Adventure Builder Workshop: The Villain

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 7, 2010

Every adventure has a purpose and more often than not that purpose is stopping the villain from completing their malevolent agenda. The central villain of an adventure is perhaps one of the most important design decisions a DM makes. If the appropriate time and effort is put into designing the villain, the rest of the adventure will form around him, creating memories you and your players will remember for years. However, if you don’t take the appropriate time to craft your villain you may find your adventure sessions shallow and lacking a clear sense of purpose.

What was the Fellowship without the evil of Sauron and the One Ring? Sherlock Holmes has Professor Moriarty as a nemesis and Batman has the Joker. All of these villains provided the requisite motivation to keep the hero working towards the success of his quest or mission.

This is part one of a series based on the Adventure Builder Workshop held at GenCon this year. Part one will focus on the villain, what you will receive in this series is a breakdown of the seminar that was led by Rodney Thompson from Wizards of the Coast. Earlier in August I posted a high level review of the Adventure Builder Workshop, what this series will do is go into much greater detail about the individual sections.

In creating a memorable villain there are four major sections that we will consider.

  1. The villain’s motivation
  2. Memorable traits
  3. Villain reactions
  4. The villain’s death.

Villain Motivation

Why does your villain do what they do? What is their motivation and how do they go about reaching their objective. Motivation can be as simple as greed or power. It can also be much more complex. Perhaps the villain is a freedom fighter who has taken extreme measures overthrowing the ruling authority. His actions have put him outside normal society and continue to have him push the extreme of what is tolerable. As a result the people the villain seeks to free turn against him. At best the villain is simply misunderstood at worst the experience changes him, pushing him to punish those he once sought to help.

As the central antagonist in the campaign your villain needs to have a clear objective. You need to know why the villain wants what they want. While greed and power are easy objectives to develop for a villain, as motivations they often create very simplistic or one dimensional villains. In short the villain is boring, there is no deep character flaw that makes him tragic. There is nothing that could cause sympathy on the part of the PCs.

A great place to look for motivation for your villain is real world sources. Whether it’s a Bernie Madoff figure who steals from the crown and the common people for his own gain or the threat that Al-Qaeda represent. Taking the base motivation from a real world source and then adding the flavour and fluff of Dungeons & Dragons to it can create great villains that will be a thorn in your players side for many adventures.

Another source for interesting villains is a rival adventuring party. This provides the PCs with a sense of competition as they seek to outdo their rivals. What steps will the PCs take to ensure they stay ahead of their foes? Some recent campaigns that I’ve participated in have featured villains of this sort. One was a group of thieves in Waterdeep who were recruited to form a new guild. They were advised that other rival groups had also been recruited. Whatever group was more successful over a certain duration would win the prize and then eliminate their rivals. Another campaign was set in Eberron and featured a treasure hunt where multiple groups were looking for the keys to unlock an ancient treasure rumoured to have great power.

When creating your villain, don’t just assume that they must be evil. Instead try to create a villain whose motivation could be seen as reasonable and perhaps even as right. An example that came out of the Adventure Builder Workshop was of a retired Cleric who was trying to preserve the life of someone he cared for. His actions were noble, but the consequences of the ritual involved were devastating.

Memorable Traits

Every villain needs something to define them beyond their motivation. Assigning one or two memorable traits is a great way to have your villain stand out. This could be a verbal tick, physical appearance or an item that is always in their possession. Some examples that jump to mind are the Joker’s face paint and Cobra Commander’s mask. These are iconic images that anyone who has seen either of these two characters can relate to.

One of the villains that Chris Perkins related to the group was of an individual who needed to be sustained by arcane gas. His outfit was a weird contraption of leather straps that included an odd helmet. All of this was required to keep the gas close to his body. During combat when the villain becomes bloodied they develop an aura of poison gas around them.

Proactive and Reactive

Villains aren’t static. They change and react to the campaign. Just as the PCs make decisions, so too does the villain. PCs should be able to see the villains plan unfolding before them. The villain should be interacting with the hero’s multiple times throughout the campaign. Communication can take on multiple forms such as a sending stone, magic mirror or illusion.

The villain shouldn’t be hidden from the PCs only to be revealed in the final encounter. The PCs should be feeling the villains presence over the life of the campaign. There should be multiple run-ins with the villain, requiring combat and social interaction. The main antagonist to the PCs should be very much alive and part of the campaign as the PCs are.

If the PCs foil the villain’s plan, they should see the villain reacting to that. If the PCs take steps to reach a certain objective the villain should proactively try to stop them from achieving that objective.

Villain Death

Villains die. One way or another your villain will die. If you place the villain into harms way early in the campaign be prepared for the very real possibility that the PCs might kill him. For this reason always give your villain an out, just be careful not to cheat the PCs (too badly) when you use it.

If your villain does die do you have a backup? Every villain has henchman, when creating your henchman (we’ll take about them later) is one of them strong enough to take over if your villain dies?

Also consider the ramifications if the villain dies? Is the villain well connected politically? If the PCs kill him, what are the social implications of this? Will all of the villain’s old allies, individuals who hold considerable power, turn on the PCs and make life very difficult for them?

Sample Ideas

Below are a few ideas to use when you are looking to create your next villain.

  • Unexpected villain, someone the PCs know and trust.
  • A retired hero or war veteran.
  • An individual who made the right decision, yet it ended up ostracizing him from the establishment of the day.

Additional Resources

What memorable villains have you created in your previous campaigns? Share your ideas with the community so we can all create the perfect villain for our next game.

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1 Al Beddow September 22, 2010 at 12:26 am

Nicely put but not the first or even second time I’ve read all this.
You have the “Villain Design Handbook” from Kenzer&Co (a Kingdoms of Kalimar d20 sourcebook but over 60 pages of great coverage of what was said here).
And then there is WotC’s “Exemplars of Evil” which is similar to the VDC just not quite as good.

2 Wimwick September 22, 2010 at 9:11 am

@ Al Beddow
Thanks for the feedback. I certainly won’t claim to be the first to every write on this subject. Most of the material comes from the seminar run by WotC at GenCon, with my thoughts added on. The greatest benefit of the seminar is the group approach to design at the end of each section. That alone makes the seminar worth attending.

3 TheBrassDuke August 27, 2014 at 11:14 am

One great villain who will always stick with me is my co-DM’s “Self-Proclaimed Queen of the Elves”, Ceria! A terrible mother, Ceria bred her eldest son to be the most feared Man Slayer alive, forced her youngest daughter into clerical exile, only to bring her and the newly founded church under her rule and, finally, murdered everyone they loved so it would be easier to accomplish.

Not to mention the woman’s dwarven mines utilizing Slave labor, her war crimes and dark pacts. Long live the Queen! Hail Ceria!

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