by Mike Shea on 31 December 2012
Note: This article has been updated from the original version posted 29 June 2009.
Motivation is the key to great characters and few things ruin a good character like a poor motivations. Poor villains have one dimensional motives - the worst of these being "insane bad guy". He's a bad guy because he's crazy! This motivation is overused, weak, and thin. We can do better.
Likewise, an overly complicated motivation can become muddy and difficult to understand. Instead, choose a clear motivation that is easy to understand, realistic, and, perhaps, easy to relate to. Below are three such villainous motivations. Good motivations from bad guys come down to a single rule:
Good villains think their actions are justified. They think they're doing what's right. - tweet this
Since the dawn of time, human beings have battled over tribes. Everyone from kindergartners to Nazis know the draw of fighting for the pack, fighting for the flag, fighting for religion, or fighting for skin color. This motivation is easy to apply to any intelligent D&D creature. Orcs fight for their tribes. Giants fight for their empire. Cultists fight for their gods. Even the undead might fight for death against life. Their way is the RIGHT way, the ONLY way and they will fight to the death over it.
We build laws around ideals. Sometimes, in order to protect those laws, we must break them. Sometimes we must do evil in order to protect good. This is the flawed philosophy of many villains and a great one to use in your game. Consider the wizard who must call on the undead and make pacts with evil to save his city. Consider the paladin who must slay a child prophesied to open up the gates of hell. Consider the lover who must use any power he can to bring back his lost love. The ends justifying the means is a great motivator that drives good people to perform evil deeds.
Wanting To See The World Burn
Sometimes the world has become so twisted, so broken, that only a clean slate will will save it. Like the forest fires that feed the future lives of the Sequoia tree, sometimes the only way to bring new life to a world is to see the world burn. Perhaps it is the furthest form of vengeance, where all life must pay for a single horrible incident. This is a specialized version of insanity - not simply "crazy" but truly vengeful on a global scale.
These are only three of many powerful motivators for villains. For further research, study your favorite movie or book villains and distill down their motivations. A simple statement of motivation can take a flat bad guy and turn him into something really sinister.