DMing 101 – Villains
In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
Brace yourselves, this is a biggy!
It’s important to remember that not every campaign needs a villain to drive the story. A quest can be driven by the pursuit of an object, or to prevent some terrible event. But the occasional reoccurring enemy or a well developed BBEG (big bad evil guy) can be a memorable and compelling addition to a role-play, and villain driven campaigns doubly so.
Much of the advice on building NPCs also applies to making a villain, so many of the points I made in that post will be similar, but villains have so much more margin for error, but are far more rewarding to get right.
Why do we fight?
A villain does not have to be the bad guy, nor does it have to be evil. The best villains are not mindless antagonists with no desire other than to kill, cause chaos, or simply to blindly oppose the adventuring party. The best have motivations of their own and goals that they seek to achieve. So here are a few major types of villains your party could face:
- Overlords: Crime-bosses, masterminds, puppeteers and tyrants. An overlord controls from behind the scenes, possibly making no appearances except as a hypothetical or mysterious being of control, others may have a very public face as the leader of a country, or making regular appearances to enforce their authority. They may not even know the players exist, and usually have little regard for them as any form of threat, at least to begin with.
- Criminals: Elusive and cunning, a criminal will often work alone as an assassin or thief, and will try to flee confrontation more often than face it head on. If they fight back at all, they do so only when they have the upper hand, ambushing in the night or attacking as part of a mob.
- Rivals: Rivals are competition for the adventuring party. They may become enemies by always being that little bit better than the party or actively impeding the them in progress. They need not necessarily be evil, and may even seek the exact same goals as the party but use methods that the group find unnecessary or despicable.
- Arch Nemeses: A difficult villain type to make compelling. A nemesis is specifically out to oppose or kill the players for reasons of their own. It’s often best to work with one or more members of your group to go into details of their back-story to help determine a reason for a nemesis developing. Or you could create one as part of the adventure through the party’s actions (or blunders).
By taking one, or mixing these archetypes you can start to put together a motivation for your villain, and with that a personality. In each case it is easy to make the character evil, but a little thought can yield a very rewarding and sympathetic character who may even find the players fighting with them rather than against (with the arch-nemesis being an obvious exception). Much like an NPC, it’s worth remembering that villains are people too, even if that person is a 20 ton fire-breathing reptile, or a blob of sentient light.
If you’re creating a villain then you should already know where they fit into your story and how long, or how often they will feature. Another comparison to be drawn between villains and common NPCs is how much detail you should go into in relation to how central the character is to the plot, but a villain always deserves more than the common henchman or standard merchant.
It can be difficult to build up the personality of a mini-boss in the short space of time that they will be present in the story, but worth the effort. Having them pop-up to monologue, or taunt the group briefly works well, but you could also use other NPCs to build up a picture. Second-hand interactions such as wanted posters, talking with a victim, or having the group find the aftermath of their deeds all can help build up a picture of the villain before the players ever encounter them.
A mini boss should also have smaller desires than their grander-scale counterparts; personal glory, conquest localized to a fairly small area, or maybe a single object or person. You should also wonder what has held them back? Are they weak, stupid, cowardly, or do they have the potential for a greater degree of villainy and the adventuring group have the opportunity to cut them down before they seize it. Mini-bosses could also work to compliment a bigger, badder villain, like a lieutenant or a ‘minion in chief’ at the head of some sub-faction.
A Big Bad Evil Guy should encounter the players at least once before their ‘final encounter.’ A quick brush with death should serve to impress upon the players how outmatched they are, how far they need to go to compete, and should also give them a far deeper understanding of what makes this NPC their enemy. After that, every second-hand interaction they have will only further cement that rivalry.
When building a villain at this level, you should consider both their strengths and their weaknesses. Why is your villain so terrifying? And how can your players hope to defeat it? It needn’t be kryptonite or the light of day; your group could find a way to use the villain’s greed, or jealousy to bring about its’ downfall. Perhaps the villain is simply weak, but sits at the head of a vast army, or wields a powerful weapon that it is helpless without.
Take the classic vampire, a fantastic cross-genre BBEG. The vampire’s strengths are many and terrifying, immortality, immune to most conventional weapons, strong, intelligent, and terrifying. However, vampires also have some well established weaknesses, and while you needn’t use all of them (running water, silver, holy symbols for example) some are so ingrained it may seem a little unfair to make a vampire invulnerable to sunlight or beheading (although you could use it as a compelling twist).
Your villain is licence for you to have a lot of fun with your players, in a way it’s a means of interacting one on one with their characters, which is why a good villain is worth doing right. Don’t be afraid to put a little of yourself into your creation, and remember that there’s utterly no shame in stealing a little from other media, a favourite book or game for example. Above all, give your villain a reason to be beyond “because they’re evil.”
My name is Joel (Terra_Phi most places) and I am an experienced DM of nearly 7 years. I also run a site called Quotesfromthetabletop.net with a friend of mine who’s much better at site-building than I am. If you’re interested in getting into tabletop role-playing, our site is full of good reasons, all the stupid and brilliant quotes and stories that could only ever happen at the table