Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. Sorry for the late newsletter. The Nerdarchy computer went down causing all kinds of issues. Luckily we were given a loaner to see us through. This week we will be talking about D&D villains. Before we jump into that I just want to let you know we launched two new series this week on the YouTube Channel. One is inspired by the Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon that we thought would be fun. The other comes from you, the viewer.s There were many requests for us to do the best character class for all the races after we picked the best race for class series. We started with D&D Dwarves — What is the best 5E Character Class.
Delving Dave’s Dungeon
When is a villain not a villain? Drama and conflict can rise up and take many forms. Think about disaster movies or stories. The earthquake, hurricane, and tidal wave all become the antagonist in those films. Backdraft is another movie where the fire is depicted as the villain. Going as far as even giving it human like characteristics. The Blob is another great example of a villain that has no malicious intent. It just is.
Sometimes there isn’t a reason why. The bad stuff seems and very well might be pointless. It’s a chance to tell a different kind of story. Or take the approach of Backdraft and assign humanlike qualities to these forces of nature. This could be a several session arc. A chance to really delve into problem solving and maybe even the human condition, as the players seek to rescue townsfolk and save their homes.
But then again this is D&D and these things could be weapons wielded by a power that is about unveil themselves. Or maybe the fire, earthquake, hurricane, and tidal wave are really sentient.
What’s got them so riled up?
Were they awakened by magic?
Have they come here from one of the elemental planes of existence?
Maybe stopping these villains will require something other than violence. So again I ask, when is a villain not a villain?
From Ted’s Head
Villains play an important role in any RPG. Villans do horrific acts so heroes can rise and thwart them. But when planning and playing your villain there are a few things you will have to take into account. The easiest is to come up with their goal. Why are they doing the things they are doing? It is also good to, as events unfold, figure out how the villain is going to respond to the heroes upsetting their plans. One of the things I learned when making a game many years ago is if you want the heroes to eventually win out it is a real challenge if the villain is more efficient with their time than the heroes are. I worked the heroes into a place I did not see a way out of because when the players would make a decision it would take a while, meanwhile the villain was just getting stuff done and not arguing over it. While this made for a very interesting game, it lead to DM burn out and the game never getting to a conclusion.
Another thing you want to have happen is to introduce your villain early on, potentially in disguise. Having the villain being an ally for part of the game makes players cringe when the facts are finally revealed. I debated having Analassalar be a bad guy in the last game but decided against it. It would have been a major shock on several players had it happened.
Villains should also have the ability to cause fear and terror. If you can have the villain do something to get their attention early on, you have the opportunity to make an impact on the game, whether it is killing off an NPC or some other evil act it will be a solid catalyst for you players to seriously need to bring the villain to justice. But when they first see them and they know they are out of their league in fighting the villain that can have an impact as well. Last piece of advice is until you are at the final encounter and are planning to end the story the villain always needs an exit strategy so they die at the right time.
From the Nerditor’s Desk
The evil actions or motives of these and other fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons creatures help drive our stories, spurring parties of brave adventurers to greater heights of heroism. Quests exist in the space where the plans of villains intersect the path of the player characters. And whether these two campaigns — the players and the villains — meet at all, the best sorts of D&D villains continue to pursue their goals and further their aims.
My favorite villains are the ones whose motivations are understandable. The thing about these villains is they have to cross a serious line at some point, but up until that line these villains are relatable and sometimes even sympathetic.
Think about one of the greatest villains in all of fiction — Magneto. His story springs from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, compounded by his past as a Holocaust survivor, pitting him against his own mutantkind in a conflict both deeply philosophical and deadly dangerous. Outside of crossing the line and doing things like destroying submarines and the crew then going back later to take a bunch of nuclear missiles from it, he makes a great point.
Comic book antagonists and D&D monsters are both cast as villains when the story is told from the perspective of the heroes. The villains’ ambitions cross a line (someone’s line anyway, usually the quest giver) and adventurers are there to put a stop to the evil deeds. And get their reward for doing it.
It’s easy enough to spin this dynamic around on the players in a D&D campaign, casting their characters as the villains. In pursuit of defeating evil and being heroic and stuff, adventurers often do questionable things. From the view of those feeling the fallout of heroic adventure, the party can certainly come across as villains.
Consider the residents of Suderham, the secret city from the classic Scourge of the Slave Lords module series. When the D&D campaign gets around to assaulting the aerie of said Slave Lords, the characters roll up in town and disrupt the lives of those who live there. True, they’re a society of slavers, and the party does get captured in the end to setup the final module. So clearly the party has the moral high ground, but aside from the evil slaving, who’s the real villain? (It’s the slavers. There’s no positive spin to put on their activities.)
There’s one really easy thing a Dungeon Master can do to experiment with perceptions of heroism and villainy — lie to the characters. Villains need not be a Challenge Rating-appropriate threat to the party to manipulate adventurers into the role of villains. Here’s an example:
The party of adventurers stops at a resort built on an asteroid within the crystal sphere they’re traveling in, and they decide to enjoy some rest and relaxation. But, they’re also players in a D&D game so they almost immediately get into hijinks. At a day spa, they talk with a merchant with an interest in mining on the asteroid. The merchant explains how a group of duergar recently began mining the asteroid as well, and it’s really hurting business. The merchant is willing to pay the party to drive the duergar away.
They roll up on the mine, where duergar defend the entrance, and start fighting their way inside. Scouting ahead a bit using Stealth and slippers of spider climbing, the warlock observes a business meeting in the office of the duergar running the mining operation — an old, one-time ally of the party. Turns out the mining operation is totally legit. The merchant, jealous of the duergar success, turned the party into the villains of the situation.
Another way player characters can be perceived as villains is by those in the wake of their adventures. One of the best entries in Masters and Minions, a Fifth Edition supplement from Jetpack 7, is The Created. This villainous mastermind was just an everyday commoner — until the party rolled through town. Sure, they slew evil, closed the portal, drove off the gnoll horde or whatever. But doing so did not come about without casualties and collateral damage. This villain suffered terribly, despite the heroes efforts. And they’ve vowed to settle the score.
If a hero is only as good as their villain, your D&D stories can add layers of complexity and dynamic drama when the adventurers are the heroes of their story, but nothing short of villains in another’s tale.