A few ideas, not all of them at once:
1) Make him being supported by a part of not-evil population. A outlaw that gives part of his loot to poor and claims that he just defends them against greedy nobility. A tyrant who keeps order after a period of anarchy and bloody civil wars. A powerful LE wizard who is respected for his skills by his peers. A former war hero. A person who is supported by his race, nation, etc.
2) Let players slowly discover his history. Let show a hard choices that moved him towards evil. Exaggerated revenge, facing awful ungratefulness, not resisting huge temptation... Arrange it such a way that players discover that they are already on the same path.
3) Should his family life be pathological? Or maybe he is a loving father that pays a lot of time to mentor his kids to make them able to take his position. What about a situation that heir had doubts about his father ways but would avenge him on every price and no detect evil would help to discover them.
4) He knows that will fight adventurers. Think who he expects, maybe PCs aren't his main problem. Make him very well prepared for such an encounter.
5) Make him a few interests outside torturing people. Or maybe he doesn't even has guts for seeing that and would just be content to read a report from that?
6) Make a potential ally for PCs who is just as evil as the threat they want together to remove.
When creating a bad guy, I go through a happy little process.
First, what kind of game are you wanting to play? The villian of a game rife with horror is going to be very, very different than a game that focuses on political intrigue. How much mystery do you want in the game? How big is the game? That is, an epic game is going to be very different than a smaller focused story.
Second, what do you want this bad guy to achieve? I usually come up with the major conflict of the story first before I start thinking about bad guys. Do I want to destroy the world, or just kill all boys with blue eyes? These are important questions to ask yourself!
Third, how do you want your bad guy to be meaningful to the characters? How personal do you want the relationship between villian and player? How meaningful do you want your characters to be to the villian? These are two different questions! Also, how important do you want your characters to be to the story? Are they the heroes of prophecy, or people in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Finally, is this villian going to be the BBEG or a smaller villian? I've been assuming that you're making the BBEG, but I use a similiar method for all of my minior villians.
Once I have all of these quesitons answered, I'm usually well on the way to my perfect villian. After doing some brainstorming of the perfect person to achieve all of the above, I'll write out a backstory and personality sketch of the villian. It's important to know where the villian is starting and where you want it to end up.
Let me give you a few examples.
My dearest darlingest baby, Murder of Crows, has lots of bad guys. It is an epic campaign that is very familiar and comfortable with darkness.
It's BBEG? Well, it has a lot, but one of the main ones is the world's devil, Raiquen. With him, I've run into a major challenge. He's so much above and beyond the world, so much bigger than the characters themselves. How can you make such a creature intimate enough to be feared, but still retain his power and awesome? I've done a few things. I made one of the PCs a devil worshipper at the beginning (he was the first story arch's hidden villian), then let him be redeemed. He knows how horrible the devil is and he's happy to tell any who wants to listen about it. Secondly, I've made the devil get pesonal with the party. He's adopted one of them as his daughter. He teleported her favorite adopted family to her for her birthday, then showed up for a creepy tea and cake. Finally, I make liberal use of cut scenes. This allows me to show the devil in his natural habitat and lets people see how creepy he is when not observed by the party. Also? Foreshadows events quite nicely. In the end, subtlety is your friend.
Of course, not all of your bad guys are going to be so... removed. Sometimes, you want a personal touch, whether it's creating a demon worshipping stalker who wants nothing more than to torture and flay his beloved so he can sew her a wedding dress made from her skin for her to wear in her own personal eternal afterlife that's just him and her, or merely the character's best friend who has been happily plotting their downfall since they were kids. You know, your choice.
I hope this has been a little helpful. Remember, you want to make sure that your players love to hate your bad guy, or they get tiresome. Acheive that and you'll get a villian that's worth fighting against.
Nighteyes, that post should be stickied somewhere. That is an excellent checklist and in-a-nutshell guide for making the perfect BBEG. Anyone reading, if you follow that, you'll have a memorable villain for the whole party to love to hate.
In fact, I did steal it and put it in my library for later reference. Too perfect.
I think to some extent there's a creative instinct involved--it's an art form, and people can give technical pointers, but when it gets down to it the process can't be reduced to a recipe. Movies and books have lots of good examples, and in reading (or rereading) your favorite books you can get a sense for what villains really grab you and apply those lessons to the game. The challenge is that you don't have complete control of the outcome of the encounters between the PCs and the villains--but often you can stack the deck for non-lethal encounters that build tension between the heroes and an antagonist.
Things I've found that help build the antagonism between the heroes and their enemy include:
1. Place one or more of the heroes in a situation where they are powerless against the villain, then have him humiliate them, but leave them alive. This tactic requires care--the situation must really be one where the villain would be motivated to intimidate, violate, or humiliate but not destroy them. I just had an antagonist ambush one of my PCs--knocked her out with sleep, then threatened her with a weapon and told her she and her friends had better stay away from the dungeon they are exploring. It is clear from the player's reaction that I've successfully created an antagonistic relationship. The antagonist wouldn't have found murder necessary yet, and wouldn't want to risk it, so the scene doesn't strain verisimilitude.
2. Have the villain make a clever escape when they think they have him in the bag. This works well with lesser villains because it's OK if you can't legitimately pull it off--it's the sort of thing that happens spontaneously in the course of play. The good PCs catch an evil druid who has purposefully stirred up a feud between local settlers and the nomads who live nearby. With the evidence they've gathered (and discovery of a kidnapped child whose disappearance was blamed on the settlers) they are able to mediate and stop the feud, but before the bad guy can be hung, he slips his shackles by wild shaping into a viper, bites the jailer when he comes with his food, and escapes from the local lord's dungeon. Later, a stag (wild shape they've observed this guy use before) seems like it's following the PCs through the forest, spooking the PCs--but it never gets close enough to be chased down. The opportunity to escape was purely fortuitous--the PCs might have killed the villain in their battle with him, or they might have thought about the possibilities for escape that wild shape offers and suggested that the lord have the prisoner watched constantly, but they opted to turn him over to the authorities for justice, and the authorities didn't necessarily know what he was capable of.
3. I like my players to observe the game in a "1st person limited" POV as much as possible, so I don't do cut scenes unless the players oblige me by scrying, but I do find other clever methods of exposition that avoid the need for the "here's how I've spent the last fifteen months plotting to screw you" speech as the climactic battle is joined. Reports of scouts or messengers, documentary evidence discovered by the PCs, testimony of rescued prisoners, and that sort of thing. PC scrying can actually turn out to be very handy for the DM, as long as "scry and fry" tactics can be fended off (forbiddance is handy here). My favorite recent instance of this:
4. Have your villain take advantage of the PCs' moral scruples
5. Remember that mercy can engender bitterness rather than gratitude (this can work both ways but it is especially effective if a villain repays mercy with revenge and has a good reason to do so. I had a situation arise that allowed me to do both (4) and (5) in my Age of Worms campaign.
6. Betrayal can work well, but needs to be subtle and used sparingly. Turning the PC of the player who is leaving the gaming group into a doppelganger is a fun trick, but only once per gaming group. More subtle betrayals that don't involve physical backstabbing work better.
It will be noted that a lot of these suggestions involve exploiting circumstances that come up in the course of game play--which goes with my point that there's an intuitive art to making a successful villain and part of that art doesn't involve writing a good backstory or planning good encounters, but with making good use of the tools that the players hand you in the course of play.
The best villains are not always human monsters who have a ghoulish obsession with killing and eating people. Certainly they have their place in the RPG scheme of things, but they work better as minor villains, people whose psychotic flaws are exploited by bigger, subtler villains for more understandable motives. A psychotic killer is horrifying, but when overused this type becomes as trite as Snively Whiplash. A Dark Lord type (Sauron, Asmodeus, Shaitan, Emperor Palpatine, or what have you) works fine as an evil force in the background, but should be considered a plot device rather than an actual villain. The best villains are ones with whom we can empathize at least a bit before we realize what is wrong or evil about their thinking--the villain who is convinced he is acting for a just cause but whose "ends justify the means" morality has led him down an ever more twisted path, or the villain who is motivated by revenge to perform horrifying acts, or the one who made a pact with dark forces to achieve some laudable (or at least understandable) goal then finds himself drawn deeper and deeper in until he becomes the evil he thought he could make use of. If the villain looks friendly or at least morally upright and trustworthy when first encountered, so much the better. Or if he seems like a bad guy but you're never quite sure until the decisive moment.
One last bit of advice: what works in literature often works in the game. Use your favorite authors and their bad guys to get ideas. My list of favorite literary villains: The former musketeer Aramis (Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask), the Lannisters (GRR Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series), Kennit (Robin Hobb's Liveship trilogy), Gollum, Snape, Jaichim Carridin and most of the other major Darkfriends in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Read and be inspired. That's why Gygax put a long (and very, very well chosen) reading list in the 1e DMG.
An awful lot is on the list and I don't remember half of it, but I'll throw a few things I can remember out there. I do remember getting much pleasure from the readings on the list in my youth. (I no longer have a copy of the original DMG, but you can probably dredge one up on e-bay or at a garage sale if you poke around enough. There were many useful tidbits in it about world-building that are not edition specific and don't appear in 3rd or 4th edition DMGs, like castle terminology, titles of nobility, typical medieval town dwellers, and about twenty different terms for prostitutes. So it would actually be a good buy if you could pick it up for $5 or $10, even if you have no plans to play 1e.)
A lot of what was on Gary Gygax's reading list would be classified as "swords and sorcery" genre, but some high fantasy and other stuff as well.
Fritz Leiber--Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series
Jack Vance--Dying Earth series
Robert E. Howard--Conan (and other stuff)
Poul Anderson--Three Hearts and Three Lions (I also recommend the Mermaid's Children)
Michael Moorcock--Elric of Melnibone series (not my personal favorite, but an important inspiration for the game)
Edgar Rice Burroughs--John Carter Warlord of Mars series
C L Moore (see Paizo's reprints for these last two)
Roger Zelazny's Amber series
Not sure if Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy or Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion tetralogy were on the original list, but I highly recommend them anyway.
Almost all of this stuff is in print or has been reprinted in the last decade (with the exception of Poul Anderson, I think).
There are, of course, many fine works of fantasy published since then, but you're probably more familiar with them. I cited some of my favorites in my first post.
/threadjack--if you want to know more, start another thread--I'm sure there are a few more grognards on these boards who can assist in reconstructing Gary's list, or maybe even still have a copy of it.
One of the best things is when you finally smash a bad guy you've waited half the campaign to flatten. If you really want your players to hate someone, make them arrogant, a tad bit annoying, and to powerful to reasonably challenge...yet. Just make sure there's a light visible at the end of the tunnel, and make sure that when they finally get around to smashing his face in, it is suitably epic.
The best villain challenges the player character(s) on more than one level. The challenge is to present them with an obstacle they cannot immediately overcome, and they're forced to adapt to defeat it. If they're supposed to fight the villain, then they have to gain experience and levels. They have to change themselves in order to defeat the villain, and a good villain forces them to change into something he wants.
A good villain needs a good protagonist, though. A good protagonist has motivations and a subjective perception of the world around him, and a good villain is able to challenge them on an emotional level. He may have some of the same motivations as the player character, and when encountered tries to get them to think "We're not so different, you and I." He may have less morals, and more resources to accomplish his goals (which he believes he shares with the players), but in the end it should be a question of whether the players want to oppose him, if the end justifies the means.
Alternatively, the villain may try to change the players perception of the world and convert them to his viewpoint. This is, in essence, what the Joker tries to do. He tries to show Gotham that its ideals and preconceptions about human nature are wrong, and in the end is successful, and Batman has to change himself in order to prevent that message from getting out.
Good characterization makes a villain, just like any other narrative role.
You need a clear personality first and foremost, and from there you combine it with their history to develop a motivation; when writing a synopsis for
Or 'her'. We need to have Equal Opportunity Evil, here.
him, it helps to focus more on 'he thinks', 'he feels', and
The consequences of which can lead to a whole new chain of he thinks, he feels; good way to get a background rolling
he decided to--those are the deepest layers of the human persona and will influence most of the side stuff, like his tactics and relations and whatever the hell he has engraved in red on his black armor, etc.
The most difficult villain to face is one that you can't find. Every time that the PCs appear to find him, they realize that it's just a puppet, a mouthpiece. Someone with nothing identifiable except for the marks that they leave. Someone who is everywhere at once like the shadows themselves, yet identically uncatcheable.
Then make him a acquaintance. Someone who the PCs would not suspect. The betrayal hurts.
Furthermore, above all, this villain must be _efficient_ and _creative_. That is to say, the villain must not believe in fair fights. The villain must know what he wants and do what he must to get it. If it means shooting the PC in the back without a single word or even a greeting, so be it. A bastard.