From the moment I started talking about NPCs, God knows how many months ago, I knew – KNEW – that I was going to have address this one. After all, it’s the big one. And, naturally, as soon as the first article went live, I started getting e-mails and comments and messages about it. Last week, when I started talking about Antagonists, I knew the time bomb was ticking. And that’s why I teased this one.
Okay, okay, I’m going to cut to the chase. It’s villains, okay. We’re doing villains. Are you happy?
Villains are something that GMs are obsessed with. More specifically, they are obsessed with recurring villains. I’ve been hearing that one for six f$&%ing years. “When are you going to talk about recurring villains?” “Do you have any tips for creating recurring villains.” And most of all “my players keep killing my recurring villains. How do I keep them alive?” And that’s because GMs don’t GET villains.
Here’s the deal: villains aren’t NPCs. I mean, they are. But they aren’t. But I’ll explain that. The problem is the moment you start treating a villain like just another NPC, they are going to get killed. Because here’s a goddamned truth about D&D: you can’t put an adversary in front of the players and expect them to NOT try to kill the adversary. That’s how D&D works. And D&D favors the players. So if they try to kill something, they will usually succeed. And if they can’t succeed, they will usually get killed trying. But we’ll come back to all of that.
My point, before I launch into telling you how it is, is to tell you how it isn’t. In D&D, villains AREN’T like the villains in superhero comics and movies and books and television shows. You need to unlearn that bulls$&%. And if you want villains like superhero villains, run a superhero game. And if you want a villain like movies and books and television shows, stick with movies and books and television shows. Consider this a warning: this article is going to tell you some things about villains that you are going to think are wrong because “that’s not how villains work.” Well, guess what: D&D is a different ball of fish. So you’d better get used to using different bait if you want to villain it up at the D&D table.
Also, D&D means Pathfinder too. In case that isn’t obvious. Anyway, villains. Or rather, the first half of villains. In this first of two articles, we’re looking at the villain not in their role as an NPC, but in their role as NOT being an NPC.
The NPC That Wasn’t an NPC
So, when is an NPC not an NPC? When that NPC is a villain.
Last time I talked about NPCs, I explained that antagonist NPCs are those that oppose the players goals. And they come in three flavors. First, obstacles are temporary opposition. Accidental opposition. The players goals aren’t actually a problem for obstacle NPCs except that they lead to some sort of confrontation. The guard doesn’t care if the PCs ultimately want to recover the talisman of Do-Hik-Kee. He only cares that the PCs currently need to get into the prison to interrogate the last thief who saw the talisman. He doesn’t oppose their goals, he opposes their current actions.
Second, enemies are antagonists that do oppose the PCs goals. That’s the evil cult whose pet demon, Steve, can be banished by the talisman. They have to do what they can to stop the PCs from achieving their adventure goals.
And then I said there were also villains. But I didn’t try to explain villains. Well, now I’m going to. On the surface, a villain is an NPC whose goals the PCs are motivated to oppose. Basically, a villain is to the PCs what the PCs are to an enemy. See, it’s a matter of action vs. reaction. With an enemy, the players are taking an action and the NPCs are getting in the way. But with a villain, the NPC is taking an action and the PCs are obliged to get in the way. With a villain, the PCs are reactionary. And THAT is how a villain – IN D&D – isn’t really an NPC. A villain is a motivation and a resolution. A villain is an adventure. Or a series of adventures.
Now, I’m not saying that a villain isn’t also a living, breathing thing inasmuch as any NPC is a living, breathing thing. A villain IS a character in the story. They have motivations and goals. And they make choices. Just like any other NPC. But the villain is more than JUST an NPC. The villain is basically a living, breathing manifestation of an adventure.
For example, imagine an evil cult that is attempting to summon the Demonlord Steve so they can destroy the world. They have a goal: destroy the world. And that goal creates a motivation for the players and their characters: they live in the world and that’s where they keep all their stuff, so they can’t let it be destroyed. And also fighting evil cults is fun. Moreover, the cult also provides a resolution. The bad resolution is, of course, summoned demon and destroyed world. The good resolution involves rendering the cult unable to ever summon the demonlord. Either by destroying the artifact of demonlord summoning or breaking up the cult or killing all of its members or preventing the summoning ritual that can only happen on the night of the eclipsed comet that happens once ever thousand years or whatever.
Oh, by the way, remember that an organization is just an NPC with a lot of bodies.
Villain’s goals define the motivation and resolution for adventures. Or plot arcs. Or even entire campaigns. That demon cult business could be just one single adventure, sure. Or there could be a long series of adventures as the cult tries to get closer and closer to summoning the demonlord. And that’s why writing a villain isn’t creating an NPC at all. It’s planning an adventure. Or more.
Motivation and Resolution: The Villain as Adventure
The first step to creating a villain is basically the same as the first step to writing an adventure. You need to figure out the motivation and the resolution. But, in this case, the motivation and resolution are going to be driven by an antagonist’s goal. Now, you can start this process however you like. Some people start with the motivation. Some start with the resolution. And some start with the villain or goal. Just like when you write an adventure.
And honestly, this is the hardest part. And I can’t tell you how to do it. Maybe you want to write an adventure that involves a corrupting devil disguised as an old man who manipulates people into doing terrible things so as to bring chaos to a trade town. I did that once. Or maybe a bunch of thieves are stealing magical items and historical relics. I did that once too. Or maybe you have a cool idea for a fallen paladin whose divine power and faith weren’t enough to save her family who now seeks revenge on the world. Yep.
The point is, you can start wherever you want with whatever bit is in your head. It’s all good. But, in the end, you need three things. You need an NPC who has some kind of a goal. That goal has to create some kind of motivation for the players and their characters. And there has to be some kind of resolution that can bring the whole thing to an end.
My devil, for example, which I ripped a bit from Needful Things by Stephen King? Well, it’s neat that he wants to sow chaos. And that provides a definite motivation. But there’s not a really good direct goal there. And so there’s not a really good resolution. I mean, sowing chaos is a good start. But WHY does the devil want to do that? And how does that lead to a resolution? Well, the reason is to corrupt souls. Devils want people to end up in Hell. But that still doesn’t lead to a good resolution. Maybe he’s after a particular soul. Like, perhaps, the current leader of the town is a lawful, high-ranking member of a church. And ultimately, the devil wants to push him to do something evil. Like impose martial law. Or kill someone. So, he’s sowing chaos and discord to push the priest to take an extreme and evil action to ruin his soul. That leads itself to some resolutions. Obviously, if the priest does an extreme and evil action, he’s corrupted. If the devil is exposed and killed or banished, the plan is ruined. So, now we have goal, motivation, and resolution.
The stolen magical items? Well, that’s barely anything at all. There’s a motivation there: stop the thefts. But that’s about it. Who is stealing the magical items? And why? Maybe a hive mind of cranium rats are gradually enslaving the thieves’ guild, forcing them to steal magical items. And maybe they are breaking down the magical items as materials to open a portal so they can summon the great hive into the city. Once they have enough magic gathered, they can summon a huge and ultrapowerful collective of cranium rats into the city sewers and take control of everyone. There we go: goal, motivation, and resolution.
The fallen paladin? Well, she’s a neat villain. But what is she doing right now? Is she just on a killing spree? Well, okay. She has a goal and that creates a motivation for the players. But how will that be resolved. Either she will be killed, defeated, or reformed or she will keep killing forever. Now, that’s a dangerous resolution because it creates a sort of “endless adventure” scenario. The players can only lose that scenario by being killed. Otherwise, there’s no failure state to the adventure. She just keeps murdering until the players stop her or die trying. So perhaps the paladin’s goal isn’t to murder people. Perhaps she’s trying to turn herself into a lich or vampire so she can live forever because she doesn’t want to face divine punishment in the afterlife for doing the terrible things she’s done.
And that’s important. Remember, the villain’s goal defines everything about the adventure: how it starts and all the different ways it can end. In order for the adventure to be a complete adventure, you need those things. And they need to be concrete things.
The Plan: The Basic Structure for an Adventure
Now, once the villain has a goal, and you have a motivation and a resolution, planning the rest of the adventure – that is to say, laying down a structure and designing (or improvising) scenes – becomes a matter of figuring out what the villain’s actual plan is. And that comes down to a few things. What is the villain doing to accomplish their goal? How can the players learn about the villain’s goals? How can the villain disrupt the villain’s goals? And how might the villain react when the players start disrupting their plans? In other words, the adventure becomes about discovering and disrupting the villain’s plans.
Now, I don’t need to put a whole lot of extraneous s$&% in this section because we’ve been talking about writing adventures forever and a day at this point. And that’s basically what you’re doing. Except…
Except now we come to the reason to even use a villain at all. I mean, if a villain is just an extra layer of adventure writing and you can write a perfectly good adventure without a villain, why use a villain. What does it get you? Well, it gets you something very important: a villain is a dynamic adventure which puts the players in the role of being more active adversaries.
Take, for example, the magic item adventure. The cranium rats have enslaved part of the thief’s guild, right? Now the thieves are stealing magical items. The players are hired to look into the rash of magical item thefts. This is very different from an adventure in which a magical item was stolen and the players have to get it back. Or one in which they have to retrieve a magical item from a particular location. How? Well, when the goal is about retrieving a magical item, the adventure is passive. The players have to track down the item, go to the location, and get the item. There’s a pretty straightforward path to accomplishing that goal. Sure, they might have to figure out HOW to track down the item, but the GM will generally plant clues and leads in various scenes and build that up like a traditional adventure.
But a villain adventure is dynamic and active by its nature. The GM could plant clues and leads, sure, that point to the thieves guild. But the players can also do other things because the villains are active. For example, they could create a stakeout or a sting. They could set up a fake magical item auction, release information about where the items are being stored, and be ready to capture the thieves when they take the bait.
Villain adventures are, by their nature, more dynamic. The players aren’t pursuing a goal so the GM isn’t completely reliant on the players to drive all the action in an otherwise static adventure setup. Instead, the villain can take actions and the adventure is constantly changing. The PCs might be put on the defensive, responding to the villain’s actions.
By the same token, villain adventures don’t always move in straight lines toward resolution. What do I mean? What I mean is that in a static adventure, the players either make progress or don’t. And eventually, they reach the resolution they want or don’t. End of story. But in a villain story, whenever the players fall behind, the villain probably gets ahead. Instead of the adventure being about going from zero progress to 100% progress, the adventure is about starting at zero progress and either hitting 100% OR -100%, with forces constantly pushing the plot in either direction.
Villain adventures are actually a great place to start learning how to improvise an adventure for this very reason. See, whenever the players take actions in the villain adventure, they potentially create obstacles and setbacks for the villain. And the villain has to figure out how to respond. And that means the GM is in the position of improvising new events – new scenes and encounters – to keep the adventure moving toward one of the resolutions. But, unlike a completely blank slate, the adventure already involves some planning. The GM knows what the villain wants and how the villain can accomplish it. And if the GM also knows who the villain is and what they are capable of, to some extent, it becomes easier to figure out what the villain might do in response. And that response is what keeps the adventure going.
Thus, villain adventures tend to be a bit more nebulous. It’s hard to plan them out in the same way as static adventures. In the end, they follow the same sort of flowchart as any other adventure – they HAVE a structure – it’s just that the GM has to invent at least some of that flowchart and structure on the fly in response to the events of the adventure.
So, how DO you start to plan a villain adventure’s structure? Well, the best thing to do is to figure out what the plot will look like if the PCs don’t do anything at all. Figure out what the villain will do if they remain completely unopposed. Next, figure out how the players get involved in the adventure. What part of that plan do they learn about? And what drives them to stop it? For example, the PCs might be hired to investigate the rash of magical item thefts. Or they might have one of their own magical items stolen. Or a friend or contact might lose something of value. That’s the opening scene. The one that establishes the motivation.
Now, you need to figure out how the players can get from that initial motivation into the way of the villain’s plan. In that magical item theft plot, for example, before the players are even in the position of disrupting the plans, they have to get some information. They have to, for example, end up at the thieves guild. Until they can do that, the villain’s plans are going to continue. See, the players rarely START the adventure clashing directly with the villain’s plans. There’s usually some investigation or activity that has to take place before the players actually end up colliding with the villain’s plans.
Once you know how the players can end up clashing with the villain’s plans, you know what initial scenes your adventure probably needs. It needs the scenes that bring the players from the start of the adventure to the place where they can start colliding with the villain’s plans. And that part usually takes the form of a static adventure. Meanwhile, though, the villain is usually continuing with their own plans, making progress toward their own resolution. THAT’S why you have to know what will happen if the players don’t get in the villain’s way.
Once the players and the villain are set on a collision course, though, it becomes much harder to plan. Instead of planning scenes from that point, it becomes much more important to plan for contingencies. First of all, you need to know the ways that the players could conceivably disrupt the villain’s plans. Second of all, you need to know how the villain might respond to those disruptions. And, to do that, you need to know how the plan can be recovered. And you also need to know what resources the villains have to actively work against the party.
For example, when planning the magical item theft adventure, I would design the initial part as a mystery investigation. That would eventually lead the party to the thief’s guild. And there, they might discover that all of the magical item thefts are being conducted by a faction of rogue guildmembers within the guild. The players might gain the trust of the guild by pledging to help bring this rogue faction under control. Or they might simply strongarm the information out of the guild. Either way, that might lead them to one of the specific thieves carrying out the thefts. And that information is where they can start to interrupt the cranium rat plans. They might follow the guildsman into the sewers after their theft and discover the rats lair. Or they might capture him during a robbery and get information from him. Or they might inform the city guards about who is responsible. They might disband or destroy the thief’s guild. They might increase security on magical items. They might even plant a magical item they can magically track down and allow it to be stolen. Those are all ways the players might disrupt the plans of the rats.
And how might the rats respond? Well, they might simply target the PCs. They might send some thieves to kill the PCs. Or they might set a trap of their own, leading the PCs to a deathtrap in the sewers. If the PCs disrupt or destroy the thief’s guild, the rats might start using other organizations to commit the robberies instead. Maybe they will start using the harbormaster to seize magical items coming into the city. Or the local adventurers guild. If security is increased, the cranium rats might respond by giving some of their magical items to the thieves to help them circumvent the increased security. Or they might accompany the thieves in small swarms to magically disable the increased security and provide additional support. Those are all possible responses.
Depending on how likely I think any of those scenarios are, I’ll plan what resources I think I’ll need. I’ll definitely need some assassins and cranium rat swarms because, one way or another, the PCs are probably going to get into fights. And I will need stats for the thief’s guild members. And a map of the guildhouse. And one of the sewers. And the cranium rat lair. I’ll also need the details of the robberies that will continue to occur until the PCs start causing disruptions.
The Villain as Arc or Campaign
Now, everything above is about how to create a villain for an adventure. Or rather, how to create a villain as an adventure. Or rather how to create an adventure and a villain. It’s kind of tricky to figure out how to phrase this s$&% sometimes. The assumption is that the villain appears, their goals drive a single adventure, and then once the adventure is resolved, the villain has pretty much run their course.
But, honestly, that’s not how we think of most villains. Instead, we tend to think of villains as things that keep cropping up over and over again. And that brings us around to the topic of recurring villains. Well, it sort of does. Because the real issues involving recurring villains will be covered in the second part of this article. Sorry about that.
The thing is, if you really look at it, a single adventure isn’t really about defeating a villain. I mean, sure, sometimes the villain does get defeated at the end. But an adventure is really about resolving a villain’s plan. The villain is trying to accomplish something specific and concrete. The players oppose that. Eventually, the plan is either accomplished or permanently ruined. And it’s important that adventures work that way. Without concrete plans that can be permanently ruined, the adventure can’t really end in anyway except success or death. And that means failure is no longer a viable option.
But just because a villain’s specific plan or goal is disrupted, that doesn’t mean they stop being a villain. And usually, a villain’s goal or plan is the product of longer-term motivation, a desire or drive to accomplish something. The devil wants to earn powerful souls for Hell to elevate his own status and please his masters. Today’s plan is corrupting the priest who runs a town. But whether that succeeds or fails, tomorrow is a new opportunity for a new plan. The cranium rats might fail at this specific attempt to bring their super hive into the world, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try to find another way to do it. And the paladin might fail to achieve immortality, but that doesn’t make her any less furiously vengeful and bitter and evil.
Thus it is not only entirely possible for villains to stick around beyond the adventure they drove, it’s usually preferable. A recurring villain creates a nice bit of continuity for the game, a nice way to connect what otherwise might be completely separate adventures. They create a feeling of an ongoing story. Yeah, an ongoing story in D&D. Imagine that. Further, a recurring villain also comes packaged with some prescribed motivations for the players. That is to say, once you spend some time creating a motive for the players to oppose a villain, that motive sticks around. So, the next time the villain starts some s$&%, the players are predisposed to oppose them again. In point of fact, some recurring villains become so vile and hated that just uttering their name in an adventure is enough to motivate the players.
Fortunately, recurring villains are easy to create. At least, from a story standpoint. We’ll be talking about the HARD part of creating recurring villains in the next part in this series. For right now, pretend they are easy. Even if you didn’t plan on making a villain into a recurring villain, if the villain survives the adventure, it’s pretty easy to just use them to drive another adventure. Just start with the same goal and come up with a new resolution and plan. The demon cult will want to find another way to destroy the world. So next week, they are at it again. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Whatever the f$&% that means.
Of course, that’s recurring villain 101. Assume the villain’s goals remain the same and try to accomplish them again in some other way. The problem is, you can only do that a few times before it gets dull. So, after you’ve gotten some mileage out of the same goal, it’s time to come up with a new goal for the villain. And, usually, by the time you’ve got to do that, you’ve done half the work already. See, once you’ve used the villain once or twice to drive an adventure, you start to gain an understanding of what the villain really wants. The devil wants to corrupt souls, sure. But what he really wants is power and status in Hell. And that means he’s got to impress his superiors. Or backstab his superiors and take their place. The cranium rats want to bring their super hive to the city because they want to enslave the city. And that’s because they want to enslave all of the other races and rule the multiverse, spreading to every corner. The city is just a starting point. The paladin is bitter and vengeful and has lost her faith. Ultimately, her goal is to spread as much suffering as possible. It might start with hurting people she think wronged her. But eventually, she’ll move on to hurting innocents. And eventually, she’ll move on to hurting the world. All of it.
However, the key to a good recurring villain is not just changing their goals every so often and driving new plots with them, the important thing is that the stakes generally have to rise. What does that mean? Well, it means that, over time, the villain should become more ambitious and become a bigger danger to more… more stuff. More people. More places. More things. And bigger things. The devil might start with individual, but powerful souls. But after a while, he’s got to set his sights higher. The high pope of the entire church, angels, a whole nation, a good aligned god, whatever. He might want a promotion at first, but eventually he’ll want to rule hell, and then he’ll want to be a god.
In an ongoing story, the stakes need to rise every so often. And THAT, by the way, is why every D&D campaign has a limited lifespan. And so does every villain. Eventually, the stakes become “the entire cosmos” or some s$&% like that. And once that happens, there’s nowhere else to go that doesn’t feel like a step down. And that’s when it’s time to retire the game.
But shifting goals and rising stakes is not the only way a villain becomes a recurring villain. There are a few other methods that turn a villain into an ongoing campaign.
The Vengeful Villain
Once a villain fails, if the villain can pin that failure on the players, the villain’s goal might become to destroy the PCs. Or something they care about. The paladin, for example, robbed at her chance for immortality, might become so obsessed with destroying the PCs that that becomes her villainous goal. Even when she isn’t driving the adventure, because a villain doesn’t have to drive every adventure, she might use her resources to disrupt the adventure. Essentially, she sinks into the background and becomes an occasional enemy or obstacle. And every now and then, she comes up with a plan that drives an adventure. The vengeful villain can even flip back and forth between being vengeful and pursuing other goals. This week, her plan might be to destroy the PCs. Next week, she might return to making people suffer. In a month, she makes another bid for immortality. And eventually, when she realizes that there’s only one way to escape divine punishment from the god she betrays, she decides to kill her former patron deity. But before she can do that, she needs to make another attempt to destroy the one group of people who can consistently stop her.
Another way that a villain can become a recurring villain involves a sort of retroactive decision. That is, it is possible to decide that whatever plan it was that drove the villain’s adventure, that plan was really just a step in a grander scheme. Basically, the villain has some complex, long-term plan that has a lot of steps and moving parts and they are gradually implementing different pieces of it. To pull that off, you need to decide what the long-term plan is. And it also helps, since this might become a focus for the entire campaign, to figure out what some of the other steps might be. Maybe the devil is planning, from the beginning, to become a god. He’s going to need power in the form of stolen souls. He’s going to need an ancient artifact that can steal another god’s power. He’s going to need a victim to steal divine power from. He’s going to need to kill his superiors to get them out of the way. He’s going to need an army of loyal supporters like a cult. And so on.
Now, you don’t even have to do this retroactively. We’re not really talking about building campaigns yet, but if we were, I’d point out that a powerful chessmaster is a great way to build a long-term campaign. Basically, that involves coming up with the villain and their long-term plan, then figuring out some of the steps involved, and using those to build the adventures as the campaign plays out.
The Rogues Gallery
Now, there is a way to use recurring villains WITHOUT constantly raising the stakes and WITHOUT constantly coming up with lots of new goals and WITHOUT also getting boring. You can take a page from comic books and develop a rogues gallery. Rogues gallery, by the way, is a term for the collection of photographs of criminals that police keep for identification purposes. But in comic books, it refers to the roster of villains that have been built up over the years. Batman’s rogues gallery consists of the Joker, the Riddler, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Bane, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Mad Hatter, and many, many others. Spiderman had Venom, Lizard, Green Goblin, Kraven, Mini Goblin, Rhino, and even something named Kangaroo.
Honestly, a rogues gallery is extremely useful, even if you’re not using a villain as the focus for your entire campaign. It’s really just a handy list of enemies and villains that the PCs have encountered. Anyone on that list can potentially be used to drive an adventure or to jump in to an adventure as an obstacle or enemy. And remember again, organizations count as NPCs. A rogues gallery allows you to sprinkle villain adventures driven by different villains through your campaign without having to focus on long-term plots. You can even intersperse villain adventures with other, more normal adventures.
In point of fact, even if you DO choose to make a single villain the focus of an entire arc or campaign, it’s still a good idea to have several plot threads going at once so the villain one doesn’t get overused. But we’ve talked about that before. So, a rogues gallery of people that have opposed or been opposed by the PCs is an excellent source of one-off adventures.
Now, even though you can get away with not raising the stakes too much with a rogues gallery as compared to a standard recurring villain, it’s still a good idea to have the stakes trend upwards over time. The problem is, once you start upping the stakes, you can’t step them down again without wrecking the pace of your game. So, if the PCs start by dealing with minor criminals and thugs and small-time operators and graverobbers and then one of those villains comes out and threatens to blow up an entire city, it’ll feel really weird if the next adventure is about some minor thug again. So, once one of the rogues gallery villains ups the ante a little, the others generally have to. Or else its time to start introducing some bigger villains for the rogues gallery. That’s another nice thing about a rogues gallery setup. You can always add someone new whenever you want without it feeling like it comes right the f$&% out of nowhere.
The Power Behind the Power
And finally, when a villain gets defeated in such a way that they can’t possibly be a recurring villain, you have this little gem. This is also something of a retroactive decision (that you can also make at the start of a campaign). Basically, after the villain is killed or neutralized or whatever, you decide that the villain was really working for another, more powerful, more dangerous villain. The crazy necromancer was part of a cult. The devil was one of several devilish agents led by a duke of hell. The paladin’s fall was orchestrated by the demon servant of an evil god and the paladin was a pawn in a bigger scheme. Again, you need to decide what the bigger, badder scheme was and how the pawn fit into that scheme. But, in this way, you can introduce a completely new villain but make it seem like it was all meant to be part of some bigger, interconnected story. The power behind the power is useful in that it almost always comes with rising stakes.
The Villain as NPC
Now, everything we’ve discussed above treats the villain as a background element, a driver of plot and creator of adventure. And that’s exactly what makes a villain a villain. They drive plots and create adventures. But eventually, one way or the other, the villain is going to end up on camera, at the table, and in the scene. And that’s when the villain ceases to be an adventure and becomes an NPC again. And to handle that…
Well, to handle that, we need a completely different few thousand words. So, we’ll save that for another day.