I’ll state the obvious right from the start; D&D villains, at their core, are in some way deficient. They possess qualities that make them less than perfect and more than beatable. I’ve only been DMing for a short time, so my opinion is worth less than the breath it takes to make, but in that short time behind the screen I’ve come to wonder – what makes some of the most powerful, nigh unbeatable villains of the multiverse turn into fodder for your standard adventuring party?
The question plagued me for a time (about as much time one takes to down a shot of reasonably priced tequila), but I came to this realization: what I first saw as deficiencies are really the qualities that make villains playable in the first place. What do I mean by that? Well, broken down it seems that every D&D villain has a built in stop-gate preventing them from bringing 100% of their power against PCs, or, in some cases, even 50% of their power against PCs. Even the most intelligent bosses in D&D make rookie mistakes as soon as an adventuring party roles into town. These mistakes are usually predicated on one of three defects:
The Big Bad seems to have better things to do than deal with the immediate threat the PCs represent. Whether the villain is powdering their nose, or trying to stave off planar incursions from their more insistent foes, rest assured, the PCs are second banana right up to the point they plant their fists in the Big Bad’s face.
The villain seems content, no matter how many times they’re proven wrong, to send insufficient resources to deal with the PCs. I can only imagine how the conversation between henchman and Big Bad must have gone…
Henchman: Sir, they’ve killed over a hundred of us. Perhaps, if you joined…
Villain: Nonsense! You and a few other men are more than enough to deal with them.
Henchman: …sir, really, you should…
Villain: Begone with you! Come back when the intruders are dead…but make sure you never send more than ten men to stop them at a time. I’m trying to save resources here!
Playing With Their Food
Even if the main focus of the Big Bad’s attentions are the PCs the villain can’t help but let them live out of some morbid fascination with what they’ll do next.
I’m going to use the brightest star in the D&D multiverse as my example (because if I’m going to do this, I might as well do it right), the one, the only, Count Strahd von Zarovich. For those of you who don’t know, Strahd came in #1 in the last printed issue of Dragon Magazine’s “1d20 Villains: D&D’s Most Wanted; Preferably Dead,” article and is widely considered the most interesting villain since before the darkness became something you could attack. If you’re talking D&D villains, Strahd’s name is sure to come up. Strahd has so many incarnations that it’s easier just to pick one and use that as my basis for comparison; that said, I’m going to use Strahd as he appears in the 2006, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft.
So, where does Strahd fit in? Does he underestimate the PCs? Is he preoccupied and can’t find the time to kill himself an adventuring party? Or, perhaps he takes pleasure in toying with the PCs to the point of his own demise? And the survey says…all of the above.
First and always, Strahd has himself a built-in preoccupation in the character of Ireena, who he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love. This basically manifests itself in Strahd making tactically poor decision because he’s wrapped up in trying to impress/win the love of Ireena (in a rather twisted way). Expedition to Castle Ravenloft also comes with five pre-made goals that Strahd can have in addition to his obsession with Ireena. These goals basically cause the Count to commit, with more severity, one of the three previously mentioned defects (preoccupation, underestimation, and playing with their food). It is also worth noting that throughout the adventure the tactics Strahd employs are meant to be, and this wording is pulled directly from the text, “cat and mouse”. In almost every instance the PCs are to face Mr. Zarovich, he has a tactics cheat sheet ready for the DM to use during that particular encounter, all of which mitigate the damage Strahd can inflict.
Having read through the adventure it is clear to me that Strahd’s tactics, ambitions, and obsessions are meant to add layers of complexity and bring to bear a fuller more interesting role-playing experience…but he’s suppose to be a goddamn genius with nearly 500 years of experience! Why by the Untamable Beard of Torag would he use substandard tactics? The answer is obvious to any DM worth his salt – if Strahd didn’t pull punches the PCs would be nothing but bloodstained patches of dirt somewhere on the Barovia landscape.
That’s when it hit me (mostly the tequila shot)! The Big Bads of D&D, and any role-playing game for that matter, need at least three qualities to make them worthy of play:
Whether it’s minions, magic, physical might, mental prowess, or some combination of these attributes, a villain needs some kind of tangible power-source to make them a viable option for play.
The villain has got to have a goal, an agenda, something that directs their actions. If the villain is just chilling, sipping a mai tai (an evil mai tai, mind you) and not otherwise engaged in spreading their evil ways, then there’s no reason for a confrontation.
This should be called something more like “tactical misappropriation,” but really it boils down to the villain being irrational when dealing with the problem of the PCs.
Some who are reading this may be thinking that a villain doesn’t need a defect to be playable. Why not just play the Big Bad to their full potential and let the players deal with it. It’s certainly tempting and probably more fun for a DM to let the Big Bad stretch a little bit, but consider this, and I mean really consider it: if you were running Expedition to Castle Ravenloft and played Strahd without his obsessions, without his so called “goals,” without his gimped strategy sheets and his cat and mouse tactics, would your players stand a chance? Now, many of you may not be familiar enough with the campaign to make that decision, but those of you who have even a passing familiarity know with some certainty that Strahd would kill the PCs before the first session was over.
I thought for awhile (and drank some more), wondering if this structure held true for some of the other iconic villains of D&D…and I couldn’t find one that this formula didn’t apply to. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions to the rule, I’m just saying I can’t think of one.
So, you want to make yourself a villain. You want something that’s powerful enough to be the overarching threat in your campaign, but approachable enough that your players aren’t facing an impossible situation. Now, you can make your villain as powerful as you want – 20th level archmage, demigod, god, whatever, but keep in mind that your PCs are going to have to face this creation, or some aspect/underling of this creation somewhere down the line.
So, next your villain needs an agenda. This is easy enough if your villain is of demigod status or higher, because in general this character will be trapped or in some way incarcerated to prevent them from destroying or enslaving any and all life, so for these villains a simply escape plot is your best bet. What about the Strahd’s of the world? What type of ambition does a powerful necromancer/fighter/ruler/vampire have? Well, putting Expedition to Castle Ravenloft and all other material on Strahd aside for a moment, I haven’t met an evil ruler in my time who didn’t want to expand their empire, or a fighter who didn’t like a brawl, or a necromancer who didn’t raise as many dead as they could, or a vampire that didn’t want to suck a little neck every now and then. The point being, the ambitions a villain has are often easy enough to think of once you have a basic description of what the villain can do.
Finally, you need a defect, the all important stumbling point that gives your players the time and opportunity to defeat your creation. It can be an obsession, eccentricity, distraction, illness, perversion, mental deficiency, or some ridiculously curious environment aberration, but whatever you decide it needs to be sufficient to keep your Big Bad at bay. Now, while I’d love to make a brand new shiny villain as an example of what I’m talking about, I find myself somewhat flighty (I think it was that third tequila shot); however, not wanting to disappoint, I’m just going to steal one (truly villainous of me, don’t you think):
Speed 30 ft.
7/day—elemental ray (1d6+4 electricity)
Sorcerer Spells Known (CL 8th; concentration +12)
4th (4/day)—ball lightning* (DC 19)
Str 8, Dex 14, Con 14, Int 12, Wis 10, Cha 18
Born in Katapesh’s southern neighbor of Nex, Narim Al-Rhad ventured north to learn the Katapeshi and Osirian traditions of elemental magic, but quickly found it much more immediately profitable to sell his services as a mage. Given his Nexian origins and cultural background, he loathes undead, especially the intelligent kind. Impetuous as the lightning in his blood, he quickly took to the delights of Katapesh, and flush with the gold that came from mercenary work, he discovered pesh, much to his downfall. Within a year he was hopelessly addicted, massively in debt, and then sold into slavery.
His future leader and lover Najak found him at the House of Whips in Katapesh, and after buying his services from the Red Lady, she outright purchased him. Her first act was breaking his pesh addiction, and he still bears a deep scar on his chest from where she impressed a white-hot pesh vial. Narim now wears a jeweled pesh vial on a cord around his neck to remind him of his weakness.
Although owned by the gnoll, Narim has come to believe he truly loves her. In fact, he’s merely replaced one dangerous addiction for another.
Section 15: Copyright Notice – Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Rival Guide Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Rival Guide. © 2011, Paizo Publishing, LLC. Authors: Brian Cortijo, Adam Daigle, Tim Hitchcock, Brandon Hodge, Colin McComb, Jason Nelson, Amber Scott, Neil Spicer, and Todd Stewart.
Straight out of the Rival Guide and with a back-story that’s just plain tasty, Narim Al-Rhad has the kind of tortured soul you want to see in your villains.
What type of power does the man have? With eight levels of sorcerer backing him, Al-Rhad is a great villain for the conclusion to a lower level confrontation.
Does the man have ambition? Well, I say he’s the leader of a drug organization that’s trying to expand into new territory, but use your imagination and I’m sure you can come up with something better.
What’s his defect? He’s addicted to pesh, or was addicted to pesh, and it’s not all that hard to imagine that Mr. Al-Rhad is a little…”creative” with his tactics when facing the PCs. Perhaps, prolonged drug use has crossed some wires, made it difficult for the man to concentrate. Maybe he has to make a DC 15 Will Save every round he’s in battle or suffer as if under the effects of the confusion spell for that round. These are just some helpful suggestions on what you can do with this guy and I think by now you’ve got the general idea of what I’m talking about.
End Note for the DMs Out There
Villains are our most treasured creations. They are the foundation stones of our campaigns and it’s hard when it’s time to let them go. I know that I’ve personally spent hours building Big Bads that live for only one gruesome moment before the players beat them to the ground and dance on their mutilated corpse. That said, nothing has brought me greater joy than to see my players having fun. So my advice is to keep fighting the good fight, even though you’re not suppose to win, and do your best to have fun while you do it, because, when it’s all said and done, you’re still the God of your campaign and if you don’t stop the villain from killing the players…who will?