Villains! They often make or break a story. The heroes can only be as great as the foe they are facing, and this is especially true in D&D.
So if you want your villain to be closer to Thanos, and further away from *check notes* Ronan the Accuser. Who the hell is that guy ?
That's right the completely forgettable villain from Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie is massive, yet no one remembers the villain.
But this illustrates my point, there are memorable villains and then villains that are passable at best. So let’s make sure we make the good kind of bad guys!
I go into more details on how to create kickass villains that will stay in your player’s mind long after the session is over in this free guide right here, as well as give you additional strategies for your encounters to be memorable.
But back to our point, in D&D, there will be mainly 2 types of villains that you will encounter, this is a simplification but bear with me.
One dimensional villain
The first kind is the Evil Evil Evil villain, they do evil for evil’s sake, and there is no redemption for them. They want to inflict suffering, they want to put people in pain. A monster that fits this category in DnD would be a mind flayer.
As written in the books, mindflayer's thinking is so far removed from ours that they cannot be good, they eat brains to live, we have a source of brains to offer, henceforth they need to kill us.
In addition, their brilliant intellect makes them believe they are gods compared to us. When you kill an ant you don’t do it out of malice, you do it because it’s annoying, same thing is going on here, we are in the way, so they kill us, simple as that.
To create these villains, it’s quite easy, think of the word Evil, and add another adjective, like
Starting to sound a lot like my ex...
These types of villains can be great in some scenarios, mostly in side quests, due to their lack of depth. Players will feel the urgency to tackle the threat, especially if they threaten to attack family members or other allies. These are the more straightforward villains.
When we think about the MCU, the first villain that comes to mind is Thanos, not because of his dashing looks (especially that chin) but because of his drive as a villain. This brings me to my next point.
just look at that chin
The reason why Thanos works great in the MCU, or that Stradh is one of the most acclaimed DnD villains, is because of their depth. They are two very different villains, but both are also quite similar, here’s how:
First, their differences:
Thanos views himself as a tragic hero, he thinks the world will face doom if he doesn’t stop it from happening. He says it himself, others consider him a madman. But he saw with his own eyes what happens if overpopulation isn’t stopped, so he wants to “save” the world, but his means are, well, questionable at best. Talking about Thanos, I go into more details on how to create powerful villains with epic abilities that will stay in your player’s mind in this free guide right here.
Stradh on the other hand doesn’t view himself as a hero at all, he knows he is evil, and he knows he’s done despicable things. Yet, he has a story that can be relatable to the players. The reason he is evil is that he was afraid of dying, he felt himself becoming weak, and to prevent that very real fear from coming to fruition, he made a pact. A pact that was supposed to give him the love of his life in the process (after murdering his brother, but you know, details). Instead, he lost the love of his life, killed his brother nonetheless, ended up becoming a vampire, and due to all that caught a serious case of the big sad.
So now we know how they differ, but what makes them so similar?
Second, their Similarities:
We relate to them.
We understand where they are coming from, although we may wholeheartedly disagree with the way they are doing things, we understand where they come from, we understand that maybe, just maybe, if we were in their shoes we would come to the same conclusion.
That’s only the first step in crafting a memorable villain.
So now our villain has a clear motivation, but we need that motivation to clash completely with that of the heroes, otherwise, we end with an anti-hero at best or an ally at worst.
So let me repeat that: The villain’s motivation needs to clash completely with that of the heroes.
I won’t go into Stradh’s motivation because of spoiler reasons, so let me explain with Thanos. He plans on killing half the universe to “save” it, which runs quite opposite to the Avengers who are trying to save everyone. Indeed, if the villain can be rallied to the heroes' cause, they are not a villain, they may be anti heroes, but not true villains. No matter if the villain thinks that what they do is good or bad, they cannot falter from it, or at least not easily, they need to be driven.
Finally, we have a villain that is relatable, whose motivations are clearly opposed to that of the party, how do we make sure the party remembers them? By showing the villain's actions to the party, a lot.
It can be done in multiple ways, anything from the villain sending henchmen with their brand on them, to the villain showing up directly to interfere with the party. And if you really want to turn up the hate factor, make it personal, more on that later.
Ksar, the Unbroken. A villain I used in my games who had the fun quirk of not being able to die
One good example that comes to mind for this characteristic was Lorenzo in Campaign 2 of Critical Role. Critical Role Spoilers Ahead, don't read to italicized portion if you don't want to be spoiled:
If you're here, then I assume you don’t mind. Lorenzo appears in person multiple times to annoy the Mighty Nein. His entrances are grandiose, he literally kidnaps 3 members of the party. Once attacked, he kills a dear party member, Mollymauk, and then forces the party to retreat, all while boasting and bragging. Talk about creating hatred for a villain.
This is the perfect example of that 3rd pillar, making the villain known, we know the bad guy, who he is, and what he does, and we hate him for it. I know you may be tempted to have a sneaky villain that nobody knows about, but don't. Even if it is only through the action of his servants, the players need to know about them.
So to recapitulate, make your villain:
Relatable to some extent
Have motivations that cannot align with the party
Be present in the world through their actions
I’ll give you one bonus tip, to make your players really hate the villain.
Make it personal
It’s one thing to know that the dragon is killing people, it’s another to have to watch your family be slaughtered by their claws, while you are helplessly restrained by magic. Make your villains go low, and the players will hate them all the more.
Anyway, that’s it for me.
Evan | MonkeyDM