How to DM: Creating Memorable Villains

What do you think of when you hear names like, Cruella DeVille, Melificent, Jafar, Scar (other than I can only seem to think of things Disney rolled out…)? They are memorable villains! Who can forget how awesome that fight between Prince Philip and Melificent was when she turned into a dragon? Who can forget the epic fight between an all-powerful sorcerer and a simple rogue? Who, in their right mind, can forget the voice of Jeremy Iron as Scar, his claws in that of Mufasa, leaning in and saying “Long live the king…” while throwing Mufasa to his death?!

What was it about these horrible people that made them so memorable? They had depth and motive. Melificent was evil, but wronged for not being invited to the party for baby Aurora. Jafar was eager to take power over the sultan and take the throne for himself. Scar was similarly motivated, but desired the rulership of the Pridelands to be the ultimate revenge for his brother taking what he believed to be his birthright.

So, how do you build these villains?

Remember how we were building the adventure? Let’s go back there. Let’s say that our adventure is exploring a dungeon with a long buried treasure. Of course there’s going to be plenty of monster encounters, traps, puzzles, etc…You’re an expert now in building encounters, right? Right! But what’s guarding the final treasure room?

This encounter is what is commonly referred to as a BBEG: Big Bad Evil Guy. Of course it doesn’t have to be a guy, but this is the term generally used. The BBEG is the “final boss” of the adventure. In our adventure, depending on the level of the party, it could be as simple as a mummy, or maybe as dangerous as a lich or demilich! The sky’s the limit on this.

One of my favorite movies is The Incredibles. The final villain in the first movie is absolutely awesome, if you think about it. It’s a kid who felt wronged and hurt, who turned that hurt into anger and revenge. His whole goal was to eliminate Mr. Incredible. Also, if you look at it, Mr. Incredible was responsible for creating Syndrome!

Let’s dissect this further. Syndrome obviously had an intimate relationship with Mirage, who turned on him when Mr. Incredible threatened to kill her during his capture. This shows the ruthlessness of Syndrome even in his personal relationships when it comes to his revenge plans. Further, you can see how Syndrome, although he makes the occasional blunder (like making the robot AI too smart), he shows himself to be an insanely smart villain. He planned and executed the death of several of the super heroes. He lured Mr. Incredible to his capture. His technology sales created a mass fortune, enough that he purchased an island, built a huge and elaborate base, and had a personal army/security force at his beck and call.

Then there are his flaws: he believed his plan unstoppable. He monologues enough to nearly be defeated by Mr. Incredible. His arrogance at his belief that his technology was enough to do what superheroes could do. These are all flaws, and some of them fatal.

There’s another school of thought on villains. That of the good guy who is following a path because he truly believes what he is doing is right. I’m not talking about that evil witch “Professor” Umbridge of the Harry Potter universe. She was absolute evil incarnate, and frankly, worse of a villain than that of Voldemort. Fight me if you think I’m wrong. No, I’m talking about those antagonists that believe whose goals are directly opposed to that of the protagonist, but who, themselves, are not “bad guys.” These are awesome and memorable antagonists, because it combines the need to ensure the party’s goals, with the moral and ethical dilemma of defeating a good person. Why are their goals different? Who knows. Maybe it’s a Boromir situation, in which they are taunted by the magical artifact.

Sometimes, and this is a great adventure and even campaign plot, the party are inadvertently the bad guys! One of my favorite episodes of Puffin Forrest involves the party working for a mysterious person, who has tasked them with finding some magic crystals. The only problem? This figure was the BBEG, and the party was inadvertantly putting together his ability to rise to power again!

Then there is this story (beware, wall of text):

I know it’s a little blurry, but hopefully you get the idea. Sometimes the BBEG can be the best good guy.

Personally, I love these kinds of BBEG. The ones you think, “Hmm, I think he has a point…”

When I play video games, especially the ones like Mass Effect or Fable, or even the Fallout series, when I play an evil character, they always have a single virtue (conversely my good characters have a flaw; for example, my good character had a wife in every town, where my evil character was faithful to his wife: Lady Grey). This helps give more depth to the villain.

The other thing I give my villains is a memorable “voice.” Maybe it’s an accent or way of speaking when I, as the DM, speak for him. Maybe he’s got the accent of a Bond Villain. Maybe he’s more “Dr. Evil.” Whatever the case, make your villain’s dialogue unique.

One Villain, the Emperor from my (in)famous pirate campaign was voiced by the player who played him. Beforehand, however, we discussed his cadence, his speech pattern, all of these things when he unmasked himself as the primary villain of the campaign (sort of). Great villain.

So, go out, make a villain, and make him/her awesome!

Until next time, dear readers!

DM How To: Campaign Building

Last week we talked about plot hooks. Remember that post. It becomes important.

Start with building a home base. Usually it’s best to make this a small to medium village where you can flush out a number of NPCs and build out an area from there. All the characters should have a reason for being here. Maybe they are from the area and are starting their adventuring career from here. Maybe they are new adventurers who happen to be passing through. No matter the case, the starting area should have some basic things: and in where they can stay or some other similar place, a general good store where they can purchase adventuring supplies (they don’t have to be able to get everything there necessarily, they just have to be able to get the basics at the least), and usually a blacksmith where they can purchase weapons and/or armor.Now, this is the most common way of doing this, but there’s no reason why you can’t start them in a large metropolis, or a larger town. Additionally, you could start them off as travelers on the road in the middle of a wilderness, or in some harsher environment, like a desert or tundra and their first goal is to find civilization and survive. Just remember, that their home base, wherever it may be, is going to be the basis for where the party will return in between adventures.

Next you want to focus on building your adventures while seating in campaign events. Maybe your campaign is focused on the return of an ancient and powerful dragon. Your first adventure may only have some kind of reference to said dragon or its return. Maybe it’s a kobold cult dedicated to this dragon. Maybe they simply find a shrine or inscription vaguely relating to the return of this dragon. Whatever the case may be, you start seeding in campaign events or minor plot points early, and continue to do so in greater and more blatant numbers as your campaign progresses.

As we talk about campaign progression, is worth noting that many campaigns tend to fizzle out around the tier 3 mark, between 11th and 16th level. Not many campaigns go into the higher levels. Plan your campaigns based on how far and what level you want your adventures to be when the campaign ends. Do you want your campaign to take them all the way to 20th level? This is a daunting task but is very doable. It just takes careful planning.It is always helpful, just like doing so for adventures, to do a rough flow chart or outline for the general direction you want the the campaign to go. Again, don’t forget to plant seeds for your plot as it is being revealed.Next, create a local region. After you have created the home base, you want a local region where, either them majority of the campaign, or the entire campaign, take place. Doing a bit of cartography helps in this. Maybe there is a large forest where the elf kingdom lay. Maybe there is a mountain range where, in our earlier example, the ancient dragon is supposed to be summoned from. Whatever You choose, make sure that you flush it out just enough to give it some structure. If you know exactly what adventures the party will encounter, as well as the level progression you expect, either by milestone leveling or by experience points (this is where doing a flowchart and/or an outline really helps), You can divide the areas out by level. Just remember, players make the decisions for the characters. This is where you’re amazing plot hooks come in, drawing them into the story and keeping them on track within the areas for their own levels. Of course, we don’t want to railroad our players. Maybe we want to give options to where certain adventures can take place. This is why we flesh out the region just enough to give it some structure, but leave us with some flexibility as to where certain events can take place.

Campaign Events

The Dungeon Master guide, as it should, has a lot of good ideas for major campaign events. They refer to them as world – shaking events. It is a good idea to check out that section of chapter one. One of their major recommendations is to have three good campaign shaking events. I highly recommend that you read that section. It should be noted that the campaign does not have to be just about the story you have crafted. Character backgrounds, when provided, offer great opportunities for character development as well as campaign development. Maybe the party has decided they don’t have the strength or power to defeat the big bad evil guy (BBEG). Using the characters backgrounds you can craft adventures that help them gain the power, or maybe find legendary weapons or artifacts, that will help them in defeating the BBEG. Maybe The characters themselves just gain a bit of depth during these adventures. Having your players create a good structure for their backgrounds really helps out here. The podcast/show critical role does a very good job for this in their first season. As a result of the character development, each character also gets an ending/epilogue.

All Good Things Come To An End

It is my belief, that secretly, in the depths of every dungeon master (at least, the very good ones) wants each character to have their “happily ever after.” Of course, campaign events and bad rolls can lead to character death. That said, for the most part, with the exception of a total party wipe out, the individual characters, as well as the party as a whole, should have a nice wrap up with their characters epilogue. These do not have to be elaborate, although they can be, but should provide some sort of satisfying conclusion to the campaign and campaign events. This usually is done by each player, as well as with significant input and inclusion with, the dungeon master.

Well, that’s my counsel and advice on building a campaign. Do you think I missed something? Let me know in the comments below. Is there a topic you would like me to cover, again, let me know in the comments! 

Next week, we will discuss creating memorable villians!

Until tomorrow readers.

How to DM: Encounter Building

This week’s How to DM, we are looking at building encounters.

Last week, we talked about Adventure Planning, where we decided what sorts of encounters the party would face while getting to their goal. I break encounters up into four categories:

  1. Monsters
  2. Role-playing/NPCs
  3. Puzzle-solving
  4. Traps

Sure, there are other kinds, but in my opinion, all of these are subsets of the above four.

Let’s talk about them!

Monsters

These are pretty easy to define.

Image is the property of Wizards of the Coast; all rights reserved.

Monsters are those pesky things that are usually hiding, guarding, or hoarding treasure. They come in all shapes and sizes, but more importantly, they come in differing ecologies. As such, take a look at your adventure encounters. Do you want a goblin there? Why is it there? Is it in a city, and if so why? The monster descriptions tell you the sort of place or environment that the particular critter is supposed to be found in. It doesn’t really make sense for a fire elemental to be found on the Elemental Plane of Water, for example.

That said, I ask myself the following questions when placing a monster somewhere:

  1. Why is it there?
  2. What does it want, if anything?
  3. What is it doing when the party encounters it?
  4. Does the party have to kill or defeat it in order to complete the encounter?
  5. Can the party bypass the monster with words or actions?
  6. How did it get there?
  7. What is on it, be it treasure, weapons, or other (keys or other such plot-important items)?

Keep in mind that if you can justify why something is where it is, it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t technically belong. Maybe that’s a mystery the party of adventurers is meant to discover, maybe not. Sometimes, the strangest placement of a weird critter can be a memorable encounter (“Remember that imp we found in the Seven Heavens? Weird, right?”).

Puzzles

These are always fun for the party…sometimes.

Of course, I kid, but sometimes…not really. Remember when we looked at types of adventures? Well, I forgot a crucial point: do the sorts of adventures that your players enjoy. If they enjoy combat, roll some good combat encounters. If they enjoy puzzles, toss them in. If they DO NOT ENJOY PUZZLES don’t do many, if any at all. Trust me on this.

Personally, I love the puzzles that involve a player miming themselves through. No joke, I got a player to do the Cha-cha Slide which was written down one step at a time, in order for them to get across a floor to the other side where a lever would disable the rest of the floor. It was awesome and that whole dungeon had everyone laughing and enjoying themselves. The best part? The party was okay with puzzles, so they could get into it. A good time was had by all.

That said, be careful with puzzles…

I’m not trying to insult the intelligence of players here, so don’t get me wrong. The issue is that, if they’ve been running combat encounter after combat encounter, sometimes a player is not in the headspace to be able to solve a riddle or work through a puzzle. Be careful on how much thinking you really want the party to go through.

Traps

This is also pretty self-explanatory. Of note however, regardless of how cool your trap may be, let me offer a bit of advice: stay away of instant kill traps. I mean, if there are clear warnings that “Death Ahead: Bridge over lava is out!” are ignored, please, by all means, let the player that walks through the door die. But no inescapable pits of acid, no death drops into lava, etc…

That said, if you are running the sort of “meat-grinder” that The Tomb of Horrors entails, make sure that the party is fully aware that the death of their characters is a VERY real possibility. This keeps the party in the mindset that behind every door is the possibility of death.

Also, traps, with few exceptions, should be able to be disabled. Don’t take the job from the rogue and make sure that the rogue gets a chance to do one of his many jobs.

Role-playing/NPCs

This is the bread and butter of D&D, and partly why it is a social game. This is where the players get to talk as their characters, interacting with one another as well as the wonderfully deep and structured (::snort:: – who am I joking?) Non-player characters.

This is where the players get to have their characters get to explore their backgrounds (“Wait…what do you mean you were a sailor? We’ve been on this sailing ship for ages and you’ve said NOTHING!”), get to resolve inter-party conflicts, and much, much more.

A word of note: it really helps to incorporate your players’ backstories into the campaign to encourage role-playing. The characters’ backstories can provide a veritable HOST of adventure ideas.

Am I right, DMs?

I hope you found this helpful. If you think there’s something I missed, tell me in the comments!