Many Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, including quite a few created by this writer, are filled with villains heroes love to hate: those villains who, for no apparent reason, devote their entire lives to the destruction of all that is stable, prosperous, good and noble. Since your larger-than-life heroes need larger-than-life adversaries, there is certainly a place for this sort of villain in any game, and there is nothing wrong with liberally populating a game world with these scurrilous miscreants.
There is a second type of villain, though, that is far less common and far more realistic: the villains that the heroes create through their own choices and actions, called quandary-based villains in this posting for reasons explained later. Unlike the villains that need to be stopped simply because someone wrote “evil” in an alignment blank, quandary-based villains need to be stopped by the party because the heroes helped to unleash them.
Before continuing to examples, it is important to define the meaning of the phrase, quandary-based. A quandary is state of uncertainty or perplexity, especially when the uncertain party must make a choice between equally unfavorable options. Since heroes typically avoid creating villains, they usually do so only because they are forced to choose the lesser of two evils (a quandary), a situation any dungeon master can create during a game. When the consequences of the heroes’ choice have a traumatic or life-changing impact on a non-player character (NPC), that NPC may have a “crisis of faith” and turn to villainy out of thirst for vengeance, disillusionment with people, races, classes or governments they once trusted, or even out of sympathy for the (evil) beings these so-called “good” groups combat. Thus, the villain is actually born from circumstances ultimately beyond the heroes control (the quandary), but the heroes serve as the immediate cause for the creation of the villain (through the choice).
There are as many ways to set the stage for a quandary-based villain as there are NPCs with personal values and motivations. There are a few approaches common in literature, comics and film that can be easily adapted to a D&D game, however. They include:
- Friendship and alliances. The party has long been friends with Nylwyn, a sage and wizard. The heroes sometimes jest about how he brought them together early in their careers, as Nylwyn often sent them on missions to acquire this or that ritual component or rare tome for his impressive library. The sage never asked the heroes for a copper in payment for the research, advice, translating or warnings he provided, only asking that the heroes defend his library if it was in harm’s way. At one point in the game, a horde of marauding orcs threatens every settlement in the province, and the regional prefect of the heroes’ temple requests that the entire party come to the defense of a particular abbey, which houses numerous artifacts and a fountain of magical energy. Do the heroes obey the prefect and keep the temple’s power in human hands, or defend the home and library of Nylwyn, as they promised? If they disobey the prefect and the temple falls, the heroes may be labeled traitors or heretics; if they don’t intervene at the town of Nylwyn’s residence, their friend loses his life’s work in research when the orcs burn the library; if the group divides its forces, both the temple and library are destroyed. No matter what the heroes choose, someone very important and probably very powerful will lose faith in friendship or fealty, and may seek retribution from the party – and anyone like them – that turned their backs in an hour of dire need.
- Loss of something dear. While the examples described above cite people who lose something dear if the heroes don’t help, their genesis as villains is linked to the heroes’ failing to meet a stated obligation to assist. Quandary-based villains who are created from losing something precious to them have no such agreement with the party, but can blame the party for the choice it made; actions do indeed speak louder than words, after all. What if an enormous swarm of locusts was sweeping westward just before the harvest, destroying all crops and all but ensuring death by starvation for hundreds of people? The heroes’ home town is within the swarm’s path – unless the heroes burn a 25-mile-wide swath of forest nestled in a deep valley, denying the locusts anything to eat en route to the town and at least diverting the swarm’s path, if not causing it to dissipate. The heroes must choose: do nothing and see the entire region starve (which will certainly create enemies) or burn the forest, which the heroes know contains no human settlements but does include a natural elven shrine and an ancient grove of oak trees honored by a cabal of druids (which will also create enemies if they are destroyed).
- Death of an ideal. It’s an ancient adage that there is no worse death than the end of hope, and villains generated by this sort of quandary are casualties of experiencing such a crisis of faith. Since this quandary requires the perceived falsification of or grossly-overestimated presence of a deeply-held conviction, it is appropriate for very passionate characters, such as clerics, paladins, avengers, honor-bound knights and other characters with unswerving devotion. When that unswerving devotion is turned in the opposite direction, villains are made. Consider a paladin devoted to a temple, the doctrine of which touts personal freedom and choice. The paladin’s constant study of her religion identifies a problem with certain “traditional practices” of the temple; these practices are centuries old and, while not part of the temple’s canon, bear almost equal weight to holy writ. The paladin learned that, through “practices” related to the collection and transfer of wealth, the appointment of powerful church officials, and rights granted to certain subsets of the flock, the temple restricts the very freedoms it proposes to give. The paladin intends to expose this duplicity, and asks her friends, the heroes, to protect her from those factions in the temple that would seek to silence her. If the heroes agree to help her, they are branded as heretics of the temple, and join her as targets of its holy assassins. If they don’t help her, the heroes have just become co-conspirators in the eyes of the paladin, and will likely earn her emnity.
It is important to be sure that the heroes know that they are making enemies at the time they face the quandary for the villain created to have full dramatic effect. Using the example of burning the forest, if the heroes didn’t know about the druid’s grove when deciding to set the fire, they might feel saddened about the strife their actions caused, but they won’t feel directly responsible; the druids will be regarded as just another enemy. Only when the heroes know that they are partly to blame will the players feel uneasy about the presence of the villain.
Another important step in establishing a quandary-created villain is to not make the heroes the only object of the villain’s wrath; the villains must begin causing damage on a large scale, so that the heroes will be even more motivated to stop them. Nylwyn loses much of his sanity when his library burns and decides that, since he was denied his life’s research, no one else will have knowledge either; he begins amassing a force of undead or bestial humanoids to destroy entire towns, using their resources to rebuild his own library. After the fire, the elves and druids see humanity as the greatest threat to nature, balance and peace, and begin destroying human settlements and sacrificing prisoners. The paladin forms a band of zealots who attack and destroy the temple’s shrines and seek to assassinate its leaders and supporters.
Like most plot devices in a D&D game, quandary-based villains shouldn’t be overused. If the dungeon master employs this sort of villain too often, players will get the impression that they will have powerful new enemies every time they make a decision, and they’ll feel like they are being trapped by the dungeon master. And they would be absolutely right. But for a refreshing sort of villain players won’t expect to see, the quandary-based villain needs to be in every dungeon master’s arsenal.