual that stirs up some emotions, then it might become too overwhelming for some people. But if that is the kind of game you want to run then there is nothing wrong with that but you should probably warn all your players before the game starts. A simple, “Listen I run a very morally gray world. It isn’t black and white at all. Is that something you would all want to be a part of?” As long as you warn them ahead of time then they can now decide early on if that’s the kind of game they want to play in, players should always know what they are in for. But outside of that, I say for you to just focus on a handful of villains to give these kinds of traits to; maybe the BBEG, 1 or 2 of their generals, and 1 or 2 mini bosses beneath them. All other enemies and mini bosses can be as brain-dead as a zombie if you like. There is a beautiful balance that is achieved when you have both; enemies that your players can relate to and ones that are just fun monsters to fight. I personally try to throw a random group of low level dumb monsters at my party now and again, so they can just enjoy demolishing an encounter and not have to worry about emotional resonance. 

What kinds of redeeming qualities should your enemies have? For redeeming qualities you can choose from a plethora; loyalty to their commanders and/or soldiers, a villain that has someone they love dearly, a villain that has a pet that they adore, one that detests unnecessary violence or any waste of life, you can even have villains that love nature and will fight anyone who harms it. Your villain might be a husband trying to resurrect the love of his life or even a mother trying to save her children through any means necessary. The thing to think about when making these kinds of villains is “If they were a hero, where did they go wrong?” Because a relatable villain is a reflection of your heroes that is simply doing things the wrong way, but who refuse to change, who cannot let go of their trauma and pain, or who refuse to stop until they reach their goals. Essentially what you want to make, is a person. 

What kinds of flaws should your enemies have? One of my favorites for dragons, in particular, is vanity/pride, which you can check out in any of my How to Run: series here. I love it because it is both a poor quality that can rub some of us the wrong way and it allows the players a chance to exploit and defeat them. A prideful enemy might boast and give a villain’s speech because they feel they have already won, giving your players the chance to deal a devastating blow or escaping. Another good one is the villain that sees his or her allies and minions as expendable resources, killing a few of them in fits of rage every time something goes wrong; this gives your allies an opening to turn a general against the villain “surely you know one day he will kill you as he has killed all those other allies”. 

Combining these flaws and redeeming qualities can make for some great villains! Here is one example. 

Henric, has a loving wife and two children. He exhibits traits that society deems as good; he is hard-working, persistent, reliable, a good leader, and a charismatic general; he is a warrior that others follow into battle. He leads by example, he pushes himself and others to greatness but the problem is that he is the enemy general of your players’ nation, who stands against the king they swore to protect. Henric will not budge from his course, and the only way to save the king is to stop him. It is in this unwillingness to bend from his course that can lead to some risky tactical choices on the battlefield that the players can take advantage of. 

Finally, consider the following; do your villains have to all be “the villains”? Maybe some are anti-heroes or anti-villains that can actually be reasoned with. Is it possible to save them? If the players really really tried, could they make that difference. Do the villains feel that they deserve to be saved? Do they want to be saved? Can they be reasoned with? Granted, this type of idea should be used only every once in a while. But if your players tried to resolve every encounter with these villains in a non-violent way, could they? Would the villain try to approach them non-violently first? These are the kinds of things that can be considered when thinking about the villains you build. Or they can just want world domination, there is nothing wrong with that either. But try to at least ask yourself ‘Why do they want world domination?’

    In the end the choice is yours if you decide to give your villains redeeming qualities and flaws. It all depends on the kind of game you want to run. This strategy can help in making more realistic and/or tragic villains but it is by no means something that you always have to do, or ever. Flaws give players an opportunity to get an advantage on a villain and redeeming qualities make them feel more like real people that simply strayed too far off. Remember, an Orc Warlord makes for a fun villain; but one who never backs down from any fight and fights to free the subjugation of his people, makes for a memorable one. Good luck all you DMs! Go out there and have a blast!

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