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How to create a good D&D villain

So, in many ways your whole Dungeons and Dragons campaign kinda hinges around your BBEG (your Big Bad Evil Guy). I mean, that's who your adventurous party are trying to thwart in order to save the kingdom from falling into chaos, right? When you stop to think about it, then, there's really quite a lot riding on them. If you don't make them feel scary, and a genuine threat to your party, then the whole campaign can just feel like a massive anti-climax!

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Ok, so you and your party have spent countless hours over months or maybe years building up to this final resolution - you really have to make sure that it's good! Now, I've already talked about things you can do to make this final battle epic. But there's way more to having a scary villain than just having a good battle. Really, to get the emotional pay-off for defeating this guy, you have to be building up to this moment pretty much from the outset - not just in the final session. Here's a few tips and tricks for really making a properly scary villain - one that your players will want to defeat. Thereby making the finale (and, as a result, the whole campaign in retrospect) feel much more satisfying for your players.

Slow burn

Creating a good villain is all about tension. If you just lore-dump in your first session and tell your players everything about the BBEG's plan, who they're associated with, what they look like, and all the incredible powers they have, then you've lost any chance of building some kind of mystery and tension around this figure. This is the horror-movie equivalent of showing the monster within about 3 minutes of the film starting - all that potential build up of tension and letting your mind fill in the blanks is totally wasted. Sure, your players will probably still buy into this kind of adventure because that's the social contract that we all enter into when we play D&D - but it doesn't exactly make for a satisfying story.

Instead, drip feed your players information over many sessions. This is way more satisfying for them as they get to feel that they are piecing together a story, and that their actions within the world genuinely matter in trying to gather more information about what is going on. It's almost like a murder mystery kind of deal. Everyone loves those, right?

An example: maybe your party are initially hired to investigate some missing children a few towns over. Only later do they discover that these children have been kidnapped in order to work in a secret mine. After discovering the mine, you find out that what they are looking for is an ancient artifact which will give your BBEG some kind of power to launch an assault on the kingdom. And yes, I do realise that this is basically just the plot of the second Indiana Jones movie (see here for my thoughts on stealing). Ok sure, you could have given all that information right at the outset - but by making the reveal slower, you give your players more agency in learning about the world you're building together, which allows them to feel more invested in your story.

Don't leave it too late either

The opposite problem to a lore dump in session 1 is to basically not give your players any information about your villain and their ambitions until right before the final battle (or even not at all!). Sure, Your players will likely still enjoy killing your villain and engaging in the battle, because that's a big part of D&D - but you lose the chance for your players to reflect on the stakes of the battle and build any kind of anticipation beforehand.

So much great stuff in life (music, film, storytelling, sex) is all about tension and release. The greater the build up of tension, the more satisfying the eventual release or resolution. If your villain is dead and gone about 5 minutes after your players finally know anything about them, then the lack of time to build any tension means the resolution will be really unsatisfying.

Links to the party

If you want your players to be invested in the story you're telling, it should link to their backstories. Your villain is no different. If your players have a personal stake in hating this guy, then they're gonna be far more determined to defeat them.

Whatever these links are is up to you. Is the villain responsible for attacking one of your players home villages? Did they undermine another player's family business, which led to homelessness and the break up of their family? Are they secretly one of the player's father?! (see above re: stealing from George Lucas). Whatever it is, the more directly your players are involved in the villain's background or schemes, then the more invested your players will be in the fight against them.

Make them three dimensional

Sure, it's all well and good to want to defeat an enemy who just wants wealth and power, and is prepared to murder and destroy their way towards getting that. But isn't that just a little... simplistic? A little two-dimensional. A really compelling villain is one that on some level you can understand (perhaps even sympathise with?). Someone who has faced difficult situations, and maybe come up with unethical or unconventional ways of combatting the,.

I find it a really good idea to write down a bit of a backstory for your villain. Think about their relationships with others (or lack thereof). What makes them tick? Are their evil schemes a way of trying to right a wrong that they see in society, or get revenge for something which was done against them, or gain the attention of someone who previously dismissed them? Whatever it is, asking why is the best place to start. Why are they like this? Why do they want this? Why do they love/ hate certain other characters?

The better you know your villain's motivations, the easier it will be to roleplay them, and to think what they'd be doing behind the scenes while your party are off doing their thing. Don't expect your party to learn every last thing about your villain (particularly if they're of the kill now, ask questions later variety of adventurers) but the more they do know, the more they will buy into the story. And the more that happens, again the more satisfying that eventual resolution will be.

Make some things ambiguous

While much of this advice has been about giving more information to your players about your villain, there is something to be said for holding some things back. I find this is particularly valuable in relation to your villain's specific combat abilities.

If your players know absolutely everything about the villain's strengths and weaknesses in advance of fighting them then the resulting combat can fall a bit flat. This can be particularly the case if you're playing with experienced players and your villain is something you've lifted straight out of the Monster Manual (*). You might have a few players who know that creature's HP, AC, immunities and abilities like the back of their hand - which can make combat a little formulaic, and the villain's eventual defeat far too easy. So don't be afraid to homebrew a little! The more you can surprise and genuinely test your players in combat, the more they are likely to respect your villain - and as a result, the more satisfying that encounter with them will become.

Final thoughts

Okay, there's definitely a lot more that could be said on this topic - but I realise I've gone on quite a bit already! By using these tips though, you should be able to create an interesting, three dimensional villain -one who your players can both understand to some degree, but also who they genuinely fear! I hope you'll enjoy using them, and find that your own campaigns become more satisfying as a result!


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