As a fan of many varieties of fiction and genre books, films, television shows, and games, I have seen a fair share of villains. Bad guys are, actually, one of my favorite things. Without villains, where would be heroes? Without evil, is there actual “good”? It’s a big question. The one thing that keeps coming back to me, however, time and again is the question of what is more frightening, more evil: supernatural villainy, or villains who could step out of the next corner shop?
Starting with my earliest exposures to the good vs. evil storylines, I watched a lot of cartoons. Cartoons are, for the most part, about unreality. The characters are not supposed to be super realistic or like anything you might encounter. In Disney alone, there are Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), and the Evil Stepmother (Snow White) – they are all frightening to children and adult understanding of their motives definitely show that they are fucked up and evil, but for me, they are not nearly so frightening as Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). There is a supernatural element to the Hunchback cartoon film, but Frollo is all too real. He is a man very dedicated to his religion, who sees beautiful women as vain and condemns their sexuality, and he considers himself better and more pure than those around him (which, imo, is terrifyingly real).
I was around 4 or 5 when I saw my first Stephen King films. Thank you television for doing re-runs, and thank you parents for leaving me alone with the television. I saw, in a sweet double-feature, IT and Carrie. They are both pretty well-done films, and completely compelling for a kid who loved ghost stories. I still have nightmares about those movies, but they are two very different types of nightmares. With IT, it is the standard “holy crap evil clown”, teleporting, monster-morphing scary that is easily expected. With Carrie, it is so much different. For me, the villain of the movie is not Carrie, or even the cruel teenagers. It’s Carrie’s abusive mother. See, in IT, the clown is a scary villain, yeah, but even at that age I knew that those things weren’t real. Abusive parents, though, were something I could definitely imagine (and had been witness to).
Further on we go – scary movies with werewolves and vampires and ghosts, right up next to Law & Order, CSI, and the serial killer shows and documentaries I latched on to. No matter how many nightmares I had about monsters, it never compared to the constant anxiety I felt day after day knowing that there were real people out there who were, from my perspective, far more evil than their paranormal peers.
One of my favorite book stories is, no surprise, Harry Potter. In the books, the biggest villain, the embodiment of evil, is Voldemort (Or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for those of you who like to use extra words). He’s a torturer, murderer, son of a rapist (love potions are not consent, FYI), and straight up asshole who is willing to murder everyone who doesn’t fit his ideal concept of humanity. There are multiple descriptions of the shitty stuff he does, and the shitty stuff his followers do. And yet, they do not scare me anywhere near as much as Dolores Umbridge. Anyone who has read the books knows how awful Umbridge is. She constantly, as a human who is not supernaturally altered in any way, chooses to do harm and induce suffering on anyone she doesn’t deem worth or doesn’t like. She’s racist (and advocates for awful things against half-human or non-human species), and revels in the pain of others. Torturing children is shown to bring her actual pleasure and satisfaction. She is, in many ways, the perfect example of someone who would claim to have “just been doing their job” when all shit hits the fan, but who secretly really got off on doing awful things in the name of her cause – and the cause, in this case, seems to just be a convenient excuse.
I think that it is easy to see why realistic villains are more terrifying than supernatural villains (in most cases! There are always exceptions!). Bellatrix Lestrange is pretty fucked up and terrifying, but there is no way she compares to the Bitch of Buchenwald (Ilse Koch, from the Buchenwald concentration camp during WWII, Google with great care). Knowing that there are real killers, torturers, and rapists out in the world is way worse to me than the fantastical idea that vampires might suck my blood.
In games, we can always use fantastical monsters. That’s something that is super common in RPGs – hell, in a lot of games we play the monsters! But when running a horror game, the choice between real horror and fantastical horror is a very careful decision. Some GMs might know their groups well and be able to run it without a question. Others might need to really talk to their players and make sure it’s okay.
If you want to run a horror game with a realistic villain, but you don’t want to spoil the whole plot for your players, there are a lot of ways to get the information you need. The first is to have a boundaries discussion. Ask your players, “If you were playing a realistic game, what kind of bad guys, type of violence, and other content are you comfortable with and not comfortable with?” Give them the floor, and then feel free to bring up specific items, including ones you specifically don’t plan to use in the game. Examples of stuff that might come up: rape, harm to children, domestic abuse, torture, sexualized violence, stalking, harm to animals. None of these are things people should feel bad about vetoing, and it's important not to shame players or try to bargain or bribe them. It's more fun when people want to play the game without caveats.
Other options that are great are, like I mentioned in my previous post, using consent and content tools like the X-Card and Script Change. The biggest thing to do, though, is to talk with your players and ensure that they’re cool with moving forward.
It isn’t a bad idea to talk about this with your players when you are using supernatural villains as well. While we have seen that in the Netflix TV show, Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is an amazing villain without any supernatural ability, the new show on Netflix, Jessica Jones, the character Killgrave (known as the Purple Man in comics) has supernatural abilities and he’s simply chilling to see on screen, and his abilities are truly some of the worst.
There is a lot to gain by finding what really makes your heart pound, and your hair stand up on end, and it’s often fun to pursue it. Still, there is no reason that a person should be put in a place in a game where they can’t escape or stop the source of their distress. Players deserve to have a good time, even if that means they’re quaking in their boots!
This post was supported by the community on patreon.com/briecs.