D&D Campaign Building 101: Villains
If your D&D game is like most, your PCs are probably the heroic types. They put the rightful heir to the kingdom on the throne, save the princess, quell the hobgoblin uprising, and prevent the magical MacGuffin object from falling into the wrong hands.
Regardless of alignment, the PCs will do what they think is the “right thing”. The game is shaped around their perspectives and values.
In many games it is easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Unless your PCs are Evil, there is little denying they will feel compelled to go against the unsavory villains you place in front of them. Your villain is the traditional “BwuaHaha” villain who wants to conquer because he can (eg, Sauron from “Lord of the Rings”).
The advantage of such a villain is that they give the players a clearly defined goal. But the game can seem too much of a by-the-numbers adventure. It is undeniably clear that there is little to do except undertake the adventures necessary to stop the villain (eg, destroy the One Ring).
Such villains serve for only one end: They must be defeated by any means necessary to “win” the game. There’s just no reasoning with these people.
But the peril on the other end of the continuum is a villain who is too reasonable. While villains of this sort are much more layered and realistic, they are perhaps so understandable that they generate a degree of sympathy and willingness to try and work through the issue with them. The game can fall apart because sheer diplomacy and patience may turn the “big bad” adversary into an ally.
The best villains probably fall somewhere in the middle. Magneto from the X-Men series is a villain who is sympathetic in his creation but vicious in his execution. We understand why he is the way he is but we can’t condone his actions because of it.
We may not even understand the reasons behind the villain, but simply be able to assume they must be horrific. Here you get villains like The Joker.
While one would have to assume there is much that would have to happen to a child to turn him into this sort of person, we don’t know what it is. We never get to understand him save for what he presents to us in his psychotic dialog.
So we can’t fully sympathize with him or support his views. Like Magneto, we might care about whatever traumas befell him as a child, but we aren’t privy to them. But like all villains, whether it be the sympathetic Magneto or the wholly diabolical Sauron, it is clear he must be stopped.
It seems we most benefit then from a villain who is neither too one-dimensional nor too easily engaged in socially acceptable discussion. So, that being said…
What Makes a Good Villain?
1) The villain sees the world in a skewed way.
This is true of villains such as The Joker and Magneto. That their acts are villainous can’t be denied. They are probably beyond help.
But their perspective of the world is as intriguing as their actions toward it. Even if we don’t understand their foundation (eg, Joker) we are fascinated by how someone so intelligent and capable, and in many ways like us, could see the world so differently.
We said earlier that the game is shaped around the heroic PC’s perspectives and values. Well, remember that, from the villain’s perspective, they too are doing the right thing.
They may recognize that their actions are not socially/morally/ethically acceptable. But, in their mind, it is always justified.
2) The villain has the power to enact change, and is motivated to do so.
You can’t have an impotent villain. Those people are just philosophers.
The villain has to have the power to fundamentally change the world around him or her. This might be done through minions, devices, or whatever. It may not be direct. But that is power nonetheless.
Therefore, if the PCs are opposed to the antagonist (and are, by definition) then they have reason to fear. If the villain is left unchecked, undesirable things will happen.
3) The villain is often a dark reflection of the hero.
In many cases, the villain represents what the hero might be if they too had the skewed perspective listed in Item #1. This isn’t always the case, but it can make for an interesting contrast.
Harry Potter is a wizard living in the muggle world. He wants to develop his gifts in peace, living the best from both worlds. – – Voldemort was a wizard living in the muggle world. He wants to develop his gifts but sees no peace between muggles and wizards. The first must be controlled/eradicated and the latter must swear fealty to him.
Luke Skywalker is the chosen one, a Jedi destined to bring peace to the galaxy. – – Darth Vader, as Anakin Skywalker, was the chosen one. He was to bring peace to the galaxy but instead he led it into the Emperor’s rule.
Charles Xavier is one of the most powerful mutants on Earth, dedicated to helping mutants and humans to live together in equality. – – Magneto is one of the most powerful mutants on Earth, convinced equality is a pipe dream and dedicated to the institution of mutant dominance. … and, interestingly, there are many parallels between this story and that of Harry/Voldemort.
Batman is a zealot who seeks to protect Gotham City from itself. He believes he can save the society that Gotham represents. – – The Joker is a zealot who believes society is beyond hope. He would hasten Gotham City to anarchy and chaos.
These are just a few examples of the dichotomy so often seen in villains as compared to the hero.
The hero is as much defined by their foes as they are by their own values and actions. These heroes need their villains. So, in crafting a good villain NPC, try building him around the heroic PC.
4) The villain often has a distinctive physical quality
Darth Vader’s respirator makes an unmistakable and recognizable sound.
The Joker has scars that make him resemble a demented clown.
Voldemort had the visage of a snake.
Agent Smith from “The Matrix” had a unique speech pattern.
So it would seem that a really memorable villain may have such a distinctive quality. Then again, it is okay to break the stereotypes.
Maybe the villain is someone so innocuous as to be invisible until it’s too late. No one suspects Harvey, the village dung sweeper, of being the master villain. … but if that was your role in life, maybe you’d want to conquer the world too.
If you want an example of a master villain from the movies, one you never see coming, here’s the one name to remember: Keyser Soze.
5) You (the DM) has to understand your villain in and out. Your players don’t.
The only way you can present your villain as you wish, no matter how simplistic or complex he may be, is to know him.
The villain isn’t placed in the game to be defeated. When writing the plot, think of the villain as if he was the campaign’s PC and shape his actions accordingly.
From the villain’s perspective, it is the player party that needs to be defeated, and for good reason, if things are to end up as the “villain” wishes. The villain will take actions based on his perspectives and values. Likewise, he will react to the party’s actions (or those of others) on the same psychological foundation.
So the only way you can properly write those actions and reactions is to understand that foundation. The reaction of “Curses! You’re trying to stop me. I’ll kill you!” is a generic response. Your villains can do much more if you understand them.
The Joker says he’s a mad dog off his leash. No doubt. But even that mad dog has thoughts in his head.
Might the Joker (in the scenes we don’t see) be found alone, ruminating over everything? We draw our perspective of the world from our reflections of the past. I bet the Joker has a lot to think about.
“The world is a cruel and terrible place [Everything, from Joker’s perspective, confirms it]. We kid ourselves that we can be saved because beneath all those lies we call ‘society’ and ‘law’ there is just a bunch of animals waiting to tear each other apart.
But they are all so blind. They don’t see because they don’t want to see. I have to show them […because, if I can’t, I have no way to justify the kind of person I really am. I have to prove them all to be just like me.]
They look for anything to give them hope that all the truths they know are lies. Their gods. Their Batman. If I can break those false idols then they will have no choice but to admit the truth [then I won’t have to hate myself because we’re all on an equal playing field. In the end, none of this matters and I refuse to live my life being the only one who can accept it.]”
I am only guessing at what the Joker might really think. I can’t know.
The reason I can’t know is because we are following the part of Batman (our hero) when watching the movie. We don’t get to know the villain so intimately.
But Christopher Nolan has to. He has to know his antagonist from the inside out. As DM, so do you.
You don’t have to hand all that over to the players. Nolan didn’t. You only have to give them enough to motivate them to act. But, if you know your NPCs through and through, you now have the ability to give the players as much as you want to form an image of the foe they face.
6) Invite the Villain over for tea?
Some villains can be reasoned with. Some cannot. But, either way, your heroes are bound to try.
Even if the players expect, and secretly hope, to fight the villain, they will likely feel compelled to try and reason with him first. After all, everyone likes to monologue.
Even though Syndrome warned you about this in “The Incredibles”, your villain will deliver his statement of purpose to the players. The players will have their own declarations.
Unless your villain is a machine, a construct, or a zombie looking for a snack, there is usually an initial attempt to talk. It isn’t necessarily so much that the players expect to end the threat this way. It’s just usually how it goes.
What you, as DM, need to know is what happens when the players roll high on that Diplomacy skill check. Although you may not want the villain to back down, it is necessary to have the reactions be reasonable for the villain’s perspective.
Whether the villain is operating from a place of logic or emotion (probably both) they will have triggers that make things go better or worse for the party. Consider if he can be convinced, by any means, to take other action.
Magneto, despite his traumatic childhood, is actually quite a reasonable person. He even became Headmaster once of Charles Xavier’s school, carrying on the work he once decried because of his emotional connection to Charles and his hope that Xavier’s dream could be a reality, despite his doubts.
Reasoning with Sauron? Yeah, not so much.
It is all a matter of shades and degrees. Maybe you want a villain so zealous in his cause that nothing will sway him. Maybe you don’t.
But knowing where he falls on this continuum, based on different approaches by the party, is to your advantage. These are the answers you want to have ready long before your players try to mend things with a hug and a puppy.
Living in Infamy
There’s no “right” way to create your villain. From the most meat-headed ogre lord to the shrewdest mastermind, the antagonist for your players should reflect the flavor of the game you wish to build.
But hopefully this article provides a broader perspective of the possibilities for your villain. If you step back and look at the villains from books, television, or movies that stick with you there must be something to learn there.
Whether you gravitate toward Sauron, Magento, Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, Darth Vader, or Stewie Griffin, all good villains leave an indelible mark on our memories in some way. Hopefully your D&D villain will too, being spoken of by your players many years after the last die is rolled.
(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N.)