Recruiting 101 for an RPG villain

The opportunity for training and experince provided by military service is a powerful recruitment motivator – both in the real world and in RPGs.

Many Dungeons & Dragons villains have entourages of evil humanoid followers, especially at low experience levels. That circumstance may not matter much in combat-heavy campaigns – knowing the humanoids are evil is generally considered sufficient cause to kill them and take their stuff in most hack/slash games -but knowing how a villain recruits and retains his retinue can take adventures in unexpected and unconventional directions.

So where do these villains get their humanoid sellswords? They do so in two ways: voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary service can be obtained with the following arguments and / or inducements:

Patriotism. Although humanoid tribes seldom recognize themselves as nations in the modern sense, they may feel loyalty in similar fashion for fellow members of their race, outrage at heroic incursion into their lands, or even remembered outrage at being driven from more hospitable lands in the past. Defending one’s home is a powerful motivation, and if a villain can convince humanoid minions that they are doing that, morale and loyalty will be relatively high. Continue reading


D&D villain concept: the ‘good’ heretic

Joseph Priestley, the "honest heretic." Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While doing some historical research for an unrelated project, I happened across this interesting quote from U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin, excerpted from a letter to Benjamin Vaughan dated Oct. 24, 1788:

Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend’s heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, ’tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic.

Franklin was referencing Dr. Joseph Priestley, Enlightenment era theologian, scholar and chemist, who is perhaps best known for his work researching the properties of gases and electricity.

Discussing where theology and science intersect in our real world is well beyond the scope of this post; Franklin’s reference to his friend, however – especially the closing line about honesty bringing the character of heretic upon Priestley – stirred my mind toward adapting that concept to the development of a villain in a Dungeons & Dragons game.

Continue reading

Five tips for villainous resource management

It is certainly possible to play Dungeons & Dragons without giving a single thought toward how monsters and villains end up awaiting heroes in elaborate lairs; if the primary point of the game is to defeat the villains in combat, deciding the particulars of how the villain maintains his underground complex isn’t very important. This post contends, however,  that even in a game where players don’t care why or how villains came to be in their lairs or ow they spend their resources, a little forethought on the part of the Dungeon Master (DM) about those circumstances can yield useful information for designing those lairs and deploying the villain and his followers into combat. Continue reading

Surprise your players with a ‘dumb’ villain


'Dumb' Villains don't need to be as dim as Boris and Natasha - just overlooking an advantage or two will suffice. Image copyright Jay Ward Productions.

Scheming, devious villains are a mainstay of most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. It’s not difficult to see why that is; players enjoy unraveling the convoluted plots of their foes and, realistically speaking, who but the most cunning adversaries could oppose a resourceful, determined band of heroes?

The answer is: the “dumb ones,” i.e., those who overlook obvious tactical advantages.

As the 42nd Murphy’s Law of Combat Operations states, “Professional soldiers are predictable; the world is full of dangerous amateurs.” In fantasy role-playing games, the player characters (PCs) and standard “big bad guy” (BBG) types are the professionals. Experience teaches players – especially veteran players – to expect a level of tactical ability from their foes at least comparable to their own. Even when the heroes are facing truly mindless foes, such as oozes or zombies, players will often expect to find some sort of sentient force behind the behavior of those foes. 

As dungeon masters (DMs), we  design encounters for the express purpose of providing a challenge for the heroes, and accordingly provide any necessary tactical advantages for the BBGs we install as adversaries. Doing so is completely logical, since everyone expects villains to use their home terrain to best advantage at all times. Our own history, however, shows that this is not the case. Continue reading

This time, it’s personal: tips for making villains worthy of player grudges

Not just for the cinema: vengeance motivates RPG heroes, too. Image Copyright Paramount Pictures.

A primary goal placed before a dungeon master (DM) is finding ways to connect players emotionally to the group’s Dungeons & Dragons game; after all, while it may be exciting to defeat a statistically superior foe in combat, such an event can be made even more meaningful if the player secures an “emotional victory” at the same time.

For the purposes of this post, the best way to define “emotional victory” is through example. Years ago, this writer ran his D&D group through the classic D&D module, Night’s Dark Terror. The module led the party in an ongoing struggle against a slaving operation known as the Iron Ring, and against one of the ring’s agents in particular: the yellow-robed wizard, Golthar. While the module provided several opportunities for the party to cross swords with Golthar and his subordinates, the wizard always managed to escape as the heroes were securing victory, typically delivering an insult or two toward the party’s fighter during the escape. After letting the wizard slip through their grasp a couple of times, the players – espeically the fellow who played the fighter –  became obsessed with the idea of capturing or killing him. When Golthar was slain near the end of the adventure, some of the players were eager to see what treasure or information the wizard carried. The player who ran the insulted fighter had no interest in such things; when asked why, he responded, “Who cares what he’s carrying? I just killed Golthar! I’m going to Disneyland!”

Clearly, the victory over Golthar meant more to the player than treasure and experience points. It was so memorable, in fact, that the Disneyland quote found a permanent home on our D&D Quote SheetContinue reading

Cooperate with the bad guys? Sometimes, it’s the only way



Image used without permission from See the link at the end of this post to view the source page.


The enemy of my enemy is my friend. -Arabic Proverb

The vast majority of Dungeons & Dragons adventures involve the forces of good, represented by the heroes, striking against or foiling the plans of the forces of evil, represented by the villains and monsters selected by the dungeon master (DM). It is logical to assume that this pattern is common because it helps lead to a quality game – players like to see villains get what they deserve, and love to give villains what they deserve – but like any pattern, DMs can gain as much from breaking it as they can from following it.

One way to break the pattern involves introducing a new evil into the campaign, an evil powerful enough to scare the villains the heroes have faced thus far in the campaign, and an evil so powerful that the heroes must actually join forces with their erstwhile foes if this new, great evil is to be defeated. Continue reading

Fatal flaws that make unconquerable foes conquerable

As the story behind Van Dyck’s “Daedalus and Icarus” tells us, pride can be one’s undoing. And pride is only one character flaw a D&D villain can have.

The game worlds in which most Dungeons & Dragons games take place are brutal places, so it is not surprising to see that overcoming foes by force in combat is the most common way of resolving disputes for player and non-player character alike. Given D&D’s wargaming roots and the violence prevalent in fantasy books and films, it is relatively safe to say that an interest in fantasy combat is a primary reason for many D&D players to come to the table in the first place.

Players expect their characters to fight.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop a dungeon master (DM) from putting a twist on that expectation by presenting villains that, at least at first glance, are far too powerful for the heroes to defeat in combat. How can such villains be presented without overmatching the heroes? The answer lies in afflicting such villains with fatal character flaws that the heroes can discover and exploit. Continue reading