I, personally, tend to judge works of fiction by how much I like the bad guy. The Phantom Menace, for example, was a bad movie largely because the ostensible bad guy, the Trade Federation boss, was an obvious pushover. He had a stupid accent, no powers or combat skills, and his droid army was generic and forgettable. He nearly got beaten by the Jedi in the first 10 minutes of the movie, and only survived because, quote, “They’le no mush for dloidekas!” Even though Darth Sidious had a cameo, he didn’t do anything. Darth Maul could have save the movie, but he had like one line, and was just Sidious’s lackey anyway. No, the real bad guy of the movie was Nute Gunray, the wacky alien. When I saw Phantom Menace, I just watched him, thinking to myself, “Your evil plan is to make the Queen sign a contract? Come on, I could do better than that.”
Now, Attack of the Clones had Count
Saruman Dooku. Now this bad guy was a breath of fresh air (well, putrid air, but you get what I mean). Maybe he wasn’t the most evil bad guy ever. I liked him, though. I think his “Join me, Obi-Wan” speech was pretty lame, but then he chains up Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme in an arena, and sets monsters to eat them. That’s some Bond villain sh– right there. And then he beats up the two Jedi, and freakin’ Yoda has to come in and save them. Even then, he gets away by nearly dropping a roof on Obi-Wan.
Revenge of the Sith was all about Palpatine. Now he was masterful. Two words and seven punctuation marks. “UNLIMITED POWER!!!!!”
I think, by the same token, a Dungeons & Dragons game needs a good bad guy. The one I’m in doesn’t seem to, at least, not yet. Campaigns I DM have very clear bad guys. Perhaps the party doesn’t find out about the true villain right away, but they should at almost all times have a sense that there’s some evildoer they should be worried about. I’ve actually been thinking that, the next time I run a campaign, the bad guy might be somewhat like Darth Sidious. More specifically, I like the archetype of the popular leader who becomes head of the free government (legitimately), and then declares himself supreme leader and becomes a despot. Other big examples are Hitler and Caesar, amongst others.
In my campaign, the setting would be a republic, much like the Roman republic. Initially, the players are being given quests by this apparently good and popular general to defeat villains, and those villains would be truly evil, by the way. Eventually he starts giving them quests to take out senators he claims are corrupt, although the party may investigate to find out that they’re not. Finally, he’ll declare himself emperor, and if the party has not deserted him by this point, he’ll turn them into enforcers, putting down Chaotic Good rebels. It would be interesting to see at what point the PCs realize he’s evil and defect.