Villains Are People Too
In many tales, the villain can make or break the story. A great villain can save a subpar narrative, or can make an already amazing plot into something unforgettable. Legendary antagonists like Darth Vader, Sauron, and Thanos elevate their franchises, are synonymous with villainy, and are sometimes who we first think of when we look back at their sagas.
When outlining a campaign for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I always start with who my antagonist is and what they are all about. Even if it’s not the first thing you consider, it shouldn’t be an afterthought. If run well, the opposition will never be far from your players’ minds.
The villain is the closest thing to a player character that a Dungeon Master is going to get. Whereas most creatures I roleplay are probably fated to be slain by the party the first time they’re encountered, the villain will be actively roleplayed (either in the spotlight or behind the scenes) throughout the entire campaign. As such, I follow many of the same steps that a player might go through to create their adventuring hero when crafting my villains: outlining their goals, selecting an ideal, bond, and flaw.
Significant NPCs in Wizards of the Coasts published adventures list these attributes, including Strahd von Zarovich’s chamberlain Rahadin, the Abbot of Saint Markovia’s Abbey, and Acererak the archlich. In some modules the ultimate villain, such as Strahd himself, does not have these traits listed. This is not because these details are unimportant, but because the book is giving the Dungeon Master license to draw their own conclusions as to their particular motivations.
It’s best in these cases to start with the Ideal. This is the core belief held by the character, that they will never betray. All their actions should be colored by, in in service of, this belief. When others fail to uphold this belief, it offends our character. When others hold opposing ideals, our character will oppose them and their aims. For example, let us say that our villainous character is a mage who has the ideal “Magic is a gift from the gods, bestowed on the worthy to guide the weak.” How would a character with this ideal view the world? What would they think of fellow arcanists? Of the magically inept?
Lets consider Bonds next. Bonds are what tie the character to the world. They are the people, places, or things that matter most to them. In terms of a villain, they may be the reason that they began their descent down a dark path, or perhaps the one thing that is exempt from their rampage. Consider Mr Freeze in Batman. His bride, Nora Fries, is his bond. His crimes all serve to cure her from her fatal condition. Or how Darth Vader is a remorseless killer feared throughout the galaxy, but will not kill her children. And the Bond need not be a positive relationship. Negative Bonds are also possible. Inigo Montoya is bonded to the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride. Inigo’s father was killed by his nemesis, his face was scarred by Count Rugen, and Inigo has lived his entire life pursuing revenge against his father’s killer. Let’s say our villain’s Bond is their twin brother, who is not magically gifted but very much beloved. How would someone with his Ideal treat their beloved family member, even if they can’t cast a simple cantrip?
Finally, every character is has a flaw. This is not a weakness, per se which might also be interesting to give your villain), but rather an inherent imperfection in their personality that could cause them to act in a way that is disadvantageous to their own interests. This might take the form of an addiction, an obsession, a fear, paranoia, underestimating one’s opponents, or wholly trusting in a falsehood. Take Vizzini, also a villain from the Princess Bride. His downfall was assured when he matched wits with the Dread Pirate Roberts because his flaw was something along the lines of “I believe everyone is a fool compared to me. My cunning is second to none!” His hubris leads to his death when he is outsmarted by Wesley. Let’s pretend our villain’s flaw is “I believe I am chosen for glorious purpose by the gods. They will not let me die.” This supposed invincibility and “plot armor”, if you will, means that the villain may take great risks with their own life, confident that they are fated to succeed in whatever they attempt.
These three aspects of the villain’s identity make up the core of who they are. They should inform their actions, both in the long and short-term. Good villains have goals! Good villains have plans! That’s what separates them from common thugs and hoodlums: they take their ideals and follow them up with action. They are charismatic, powerful, and willing to do what it takes to turn their villainous dreams into reality.
Good villains should have a long-term goal and one or more short-term goals that serve that greater purpose. Think of Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin. He had a goal of being the most powerful person alive (a goal that shifted as his scope broadened over the course of the movie). He found a way to realize his dream: have the genie of the lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders grant his wish. But he had to find the cave first. So he located the two pieces of the golden scarab to show him the way. After he found it and realized that it would only open to "the diamond in the rough,” he sought out Aladdin. When he thought his chances at acquiring the lamp were dashed, he resorted to trying to marry his way to the top. And when the lamp resurfaced, he used his minion Iago to steal it back. Throughout setbacks and changing circumstances, he acted in service of his goals at every opportunity. This sort of consistency lends credence to his character and verisimilitude to the world.
Remember that villains are standouts as well. They exude charisma, conviction, or confidence that makes other want to follow them. A great villain will have a supporting cast of capable lieutenants and supporters who want to help them achieve their goals. These followers will, likewise, have their own goals that they believe the villain will help them achieve. Whether that trust is well-placed is up to you!
Oftentimes we see villains as little more than an agents of evil, but we waste their potential when we do not see them as people first. People have personalities, drives, and plans… inherent flaws that can be exploited and relationships that they value. Populate your future campaigns with second sons of kings who long for the throne that they are never destined to sit on, and whose lives are haunted by inadequacy and jealousy of their brother the heir. Present your players with insane arcanists that have lost their lovers to death, and whose pursuit of the means to not only return them to life but to ensure that death will never separate them again has driven them mad. Reveal that the Black Knight that rides before an army of devils is a widower and adopted father to a tiefling child, who serves the armies of hell to uphold his end of a bargain that guarantees the safety of the only family he has left.
Because though now they are tyrants, necromancers, and oathbreakers, these villains were just people, just like the player characters. Your heroes may see dark reflections of themselves and their own goals and ambitions in the villains… that only a few differences, a scant few choices, separate them from becoming what they struggle against.
There, but for the grace of god, go I…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob has been a Dungeon Master for seven years. He loves to share his experience and enthusiasm for tabletop roleplaying. He recently founded DNDWANNABE, a project dedicated to helping those who play and run D&D take their game to the next level! For encouragement or questions, he can be reached @dndwannabe on twitter.