Over the course of your campaign your PCs are going to run into heroes and villains other than themselves. These NPCs are going to, in a lot of ways, define the game and you're going to want them to be interesting. Not so interesting they overshine the PCs impact on the story, but interesting enough that not only do your players find them interesting and like them, but that they make it easier for you to employ them in your game dynamically.
The fun part about this is that, ultimately, it is not that hard. At least, in theory. Execution can be much harder. With that said, let's dig in!
We're Not So Different, You And I..... OR ...A Great Villain Is The Hero
The best villains are a reflection of their hero. Two sides of a coin, opposites that define the other, or some other way where together they are greater than the sum of their parts. This isn't something we can always do in table top RPGs because a villain is never just one person's villain, but the villain for a group. However, that doesn't mean we're left with nothing to work with.
After all, you can be a Great villain without being the Best Villain. Furthermore, one can't be the Best without first being Great, so it is a much better target to aim for. And a Great Villain is quite often the hero of their own story. There we go again, talking about what makes a good villain and already comparing them to heroes. Must be something to it.
What Makes A Hero?
There are lots of arguments for what the criteria to be a hero is. Hero is a word that gets used a lot. It is interchangeable with protagonist in many writing circles. The PCs are often called "the heroes of the story" for example, or the TV trope of bringing viewers back into the story with the tag "when last we left our heroes..."
For the purposes of this post, by a Hero I mean an NPC ally that helps the PCs in some way, either in showing the way, helping along the way, or flat out fighting side by side with the PCs. A Villain by contrast is an NPC that works against the PCs, blocks the way, helping the opposition, or flat out fighting against the PCs or with the enemies of the PCs.
Taken with this context in mind this post is less about making grandiose heroes and villains, and more about making characters. So how do we do that?
Considering the confines of a Table Top RPG, and the need for having multiple heroes/villains going or made, I've found that TPTOF is a quick way of getting into the heads of characters while giving them enough depth to make them interesting and 'real' for the players. What is TPTOF?
Two Positive Traits and One Flaw. Keep in mind with this I'm talking about personality characteristics not physical traits. One of Hercules's TPTOF is not being "super strong" for this. Nor is Hercules interesting because he is Strong. It is what he does with that strength that makes him interesting, and that is driven by his characteristics.
Building off what I said above, by a positive trait I mean a characteristic of the person - something they do as opposed to something they are - that makes them admirable, endearing, or otherwise worthy of respect, praise, and other happy (or positive) emotions. What traits are considered positive and what traits are considered negative can vary by culture, person, or experience.
Some examples of positive traits we have in the United States that you see a lot are things like: altruism, studiousness, diligence, temperance, 'chill', trustworthy, honest, dependable, humble, etc.
Superman is admirable and endearing not because he can throw a bus into the sun, but because with that strength he still cares about the individuals around him. He inspires hope because he cares, he is altruistic, humble, dependable, honest, and almost all those things I have on my list above.
I talked before about the difference between a Flaw and a Limitation. And that distinction is still important here. The key thing to remember is that a flaw dictates choices and actions, and that is what we are focused on.
Impulsiveness is a flaw. A character who is impulsive does not take the time to understand the situation, gather allies, and make a plan to deal with the problem. Instead, they go off with the first good idea they have that can solve the problem and try to put it into action.
Hubris is a flaw. A character with hubris will think themselves overly strong or capable of doing something. They won't properly assess the threat, nor will they take the threat as seriously as they should. They may stop and gloat feeling safe and secure when they're really not.
Being blind is not a flaw (whatever the heading of your RPG of choice has over it). Being blind does not dictate what choice you make. Though it may limit the choices in front of you.
See the difference?
Flawed Heroes & Admirable Villains
This is what we're looking for. A flawed hero is more interesting and has more depth than a perfect hero. A villain with admirable qualities is more interesting than an agent of evil that does evil for evil's sake. This is where the saying about Great Villains being the Hero of their own story comes in. Because if you changed the perspective of the story the audience can find themselves rooting for the very thing they're otherwise hoping gets defeated.
So how do you keep them straight for your game? How do you stop your PCs from changing sides and working with that Admirable Villain? Well, first, do you really want that? It could be a fun game. But second, the answer is already there. Perspective.
When showing a villain, and when trying to keep a villain villainous, we emphasize the flaw. You show how they're ruthless, cold blooded, uncaring, willing to sacrifice even 'close' and 'personal' friends and loved ones. You show how they'll stop at nothing. How they're actually insecure rage monsters.
With a hero you show the flaw, but you minimize the flaw in the moment. You focus on the admirable qualities, the positive traits. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne get a pass on being super rich businessmen because we are constantly shown all the good they are doing, and trying to do. It doesn't matter that Stark Industries or Wayne Enterprises just did whatever thing that is going to pay them ridiculously more than their low level employees because we get the focus on the good and less focus on the bad. Also, those flaws both have ,are not tied to that aspect of who they are.
Perspective is everything.
The Thing Heroes Do And Villains Don't
There is one other key distinction between Heroes and Villains. It is not absolute, but it is a common enough thing that I feel comfortable stating it as almost one. Heroes grow and change. As a hero progresses they grow past their flaws, they overcome them, they change. In the process they end up with other flaws (they're only human, for the most part) but those flaws change.
Villains tend to remain more static. And more importantly, when a villain does change they tend to move further from being a villain and closer to being a hero. At least, when they change by means of overcoming their flaw. They can also change by losing or swapping out their positive traits. This is something to be careful with though. After all, if a villain loses the qualities that make them admirable they run a real risk of becoming flat and less interesting. Not that that is necessarily wrong. It is just a sign the villain's time in the story may be done.