Having a villain in your D&D campaign creates a powerful call to action for your players. They are generally the driving force that push players from quest to quest and makes them feel like heroes. But what makes a good D&D villain?
What is a Villain?
A villain can be anyone who is antagonistic towards your heroes. They can be as imposing as a megalomaniac intent on ruling the entire world or as mundane as a manager who won’t stop telling you that you forgot your cover letter on your TPS report.
Villains are obstacles that eventually lead to opposition. They are used as a mechanic to get your players to engage in your world and accept missions. Players should be motivated to stop their destructive plans, no matter the cost.
Qualities of a Good Villain
An effective Big Bad is also a skilled leader. They are able to influence those around them, whether it is by charm or fear. Some may be passionate communicators, able to rally their followers and instill confidence. Others are silent and imposing, almost daring anyone to disagree with them.
Charisma in D&D is about force of will, and they have an abundance of it. They are the presence in the room that all eyes turn to. The important thing to remember is that charismatic people are either confident or have the ability to appear that way. Your villain knows that they’re right, and they won’t let anyone stop them from achieving their goals.
A good villain will have a reason for doing the things they do. Even the most evil entities in D&D have a deeper purpose to the misery and suffering they inflict. Granted, an intelligent sadist can make for a very effective villain, but they’re very one-dimensional. Try to develop a motivation that’s deeper than “for the sake of being evil.”
Here are some examples of basic motivations that can be expanded in your campaign:
- Greed & Power: These tend to be the more one-dimensional types of motivation, but they’re definitely relatable and understandable. Your Big Bad wants more and they’ll do anything to get it.
- Desperation & Fear: These allow for more morally grey areas for your antagonist to live in. Bonus points if they’re actually right about an issue and their fear is justified.
- Betterment of Self/Society/The World: These are your well-intentioned extremists live. They want the world to be better, but their solution is terrible.
- Justice or Revenge: They’ve been wronged and someone is going to pay for it. These motivations tend to give villains a special kind of tunnel vision that they can’t be dissuaded from.
A Goal Worth Following
There’s a reason that villains seem to have a large supply of devoted followers. It’s because those followers believe in either the villain themselves or the villain’s goal. The goal can be as terrible as trying to subjugate an entire race because they believe they are superior, or it can be as misguided as believing there is only one way to solve a problem. These followers can be as complex as the person they follow and so can their reasons for following them.
A good villain should be the hero of their own story. Make the players question whether or not they are completely in the right. Players may agree with the goal but disagree with the way your antagonist is carrying it out. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. The line between fighting evil and becoming evil can get really blurry in D&D.
Adding Depth to your Villain
Create a Sympathetic or Realistic Character
Villains should evoke an emotional response from players. It shouldn’t just be about cold, calculated evil just for the fun of it. Players should be able to sympathize with their motivations on some level. Whether it’s a critical misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge, or good intentions taken to an extreme, giving them a sympathetic flaw serves to add realism to your character and humanize them. Your players don’t have to agree with their antagonist’s viewpoint, but they should be able to understand their conviction.
Real people have flaws and so should your villain. Do they constantly underestimate their adversaries? Are they reliant on a source of power outside of themselves? Have they misplaced trust in an ally of theirs or even in their own power? Hubris is often the undoing of an evil character and is an excellent avenue for exploitation for your players to take advantage of.
Include the Villain’s History
At some point your players should be given enough information to understand the backstory of their antagonist. This is usually best done through means other than personal exposition. Having an NPC close to the villain deliver the backstory is a great way to do this. It’s up to your players whether they believe them or not.
Take a page out of your players’ book and feel free to give your villain a tragic backstory. It’s an easy-mode way of eliciting sympathy from your players. Your antagonist could’ve grown up in the same burned down village as one of your players. The comparison of how two characters deal with the same tragedy will add a richness to the characters and your world.
How to Role Play a Good Villain
Your villain should stand out not only in deed but also in description. Take extra care when introducing your villain to your players for the first time because they’re going to be visualizing this person a lot. Include anything that stands out: physical attributes, quirks, or ways of speaking.
Is your villain heavily scarred from fighting in previous wars? Do they constantly wear highly detailed armor or are they so confident in their power that they wear silk robes? Are they dirty and wearing flea-ridden rags? How your villain presents themselves will give the players a glimpse into their psyche.
Avoid Cliched Dialog
Your villains should never give a long, evil monologue detailing their plans and challenging the players to stop them while twisting their mustache. That’s as cliche as slowly lowering heroes into a pool of mutated sea bass. An imposing figure is generally most effective when they say less.
It’s ok to prepare a short speech every now and then, but conversation should happen as organically as it does with your other NPCs. Players should be able to understand your antagonist without a bunch of exposition. It should be their actions that motivate your players, not their words.
If you feel that you need exposition, make a big moment out of it. Have them explain to the heroes their point of view in an effort to gain sympathy to their cause.
Your Villain is Not a Henchman
One of the easiest ways to get your villain killed off early by your party is to have them show up constantly. Big Bads are most effective when they’re plotting far away from an adventuring party. Yes, having them show up to rub their successes in players faces can be very satisfying. But it’s an easy way for them to end up dead.
You can wield a lot of power through anticipation and dread. As in real life, rumors are often more effective in evoking fear than the reality of the situation. Seeing the aftermath of a display of power is more impressive than a wordy boast about their power.
Don’t treat your villain like a throwaway henchman. If they’re powerful, they should have followers willing to take care of the adventurers for them. It should be beneath your villain to engage with your group’s party members.
Creating a good villain takes as much work as creating a player character. They should have their own backstory, morals, and goals. The most effective villain is relatable, confident, and flawed. Try out these suggestions the next time you create a Big Bad for your campaign.