How do you make your villians scary?

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  1. #1
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    How do you make your villians scary?

    Reading this thread (thanks barsoomcore) I realised that I've only ever once created a villian that even came close to being mythic and evoking fear from my players.

    I used a Fallen Knight: In a long ago campaign I introduced a powerful magic sword (a near artefact that drained a level to invoke the full powers that made its wielder near invincible) and revealed that it was once possessed by a famous knight, corrupted by arrogance and pride, who became obsessed with recovering the sword. By the time a few sessions had past and the PCs started hearing rumours of the knight searching for the sword in a nearby realm, my players were making escape plans without ever having even met him.

    I think my problem is, although I can imagine villianous, 3-dimensional/emotive characters, I struggle when it comes to conveying the imagery to my players' imaginations.

    So, I'm very interested to know how other, more successful DMs, have built up their villians in their campaigns, to encourage a sense of dread among their players. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

    Anyone willing to share examples or methods, for DMs like me that are still trying to improve the emotive side of their DMing?


  • #2
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    My usual trick is to not explain what abilities they're using (doesn't work well with common spells like fireball, but even pulling up an entropic shield and just saying the guy chants, then is surrounded by a chaotic swirl of energy keeps players on their toes), and I use standard magic items in non-standard forms.

    My players are pretty well versed in D&D lore, so it's hard to get the drop on them sometimes. Throwing the unknown at them is usually best.

    As for making the looming villain scared of them, this works even better, since they may hear of his abilities through the grapevine, but without first hand knowledge, don't necessarily get accurate descriptions.

    Now, while I've been able to get players worried plenty of times, it's usually happened through a metagaming sense. Only twice do I think I got a genuine emotional response from any of my players over a villain - the first was way back in second edition, the first time I ever pulled the henchman-turn-traitor on the party (This was actually the only time I was ever able to get a certain player to roleplay his character - Man, how he hated Erlith... ) The second time was just recently in my PbeM game where the paladin discovered his younger sister was turned into a vampire and he had to kill her (The player told me he loved the story and said it really helped him to get into his character.)

    Sorry, I'm rambling again. (Man, this is a bad morning for me to keep a straight chain of thought...) I don't know if any of that helps you.

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    Mystery, mystery, mystery...that's my approach. Most players imaginations will conjure something more hideous than you can describe. My favorite trick is to copy a picture from a book (Monster Manual, etc.) and then distort it in a paint program, darken, smudge, etc. Then in critical moment, when the players first face the creature/villian show the picture quickly (edit: but only for a second, don't leave it out for the players to study). It works well, as my players are/were not very wont to dig through each book and memorize stats, etc. If your players do, then get something out of National Geographic (I did that for werewolves...hehe PaintShopPro is fun ) Also setting up the villian is crucial. I personally like slow introduction, a rumor here, a minor death there, getting closer and closer to the group. Creating an NPC early in the campaign, getting that NPC into the group and well liked, with some level of power (e.g. around the Players' level, power) then killing the NPC in a crucial moment...typically off screen with the players finding the results, tends to get people fuming and appropriately scared.

    That's my $0.02 but I look forward to reading some of the other ideas.
    Last edited by Cyragnome; Thursday, 31st January, 2002 at 04:12 PM.
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  • #4
    I try not to make my scary, just what I see as normal but keeping their evil in the shadows.

    I then let the players hear from stories how bad the villian is, a little later they may come across someone who had a run in with the villian (broken and damaged).

    Basicly it is build up, a little at a time, small things and then making them larger until they meet.
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  • #5
    It's quite simple really.

    Think of a person who has no ethics. This is probably the hardest part actually.

    Make them beyond weak.

    Think of how they would deal with an opponent expecially if the opponent is good. (using other people as cover ect.)

    Now give the person power. How would this person that has power deal with things. They are going to pull out all the stops. Have them hire mercenaries to track down families of his enemies, while he runs in the other direction for intelligence or a weapon or something.

    Want to make him really evil. Capture the PC (no killing). If he has children, give him an option, kill the NPC or kill the executioner of his children (saving his children.......... temporarily). Resurrect the NPC or executioner. Have the children turned into ghosts that are bound to stay in front of the captured PC. Life stinks. Death stinks more.

    Do a survivor type thing where the PC's vote each other too death. In the end its a gladatorial fight to the death.
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  • #6
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    Originally posted by Cyragnome
    Mystery, mystery, mystery...that's my approach. Most players imaginations will conjure something more hideous than you can describe.
    Hear, hear! The best method IMO. You explained that from the stance of imagery, but I'll put a more mechanical spin on it:

    The moment that your players can say "this character is a 5th level vampire fighter", the foe becomes categorized. They know where they stand. There is no fear that they are dealing with something beyond their means, no trepidation in their actions.

    So IMO, there are two things you should do:
    1) don't make the nature of the villain more obvious than you have to, and,
    2) work within the system to surprise the players and keep them guessing.

    For example, you may decide that one of the villains is a brooding weapon master type. Easy enough, eh?

    But you might try giving the villain an uncharacteristic ability, or a magic item you don't expect them to have. For example, you might give the character a couple of wizard levels that he uses in a pinch ("he can do that?") or a magic item or template that gives them capabilities that they don't expect.
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  • #7
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    I agree with the mystery suggestion. Change the appearance of monsters and of spells to fit the atmosphere of your game, and players will be a lot scareder.

    In a recent game, for example, my players fought the nightmarish remnants of a man who was driven insane by Lovecraftian cultists. His nightmares appeared as a cloud like a galaxy that distorted space and time around the players until they couldn't tell what was directly in front of them and what was as distant as the stars that appeared in the cloud. Mammoth faces appeared and disappeared in the cloud, at one moment distant as the stars and the next moment next to the character, screaming and biting mercilessly at the PCs' exposed flesh. Every now and then a comet or shooting star would flash in front of the party, blinding them with brilliant light.

    Hmm... a creature with
    -A constant confusion effect
    -Multiple bite attacks
    -A blinding attack every other round

    Yep: it was a gibbering mouther. Only described in different terms that (I believe) appropriately freaked out my players. After the session I told them what it was, and one of them commented, "I had no idea how nasty gibbering mouthers were!"

    Truth is, it wasn't any nastier than normal. It just looked it, and because the PCs weren't able to put a label on it, the battle was scarier.

    Dressing up monsters in different clothes is a lot of fun, and can go a good way toward giving your adventures the appropriate ambience. I much recommend it.

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  • #8
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  • #9
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    I don't really have much more to say than, "Me, too!" to the whole mystery spin.

    Psion is absolutely right -- keep the math out of it. I have one player who is ALWAYS trying to calculate the math of everything -- he figures out what the AC of an NPC is and then tries to figure out what feats the guy must have, what his Dex must be, blah blah blah.

    So I keep everything locked down -- the players know NOTHING about their foes. It helps that I have a number of non-standard magic systems so they can't predict an NPC's capabilities.

    Very effective is the "off-stage horror" trick. Have your villain do something incredibly nasty while the players are elsewhere -- when they stumble across the evidence, their imaginations will kick into overdrive.

    Having super-nasty suddenly appear in the midst of your PCs is also very effective -- but then you have to come up with a reasonable excuse as to why she doesn't just slaughter them all right there. That's one reason I love "civilised" bad guys -- sometimes they just show up to chat with their goody-goody opponents. That can actually frighten your players even more as it demonstrates total contempt for their abilities -- the bad guy considers them no threat at all. A little chat, a little bad guy gloating and they're off.

    Don't overuse that trick, of course -- familiarity and contempt and all that.

    The great thing about civilised bad guys is that you can suddenly have them do something totally savage and ruthless -- just when the party is thinking "Oh, hey, she's not so bad," she turns someone inside out and starts eating their heart. THAT always gets my gang panicking.

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    The party was surrounded by a pack of Ghouls and the situation was looking bleak. The barbarian took a mighty swing with his axe, burying it into the nearest Ghoul's chest. The creature looked at the axe with it's dull black eyes while it fingered the wound and lapped up the dull black ichor from it's claw. Its eyes returned to the barbarian's with a promise of something worse than death...

    That freaked them out!

    Last edited by Renshai; Thursday, 31st January, 2002 at 06:47 PM.

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