One of the things that fascinates humans is power, another is evil, and a third is mystery or secrecy—and strong villains who like to largely remain in the background and work from those shadows combine all three.
The Realms has many lurking villains, but of course the best of them are those who manage to remain “under the radar.” Or to put it another way, those the wider world doesn’t know about because they’ve escaped notice thus far—or at least, Realms fans, be they readers or gamers, don’t know the extent of their villainy even if the beings involved are right out in plain sight.
As with heroes, we all have our favourite villains (and those we scorn), and our own definitions; some see Elminster or Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun as villainous for their actions.
Most Realms fans will point to Larloch, or Manshoon, or Szass Tam, or this or that dragon or beholder or drow when asked to name a favourite villain; others may point at evil gods, though I leave divine archetypes out of discussions of villainy, and confine myself to mortals who make choices—that is, beings who choose to be villainous and work at it, as opposed to beings who arguably are evil by nature. (And I’m going to skirt around the whole “are orcs inherently evil?” debate here; I’m just stating that for my purposes, penning these words, I’m leaving the likes of Lolth, Bane, and Asmodeus out of the ranks of villains.
The waters are further muddied by debates as to extent of villainy. If someone lives by a different moral code than you, is that someone really villainous, or only villainous in your eyes? It’s easier in fiction and for that matter real-world thinking to deal in absolutes, but one can take the view that Larloch is no villain, merely a very powerful being doing as he pleases, and that from his point of view he stands outside the legal codes established by mortal rulers (whom he regards as lesser competitors) and by faiths (the gods giving directions to those faiths being rivals of the goddess—Mystryl, predecessor of Mystra—he served and seeks to restore or at least steer her successor Mystra into being a “proper” replacement for).
In like manner, I’m going to sidestep all of the debates of alignment, and just loosely define villains as “foes of player characters who break either laws or moral codes of a land in the Realms the players are generally accepting of the culture of, and are up to something the players deem evil.”
Or to put it more simply, if you think X is a villain, then X is a villain to you, so we’re dealing with individuals in the Realms (not all of them human) who have been portrayed as villains, and in particular the subset of villains who have lasted for a time by working from behind the scenes, and/or cloaking their dealings in secrecy so they can’t easily be anticipated and foiled. And further, the subset of those individuals who have enjoyed some success, and who have something interesting and/or story-attractive about them.
Unless we’re seeking to pin down just what makes for that interest or attraction, I find lists or debates about favourites either divisive or pointless (why should my opinion prevail over yours? Or vice versa?). I’m more interested in pointing out that one of the things humans—and presumably, by the way they’ve been portrayed in fantasy fiction and game material elves, dragons, dwarves, and most other sentient races,too—do is manipulate and deceive, and to the extent that manipulators and deceivers do so for their own advancement at a cost to others, they are villains. So the ones who are good at this will for the most part operate behind the scenes and succeed in largely remaining there.
It follows that these lurking villains are everywhere, and I’ve certainly tried to make them so. Every mortal character and the majority of deities mentioned thus far in this little screed is my creation (yes, I created Szass Tam and Bane and the Blackstaff), but I’ve always spread petty villains—manipulative servants in noble households, corrupt senior members or masters in guilds, the heads of feeble little backstreets shopkeepers’ cabals, and alley gang bosses—very liberally across every nook and proverbial cranny of the Realms, simply because their machinations make everything more interesting and they are themselves handy targets for novice adventurers and fictional characters who aren’t mighty in power just yet.
If something doesn’t appeal, it doesn’t need sequels—but if it does, it’s doubly juicy if it can be continued, so rematches and reappearances come laden with familiarity and added meaning or impact. So the villain who escapes, but now regards the heroes (or the anti- or non-hero protagonist) as a foe to be bested or eliminated, provides future adventure/story, and gives the “good guys” someone to hunt, and ponder the next moves of, and worry about. Which makes the ongoing game or fiction narrative inherently more interesting than a setting that’s essentially a lifeless backdrop enlivened only when the heroes or protagonists step into a particular encounter and set off pre-plotted action there.
In short, the lurking villains propel ongoing and richer stories, and that’s why they’re there. And I have put literally thousands of them into the Realms, both powerful and very weak, both brilliant and bumbling—and most of them no one aside from me has either met or recognized yet.
Which is just fine. They’ll rise to notice when they make their moves, which will be when they’re needed. Dungeon Masters® should take note here of something that serves novelists less well: it can be great fun to lure Player Characters into the almost farcical and chaotic heart of a conflict engineered by rival lurking villains, who are both trying to unfold their own conflicting plans, and everyone nearby (including the PCs) is getting caught in the middle.
It’s very difficult, unless given the opportunity to devote thousands of pages of prose to the task and winning an accepting audience (and, yes, the creators of many successful “doorstop fantasy epics” have managed it) to adequately and satisfyingly explain all of this chaos in prose, but it can be the exciting essence of a good roleplaying campaign—to gamers who love intrigue, not those who prefer clear-cut foes and “cut down the monster and take the treasure” situations—to plunge player characters into the thick of complicated intrigues, where opposing aims are clashing, and plans are going awry.
That’s why I’ve never stopped doing it to my players, and hinting at it in almost every Realms novel I’ve written, down the years. Villains always lurk, and their lurking does not mean “biding time and doing nothing,” it means they’re at work on matters nefarious and often subtle.
Which is, and has always been, a very large part of what makes the Realms seem alive.
Image borrowed from “Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep – Blackstaff Tower” ©Wizards of the Coast