Salutations, nerds! Continuing on with talking about 5E D&D villains, this time I want to take a moment for one of my favorite kinds of bad guys, and the kind that tend to go over the best at my table personally. I’m talking rivals. Also known as frenemies. Players love this type of villain because it doesn’t get more personal. If you do it right, a rival can be an incredibly multi-faceted character, and by turns both a help and a hindrance. Sometimes, even a romantic interest. So let’s get down to business, shall we?
As a big bad
Let me be up front; a rival as a big bad only really works in a solo campaign. These villains are highly personal and have to be tailored to the character they’re acting as a rival for. A party of rival adventurers might be compelling in a campaign with a certain tone, but that’s less a singular big bad and more an ensemble of villains.
For right now, we’ll talk about that solo rival. It’s a situational kind of thing. The best thing about solo campaigns is how personal they can get in the first place, and having an NPC that wants the same things your player does, especially when they can’t both have them, adds an excellent friction.
The rival as big bad in a campaign like this probably shouldn’t look like one at first. The point of a rival is they’re on the same level as the player, or very slightly above them but not impossible to defeat.
That means there are two things your big bad rival character has to have. First, they have to have a good motivation. Second, they have to be kind of subtle because this character is always one lucky die roll away from being skewered by your hero if they think death is appropriate.
That’s the real pitfall when it comes to a big bad that’s constantly around the protagonist, after all. So the trick is to make them a consistent nuisance without allowing them to cross into “it’s just to kill this person” territory. Have them flirt with the character’s love interest. Have them suck up to their mutual boss and let the boss blatantly favor them. Let them steal credit for something the player character did and have some key NPCs believe them.
In a solo campaign, this can be constant. And then, when you get near the end, allow them to do something unforgivable and your player will be beside themselves at the chance to actually off this guy.
As a threshold boss
This is where the rival team of adventurers can really shine. Have them show up and thwart the party. Have them sometimes get things the PCs were going after. There can be just as many of them as there are PCs, they can be working for the big bad villain, and it gives you a good way to set up certain encounters to really let your PCs shine.
Think about your party and what they are like. Their traits. What defines them as characters? Pick one of those things, and make a villain meant to represent the opposite. Pick one of those things, and make a villain meant to represent the same. Think about how that meshes.
In our Saturday Curse of Strahd game, one of the characters, Carzah, is a goliath. He’s a snarky bastard, wicked strong, and he’s a cleric. He’s massive, the first person anyone sees when the party walks into a room. He’s also generally a very kind man.
Meanwhile, Izaak, the guy with the weird demon hand in Vallaki, is also a big dude. He’s large, intimidating, and a horrible person. And the very second we met him, Carzah wanted to break his face. Make a character similar enough to one of your protagonists, and that desire to best them is instant and real.
I also advise tailoring your encounter so your PCs get a chance for that one-on-one fight. Put a bunch of bad guys in the scene. Give your other PCs something else to fight. They might not bite, but a self aware party will see what’s going on and it can potentially lead to some really cool scenes.
As an encounter boss
These rivals aren’t going to be as big a deal as the aforementioned ones, but it can still be effective. Have a rival show up once in a while and kick dust in one of the PC’s eyes and you won’t even have to work that hard to set them up. The second your PC sees this guy in the head honcho’s office of the thieves’ guild, it’s going to be a reckoning.
One or two sessions of build up is good for this level of rival.
As a minion
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s certainly not as satisfying. If you’re going to make a minion try to be a PC’s rival, I’d suggest playing it for laughs. Minions are wickedly easy to kill, so you probably won’t get anything epic out of this, but have them stand straight and monologue like they’re tough shit.
Think about the Toilenator from Kids Next Door, or Revolver Ocelot from Metal Gear Solid. The characters who show up and say, “But I’m your nemesis!” and the PC says, “Who are you again?”
Having someone stand up and declare themselves a PC’s nemesis when they clearly aren’t capable can be hilarious, and it makes the PC feel good.
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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.