October 20, 2021

The DM’s Workshop – The Villain

The DM's Workshop

So I bet you’re wondering, “this series sure was quiet for a while but now Dave doesn’t seem to shut up”. Well you’re right and that is because I am currently planning a campaign for 5th edition D&D and am really into talking about that experience. Hopefully you are finding some of this useful and soon I will be posting some packs of material that I use for you to try out or use, or criticize. If you happen to like, change, or hate the stuff that I have created I would love to hear about it either directly to my email dave@wampaslayer.com or DM me on twitter @thealien512. Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s talk about creating interesting and lasting characters.

Before we get to filling all of those rooms on the map we created last week I wanted to talk about non-player characters. NPCs can be everyone from the commoner that gives your player basic information to the master villain of the campaign. For whatever game system your group is using you can easily find stats for whatever character you are trying to play in the core rule book or monster book so we won’t really get into that, I want to talk more about things like character and motive and how that shapes the actions of your villain.

The easiest way to see the design of complex villains in a simple shell is to look at how these games approach dragons. Traditionally people see dragons as a creature that heroes slay but even a quick look at these creatures shows that dragons are ancient and powerful entities with extremely high intelligence and, in some worlds, godlike qualities. That brings us to the first point which is a villain’s motive is never simple. Adolf Hitler did not come to power or develop his plans because an opportunity presented itself, he was a normal person who became so twisted and filled with hate and rage that his mind warped into the evil person we know. So, instead of picking the most evil and gnarly looking thing in the fiend folio, go deeper into the backstory and create something that really lasts. Maybe even tie part of it to one of your players’ backstory but I would warn you not to make it dependent on the player, I would save that for the next way to develop your villain which is to form an emotional bond with the players.

When the first Star Wars movie was released it was praised for the timeless villain it created in Darth Vader. But now that we know the entire story of Anakin Skywalker we know who the true villain was and the final confrontation with the true evil of the series was fueled by a personal and emotional connection between Vader and his son. As your players write their background look for the low hanging fruit as far as personal or familial connections to exploit by making a family member an acolyte of your villain or maybe the player’s best friend growing up is now the right hand of the source of antagonist. This not only forces your party to make moral choices but makes the final confrontation less of a storm the castle and kill the monster fight and more of a rescue mission.

My final bit of advice would be to remember that there’s always a bigger fish. assuming that you are taking your adventure from level 1 to 20, it can be difficult for players to care about a villain that will take them months or even a year to finally confront so while you may want a very personal and developed individual as your antagonist, remember that he only became so powerful because of the infrastructure he has created. The first couple of dungeons may lead the players to fight a summoned demon who has been toying with them for five levels but when they enter the final room to defeat him, they interrupt him speaking with a much more powerful being. It may take some time to work out the influence of this dark organization but it will help you out in the long run as people will be able to ask around in towns about their influence.

I am not an expert in any way but the information in this article has served me well so hopefully it will help someone else out. I would love to hear about your villains or shadow organizations so let me know what you think in the comments below.



If it’s a thing and it’s nerdy, this guy wants to do it. Self-taught and self-proclaimed photographer, programmer, and musician, self-described as lazy, indulgent, and pedantic. Give him a task and he’ll do it, except for maritals. Only his wife gets the maritals.

Find Jason on twitter at @jasonkylesmith and on instagram at jasonksmith84

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