D&D 5E Where's the Villain? and other musings. Why some published campaigns are great and some aren't (Spoiler alerts)

I think it can be hard to try to draw broad conclusions about what makes an adventure good or bad. In the end, good execution matters much more than following some formula. An adventure can have all the right elements but still be mediocre if they are done poorly.

Rime, Princes, OotA and SKT all had "sandbox" sections but are generally considered weaker adventures. LMoP is considered great, even though the Black Spider is a pretty lackluster villain IMO. Lord Soth and Tiamat are great villains, but the adventures they were in were not particularly well-regarded. Aceerack is indisputably a great villain, but he only shows up at the very end of ToA, so I am skeptical his presences makes the campaign significantly better overall.
 

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SteveC

Doing the best imitation of myself
Could not agree more with you. I ran Strahd and it was one of the best campaigns I've ever done because of how omni-present the bad guy is before you ever meet him. Everyone knows about "the Devil" and they also know that he can hear you if you say his name so it's in hushed tones.

So much of the adventure is figuring out what you can actually do. Do you just want to get out? Do you want to beat Strahd? And if he invited you here, what was up with that? Do you want to save Ireena? Can you? And what about the Mad Mage you heard about?

What helped me was that I had players who bought into the adventure and did were willing to do some unusual things. One of them absolutely loved the Dream Pastries for instance and went out of there way to keep eating them. I was running the game with the idea that the plot of the adventure happened periodically and was essentially a loop to please the Dark Powers. Strahd wanted to get out of the loop and was playing the long game to escape with the help of the characters.

What I would recommend for the campaign is watching the Puffin Forest series on how he ran the adventure and take some of those ideas to heart.

But strong villain + locations you can freely explore + ticking clock + player buy-in = a great adventure. And the bad guy is the most important part.
 

TheSword

Legend
I think it can be hard to try to draw broad conclusions about what makes an adventure good or bad. In the end, good execution matters much more than following some formula. An adventure can have all the right elements but still be mediocre if they are done poorly.

Rime, Princes, OotA and SKT all had "sandbox" sections but are generally considered weaker adventures. LMoP is considered great, even though the Black Spider is a pretty lackluster villain IMO. Lord Soth and Tiamat are great villains, but the adventures they were in were not particularly well-regarded. Aceerack is indisputably a great villain, but he only shows up at the very end of ToA, so I am skeptical his presences makes the campaign significantly better overall.
Sure thing but execution is very hard to discuss for all the same reasons I said it’s hard to find evidence of a great homebrew campaign. If we were all streamers we could check but 🤷🏻‍♂️

All the examples you give support the hypothesis as far as I can see.

If Rime, Princess, Out of the Abyss and Storm Kings Thunder had better villains, indeed villains that were central to what the players were experiencing then they get would have been much stronger. Rime and Princes particularly.

If Hoard/Rise had more flexibility in its structure and had a sandbox element rather than strings of sequential encounters it could have been great. As could Descent into Avernus.

I can’t speak for Shadows of the Dragon Queen as I haven’t read it. Dragonlance doesn’t appeal to me. Similarly I’m going to be a player in LMOP soon I hope so I have avoided it. I feel that being an introductory campaign across a very short number of levels means that carries it a long way if there are good NpC interactions and a sandbox elements.

To be clear, I don’t think you need to be encountering the Villain from day one. But their hand has to be felt relatively early one. There has to be a sense that something specific is pulling the strings and the nature of the Death Curse and the very specific location of Ormu keeps that going. Tomb is a campaign with a clear goal and when the villain is thwarted the goal is achieved.
 
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So here's a question. What published previous-edition campaigns do this best? What are the classics that get it right? Which ones set up the best villain, have the villain most central, and keep the PCs involved with (or aware of) the villain all the way through?

It's not an easy thing to do, structurally speaking. The nature of levelling in the game very much works against it in a long campaign. If you have a campaign ultimate bad guy meet up with a low level party, he'll squash them like bugs if he notices them. If a campaign ultimate bad guy meets up with a medium level party, he probably WILL notice them and have sufficient reason to squash them. And PCs are resourceful critters, if they DO meet up with an ultimate bad guy early, they might just be able to kill him in some unexpected way and disable everything.

Normal way of doing this is having an ascending hierarchy of intermediate bad guys - in the classic DL series it's clear that Takhisis is the ultimate bad, but PCs have her cleric Verminaard to start with, then her armies at higher levels, then Ariakas and Takhisis herself at the top. Similarly, Savage Tide (while it does have other problems) does this pretty well, having Vanthus be a bad seed from level one, having him advance with the party up to the mid/high levels by which time the PCs realise he's just a tool of Demogorgon, the ultimate villain. But even then, in my playthrough the PCs got really intense about making sure Vanthus was dead dead dead and not coming back waaay before the modules had finished with him, and that was very awkward to manage.

What is the gold standard here?
 

Distracted DM

Distracted DM
Supporter
I often see success with villains, but there are great adventures that lack a central villain, or that lack one that the party is aware of/interacts with multiple times.
The Night Below is a big one- the party only becomes aware of villains of import a couple sessions before said leaders are defeated.

My lesson has really been to add more villains to games, and ensure that the party can interact with but not fight a number of times.
I don't put this lesson into practice as often as I should, though!
 

TheSword

Legend
So here's a question. What published previous-edition campaigns do this best? What are the classics that get it right? Which ones set up the best villain, have the villain most central, and keep the PCs involved with (or aware of) the villain all the way through?

It's not an easy thing to do, structurally speaking. The nature of levelling in the game very much works against it in a long campaign. If you have a campaign ultimate bad guy meet up with a low level party, he'll squash them like bugs if he notices them. If a campaign ultimate bad guy meets up with a medium level party, he probably WILL notice them and have sufficient reason to squash them. And PCs are resourceful critters, if they DO meet up with an ultimate bad guy early, they might just be able to kill him in some unexpected way and disable everything.

Normal way of doing this is having an ascending hierarchy of intermediate bad guys - in the classic DL series it's clear that Takhisis is the ultimate bad, but PCs have her cleric Verminaard to start with, then her armies at higher levels, then Ariakas and Takhisis herself at the top. Similarly, Savage Tide (while it does have other problems) does this pretty well, having Vanthus be a bad seed from level one, having him advance with the party up to the mid/high levels by which time the PCs realise he's just a tool of Demogorgon, the ultimate villain. But even then, in my playthrough the PCs got really intense about making sure Vanthus was dead dead dead and not coming back waaay before the modules had finished with him, and that was very awkward to manage.

What is the gold standard here?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The standard is onion layer hierarchy to a central conspiracy with the PCs peeling back a layer at a time. Let’s take the answer to @Distracted DM ‘s question as an example.
I often see success with villains, but there are great adventures that lack a central villain, or that lack one that the party is aware of/interacts with multiple times.
The Night Below is a big one- the party only becomes aware of villains of import a couple sessions before said leaders are defeated.

My lesson has really been to add more villains to games, and ensure that the party can interact with but not fight a number of times.
I don't put this lesson into practice as often as I should, though!
So I feel the complete opposite, Night Below is a case where there is an absolute villain who’s presence is felt throughout the campaign. I don’t the villain must be interacted with directly for a great campaign but they do need to be felt. This can absolutely be done through agents. Tomb of Annihilation is another one.

From the disappearances that begin the adventure, to the orcs and their fishy control potions, to the illithid messengers, to the derro and Kuo Toa of the City of the Glass Pool, to Great Shaboath itself. The Grand Savant is behind the whole thing - with the assistance of Darlakanand. Incidentally Night below also includes free form exploration and some brilliant NPCs to interact meaningfully with which harkens to my OP.

Where Night Below struggles is that that the aboleth aren’t really given any individuality. They’re a bit like Ridley Scott’s aliens. There’s a queen but they’ll all pretty darn bad. The aboleth as a species certainly are brought to life though. It also struggles with the intermediate foes that @GuyBoy mentioned. The bandit cleric Ranchefus is one, as is the King of the Glass Pool - but there is a hell of a lot of adventure in between these. If I was revising for 5e I would have more named villains that support that key aboleth plan and have them felt more within the campaign. Night below can become a slog and not all campaign finish (Matt Coleville’s for instance (and my own) my gut feeling is a lack of strong villains.

If being re-done I’d make the leader of the orcs far more well known - a famous raiding war chief with multiple atrocities to their name. I’d add in an Illithid fixer leading the patrols back and forth who would be quite slippery and meet and evade the players several times. I’d have the Kuo-Toa of the Glass Pool felt earlier on be suppressing all the other missing races - Drow, Duergar etc and have some key Aboleth personalities. Possibly one treacherous Aboleth who wants to see the grand plan fail.

One of Curse of Strahd’s geniuses is that the end villain does have reasons not to squash the PCs like bugs, and by the time he realizes he needs to it’s too late to do it easily. I do think 5e is very supportive of this (more so than any other edition) because of bounded accuracy and the likelihood of characters many levels lower lasting a couple of rounds at least. Whereas in 3e a single multiple target save or suck would be game over with no chance of reprieve.

Certainly in my mashup of Dragon Heist/Golden Vault those central four villains will be dancing in and out of the parties sphere of influence. My intention is that they each have a reason for not killing the PCs. Xanathar doesn’t care; Manshoon sees them as useful pawns; the Cassalanters want to recruit them, and Jarlaxle likes them. The art will be doing this while making the PCs still want to defeat them. Then again no-one said a great campaign was easy.
 
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Distracted DM

Distracted DM
Supporter
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The standard is onion layer hierarchy to a central conspiracy with the PCs peeling back a layer at a time. Let’s take the answer to @Distracted DM ‘s question as an example.

So I feel the complete opposite, Night Below is a case where there is an absolute villain who’s presence is felt throughout the campaign. I don’t the villain must be interacted with directly for a great campaign but they do need to be felt. This can absolutely be done through agents.
There's an enemy behind all the plot with TNB sure, but they're never interacted with. The aboleth aren't something the party encounters until the last book of the campaign. And the named enemy isn't really specifically known until a few sessions before the party kills them.
It's hardly a villain at all- you don't know they're there except you eventually discover "oh these aboleth things are behind it all."

With Curse of Strahd you (probably) interact with the villain a goodly number of times before the party will try to kill them. The party can get to know and hate this villain. The aboleth in TNB are a behind-the-scenes "force" that doesn't have a face to get to know and hate.
 

What helped me was that I had players who bought into the adventure and did were willing to do some unusual things.
And this is what makes for a great adventure. Themes and ideas that inspire the players to riff on them and add to the story. It works for any adventure, not just CoS (although it's a particular trope of the horror genre that the protagonists behave in a way that is not always conducive to their welfare).

What makes a non-great adventure is sticking religiously to the text, and players who are focused on "winning" rather than adding to the narrative.
 

The trouble with villains in D&D generally is it is a story told entirely from the point of view of the protagonists. The antagonists don't get any "scenes" to develop their personality and make them interesting. So Acererak, for example, is nothing but a boss fight with an unpronounceable name and zero personality.

What I have noticed in D&D is that players tend to latch on to particular NPCs (it's unpredictable which ones). What I tend to do is build up the role of these characters, possibly turning them into antagonists. You can do this with published adventures, so long as you are willing to embroider the script.

The most interesting antagonist in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is Gollum.
 
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TheSword

Legend
There's an enemy behind all the plot with TNB sure, but they're never interacted with. The aboleth aren't something the party encounters until the last book of the campaign. And the named enemy isn't really specifically known until a few sessions before the party kills them.
It's hardly a villain at all- you don't know they're there except you eventually discover "oh these aboleth things are behind it all."

With Curse of Strahd you (probably) interact with the villain a goodly number of times before the party will try to kill them. The party can get to know and hate this villain. The aboleth in TNB are a behind-the-scenes "force" that doesn't have a face to get to know and hate.
They’re not interacted with directly but the PCs know they are there. That enemy is revealed as time goes on and importantly the lower rungs of that hierarchy do have faces and are defeated. Always knowing that there is some kind of bigger plan/force/risk going on.

That said. I think it’s a flaw in Night Below that the Aboleth presence isn’t seen earlier. Certainly in the City of the Glass pool. Or even as an illusion like projection. Hmm I should think on it.

Contrast Night Below with Rime of the Frostmaiden though. Where Auril is ostensibly the BBEG causing the horrible situation but little of the campaign has anything to do with her. She’s background noise.
 
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