Villains: The Hierarchy of Heinousness

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist Highlights the Serious Business of Adventure
Critical Successes and Critical Failures from 1 to 20 in D&D

Salutations, nerds! I’ve been on a bad guy kick recently and because of that I want to talk about D&D villains and how to use them. This is going to be broad strokes — a top down look at how bad guys can interlock to make a Dungeons & Dragons campaign feel more connected. I’ll get back to this topic again soon and get into some more specifics.

Creating villains for your D&D game

The big bad

The one causing all the problems. The horrible person that your characters are trying to stop from doing whatever it is they are doing. The one the story is about.

Especially if you’re going from 1st-20th level, this person should be seriously bad news. Maybe not even a person, but I’ll get to that more later.

Feel free to think big here. Yeah, bigger than that. I think you can dial it up a little farther. That’s the ticket. If someone is going to die in your campaign, this is where it’s going to feel the most worth it.

You’re looking at a world destroyer, here. You’re looking at a sorcerer with an artifact capable of bringing about eternal night. You’re looking at the tarrasque. You’re looking at a fallen goddess who is just so angry with this world for forgetting her that she wants to see it burn and will not stop until it does, or she is dead.

This is a character you want to allude to early, and show the results of their misdeeds. Show the countryside burning or a town in perpetual twilight. Show grieving orphans and armies sundered.

Remember, at some point you have to make it personal. You can do this by bringing your big bad on stage, yes. You can do this by having them hurt someone the characters care about, yes. You can always do both, but remember — the dice are not your friends. There is always a chance (and for whatever cosmic reason guys, that chance is way higher when it’s more inconvenient for you as a Dungeon Master) that a character will get a natural 20 at the wrong moment and at that point…oops, what do you do with the rest of the campaign?

Threshold bosses

We’re going to talk about this in terms of a 1-20 game, but remember you can always scale this down if you’re not going to play like that.

Using the proficiency bonus can be a good way to separate these and a handy tool to use to figure out how powerful they should be. Threshold bosses are a pretty big deal but not as big a deal as the Big Bad, and sometimes they require arcs of their own.

The master of the thieves guild who is a very bad man and has broken into the slave trade is a good example of a threshold boss. There are a ton of personal things you can do with an arc like that.

So in consideration of the end of an arc but not the end of a game: The High Chief who’s been uniting the orc clans. The summoner who’s been sending demon after demon at the party (or if you’re feeling particularly frisky, the last demon they summon as the party walks into the room, but they screwed it up and the demon eats him and now they have a demon to deal with). The beholder who’s minions have been ravaging the countryside and stealing everything in sight. The solemn-faced wizard who has been kidnapping local children trying to find the body her true love reincarnated into so she can release him and bring him back to her.

If you’re running with a big bad, you want to find some way all of these characters are related to that one. The hints can get more heavy handed the further you get into the campaign, of course.

Boss fights

One-offs! You’re in this dungeon after this thing, and you find it in this cove at the back of a cave on an abandoned wreck of a pirate ship, and there’s a massive octopus suddenly grabbing at the party.

That octopus doesn’t need an arc. It needs to be dangerous. The characters should probably feel at some point it is a possibility they will die, and there should be some kind of interesting mechanic probably, but the octopus doesn’t need secret motives.

These are the fights that are just awesome for awesome’s sake. The party should come out of them feeling invigorated. Hell yeah, we fought a giant octopus!

These are pretty straightforward. If it’s a coincidence, and a big deal, it goes here.


These are the peons working for the Threshold Bosses. Some of them can be standard boss fights in their own right, if you set it up properly, but they don’t have to be.

Any groups of minions go here. Gnolls, cadres of imps, bands of orcs, clouds of pixies. They don’t have to have arcs and pretty much shouldn’t unless you really want to run a mini side arc about one of them, but on the whole it’s perfectly safe to make these just numbers on a page.

The trick is making them feel like they could all have lives of their own. And that’s the illusion we’re going to get into next.

Every mook is just a mook until the party decides they need to take one alive for questioning. My advice is to keep a list of five mooks with names and a couple of readily apparent traits. Grok who is missing an eye. Liira with the scar on her cheek. Erithu who can’t pronounce the ‘th’ sound and always uses a hard ‘t’ instead and it makes telling you his name a frustrating back and forth.

If your party likes to loot the bodies, I would also suggest having a list of interesting things they could be keeping in their pockets. Crystals, fun shaped rocks, a set of polyhedral dice (No! We didn’t know he was one of us!) or a tiny magnifying glass.

It’s enough to suggest these characters have stories and lives. Like a few lines can create the illusion of bricks in an illustration, a few details can create the illusion of depth in your nameless mooks.

So, how do you handle creating your villains? Do you have a hierarchy for them? Been in that situation where a PC rolled an inconvenient 20 and derailed the whole campaign? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

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Follow Megan R. Miller:
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.

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