This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The characters, now 15th level, have reached the midpoint of the campaign. To celebrate this achievement, I decided to involve them in something truly world-shaking. The time had come to give them a flavor of evil they’d never tasted before.
Enter Kharl Mystrum and Nemencia Xandros.
Kharl and Nemencia have three qualities that make them stand out: First, like all truly evil villains, they believe that their actions are justified. Second, they’re incredibly lucky. And third, like two sides of a coin, they can’t really exist without one another.
If Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series, not the loathsome movie) taught me anything, it’s that two villains are better than one. It was proven in Season 2 with the vampires Spike and Drusilla, reaffirmed in Season 3 by Mayor Wilkins and Faith, and then sorely missed in subsequent seasons. (If you want to make a case for the “brilliant pairing” of Rutger Hauer and Paul Reubens in the Buffy movie, knock yourself out. Preferably with a sledgehammer.)
Like Spike and Dru, the “dastardly duo” in my Wednesday night campaign are lovers, which mostly serves as a plot device to explain why they’re together but also gives their relationship an added layer of realism and complexity—particularly when the cracks start to form. They’re both human, born into noble families suffering under the tyranny of the dragonborn-dominated empire that rules most of Iomandra. Determined to shatter the imperial hold over their regency, Kharl and Nemencia have stolen their parents’ fortunes to spend on a massive elemental citadel held aloft by a 1,000-foot-high cyclone of water. Once they’ve obtained the citadel, Kharl and Nemencia plan to wipe out the imperial fleet at Io’calioth and run roughshod over the island city. It might seem crazy in your campaign, but it fits perfectly into mine.
It’s very easy to hate a pair of spoiled rich kids who want to trade their silver spoons for platinum, and blow obscene amounts of money because they feel trodden upon.
The heroes first become involved with them when they attend a secret auction of elemental weaponry; the last item up for grabs is the elemental citadel. It’s here when the heroes meet Nemencia, who seems pretty harmless and out of her league… until she bids 25 million gp on the citadel in question. At that time, it’s not clear what her intentions are—the players are initially led to believe she’s representing her father, a powerful baron with a sterling reputation.
At the conclusion of the auction, Nemencia is more than happy to offer the heroes a tour of her new citadel, convinced that they share her disdain for the empire. However, it soon becomes clear that her intentions are far from noble. When the heroes try to wrest the crown from her, she crashes the citadel into the sea. Using a talisman obtained earlier in the campaign, the heroes travel back in time, effectively escaping a TPK. (Time travel: a fun if tricky plot device that I hope to discuss in a future article.) The heroes get a second shot, but instead of turning on Nemencia, they remain aboard the citadel and wait for an opportunity to betray her.
Before the heroes can act against Nemencia a second time, Kharl appears. That’s when the heroes realize they’re facing two villains, not one. The added complication is that Kharl is not alone: He’s joined by a flight of mercenary dragons bribed into defending the citadel. What to do? The heroes first try to play the two lovers against one another; when that fails, they try to convince the dragon mercenaries to betray the lovers, and very nearly succeed. When Kharl finally becomes aware of their scheme, the battle’s joined! As the citadel cuts a swath of destruction through Io’calioth’s harbor, Kharl and Nemencia hold out for as long as possible before making their escape.
What makes Kharl and Nemencia especially memorable (apart from their countless flaws), is their longevity. Since the first fateful meeting, they’ve crossed paths with the heroes on three more occasions:
- Weakened and wounded from their ordeal aboard the citadel, Kharl and Nemencia are captured by agents of the Dragovar empire. The heroes feel sorry enough for the lovers to extricate them from their predicament. Once out of harm’s way, Kharl and Nemencia betray the heroes and nearly get them killed before escaping once again.
- The heroes learn that the Dragovar empire has posted a 2,000,000 gp bounty for the capture of Kharl and Nemencia. The heroes finally catch them aboard Kharl’s ship, but when the vessel is overrun by githyanki pirates, the heroes are forced to surrender the lovers to save their own skins.
- After their vessel is destroyed by a Far Realm mine, the heroes seek another time-travel talisman to undo the sequence of events that caused their ship’s destruction. They discover a drow NPC who has what they need, and also learn that the drow is conducting secret business with githyanki pirates. Once they learn that the pirates have released Kharl and Nemencia into the drow’s custody, the vindictive (and somewhat more jaded) heroes hunt down and kill the two lovers out of spite, forcing the drow to use his time-travel talisman to undo the event. When they try again, the heroes discover that Kharl and Nemencia have been spirited away, and the talisman’s power has been spent. The heroes’ fleeting victory turns to bitter irony as their thirst for vengeance has cost them the very item they sought.
The saga of Kharl and Nemencia isn’t something I planned from the get-go. I fully expected them to be dead by now. Everything that’s happened so far is the result of hundreds of decisions and dice rolls, combined with calculated efforts on my part to have them resurface in unexpected ways. They’ve become the archetypal two-headed villain of my Wednesday night campaign. At some point, I’ll share with you another villainous archetype that’s become the bane of my Monday night group… but that’s another story!
The theme of “dastardly duo” appears frequently in literature, film, and TV. Partnered villains are better than singular villains for so many reasons: They act as mirrors for one another, they can be turned against one another, and they remind the players that villains also have relationships that can be explored and exploited. Perhaps most importantly, if one of them dies, the other can carry the torch.
Kharl and Nemencia have taught me three other important lessons worth mentioning here:
The best villains are like the heroes: They don’t know everything, they make mistakes, and they have a knack for turning disadvantage into advantage.
The best villains are the ones the players can interact with.
If you want to keep your villains from getting killed, try making them more valuable alive than dead, or make the consequences of their deaths severe and readily apparent.
Regarding the second point, there’s an inherent risk that comes with giving heroes “face time” with your carefully crafted villains. More often than not, the villains will perish before achieving any true level of infamy, but for every nineteen that die before their time, there will be the twentieth villain in whom the gods show favor, the villain (or dastardly duo) that survives long enough to make the heroes’ lives truly miserable.
Regarding the third point, imagine what would happen if my players suddenly learned that Kharl and Nemencia had become heroes of the people—symbols of unity among humans fighting for independence against the “ruthless” Dragovar empire? What would happen, I wonder, if the heroes murdered them in cold blood?
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
The Dungeon Master Experience: “BEST VILLAIN EVER!” Contest
Here’s something we haven’t done before: a contest! I’m not handing out prizes for this one. The best you can hope for is the prestige that comes from having your work appear in an upcoming Dungeon Master Experience article.
Here’s the contest:
Send me one paragraph describing the best D&D villain you’ve ever designed. This is the Internet, so a short paragraph is better than a long one. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org by 9 AM PST on April 15, 2011, with the following subject line: BEST VILLAIN EVER! (Be sure to include the exclamation point, but only one!) At the end of the villain’s description, type your name and whereabouts (for example, “Jane Smith, Goblintown VA”). That’s a real place, by the way.
I will include the best three submissions in an upcoming column and explain why I think they’re awesome, and other DMs will be free to plunder them for their home campaigns. How cool is that?
By the way, if no one submits an entry, I will be very sad. Moreover, instead of writing the article, I will be forced to drown my sorrows in Hooker OK, Sweet Lips TN, Spunky Puddle OH or some other ridiculous real-world location.
Poll 03/31/2011 Results:
DMs are players, too. The Dungeon Master’s Guide classifies players into eight types. What type of player are you?
I’m a Storyteller (I like complex plots, dialogue, and character background development): 26.5%
- I’m an Explorer (I like to explore the world my DM has created and learn its secrets): 15.4%
- I defy classification. How dare you try to categorize me!: 13.7%
- I’m an Actor (I like to pretend to be my character and play true to the character): 11.2%
- I’m an Instigator (I like to make things happen and take risks): 11.0%
- I’m a Power Gamer (I like gaining levels, abilities, and magic items): 9.7%
- I’m a Slayer (I like to kill things): 5.5%
- I’m a Thinker (I like solving puzzles and conundrums, but tend to be risk-averse): 5.2%
- I’m a Watcher (I like the social aspect of the game more than the game itself): 1.9%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 04/07/2011
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.