Having spoken in the past about ways of making your big bad evil guy (BBEG) a bit more three dimensional, it occurred to me while re-watching Gangs of New York that the thing that made William Cutting such an interesting – and maybe even sympathetic – character, was that he was, in almost all things, honest. I think that this can be trait often overlooked when creating your own BBEG, as they are more often the type to lie and scheme to get things done. Lets take a look at Cutting and see if we can’t apply some of this to our own RPG villains in a way that will make them more rounded and interesting to interact with for your players.
First of all, yes I used the word sympathetic to describe a man of sheer and unrelenting brutality with absolutely no empathy; basically the worst type of psychopath. This might not seem to make much sense, but once you get to root of his motivations – no matter how flawed and antagonistic they are – you see that he is acting with nothing but a steely determination. This is something that is often praised in real life, and it could be said that he just happened to be born and live in the wrong time. In no way am I excusing his rampant racism – and if you’ve read other posts by me or follow me on social media, you’ll know I’m against prejudice in any form – but it seems like he would have been made perfectly at home with his attitudes if he had born in a southern American state about one hundred years earlier.
With his obvious charisma and leadership chops, plus his ability to intimidate others, he would have been a political powerhouse, able to operate almost completely within the law if he had been born in a different time and place. Sadly for the Butcher, this was not to be the case, so the life of a criminal kingpin was his best option. And it’s a life he’s ideally suited to. When he tells someone that he will cut their ears of if they disturb him, the people around him know that this is no idle threat. The Butcher never wastes a word, so you better believe that whoever is rude enough to interrupt a game of cards is going to have to buy smaller hats for the foreseeable future.
Some of his more brutal moments from the film also fit well with this honesty, and make you wonder if some of the other characters are actually as noble as they seem to be portrayed. Amsterdam’s plan to kill the Butcher from a distance after wheedling his way into his trust comes across as decidedly dishonest compared to Bill’s killing of Priest Vallon. Priest was challenged to an open combat, with rules of engagement and in full view of the local population so that no one would be in any doubt over who had prevailed. True, the Butcher did use a bit of trickery to deliver the final blow, but even vikings were proud of men and women who could over come an obstacle by trickery if it was easier than going at it in a head long rush and winding up dead. And when Priest was lying before him, the fight was stopped and the final wound administered quickly and efficiently, with all due honour shown to a respected enemy. Amsterdam, the movie’s hero, has no such respect for his enemy, and would see him dead without a chance to defend himself.
Later in the film, when Bill kills Mad Eye Mood… sorry Monk, in the street when his back was turned, it again looks like Bill is the bad guy. He totally is, but once again, he is nothing but honest in how he operates. He goes to Monk in broad daylight, carrying weapons and calls him out. Monk appeals to Bill’s sense of fair play and citizenship, inviting him in to talk rather than fight. And for some reason, then turns his back on the Butcher. At no point does Bill agree to talk or go quietly, he lets Monk have his say, then when opportunity presents itself, does what he set out to do, and walks away satisfied. Far from the actions of a hero to be sure, but he never claimed to be one, and set out his intentions as plain as day.
Now, using this in an RPG means having a BBEG that’s in a position of power to get away with doing all of these thoroughly unpleasant things and having a support structure in place to stop them from feeling the negative effects. If you have such a villain in place, then try this out, see how unsettling it is when they tell the Protagonists pretty much exactly what they’re going to do, and then do it. Make it brutal and shocking, almost hyperbolic even, and watch the players squirm as they now realise that any threat offered by the BBEG is more than idle words designed to intimidate, but a promise of future unpleasantness.