Many players won’t care how all the evil citadels, fanatical troops, fabulous libraries of forbidden lore, armories bristling with weapons and storerooms of ritual components appear in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Indeed, it is important to note that during 25 years of running games, I’ve never had a player ask, “who paid for all this?” while exploring a dungeon.
Of course, simply because players don’t typically ask about financial support for villains doesn’t mean that they won’t see your setting as more believable if they discover evidence of that support. And even if they don’t find that evidence, thinking about how a villain supports herself when designing an adventure can provide a dungeon master with clues to portraying her personality and structuring her organization, along with occasionally providing players with another way of blocking her plans, should they find a way to cut off her financial backing.
Financial support for villains can take a variety of forms, including:
Being a cog in a larger organization.Villains supported in this way are most commonly encountered in lower levels of play, acting rather like field officers executing the orders of their superiors in the organization. The organization pays for the outfitting, provisioning and, if necessary, payroll for these villainous activities. This sort of villain is then sent out with a number of troops or laborers (or with a mandate to recruit them), they establish some sort of lair or base camp, and eventually find themselves at cross-purposes with your heroes.
While the source of support can be fairly obvious, such as when an adventure’s primary villain is a priest in a large, evil religion or when the wealth of a group of bandits can be identified as items stolen from local caravans, an interesting twist can emerge in an adventure when the source of support is less obvious. During an old campaign of mine, the players encountered a few villains with widely disparate plans, spaced an adventure or two apart. All were in possession of (and paid their minions with) strange, triangular gold coins. At first, it seemed to the players that the strange coins were the only thing the villainous activities had in common; but when they learned that the coins were minted in the infernal regions, they re-examined those activities, found a common thread, and uncovered an evil cult literally bent on opening the gates of hell.
The self-made villain. This lady is a keen entrepreneur or field commander, who has attracted a band of followers. At low levels of play, she is as new to villainy as the player characters are to heroics, like the small-time bandit leader with a dozen or so gang members or the corrupt merchant who has enough resources to sabotage competitors or sway local legal proceedings. She may also be a brooding necromancer, who has just learned the basics of animating dead tissue and is beginning to create undead troops. in any event, she and her followers are usually low on resources.
At higher levels, she is a leader in a villainous organization of her own construction that is capable of financially sustaining itself, and it is she who sends “cog” villains into the field to further her ends.
The possible ways for a self-made villain to support an organization of any size are as numerous as the villains themselves, but common methods include businesses (either legitimate or “front” ventures), banditry, extortion, and, in the case of villains who establish their own dominions, taxation. In some cases, a villain may even preside over a micro-economy, where minions raise their own food and carry on crafts and trade among themselves.
Striking it rich. Heroes aren’t the only people who uncover hordes of hidden treasure. Sometimes, a villain can discover enough wealth to finance an expedition or two, or may even come into the possession of an item powerful enough to allow the villain to carve out his piece of the world – at the expense of others.
Leading the faithful.Especially charismatic villains may “see the light,” appointing themselves as oracles in new cults or in new sects of existing game religions. Whether or not these villains believe in their respective religions is immaterial with respect to how they are supported, although the specifics of who supports them can be very valuable information for players.
Paid by right of birth. Not everyone with a noble title behaves nobly. In settings with feudal governments, noble and aristocratic characters have disproportionate access to wealth, and while most who have titles avoid villainy (at least openly), family members in noble houses can have access to wealth without bearing the level of scrutiny as their titled relatives.
Apart from the level of believability added when heroes learn how villains are supported, a second benefit comes with heroes gaining that knowledge: it can lead to more adventures. Players love bringing people to justice, so much so that, after defeating a villain, many are ready to go questing after the people who supported that villain. The reverse also applies: the people who supported the villain may want some justice and go questing after the heroes.
Either way, determining how villains’ activities are supported is an easy way to add depth to their activities and your adventures as a whole.