D&D’s alignment system and the conventions of fantasy sometimes make DMs lazy when it comes determining motive. When I read queries for Dungeon Magazine, I’d often run across villains with incredibly complicated plots… and absolutely no motive. The manuscript might say that the “wizard is insane” or “the cultists are evil,” but that’s not really an explanation.
Why Be a Villain?
A good villain is not planning to destroy the town because he’s Chaotic Evil. He’s going to destroy it because he’s Chaotic Evil and he’s got a good reason to hate that town: they branded and exiled him, they executed his father after a rigged trial, or just because they laughed at his froggy familiar.
People are sneering, villainous bastards when they act in a particular way. What makes them act that way is what makes them interesting villains as opposed to just another goblin, skeleton, or other faceless mook. Villains are full of powerful, albeit twisted, emotions. They want big, dramatic things to happen, and they want them badly: demonic summoning, war and plague, the destruction of entire cities and nations, the slow torture of the innocent, or the death of knowledge. Not exactly the sort of gold, food, and magic that goblins and giants care about.
Actually, the comparison to standard monsters is very revealing. Monsters without clear motivations aren’t villains; they’re just combat-shaped obstacles in the game. Villains have plans, and the good ones also have style. Villains make the players react to them, striving to foil their plans. They ooze bad intentions, and they have goals and the ability to reach those goals.
Choosing a CR, class, and equipment for a villain is only half the design challenge. Motivation is the key element for a truly great villain. And giving a villain a great motivation has the happy side effect of making the rest of your adventure design easier.
Why Bother With Motive?
Motive makes creating and running adventures easier in at least four ways:
For example, if a villain is a dragon who seeks to recover a gem stolen from its hoard, it might first choose targets such as merchants and wanderers travelling between villages. It might even ally itself with a group of bandits who promised to return its gem to it, gathering information in ways that the dragon could not. If the party does not choose to follow the adventure hook of the “bandit dragon,” it might soon escalate to attacking and looting a village or small town, with a special focus on jeweler shops. The goal is obvious: regain the gem (or failing that, sooth the heartache of losing it by collecting other gems to replace it).
A dragon whose motive is finding a mate might act quite differently, as would a dragon seeking revenge for the destruction of its eggs (which might burn out villages indiscriminately, and harbor special hatred for armored foes). Motive makes them distinct.
The most common motives of a villain are all familiar from books and movies: vengeance, greed, lust for power, abuse of authority, impersonation by evil forces, religious zealotry, and madness. Other motives are less familiar: villains who act out of love, out of fear, shame, and out of error (Lear). Some of these make excellent motives for adventures, specifically because they don’t get a lot of play in standard fantasy item-quests.
For instance, imagine an elvish villain. This elf is a spurned lover who seeks to destroy a noble woman and her family: he tries to impoverish her, ruin her reputation, and poison her new lover. The actions may not initially seem directed at the noblewoman at all (the poisoning is indirectly aimed at her, the loss of money could just be a crime of greed). Once players understand the motive in this adventure, they’ll understand the villain and know where they can confront him.
Motives to Ignore
You can go overboard with motive, of course. Not every encounter with mooks, hirelings, and minions need a motive; some monsters are just evil and need killin’. That’s usually the case for the majority of combat encounters. Oftentimes the only combat encounters that require you to define motives, aside from the main villain himself, are the NPC allies of the villain. For instance, a half-devil lieutenant who stalls the party may be deceptively friendly as part of a switch encounter. Others may attack the party’s mounts to slow down pursuit of the master villain, or they may be paid informants for the villain, false friends who lead the party into danger, or an invisible voice who tries to talk the party out of its goal. These types of short-terms goals are typical of the real villain’s servants.
Types of Goals & Powers
Sometimes, the villain’s motive is simple, but his methods are not. Second to the creation of a powerful, useful villains are the creation of solid goals and powers. These define the villain’s abilities and make him or her a worthy adversary for the players. When I wrote the villains for Castle Shadowcrag, for instance, I knew what they wanted but not how they would achieve those goals. Over the course of writing the adventure, I figured out how they’d get there: I used a new monster, the shadow fey, to do some of the villainous work required, and gave them powers that supported those goals.
It’s not necessary to design whole new creature types (in my case, I went a bit overboard). What’s necessary is creating a worthy adversary, a monster or NPC who has both the intelligence and the magic or class abilities to give the party a real challenge, not just a slugfest. Flight, invisibility and teleportation are common tools, but they aren’t necessarily the best for a villain; a fighter who can go toe-to-toe with the party and laugh off wounds (until they discover his weakness) is at least as much fun as the villain who is merely hard to catch.
In any case, villains should stand above the common ranks of monsters and minions. The usual tools are elite ability scores and AC, well-chosen magical items, or spells such as mirror image or create fetch, and (in the non-mechanical category) important status or favors owed to the villain.
Ability scores are pretty obvious; the elite array is given in the Monster Manual, page 290. Having exceptionally high Armor Class (and at higher levels, Spell Resistance) simply means that a villain lives longer in combat and has a better chance of survival. I’ll have more to say on villains in combat in a future installment in this series, but mention now that defensive powers are more important than offensive ones for villains.
Magical items should be limited to one or two defining items that help a villain get away with it. Invisibility, heal, and non-detection powers are all pretty popular choices. But ideally, some of a villain’s toys should force the party to make difficult choices—for instance, using charm spells to create a group of innocent bodyguards out of villagers is a truly villainous thing to do.
The tricks from Complete Scoundrel are appropriate for many villains, who love to outwit and outsmart heroes. The Luck feats and tricks are especially appropriate for the bad guys, as they allow them to avoid critical hits or failed saves which could end an encounter. And frankly, villains need to be lucky to survive against PCs; Complete Scoundrel simply builds some useful guidelines around that luckiness.
The important thing to remember is that sometimes it’s best if a villain’s abilities don’t pack a lot of offensive punch, but keep a villain alive and provide leverage against his innocent victims. This forces a truly motivated villain to rely on minions and allies, a topic I’ll pick up in the next installment of the Villains series.
Understanding and building on the motivations of your main villain can make it easier to keep a villain focused, and to decide how they react when the party does something unexpected. Above-average defensive powers keep a villain alive to grow into a long-term threat rather than a one-shot obstacle.
About the Author
Wolfgang Baur is plotting his elaborate-yet-ruthless vengeance even now. His escape hatch is a series of cleverly-disguised blogs like Open Design, where he shares further design secrets.
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