The title of this post is only a partial jest. Of the non-player characters a dungeon master must portray, villains are among the most difficult to play convincingly. One reason for this difficulty is the fantastic nature of their activities; for example, it would take volumes of real-world psycho-babble to explain why a person would become a priest of Vecna and prefer the company of the undead over living, breathing friends. While a dungeon master and her players could have a perfectly workable game by assuming that villains are obviously disturbed and need to be stopped, exploring some of the hazards of a typical Dungeons & Dragons villain’s “job description” can explain why villains might be a bit paranoid, and can identify some infrequently-used methods your heroes could employ to defeat them.
The first reason a D&D villain may be paranoid involves his having to defend against both good and evil enemies. Most D&D adventures arrange for heroes and villains to be at cross-purposes, but few campaigns consider that evil groups don’t ally with each other as quickly as good-aligned groups, and that they seek advantage over each other when they do.
Continuing our example with the priest of Vecna: he may be in charge of a hidden temple in an ancient ruin. Obviously, good-aligned churches are seeking to stamp out his organization if they can find it, but what if an evil bandit chief in the nearby hills thinks the ruin would be a better base of operations for his band? Or if another evil religion, perhaps the Cult of Orcus, sees the growing power of Vecna’s church in the area and seeks to stamp it out? Or if a clan of evil, avaricious dwarves covet the gold, platinum and gems the dark temple contains? Our priest needs to make preparations against more than just heroes; he may need to prepare against things about which he doesn’t even know.
A second reason for villainous paranoia is that it is difficult to trust subordinates. One item named on an incarnation of The Evil Overlord List states that there are three types of lieutenants: untrusted, trusted, and completely trusted, with being named “completely trusted” a posthumous honor. Any lieutenant willing to serve an evil master is probably evil as well, with her own selfish plans for personal advancement. Her service is probably very co-dependent in nature; if serving our priest no longer benefits her, she may very well plot to desert, betray, kill or replace him. The villain, of course, knows this, and must always be careful about what information he shares and how much access to him she receives.
Rank-and-file subordinates of a villain present a different problem. They are typically far less powerful than the villain, and, as they are also likely to be evil, have little motivation to serve apart from fear or desire for gold. Neither of those motivations are particularly reliable, as these minions may flee, surrender or provide information to enemies if the enemies appear more powerful than the villain or offer more money than the villain.
Even compelled subordinates – a group including mindless, undead servitors, subjects whose minds have been magically dominated, and even good-aligned people who are subject to blackmail or having loved ones held hostage – can be turned against a villain, if the secret behind the villain’s control can be discovered and exploited.
A third reason for villainous paranoia is related to a villain’s inability to trust his superiors (if he has them). Higher-ranked villains are committed to accomplishing their goals at any cost, and are equally committed to having others pay those costs. Those “others” include mid-level villains like our priest. For high-ranking villains, the attainment of goals is largely a return-on-investment equation; one can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, after all. Thus, some villains are keenly aware that they are considered expendable by their superiors, and strive to excel in their missions – but not to excel too highly, lest their superiors see them as threats and send them on thinly-veiled suicide missions.
A brief review of the circumstances under which D&D villains must operate reveals a number of ways that an enterprising party may use to circumvent a villain’s defenses or discover his weakness. A dungeon master may work these venues into her encounter designs by deciding the motives and information held by minions and lieutenants, and by knowing in advance how they will react to being overcome by the heroes. Some examples include:
- Intimidating rank-and-file troops into revealing guard changes, passwords, the physical layout of the villain’s lair, and the location of any known traps or treasures;
- Learning the villain’s objectives from lieutenants intimidated or bribed into switching sides;
- Discovering from any overcome minion what powers or abilities the villain employs; or
- Learning about any behavioral quirks displayed by the villain, such as fears, preferences, values or even romantic attractions that the heroes can exploit.
Although it isn’t necessary for the dungeon master to determine what every minion knows or what every villain fears, having a few notes on the subject before a session can help arm the players during the game, and players find immense satisfaction in using information they’re “not supposed to have” to overcome a villain.
Given all that information, if I was a villain, I’d be paranoid, too.