The following article continues the limited Villain Builder series from industry veteran Wolfgang Baur. Last year, Wolfgang delivered our much acclaimed Adventure Builder series, focusing on better design elements to incorporate into your adventures.
If 2006 was officially the Year of Dragons, 2007 might well be—at least in some part—the Year of Villains. Looking at the online product catalog for the year, Expedition to the Demonweb Pits releases next month, followed by Drow of the Underdark. Later in the year, Robert Schwalb delivers Exemplars of Evil (September) and Elder Evils (December), providing specific examples of villains to use in your campaigns, as well as advice on how to construct and play memorable foes.
In advance of these materials, we wanted to start the conversation on villains with the following limited series. We hope you enjoy the series; as always, feel free to send us your thoughts and feedback to: email@example.com.
Villains may have their plans, minions, and secret backstory, but let’s face it—they earn their stripes when it’s time to throw down and make the heroes suffer. Unfortunately, all too many supposedly big bads don’t live up to their billing. They get knocked down in a couple rounds, their henchmen flee, or they lack a fall-back plan.
As a result, most villains don't survive for long in combat, and even if they do, they don't make much of an impression. In today’s article, we look at ways to introduce the villain and absolutely terrify the party… and then survive to do it again.
Villains on the Offense
Good villains have concrete things they want from combat: dead PCs, captured PCs, or just to survive in order to complete their nefarious plans another time. To get those things, they usually need a clever plan as well as a few minions; however, the most important thing to remember about making a villain interesting is to give his tactics and defenses some thought ahead of time, rather than just working on stats and mechanics.
Here are a few options to make villains more frightening (and thus more fun).
Attack! No Survivors!: Part of a great villain is about completely taking the offense. Most players are so used to being the active party in any encounter that they don’t know quite what to do when someone kicks down their door and attacks them (they’re more used to doing the kicking). The same goes for ambushes: when a dragon swoops down out of the night sky and carries off the dwarf’s heavily-laden treasure pony… well, no one saw that coming. The players are immediately on the defensive, and the villain can have a few laughs at their expense. They’ll be motivated to get revenge.
Overwhelming Force: Villains rarely do well alone. They bring along minions: lots and lots of minions. Think platoons, armies worth of minions. This usually makes the PCs work harder; direct combat doesn’t always work. Stealth and assassination might work, but villains are paranoid about that stuff (because they use such underhanded tactics themselves). Sending a big crowd of monsters after the party may create a problem (or new plot direction) for you if the players are foolhardy enough to, say, fight a mob of 30 hill giants. Which is why we see so many captured PCs—and which leads to:
Capturing PCs: Villains love to take prisoners. Why, you ask? They’re scumbags who like to humiliate, torture, and abuse those less powerful than themselves. They like to show off their smarts and strength (oftentimes to a, quite literally, captive audience). And they also need sacrifices for their dark cults, to summon demons, to create necromantic constructs, or just to feed their pet dragon.
A villain’s urge to capture prisoners is a player’s second chance after a disastrous mistake. A DM is under no obligation to go on giving chances to a party that can’t learn to pick its battles; and a good villain will laugh at the fools who do survive while he decapitates their friends on the battlements of his skull-shaped castle. The party should be given a chance to escape, but if they decide to raise an alarm while still in the villain’s power, it may be time for a new campaign. If you aren’t ruthless, your villains lack credibility.
New Powers: Villains on the offense should show off the cool new power you’ve granted them from your imagination or a recent sourcebook. New spells, new allies, and new feats that no one has seen before can keep a party guessing. Villains are early adopters. And don’t be afraid to have them abuse the rules just a bit; give a human a demonic item that grants DR, give them tricks and luck feats from Complete Scoundrel, or metamagic feats and spells from Complete Mage. Go nuts.
Escaping Alive: Villains on the Defensive
Really nasty villains are always the main target of the PC fighters and spell-slingers: demons and necromancers just draw more attention than ogres and bards. There are five main tricks here:
Can’t Touch Me Part 1: High Armor Class is the most obvious strategy to making a villain durable; if no one can hit him, he’ll last longer because he’ll take less damage. The number you want is roughly 20 + party level (which equal’s a fighter’s BAB). This means that a party must have bonuses to hit the villain: Strength, feats, and magical weapons. For higher-level parties, I’d even recommend 25+ party level as a decent “tough” Armor Class. Any less, and they’ll fall prey to combat-focused fighters in a matter of a couple rounds.
It’s worth noting that touch AC should also be boosted to truly give a villain a fighting chance. I’d recommend 15+party level as a maximum for touch AC. Finding some deflection bonuses to AC is a good way to go about it, as is increased Dexterity. Tough SOB: The second obvious solution is to give a villain more hit points. I think a barbarian with an 18 Constitution would make an excellent villain, for instance: he can dish it out in melee, taunt the PCs, and survive. However, all villains benefit from Con-enhancements to base abilities using level bumps, magical spells, and items.
Can’t Touch Me, Part 2: The more advanced version of the tough-to-hit villain is the magically difficult villain, rather than purely AC-based defense. The tricks here are all pretty straightforward, and very annoying to PCs who are used to having these defenses on their side: blink, create fetch, major image, mirror image, greater invisibility, displacement, and even cover can all make a villain much tougher to eliminate quickly. Spells like evacuation rune and smoke stairs (from Complete Scoundrel) are excellent ways for a villain to exit when need. Magic items like wands of teleport, a cube of force, or panic buttons (also from CS) are extremely useful.
Can’t Kill Me: Even if a party does get past the high AC, hit points, and magical defenses, the ideal recurring villain has another line of defense. The use of contingency spells with invisibility, heal, teleport, or the like can prevent death by providing a second wind. Shield guardians also help in this regard; every self-respecting master of clockworks should have at least one.
Threats: Not every version of defense in depth depends on mechanics. The use of credible or at least frightening threats is a classic villainous tactic that doesn’t always get its due in D&D. Imagine the villain shouting “If you kill me, the death ritual will be complete! Bwahaha, strike fools, and make my plans complete!” Is it true? Is it a bluff? It doesn’t matter, if it can make the PCs hesitate for a crucial round. Using a free action to rattle the PCs buys the villain a little time, maybe enough time to bring in reinforcements, use a magical item, or simply run for it.
I’m Baaaaack: The thing about good villains is that they don’t stay dead. As we’ll discuss in our next article (on minions), the most important minion is the one with the raise dead spell or wand. Player characters use raise dead or resurrection all the time, and recurring villains should do the same. Villains who serve a god of death or evil might have another option as well: returning as undead. Just throw the vampire, ghost, or lich template on your villain… or if you want to get fancy, the death knight (MM2), dry lich (Sandstorm), gravetouched ghoul (Libris Mortis), or swarm-shifter template (Libris Mortis), and off you go.
Finally, there’s the very best villain defense: avoiding combat entirely. If they can outrun, outride, or otherwise escape the party’s clutches before ever getting into combat, the villain wins. Think about a monk character with the Run feat; the party is unlikely to catch him unless they find him by surprise, so they’ll need to think up another way to bring that kind of villain to justice beyond the usual “fight till he falls down.” Likewise, the movement feats from Complete Scoundrel (from p. 83—and yes, they are extra useful for villains as well) also make it hard to come to grips with a villain who does not wish to fight in melee conditions.
Villains primary purpose is not combat (it’s plots and threats), but they should be able to frighten players with ruthless, unorthodox tactics and a well-thought-out set of defenses that match their creature subtype or class. Escape hatches make it possible for your villains to get away and frustrate the heroes who work so hard to bring them to justice. Don’t make it easy to take down a big villain by getting up close in melee. Every time they escape, they make the player’s final victory that much sweeter.
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.