There is a fairly old and famous saying that "A hero is only as good as his villain". It's common enough that I hadn't originally thought it was worth talking about. Then I started to think about games that I've been in, both good and bad, and something that was missing that could have made them great. Even in my own games, with my own understanding of this concept, I had been missing that crucial thing to make a good story great. Missing a memorable villain.
See, quite often, especially in RPGs the villain gets looked over. Sure there may be forces at work, there may be bad guys to fight, but there is rarely that crawl under your skin, creep you out, piss you off, make you want nothing more than to defeat it villain. The reason for this is quite simple when you think about it, PCs have a tendency to kill people they run into in a confrontational manner. When they don't they tend to just destroy them. Add to this the fact that beating PCs often involves killing them, something a lot of GMs don't like doing, and it isn't that hard to see why a lot of table tops have so few outstanding villains.
This tendency though, really is a shame. How often in games have you thought the PCs were just amazing characters? How much better could they have been if they, as Protagonists, had some good Antagonists to keep pushing and prodding them? So, how can we try and make our villain notable, without them getting killed right out and not constantly having to make the PCs lose?
Hit 'em Where It Hurts
Now, assuming you have players playing Characters and not cardboard cutouts designed for destroying monsters, hitting a character where it hurts does not mean kicking them in the family jewels, at least not all the time. So, find the things the character cares about that they don't carry with them, friends, family, pets, etc and have your villain to be hurt or kill those things. If the character doesn't have one? Give them one! Build one up, build three up in fact, and then kill one or two of them. Use the last one to deliver the message, their life having been ruined because they dared to like the PC when the villain was around.
Destroy what the character loves, hurt who the character cares about, and it won't be long before they are hunting your villain down wanting to defeat them no matter the cost. At this point you can add twists to the story or whatever you want, but you've established at the very least that there is a villain to be fought.
There is a trope on TV Tropes called a "Xanatos Gambit". It is something that the villain from the show Gargoyles did quite often, enabling the show writers to let Xanatos win, by successfully pulling off his plans, while still not denying the Gargoyles the victory either. In effect, it is a plan for a villain that works by counting on the heroes winning and doing things to put parts of the plan into motion. They are hard to execute, but the idea is exactly what I mean when I talk about redefining victory.
Essentially, don't make beating the PCs the 'thing' the villain has to do on every encounter. Now and then sure, but have them doing other things. If they are stealing a diamond, they don't need to beat the PCs, they need to get away with the diamond. Even better, perhaps robbing the diamond store is a distraction while goons actually rob somewhere else across town? These let the PCs have a victory, winning the fight, while the villain's plans continue to go forward, and the villain is winning as well.
As a cautionary note however, you want to be careful when doing this. Too much and it can seem convoluted, too little and it doesn't work. Also, be careful not to turn your Xanatos Gambit into a Xanatos Roulette. Though, causing a Thirty Xanatos Pileup is always fun if the PCs are part of it! (for more information on those Xanatos terms, check out TV tropes. Enjoy losing your day).
Discretion is the Better Part of Valor
So, I said before that PCs have a tendency of killing people they run into. So the question is, why did the villain stay there fighting it out to the last? Why not run away? Joker runs away all the time when Batman is after him. A lot of villains leave when their goons are gone and it looks like defeat is assured. So why not have your villain do it as well? It isn't a victory, but it does sour the PCs victory a bit. Sure they won, maybe even saved the day, but the villain got a way.
You need to be really careful when doing this though. Fiating an escape once, ok whatever, but twice is the beginning of a trend. The idea is to make it seem like the villain is clever and willing to run, not that you the GM are protecting them and that the PCs have to wait until a certain time to give the villain its just desserts. Fiating an escape regularly is bad, though doing it once if you get truly stuck may be ok. Just do it as the absolute last resort!
He'll Be Back...
Bring the villain back. Don't just have them escape, have them come back to harass the group that foiled their plans. Have them become fixated on the PCs and actively work to foil them. Bring them back however you can. Give them deaths, but not sure deaths. You know the ones I'm talking about, they're all over movies and cartoons. Explosions, but no bodies. Large falls into freezing rivers while bleeding, but no body. Every sign that they should be dead, but they somehow eek through, and come back to haunt the PCs again later.
Do it wrong, and maybe they'll come across as a bit humorous. That guy we always beat, ho hum. Do it right, and it can drive the group crazy with wanting to take them down for good. Neither of these are actually bad for your game either, because you have a character that has regular interactions with the PCs and can them push and provoke them into growing and developing. Is he a joke? Well, how funny will it be when the joke wins one? Or actually hurts someone they care about? How long until the fact that the PCs can't catch, or fully stop the villain before someone starts pointing out they're to blame for the continued actions.
These are just a few ideas and ways to try and make villains in your game more memorable and consistent. Do it right, and the game will be better if only because of that one character. They can define the PCs in ways you wouldn't think possible. Who would Batman be if not for his long list of memorable villains? How about Spider-man? Rewatch the Dark Knight and look at how much Heath Ledger brings to the movie with his portrayal of a villainous counterpoint to Christian Bale's Batman.
I'm planning on trying to work some of these in to my own games soon, I'll let you know how it works out. Until then,