This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Nine on 3rd July 2019.
Lennon: Well the topic is “villainy”, but I don’t see the Killer DM hat.
Ryu: Yeah, after I showed you how to break in to the vault last week, Ostron decided it wasn’t safe to keep the hat there.
Lennon: Oh, so did he manage to hide it somewhere you couldn’t find it?
Ryu: Not really. Ostron’s good, but… how do I put this… he always thinks in such 5 dimensional terms. Besides, I consulted with KayDee on this, and she’s… Protesting…
Ostron: Somehow I doubt that involves signs and picket lines
Ryu: No, I talked her down a bit. She just doesn’t see why people wouldn’t know everything they need to about villains by watching her.
Lennon: Did you try to explain about the sliding scale?
Ryu: She wasn’t talking to me by that point, but I wasn’t totally sure what you guys meant by that either.
Lennon: Ah, well, good thing we’re getting started then.
For a lot of popular adventuring stories, villains can stick in people’s minds even more than the main characters. Villains like Darth Vader, Skynet, and Gollum even transcended their original stories to a degree and are directly linked to the popularity of their various source material.
In D&D, the names Strahd, Tarrasque, and Tiamat are immediately recognizable. You could argue that’s simply due to their longevity within D&D, but demon lords like Demogorgon and Baphomet are more powerful than some of the people we just mentioned and don’t get nearly the same name recognition (Though Stranger Things did bump up Demogorgon’s notoriety quite a bit).
The difference is the construction and use of the creatures in question. Building a memorable villain is a complex undertaking and a well constructed one has many facets to it.
Now, immediate caveat; the adage “no plan survives contact with the players” really comes into play here. Whilst you might be trying to make a memorable villain, there is no way to guarantee your characters will latch onto this villain as their archnemesis. This happens to professionals all the time; there are many, many stories from TV and movies where the creators tried to create a memorable villain and it fell flat with the audiences. For every Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, there are many, many Mr. Freeze’s from Batman & Robin.
So, the first thing you’ll want to figure out is what overall type of villain are they? For this we came up with a scale. At one end of the scale is “Mastermind”, and at the other end is “Juggernaut”.
We’ll start with juggernaut villains. These are ones that basically behave like forces of nature. In some cases they literally are forces of nature. Their main effect is usually destructive, they have little or no personality, and it is completely impossible to negotiate or reason with them. They don’t have any real motivation for what they’re doing, they just do it, and it probably sucks for anyone who isn’t them.
The Tarrasque from D&D is the epitome of this. You do not go up to the Tarrasque and attempt to make a persuasion check at it if you want to have any kind of success in stopping it. Usually stopping these villains involves gathering allies and resources together to try some sort of ultimate offensive against it.
At the other end you have Masterminds. These villains are the type that the good guys don’t even know about until way down the line in the story. They have layers and layers of obfuscation hiding their true identities, hordes of people willingly or unknowingly working for them, and their hands in many different schemes. Physically they tend to be only an average threat or no threat at all; their main weapons are influence and external resources, so defeating them is a matter of dismantling their operation and finding them to physically confront; once cornered the actual villain usually isn’t going to be that hard to overcome.
Obviously most villains aren’t one hundred percent at either end of the scale, particularly in D&D. Pure Juggernaut villains tend to be the only ones that will show up because of the expectation from most players and DMs that there will be some sort of climactic battle at the end of the adventure. A pure mastermind would offer no challenge to the players as an individual opponent, unless the final confrontation suddenly grants them juggernaut-like abilities.
To cover some examples, Strahd is a bit more toward the juggernaut side of the scale; he has minions and plans but he himself tends to be the major source of worry. Xanathar, on the other hand, trends more toward mastermind. As a beholder, Xanathar is no slouch in combat, but getting through his organization to him is really more of a concern than fighting the actual creature.
What type of overall villain is appropriate depends on what kind of campaign you want to run, and it mostly focuses on length rather than content. Juggernaut villains are probably the most versatile in this regard as they work well for anything from one-shots up to long-reaching campaigns. For one shots they simply become the final opponent to overcome. For longer campaigns, usually the setup is that the characters encounter them or evidence of their effects early, but they need to build up to a direct confrontation, either by gathering information helpful in bringing the juggernaut down, or by training themselves to be better combatants to face it. Practically, that latter goal just involves leveling them up, but good campaigns will usually include related sub-quests. For example, if the characters are facing off against an evil dragon at level 11, they start out by hunting wyverns while they’re level 6.
Mastermind villains are harder to fit into short campaigns; most of their villainy comes from their persona and their schemes, so establishing a good mastermind villain quickly requires a lot of good storytelling. The risk isn’t that they won’t be an obstacle, but more that the players or characters won’t have much reason to confront them beyond “the adventure module tells us to.” If characters have shared backstories, tying the villain into those can help to get the emotional investment quickly.
In longer campaigns, however, mastermind villains can really come into their own. Depending on how long the campaign is running, clues to their identity or evidence of their influence can be seeded throughout smaller encounters long before the characters ever encounter them in person. This is another case where the “rule of three” comes in to play — always have at least 3 occasions where the players are aware who’s pulling the strings before you have the mastermind show up. By this point, the characters will have a long list of grievances they’ll want to discuss with the villain.
Which brings up another point; mastermind villains work well, and possibly better, in campaigns or situations where roleplay and discussions are more of a focus than constant combat. Since influence and directing their minions is how they get most things done, they’re more likely to be seen and encountered in a social situation than they are on a battlefield or in a dungeon somewhere.
As we said at the start, the unfortunate thing is that it’s very difficult to plan that emotional investment we mentioned. Even if some of the characters start agreeing with the supposed villain, they’re still invested, but indifference can be a real problem. That’s where you as the DM need to read the players and their reactions; if they seem to be more outraged about certain actions or situations, have more of that show up. On the other hand, if one of the villains’ henchmen starts getting a bigger reaction than the villain themselves, consider making the flunkie the star of the show instead.
Ostron: Unfortunately another problem with a lot of these villains is longevity-
Lennon: Speaking of, this segment’s already long enough, we’ll have to pick it up another time.
Ryu: … Now I’m wondering if KayDee is more of a Juggernaught or a Mastermind.
Ostron: Yeah, I’m not even going there; I’m already blacklisted by half the clerics in the region, and that includes Gath.
Lennon: Well before we have occasion to find out, let’s head over to the scrying pool and see what the listeners have to say.