GM Advice: What’s Your Villain’s Motivation?

How many times have your PCs cut down an utterly forgettable one-dimensional villain? Giving a villain a decent, believable motivation is so much better than having them enact their terrible schemes simply because “they are evil.”

By V Shane
By V Shane


Such folk are the result of lazy design and should never appear in a diligent GM’s adventures. A villain’s motivation offers the PCs a great chance to understand what drives his scheme (and perhaps to gain some advantage or insight for their inevitable confrontation). Consider using one of the motivations below for your next sinister villains:

  • Excitement: An adrenaline junkie, this villain is doing what he is doing for kicks. He may find planning, implemented, escaping and so on exciting.
  • Justice or Retribution: This villain wants justice for a perceived wrong against his person. His actions stem from a deep desire or need for retribution against the person or persons responsible for his woes. I used this hook for the villain in Retribution – Raging Swan’s first ever product.
  • Selfish; Feels Personally Entitled: The world owes this villain a living – he feels personally entitled to take whatever pleases him whenever he wants. He lusts after material gain and has a complete disregard for others.
  • Poor Self-Esteem: With a low opinion of himself, this villain seeks to gain the respect and recognition he craves through his evil, nefarious plans. This villain normally  enacts plots that are easily attributable to him – how else, after all, would be gain the recognition he so desires?
  • History of Abuse: This villain has been abused either mentally or physically and views such causal, wanton violence as normal. Alternatively, given he has suffered, he might have a need to make others suffer as he has done.
  • Social Acceptance: If a villain comes from an evil culture or family, he may be enacting his plan to gain acceptance from those important in his life.
  • Mad: The villain could a schizophrenic manic depressive or have one of any number of other mental conditions. Ironically, his madness may hold the key to defeating his scheme.
  • Religious Or Political Convictions: Driven by unshakable religious or political convictions, this villain is one of the most vile and intractable. Often working at the behest of a “higher power, ” he may be mindlessly following dictates or working toward his goal to improve his standing in an organisation. These villains are often fanatics.
  • Love: A villain in love might be truly evil or may simply be carrying out his love’s desires. Such folk make for interesting opponents. If the PCs work out what is going on, they have a chance at redeeming or manipulating the villain.
  • The Greater Good: Sometime a villain works toward what he perceives to be the greater good – he just does so using vile, abhorrent methods. Such a villain may be waging a war of extermination against a particular race or culture. Alternatively he could be working to destroy an object or place because it has the ability to release an ancient, forgotten power with the potential to unleash unparalleled destruction upon the world.
  • (Delusions of) Grandeur: This villain has decided he is the best person to rule the “little people.” His scheme is the way he plans to achieve this goal. He may, or may not, be right.

On a final note, it’s always better if the PCs can work out – at least once the dust has settled – why the villain acted in the way he did. Even if this revelation leads to another mystery – perhaps a greater villain – it gives the adventure context and helps ground it in your campaign world.

Help Fellow GMs!

Tell us about the villains in your campaign. Why did they do what they did? Let us know their motivations in the comments below and help your fellow GMs run better, more believable villains today!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

11 thoughts on “GM Advice: What’s Your Villain’s Motivation?”

  1. I completely agree that fleshing out villains is essential to a good campaign. Villains should not just be a recurring “bad guy” but something more. You tips here are very valuable and I hope that people give them a try. I have been using the Villains Handbook from 2nd Ed D&D for quite some time and I highly suggest that if people see a copy that they pick it up.

  2. There were two television series that I found great for helping me think about my villians.
    1) Breaking Bad, about a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer, who turns to making illegal drugs to provide a nest egg for his family. He becomes a monstrous person, eliciting sympathy from the audience until the final episodes.
    2) Deadwood, a fictionalized history of Deadwood, South Dakota. The main bad guy, Al Swearingen (played by Ian McShane) is evil, but he’s shown to have motivation beyond “evil for evil’s sake.” And it turns out this guy isn’t even the worst of the bad guys, and can ally with the “good guys” by the end of the series.

  3. I’d have to also suggest that your BBEG could simply be mislead, acting on entirely incorrect information. Possession is another possibility – imagine if your BBEG was a demon in possession of a young girl, and was simply using her body to enact their schemes. The only other suggestion I have is similar to the last – perhaps a curse or cursed magical item (or disease like lycanthropy) could be causing the individual to act contrary to their nature.

    1. How about the demon was obsessed and therefore possessed by the young girl, so that while she appeared innocent she was using the demon for her own purposes?

  4. Great advice 🙂 One of the other things I always try and keep in mind is that a villain rarely sees themselves as evil, there are exceptions of course, but relatively few people get out of bed in the morning and think ‘today I’m going to be evil.’

    In addition to sorting out the villains motivation I also try and focus on how this motivation causes conflict with either society or the PCs in general, and it is this that has the person labelled as a villain or evil.

  5. Great article. Love me some viands with dimension. In a year-and-half Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2nd Ed) campaign that just ended, I had a great opportunity to field a “bad guy” that had some incredible depth.

    This nefarious pirate and general brigand, Loki Jim, was first made know to the PCs via a Wanted poster. It posited that this ruffian was responsible for banditry, murder, and stealing the Lord Mayor’s goat… to presumably do “evil” things to it. The party asked questions, sought more clues to this brigand’s true identity and filed the information away for future use, as this villain was rumored to be in a different part of the Empire at the time.

    The first time they crossed paths with Loki Jim, was along the enormous River Reik… when they spied his black flag (crowned skull with crossed sword and pistol) flying from a large warship named “The Fallacious Goat”. They were outmatched and wholly outgunned. They DID however succeed in taking out the rudder of Loki’s ship causing him to break off from the attack and seek a suitable place for repair. In the meantime… one of the characters (a Roadwarden, which is like the Highway Patrol) took to ginning up the locals from a nearby village to aid their cause in capturing this notorious criminal.

    Long story short… the party attacked the “Fallacious Goat” and her swarthy captain in the dead of night. But Loki and his inner circle were away from the ship on order to negotiate supplies for the repair… that and his ship had been attacked by a small band of adventures… he didn’t want to take chances.

    When the party meet him again, it was on an out of the way Inn, that happened to be (unknown to the party) run by Loki Jim’s aunt… the look on my players faces were priceless; their jaws dropping when Loki came striding through the door… “Hello Auntie!”
    **The party decided against fighting, and actually apologized for blowing up his boat**
    Needless to say… they quickly found out Loki was not all that he was made out to be. He was in fact a man bent on revenge. Years ago, his brother was abducted by a sorceresses tainted by Chaos… who used the boy for grotesque experiments… eventually causing extensive, horrible mutations in the boy. Since then Loki sought revenge… the party ended up helping him on his quest.

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