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Building a Better Mousetrap - The Villain in Neverwinter Nights

Patrick Holyfield (Gurney9999)

I recently edited an article written by Michael Barjin at Neverwinter Vault called “The Nature of Villains.” The goal of his article was to describe how a module builder might “create a good villain”. He gave tips on what to think about when creating a villain for Neverwinter Nights: the background (what created the villain); the motivation (what does the villain want); and the play (what to do with your villain).

Even though English is not Michael’s first language, his article did make me think about the opportunity that we will have as creators with Neverwinter Nights. In literature and especially in movies, the reader or moviegoer connects with the villain in various ways. This connection creates an emotional attachment for the viewer (or reader). When done well, the antagonist can raise the level of the work involved to a higher level.

One of the greatest draws of Neverwinter Nights is the opportunity for game designers or Dungeon Masters to create stories that others can play through and enjoy. One of the greatest challenges with Neverwinter Nights will be to create villains that will stir the hearts of our players. What follows is an attempt to address this challenge, and it will be presented in three parts:


Part I: I will take a look at some of the villains that have influenced us (or maybe just me) through different types of media, including movies, television, and literature.

Part II: I will take a look at some of the methods that have been used in D&D and CPRGs to create villains, and look at how much power we will have with NWN to create stories with powerful villains.

Part III: We will focus on the “How” of creating a villain in Neverwinter Nights.


In the end we know that every player wants to be a hero… and as it has been said, what is a hero without a villain?




Part I: Media


I’m not talking about the paparazzi. I’m talking about the ways by which we are entertained, and how villains are created using these outlets. The following is an outline of the different methods by which we have learned to appreciate the battle between good and evil, some examples of villains that have appeared on each medium, and how the writers and/or directors succeeded in creating an emotional attachment between us and their creations.




Television has certainly changed over the last seventy odd years. What is accepted as viewable content has expanded over time: the happy and unrealistic television of the 50s-60s has evolved into a darker, grittier, and more realistic 90’s and 00’s. When it comes to antagonists, the episodic nature of television lends itself well to the hero/villain relationship. You can create tension through the use of cliffhangers, and emotional attachment can be created through repeated confrontations between hero and villain, confrontations that can be drawn out over several episodes or even over several seasons.


Television Villains:


  • The Cigarette Man in X-Files: I always called him the Cancer Man. The “secrets of the government” became the first “villain” of the X-Files. It was an enemy that Fox Mulder knew was out there, but he could not put a name to the face, so to speak. UFOs, alien abduction, conspiracies within conspiracies, but at the end of each episode there were always more questions than answers. Not too long after series began the Cancer Man was introduced. He was always in the shadows, all-knowing, directing Fox from behind the scenes, allowing him close to the truth but never close enough to prove his theories. The Cigarette Man came to personify all of the “secrets of the government”: you just knew he had all of the answers, and that he would kill to protect them. The Cancer Man gave viewers someone to focus their attachment/hatred towards, and the X-Files became one of the hottest shows on television because of this attachment (that and everyone waiting for Fox and Scully to hook up). I was happy to see the Cigarette Man return for one last confrontation in the series finale (even though the last X-Files episode ever was a huge disappointment overall).

  • The One Armed Man in The Fugitive: Almost everyone has seen the movie, but the television show from the 60’s was better in many ways. The plot of the show was the attempt of Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) to exonerate himself by finding the One Armed Man that had killed his wife. The police were the visible “enemy” of the show, trying to apprehend Kimble who had been framed for the crime. But The One Armed Man was the “unseen” enemy of the show, always just out of reach of Dr. Kimble until the fourth season of the series. The show focused on Dr. Kimble evading the police and helping people during his search, but the “villain” was always out there. The attachment of the audience was with the “hero”, but through this attachment we are tied to this unseen antagonist.

  • The Wiley Coyote in The Road Runner: You can’t talk about villains without touching on the cartoon villain of them all: Wiley E. Coyote. He first appeared with the Road Runner in 1949, and would become even more of a beloved character than the Road Runner himself. The coyote appeared in several Bugs Bunny cartoons as well, attempting to drive Bugs out of his hole (in so doing becoming the animal counterpart to the human hunter Elmer Fudd... everyone wanted to get Bugs out of that damn hole!). Wiley Coyote represents the type of villain that working class people like to root against: a person (or in this case animal) that thinks he/she is smarter that he really is, but because of moral inferiority falls short of his “evil” goals.

  • Lex Luthor in Smallville: Everyone has seen Lex Luthor, the arch-nemesis of Superman, portrayed in movies, television, cartoons, and comic books. But the interesting thing about the Warner Brothers series Smallville is that its primary goal is to force viewers to rethink their preconceptions around the protagonist/antagonist relationship. The series takes place in the town where Clark Kent grows up. The “enemy” of the show is actually Kryptonite, the meteor rock that has affected everyone in the town in some way. Clark Kent almost feels responsible for everyone in the town, good or evil, simply because he arrived in his rocket ship along with the meteor rocks. The meteorites caused Lex Luthor’s hair to fall out when they crashed around him into the earth. Shards of meteor rock struck and killed Lana Lang’s parents. They nearly destroyed the town of Smallville the day Clark Kent crashed on our planet. When it comes to Lex Luthor, we “know” he will eventually become Superman’s enemy. But at the beginning of the series Lex is saved by Clark Kent, and eventually they become the best of  friends. You see the darkness around Lex, driven during his life by the seemingly “evil” father Lionel Luthor. The show may concentrate on Clark’s efforts to control the mutations that kryptonite has caused in and around Smallville, but my main reason for watching the show is to see the evolving relationship between Clark and Lex. This is easily compared to Anakin Skywalker, whom we know will become Darth Vader and the enemy of Obi-wan Kenobi. In both cases it is not the hero/villain relationship that we connect with, but the knowledge that they will one day become enemies. It is like an army riding into battle that you know will be killed. Sometimes it’s not the outcome that is important; sometimes it is the journey itself that matters.





The movie villain has always had greater effect on me than television villains, simply because they are larger than life. The big screen is the big screen, and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Screenwriters and directors have the ability to concentrate on the villain in great detail, especially in today’s cinema, creating an emotional attachment of grand proportions.


Movie villains:


  • Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal may have been more of an ego trip for Anthony Hopkins, but Silence of the Lambs was the movie that gave us “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” along with so many other great moments. Lecter was evil personified, with sexual tension thrown in as well. Hannibal Lecter was the intelligent monster, and we wanted to know “why” just as much as we waited to see what unspeakable act he would commit next. The jail scenes between Hopkins and Foster still make me shiver sometimes...

  • Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner: A sort of Terminator before the Terminator; Roy Batty was a villain that we could identify with. All he really wanted was to find a way to extend his lifespan, android or not. He was a machine with an unalterable death sentence; why should he care if he killed humans in an attempt to prolong his ‘life’? And in Blade Runner we are presented with a question that is never truly answered: Is Harrison Ford’s protagonist Rick Decker, detective and replicant hunter, an android himself and just doesn’t know it? One of the great movies of all time, period.

  • The Alien in Alien: Sigourney Weaver became a star because of this film, but the real star was the film’s namesake, the alien life form that attaches itself to the face of a mining ship crewmember, erupts from his stomach, grows in no time to killer proportions, spits acid and kills the entire crew other than Weaver and her ... well, her cat. The first combination science fiction / monster movie with suspense and tension that could be cut with the proverbial knife. Again, a villain trying to survive the only way it can... by destroying everything around it. Alien was superbly directed by Ridley Scott, who succeeded in this film by sticking to the adage, “less is more”.

  • Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood’s western that blurred the lines between good/evil and hero/villain. Gene Hackman played a sheriff that kept the peace, but only through the harshest of means. The movie centers around the disfiguration of a prostitute by two cowboys. The sheriff’s view of justice was to force the cowboys to give the whorehouse owner a few horses from their ranch. The women at the hotel offer $1,000 to anyone who will kill the cowboys. Clint Eastwood is a gunman wooed out of retirement by the reward, and his character would have fit the blueprint of the villain in any other western. But Hackman’s character is the one that kills without remorse to “maintain order” in the town of Big Whiskey, including characters played by Richard Harris and Morgan Freeman. Eastwood is portrayed as a formerly evil man that has mended his ways, and attempts to remain “good” while trying to perform the “one last job” that will ensure his children will lead a better life. Hackman as a villain represents “authority gone wrong”, and Eastwood’s Bill Munny remains one of the greatest anti-heroes ever on film.

  • John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown: I saw Chinatown for the first time in a film class in college. John Huston’s character actually made me physically sick to watch. Pedophile and incestuous father, John Huston hires Jack Nicholson’s detective character to find his daughter. In the process he wants to find his granddaughter, who is actually the daughter he fathered with his own daughter... creepy and confusing, to say the least. Noah Cross is an example of the evil puppet master, pulling the strings that control the protagonist of the movie.





Visual images of movies and television create a lasting impression, to be sure. But the one thing that literature can provide that visual media cannot represent (as well) is the thoughts of the villain. How many times does a movie villain fall short of expectations, simply because we have read the book and the movie can never live up to the pictures we have created in our own minds? Motivations can be shown in movies, or there can be voiceover acting that can provide the viewer the thought processes of the villain, but literature is the best medium for this type of insight.


Now most of these villains have at one time or another been seen in movies, but the first time most of us would have come to know these villains is through the written word.


Villains in Literature:


§      Professor Moriarty of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes: the legendary foil for Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty is the exact opposite of Holmes, except that they both possessed superior intelligence. Only his moral inferiority causes him to fail. You could say this was the archetype for Wiley Coyote... then again maybe that’s a stretch : ) .


§      Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello: The traitor in our midst; the reader (or audience) understands early on that Iago is the true villain of the work. The tragedy is created because Othello does not have the knowledge the audience has, and falls because of it.


§      Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s Dune: It doesn’t matter how many times someone tries to bring Frank Herbert’s masterpiece to the big screen (or the small screen), there is no way to properly capture the villainous nature of the primary antagonist Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Whether you are supposed to relate the Harkonnens to the one time communist threat or to the Mongols of ancient times, the Harkonnens are an enemy that exists to make you love the Atreides family even more.


§      Any villain in a James Patterson suspense novel: The creator of Detective Alex Cross, who’s books Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls have been made into movies, James Patterson has great methods of creating emotional attachment to the villains in his novels. First, his chapter structure is quick and concise, giving you moments in time that affect the reader; you are immediately pushed to that next moment in time, most likely from another character’s point of view. Secondly, the point of view of the villain is always established early on, most of the time even before the protagonist is introduced. The reader can feel the raw emotion of the killer through his or her eyes. The only thing that Patterson does not do (in most cases) is actually tell you who the killer is. This way he can still surprise you with that revelation later on in the work.


Television, movies, and literature... three different mediums, with different ways to capture the attention of an audience. Each medium gives a creator different methods to present a villain, and to make a viewer or reader care about (or hate) that villain.


This concludes Part I of the article on Creating a Villain in Neverwinter Nights. Part II will explore Dungeons and Dragons and the world of computer games, and the methods which game creators have to create villains.



-- Patrick Holyfield is a DM and Campaign Creator that is eagerly awaiting the release of Neverwinter Nights so he can translate his campaign known as “The Land of Caern” for others to play online.

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