Every Sandbox needs a Villian

May 19, 2013 - Design, General

havok_1a_by_jagged_eye-d628cj1With the upcoming release of the 5th edition of Shadowrun I have been discussing the possibility of starting a new campaign with my players and consensus is now would be the time to start fresh. With this in mind I have started to think about the things I would improve in our current and past campaigns and one of the things I struggle with when running a sandbox game is creating and maintaining meaningful villains. I find either the PCs are not interested in engaging with the villain or sensing the threat he poses eliminate him immediately.  I’m still in the initial stages of creating a villainous figurehead for my 5th edition game and to assist me I’ve broken down the core aspects of a Shadowrun villain to pick and choose from.

One or Many?
Is the villain going to be an individual or a group? This is one of the questions that I as a GM love about Shadowrun – the game has always had a preference for the opposition to equal or surpass the PCs in number. However this comes at the cost of having an individual to despise and hunt but a single target in Shadowrun doesn’t last in a firefight unless they’re a prime runner. My belief is that the number of villains should be small but match the PCs in number and skill set but be slightly more capable. This way the PCs can divide and conqueror with relative ease without it being a cakewalk and each PC has a NPC to hate.

The Three Worlds of Shadowrun
For the villain to compete with the PCs and have some longevity in the campaign they need to be versed in at least 2 of the 3 worlds of Shadowrun – The Physical World, The Matrix and the Astral Plane. If the villain isn’t multidimensional in this regard then the PCs can out maneuver him and his threat will be diminished to some character types.

The Matrix. The villains you encounter in the Matrix could be rival hackers, technomancers and proto or fully fledged AIs. While anyone with a commlink can access the matrix, only hackers and technomancers will have a competitive advantage here. Mages on the other hand will find little to do here as the matrix is very effective at shutting their character tropes down.  Instead matrix villains should have a physical world presence to ensure that non-hackers have an opportunity to shutdown the villain.

The Astral Plane. The Astral Plane provides many of Shadowrun’s powerful and most memorial bad guys from insect or blood spirits to Shedim and toxic shamans.  The Astral Plane however has a clear separation from both the Matrix and the Physical world. While mages and some adepts can freely astral travel to different metaplanes and combat magical forces on their own terms, most characters are undefended and unable to fight back when it comes to magical villains. Unless the group is it’s own magical society I recommend that magical villains are either of the prime runner variety and have a physical presence or they are part of group and play second fiddle to the primary antagonist.

The Physical World. Villains in the physical world are predominately metahuman or at least they started that way. Here you will find organized crime, corporate machinations, as well as feuding elven princes and dragons. The great thing about  the physical world is how it’s shared by all but the most extreme character concepts. Any villains who predominately exist in this world can be challenged by all character types and the players are better able to relate to them, making them easier to hate.


The Corporations

One of the core themes of Shadowrun is corporate control and it’s pervasiveness in day to day life but even in the 2070s there is still diversity in the corporate culture with each corporation having it’s own culture. This will undoubtedly affect the outlook of any villain with a corporate background, whether they are a mage, company man or AI. As a player I know when the GM says we’re dealing with Saedder-Krupp I know we are dealing not only with a dragon but with German efficiency and I get in a mind frame that expects silent, one-shot kills, elite technical skills and an air of never truly knowing what’s going on. With this in mind I’ve create a list of traits that separates several of the corporations in the corporate court from each other.

Ares Macrotechnology. If any run screams overt ultra-violence it’s a run against Ares. Physically tough with military grade firepower, Ares villains are rigid in their approach and take time to position their power if out maneuvered. Ex-military are common amongst the ranks of this corporate powerhouse.

Aztechnology. Blood magic and consumerism typify Aztechnology. Expect villains to have not only perverse magical support but an ever reaching influence. Anyone could be a villain from Aztechnology – the garbage man, the stuffer shack clerk, but if blood magic is mentioned this corp is suspect #1.

Horizon. Media control is the modus operandi of Horizon and villains from this corporation are likely to be demagogues swaying the masses against the PCs. Horizon lacks a hierarchical structure so this corporation plays more to the many villains side of the equation.

Mitsuhama Computer Technologies. Mitsuhama is one of the big boys on the corporate council and has control of several different industries. Regardless of where a Mitsuhama villain comes from, there will always be ties back to the Yakuza. Mitsuhama makes a good corporation for campaigns that start in the street and end in the boardroom.

Renraku Computer Systems. Villains from Renraku would be matrix focused but Renraku has a richer background in the Shadowrun world that makes it possible to provide a more fleshed character. Otaku, Former-Banded, Red Samurai even Deus himself could make an appearance but again I wouldn’t expect many mages taking center stage.

Wuxing Strongly influenced by geomancy I would expect villains from Wuxing to be mages well versed in the more subtle types of magic but vulnerable to things that disrupt their environment. Wuxing is one of the primary magic influence corporations.

Evo. Based out of Russia biotechnology is Evo’s specialty but EVO also has a quirky selection of directors so PCs facing a Evo villain could expect something similar. PCs should plan on encountering a lot of second world influences when facing this corporation.

Above you’ll find a list of the things I think about when creating a villain for a Shadowrun campaign and combined with the 4 core traits allows me to quickly develop an NPC to drop into a sandbox game at a moments notice. Hopefully the next one will be alive at the end of the session.

2 thoughts on “Every Sandbox needs a Villian


This was a fucking great help mate, thanks for the write up.


I think you’re overlooking one of the more important villain archetypes that screams Shadowrun. The guy pulling the strings.

A Hacker, Street Samurai, or Mage make a great combat villian, but the true threat is the Mr Johnson or the corporate exec making the calls that are interfering with the Runner’s plans. They might encounter each other tangentially (two groups want the same paydata) or eventually they might even earn the ire of the corporation and be on the receiving end of more direct threats.

Such a villain is not easily challenged as it can be difficult just to determine who they are. They don’t need to be able to “survive” a session because their lives won’t be in direct danger. Tracking them down can result in all kinds of challanges for players, physical challenges fighting off their goons, hack challenges to get data on them and magical challenges getting past their high paid security.


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