The following article continues the limited series from industry veteran Wolfgang Baur. Last year, Wolfgang delivered our much acclaimed Adventure Builder series, focusing on better design elements to incorporate into your adventures.
If 2006 was officially the Year of Dragons, 2007 might well be—at least in some part—the Year of Villains. Looking at the online product catalog for the year, Expedition to the Demonweb Pits releases next month, followed by Drow of the Underdark. Later in the year, Robert Schwalb delivers Exemplars of Evil (September) and Elder Evils (December), providing specific examples of villains to use in your campaigns, as well as advice on how to construct and play memorable foes.
In advance of these materials, we wanted to start the conversation on villains with the following limited series. We hope you enjoy the series; as always, feel free to send us your thoughts and feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
DMs sometimes forget that the PCs aren’t the only ones making big changes to the world. Things can and should be centered on the heroic deeds of player characters, but other characters in your campaign should be making their mark from time to time. This goal combines nicely with the wishes of most villains. A great way to make villains more memorable and more ominous is to give them actions when the PCs are busy looting a dungeon, training, or traveling far from home. In particular, long-term, campaign-level villains benefit from having a reputation for striking when PCs aren’t around.
Goals and Motives and Intentions
In the first installment, I examined the way that a villain needs a goal (kill the king!) and a motive (he executed my father!). Those goals and motives are fairly consistent for most villains; their evil plots and schemes may take many forms, but they’ll be trying to accomplish the same nastiness most of the time. But how does this matter to the PCs?
Well, if the party is the main impediment to the villain’s success, then many villains are smart enough to take action when the party is gone. After all (as discussed in Minions), a competent villain is probably spying on the party and tracking their movements to some degree, either through magic, a familiar, or with servants or other minions. The moment the heroes leave town on a long planar quest -- or just go to a yearly gathering of the druids and their allies -- the villain sets things in motion. He stages the coup, kidnaps the baron’s sons, and seizes power. Or he unleashes his undead army. The specific plan isn’t the point: it’s the timing.
You can either wait to spring this unpleasant change on the party when they return to the safety of their home, or you can interrupt their current adventure with the bad news. In the second case, a messenger finds them and begs them to return home and stop the villain from wreaking havoc. Presto, you’ve got a dilemma for the party! Pursuing their current goal or returning to save the day at home is a tough decision, especially if the main quest adventure is built with a deadline.
Setting the pace of events is one thing that villains do too rarely in the game. The party is assumed to be active, and villains try to do their villainy in reaction to the party. If your villains act decisively on their own, they have opportunity to advance their plans; in this case, the party is not working to foil their plot, but working to restore the status quo. Keep your villains two steps ahead of the party, and force the party to not just stop evil, but actively reverse evils that have already occurred – which oftentimes is a more compelling dramatic hook. Let villains actually succeed sometimes, while heroes prevent that success from becoming permanent.
The Bigger Fish Have Bigger Teeth
Other villains work in groups, and spend the time they don’t devote to plotting and scheming to clawing their way up the ladder of evil. The multi-level hierarchy could be the Red Wizards, the minions of Iuz, or the followers of the Emerald Claw -- the principles are the same. Just like with drug rings and the fiendish politics of demons and devils, smaller bullies and villains answer to bigger bullies or villains. Bigger bullies answer to the president, CEO, emperor, king, or demon prince, depending on whether you’re playing d20 Modern, Star Wars RPG, or D&D.
In evil organizations, corruption flows down from the top to infect the whole society. When the PCs have foiled one smuggling plot or freed unjustly accused prisoners from hysterical charges of witchcraft and treason… well, evil finds another route. Minor villains may be fired, executed, or replaced if the party foils their plots. The new gang boss, lord necromancer, or servant of the illithids is probably stronger than the old one, and more dangerous for another reason: he’s motivated to prove he’s more powerful than the incompetent under-villain he’s replacing.
The higher up the food chain toward the big boss that the PCs get, the more likely it becomes that the villain is not just following his own orders or directives, but the plans of an organization or affiliation he belongs to. Consider granting the villain an Affiliation or Organization membership (PHB2 p163, Complete Champion p64), and using those extra connections and abilities to leverage his plans. Actually, a villain might also be at the top of such an organization, and if he levels up (your major recurring villains certainly should sometimes level, to keep up with the party) he might well take the Leadership feat to gather a new group of minions and henchfolk.
Rumors of Villainy
The use of Gather Information or divination spells such as commune (or even augury, in some cases) may give you an excuse to build up the reputation of the major villains in your campaign. Oracles may foretell the actions of an especially spectacular villain -- though that prophecy might easily be faked by a villain for the notoriety. Just as PC heroes sometimes make a splash when they pull off a spectacular victory, so villains can do the same, spreading news of their power, their magic, or their cleverness throughout the underworld, among their evil allies, or among the commoners they wish to frighten into obedience.
Characters with social skills can pick up these stories about what a villain has accomplished recently, but of course what most players want is news about what a villain’s up to next. Take the common example of a villain recruiting an army. You could just tell the party: “He’s raising undead from the graveyards and massing zombies at his castle. Peasants keep hearing the howling of his shadow hounds, and it’s just a matter of time until he raids the city.” It’s a fine, direct hook, and for many groups that’s probably the fastest way to get the adventure going for that night.
But with more seasoned players, it might pay to be less direct and just give the party the basic information: bodies have been dug up from the graveyard, and the prince’s dogs refused to go into the forest near Caer Thorn recently. Well, that’s certainly suspicious, but there could be multiple explanations. It’s up to the players to sort fact from fiction. The bodies might be taken by common graverobbers or poor medical students, and the dogs might have hesitated because of a werewolf in the forest.
Furthermore, sticking to the facts and letting players draw their own conclusions allows you to sometimes pull a head-fake with your major villain. For instance, instead of the main villain raising an army of undead, it might be that ghasts have infested the graveyard under the command of a high priest of Nerull, and are working their way closer and closer to city. Eventually, they’ll kill some citizens rather than just plundering graveyards. A party going to the necromancer’s castle expecting to fight an army might be doing exactly the wrong thing: leaving the city undefended just when the followers of Nerull seek to plunder saintly bones from the cathedral in the city center!
Just because one villain is the obvious suspect and your main foe, doesn’t mean that no other villains are active. It may even be that your main villain draws false suspicion on himself to allow an underling a chance to pull off something else; the villain puts on a big show of plotting something, spreads rumors, and then leads the party on a wild goose chase while his henchman or an allied villain pulls off the real caper many miles away. Villains should be wily; they’ll lie and deceive, and players should grow very, very suspicious of everything about them over the length of a campaign.
The best villains can and should take actions when they know the party is weak, scattered, or simply absent… and they should take action for themselves, not just in opposition to the party’s quests. Give the villains a chance to seize the moment, and force the heroes to react to multiple crises at once; your campaign will be more compelling for having overlapping plots. Villains who work as part of an organization or cult should draw on its resources, and if they are defeated too often or too easily, they should be replaced with someone more competent or more dangerous.
About the Author
Wolfgang Baur is plotting his elaborate-yet-ruthless vengeance even now. His escape hatch is a series of cleverly-disguised blogs like Open Design, where he shares further design secrets.