All the World's a Stage: Playing the villain

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|03.27.11

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All the World's a Stage: Playing the villain
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW. Have questions about roleplaying, or roleplaying issues? Email me -- I'm always open to suggestions!

When choosing what to roleplay, most players tend to lean towards playing the hero. And why not? After all, most of the main themes behind the story of Warcraft involve heroism and struggling against all odds to do the right thing. Every quest you complete in Cataclysm is focused around your character's being the hero, the chosen one, that one guy who did that really amazing thing. Your character is loved by almost every NPC he encounters. It's enough to make anyone want to play a hero.

Yet roleplay offers the ability to play anything under the sun -- and at the other end of the spectrum, you have those who have no use for heroes. Or perhaps they do, but it's only as a means to their own nefarious, twisted ends. Maybe they want to destroy Azeroth; maybe they want to turn the world into an army of mindless Scourge; or maybe they just want something completely frivolous and selfish -- but villains are some of the most interesting, entertaining characters out there. They provide a unique kind of experience for those looking for a different kind of roleplay altogether.

Villains in Warcraft

In Warcraft, every villain you encounter is invariably going to be an NPC or a boss of some sort. Go into any dungeon, and you're going to find a whole host of villains waiting to be beaten into the ground, their precious stashes of valuable cash and prizes just begging to be lifted by an opportune band of heroes. Other villains in Warcraft are a little more out there -- take Deathwing, for example. He's not killable at this point in the Cataclysm expansion, but if you get in his way, he's quick to let you know exactly how puny you are with a trail of blazing fire that will instantly kill you.

Other villains in Warcraft are a little more mysterious. In the case of Varimathras, he spent years in vanilla WoW and in The Burning Crusade expansion whiling away the hours next to Sylvanas and even handing out quests to players. Much, much later in the game, his intentions were revealed in the Battle for the Undercity. Another example is Saidan Dathrohan, leader of the Scarlet Crusade. For players first venturing into Stratholme in vanilla, Dathrohan was simply another nutjob, until halfway through the fight he revealed his real identity as the dreadlord Balnazzar.

Likely the most famous of these villains in disguise was Lady Katrana Prestor, who spent her time in Stormwind's throne room in vanilla WoW and again, even handed out quests to players. There was something off about Katrana, but it wasn't until we reached level 60 that her true form was revealed as the black dragon Onyxia -- which ultimately led us to Onyxia's lair in order to dispose of the villainous dragon as quickly as possible.

The common thread with these Warcraft villains is that ultimately, they exist to be beaten into the ground. Eventually, we'll face off against every villain we come across -- it's only a matter of time before we can defeat Deathwing. That's just how being a villain NPC works.

Villains in roleplay

For the intrepid roleplayer looking for a change of pace, however, playing a villain does not automatically mean you are going to die -- nor should it. Conflict is one of those things that can really inject a lot of fun into roleplay. Providing that conflict for other players to deal with can also be a lot of fun. It's not about standing around waiting for people to kill you; it's about plotting, scheming, devising some way to cause woe and strife for those intrepid heroes out there.

Coming up with a villain is exactly the same as coming up with any other kind of character. The basic tenets of character development should be applied to a villain just as carefully as they're applied to a hero. Create a backstory rooted in lore; create memories and moments, a timeline of your character's life. The only difference is that your character's goals aren't going to be noble or particularly pleasant to the casual observer -- but to your villain, they should be what is absolutely necessary in his mind.

Villains have a variety of different reasons for doing the terrible, awful, no-good, very bad things that they do. Here's a small sample of examples:
  • The madman This is most common in the Warcraft pantheon of villains. Something, somewhere in your character's lifetime drove him irrevocably insane. What he does isn't out of any particular reason that would make sense to other characters. Perhaps his mind has been taken over and influenced by an Old God, perhaps he witnessed the death of the love of his life, or perhaps he was a hero that just received one too many cracks to the head. The point is, this type of villain isn't really aware of how terrible his actions are and thus isn't truly responsible for them.
  • The schemer This villain is the sort that has some sort of grand, ultimate plan that he is desperately trying to get off the ground. Maybe it's Azeroth's demise, or maybe it's the enslavement of the gnomish race. Regardless, this villain has one major goal in his mind, and everything he does, every action he performs is merely a step towards that major goal.
  • The noble cad This villain is 100% certain that what he is doing, no matter how horrible the rest of the world views it, is an absolute necessity for a good cause. The only problem is that his definition of "good" varies quite largely from the rest of society's definition of that term. Rather than cackling maniacally, this villain is completely sane and utterly convinced that he is doing the right thing, whether people agree with him or not.
  • The source of evil This villain is absolutely aware that what he is doing is wrong. He simply doesn't care. He's doing evil things for the sake of doing evil things. He takes joy in acts that most people would find horrifying. He revels in the horror that others express over his actions. He is the sort who will pleasantly explain what he is doing and why he is doing it to a captive audience, because the audience reaction entertains him far more than saving the world ever will.
There are a variety of other villain archetypes out there, and of course, the four listed examples can be intertwined with each other if necessary. So when developing a villain character, it's important to keep in mind exactly what kind of villain he is and react to situations accordingly.

The fun in roleplaying a villain comes from the sheer amount of roleplay you will encounter. Unlike heroes, who are a dime a dozen in Warcraft, villains are few and far between -- particularly villains who are being roleplayed and aren't just random NPCs. Because of the difficulty in playing a villain, most players don't choose to take that path when deciding what their characters should be. Much like a tank in the LFG queue, a villain is a rare gem that people seek out when it happens to show its face in the wild.

Pitfalls of villainous activity

Playing a villain is a lot harder than you'd think at first glance. It not only requires you to roleplay an evil character convincingly, it also requires other players to play along with you. After all, a villain is only as good as his opponents are, and if a villain has no opponents to play with, there's not much point for the villain to be around. Most roleplayers don't look for villains, and they don't appreciate a mustache-twirling madman suddenly sweeping off with their characters. It's something that can be construed as godmodding under the right circumstances.

So if you're playing a villain, it's important to advertise this fact OOC. If your server has roleplay forums, let people know that you're playing a villain character, and if they are interested in interacting with a villain, to please let you know. If you're walking up to random people in game, don't just leap in with the evil; let your character interact with these other characters first. After all, from an in-character perspective, a villain performs better when he can predict the actions of his enemies -- and it's much easier to observe those enemies in the guise of a friend.

The other reason it's important to inform other players that your character is a villain is sheer survivability. If you don't want your villain killed, say so. But be open to being defeated, imprisoned, banished, or dealt with in some other way; if heroes cannot somehow "defeat" your character, they will quickly lose interest in interacting with them. What's the point if the heroes never win?

For roleplayers who tackle a villainous character, the line between OOC interaction and IC interaction is extremely important. While most roleplayers worry about wanting their character to be liked, your character is most likely going to be hated. This is an IC reaction and shouldn't be taken with offense. While most roleplayers take joy in seeing their character's plans completed, a villain roleplayer should be taking that same joy in seeing his plans foiled -- after all, it means you get to try again and keep playing.

Playing a villain isn't for everyone; I definitely wouldn't recommend the villain role to a beginning roleplayer. Successfully roleplaying a villain requires nerves of steel and the ability to keep the IC hatred of your character completely separate from your OOC interaction with other players. It also requires the ability to recognize how far is too far, and when the villain's gambit should come to an end, when he should be defeated. On top of this, you also have to be able to judge the limits of other character's capabilities. You have to be able to draw other characters into your story, and you have to respect the limits of those around you.

It's not about killing people willy-nilly; it's not about conquering the world. In the end, playing a villain is an exercise almost akin to being a GM in a tabletop RP game. It's not just about watching your character grow -- it's also about watching those characters around you and making sure they grow, too. Playing a villain is probably one of the most difficult roles a player can step into, but the rewards from being evil and the amount of roleplay to be reaped from playing a villain are some very appealing highlights to consider.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!
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