D&D General Strong, Complex Villains

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You're 'writing' for a character. Before you write the character, you need to know what purpose they have in a story.

BRIGHT BURN: If your bad guy is going to appear in one session and die before the end of it, you do not want depth. You want simple, blunt and evocative. You don't need a complex backstory, deep motivations, or sutble elements. You want a vivd force that is going to give the PCs their entire story in10 seconds. You want traits that stand out and draw you in the second they hear of or see the bad guy.

Templates: Think of any episodic fiction and pick any 'one and done' bad guy from one episode. That is the level of depth you need.

ARC LIGHTS: If your bad guy is going to be in and out for a bit, but you do not have long term plans for them (or, in other words, they get an arc, but are not there for the campaign), you need to give them relatability and personality, but don't go overboard. Pick a protagonist from an episodic series, and look at what makes them tick. Then, figure out which enemies of the protagonist are most like the PCs. Then, look at hos those protagonists and that enemies came to each other and start building the introduction of the PCs to that enemy using the protagonist of the episodic fiction as the enemy and the PCs as the villain. Once you plus in the basics, start to round out the rough edges and look for ways to tie it further into existing elements in your setting.

Example: In Babylon 5, the heroes are on Babylon 5 and Alfred Bester, Psi-Cop, invades the station to attempt to achieve his goals and has to content with the likes of Ivanova, Garibaldi, Alexander, Winter, Sheridan and Sinclair. Think about the relationships each of those main characters has with Bester, and then think about why Bester does what he does when he interacts with them. Bester thinks he is the hero. What does that make the protagonists in Babylon 5 in the eyes of Bester? Why doesn't Bester just kill them off when he meets them? What secrets are the 'heroes' of Babylon 5 hiding? Take the core elements of those relationships and drop them into your game with your PCs being Psi-cops, and the bad guy(s) being the command staffer(s) of Babylon 5.

SLOW COOK: If your bad guy is your Campaign's Thanos, you need to build slow. You want the PCs INVESTED before they come to blows - and you want to delay them coming to blows.

There are two primary tactics for this in my games (and several less common ones):

Primary 1.) Ally turned foe: Introduce someone early on in the game. They don't need to be close to the PCs early on, but the PCs need to be aware of them. Give them characteristics that the PCs will either respect, admire or enjoy. Don't force it. Let it be organic. You want to let the PCs 'fall' for the NPC. If they do not take the hook, try again with another NPC. Whoever they glom onto is the one you're going to grow into the big bad.

Once you have an NPC they appreciate, then you give that NPC a story. Get them involved in something that the PCs need to solve. They might be the victim, or they could be trying to do something right and get in over their head. Whatever it is, the key here is that when the PCs are in a place to resolve the situation for the NPC, they need to have a huge impact on the NPC. It could be positive or negative, but it has to have an impact. I try to have common themes in my campaigns that underlie the storylines ... so if you can tie it to common themes in the campaign, all the better.

Then, let that NPC build on that impact. I like to make this something they do that is a healthy and positive response to the incident, but it can be the opposite. Have them spend some time building upon this in the background of the game. The PCs might interact with it directly, or just hear about it. Let the PCs prosper from it a bit, perhaps, by allowing it to be a conduit for useful information.

Then go silent for a bit. The NPC stops appearing on their radar. If they go to look for the NPC, they are harder to contact,. They're busy. They're out of town. They PCs are a bit ghosted. As the DM, put the PCs in positions where the NPC would occur to them as a possible way to solve their issues, but not the only way. This will help them 'miss' the NPC. During this time, the NPC has something go bad in their life, tied to what the PCs did, and the NPC has a negative emptional response to the PCs because of it, whether that is shame, anger, disappointment or something else.

Meanwhile, introduce or develop the power source that is going to make the NPC a credible big bad. Ancient Artifacts, Enemy Forces that ally with the NPC, whatever you like ... it just has to be powerful and something that would make sense to ally with the NPC. I like to introduce this as an impact of the PCs actions in an adventure. Maybe they release it. Maybe they just find references to it during their adventures. You can see how things develop and look for the best opposrtunity.

Then, pull the PCs away on an adventure that will take at least several weeks within a game. I aim for this to happen about the times PCs get to levels 14 to 16. In a perfect world, the PCs return home - victorious - asking if they're going to advance to level 17 ... finally ... and then you hit them with the twist that will carry the campaign to the final battle.

The PCs find out the NPC has taken a bad turn and found their way to that power source. At the same time, give them something with time urgency to handle - an immediate threat. This keeps them from devoting all their resources to the NPC, although given the distance that has been developed they may not even have an impulse to do so. That immediate threat, however, will turn out to have ties to the NPC or that power source ... and will draw them towards a series of events that will put them in direct conflict with the mpowered version of their former friend.

Primary 2: Absentee Force. This one is much simpler, and a bit cliche. It is an enemy that is off screen the entire time (or at least most of the time). There has to be a good reason for the PCs not to encounter them. As the PCs get to level 7 and above and start to have the capability to get to an enemy regardless of where they are, it needs to a reason that motivates the group not to do so. A cost they are unwillimg to pay, for example. As they get higher in level, look for ways to put the PCs in the presence of the big bad in ways where combat would not be wise. You're aiming to tease the big bad ...

The weakness of this approach is that PCs love to push the big red button and do unwise things. Whenever the big bad is going to be available to the PCs, have a backup plan for where to go if the PCs force a fight or otherwise prematurely end the big bad. Importantly, drop elements of that plan into place and make them visible to the PCs before they are in contact with the big bad. That improves the quality of the story regardless of whether the PCs surprise you or not.

These bad guys off screen need to tbe the heroes of their own tale. They need to have a reason to do what they do. They need to have a story to explain where they originated. You need to be able to define these enemies while they are off screen, and you'll do that through information and letting PCs meet the minions/allies of that enemy. So you need to build a world around them ... but in the end, they're not going to get much screen time. So, they need to be evocative and distinctive in and of themselves, as well as have a complex world constructed around them - and typing the complexities of their world to their evocative bits is really fun.


I always think of Magneto from the X-Men comics as a great example of a complex villain. As a young man, Max Eisenhardt fled Germany to seek safety in Poland only to end up captured when war broke out and sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. Max lost his whole family to the Holocaust, and as he grew older came to fear the the growing hatred people had for mutants. So Magneto fights against Homo sapiens sapiens because he's afraid they're going to start rounding mutants up and sending them to death camps. We understand what motivates him and empathize with him even though we (most of us) don't agree with his actions. He's a great villain.


For a villain to be great in the game- there must be adequate opportunity for the DM to show the players not just tell them (or worse yet gatekeep the knowledge to the DM only).

This is a major problem with many published adventures - they present a "great" villain but give the DM precious little means to actually convey to the party WHY the villain is so great (as in interesting, deep etc.).

How do you make the villain interesting to the party? by having the villain do stuff that actually affects them - raze their village, imprison friends/family etc. Or best take their stuff (PC lives are cheap and easy to replace in D&D, great items PCs will go crazy over).

I feel like the best villains are the ones the have feelings, experiences, and/or motivations that are absolutely relatable for the audience.

Look at Kingpin in the Daredevil Netflix series. He's a murderous crime boss but we get to see him be a little awkward at romance and experience anxiety about the woman he's perusing finding out who he really is. He's presented as a villain but also as a human with experiences and flaws that everyone can identify with.


I feel like the best villains are the ones the have feelings, experiences, and/or motivations that are absolutely relatable for the audience.

Look at Kingpin in the Daredevil Netflix series. He's a murderous crime boss but we get to see him be a little awkward at romance and experience anxiety about the woman he's perusing finding out who he really is. He's presented as a villain but also as a human with experiences and flaws that everyone can identify with.
I agree -- villains who are human beings with understandable motivations, who really believe they are doing the right thing, even though it's the wrong thing, are the most dramatically engaging, IMHO. Most people who do evil in real life are like this -- even some gangsters can be charming, friendly or have a code of honor. Basically all the characters from Reservoir Dogs.


I suppose it depends on how you want to break things down. I don't bother coming up with detailed motivations for the BBEG of every adventure, just a rough overview. The BBEG of the campaign and important NPCs are more detailed and nuanced, since they're going to be around longer.

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