The villains that your players remember aren’t always the ones with the nastiest stats (though it never hurts to make your villains tough)—but a villain who betrays the party or fools them. “He seemed like he was on our side!” “He said he worshipped Pelor!” or even “He was my mentor!” are the sort of plaintive cries that make players realize they’ve been working with the bad guy all along. That’s deep treachery; it hurts to be betrayed. Outstanding villains should definitely leave a scar on the party’s psyche.
Not all villains fall into this category. I sort major villains into four categories: the obvious villain, the hidden villain, the ambiguous villain, and the deeply treacherous villain. They all have their place in a campaign, but the last has the strongest impact. First, let’s examine the other three.
The obvious villain is, well, obvious: he shows up, he brags about his evil plot and sets it in motion, and he defends his lair if the party comes to pay a visit. In most cases, the obvious villain can afford to walk around in daylight and taunt heroes and commoners alike, because he has either a lot of powerful minions (see the minions article) or he has political power. The politically powerful villain might have a title, be born into the ruling class, or have seized power; what matters most is that he controls the law and the judges, so he cannot be brought to justice in the usual way.
In some cases, the obvious villain simply has a lot of personal power (such as a demon or death knight). And the ones who do their own fighting often are just powerful monsters; they’re not even truly villains in the plotting-and-scheming sense. These individually-powerful villains are actually the weakest type of villain in many ways. Their impact is always limited by the fact that they don’t have a great network of supporters to do their bidding (see, it goes back to minions again).
At the same time, when villains are obvious about their evil plans, they are easier for PCs to find and stop. Which is why so many villains hide their real identity under masks, false names, and the like.
Masks: The Hidden Villain
I mentioned the betrayal of friendship as a cutting form of villainy, but of course it’s only a betrayal when the party finally puts two and two together and realizes someone has been selling them out. Until that point, the friend, and the villain who’s been reporting the PCs’ activities to their enemies, are two different people in the PCs’ minds.
This sort of villain may act against the party, their family, retainers, and friends directly, but doesn’t want his identity known. Physical masks, helmets, or disguises are often more useful than magical alter self spells or items, because it is not possible to see through them with a simple dispel magic or true seeing. An even more effective mode of disguise for a treacherous villain is not to hide his face, but to hide his whole identity behind layers of hench-villains. These spidery villains sit in their lair like Cardinal Richelieu while someone else does all the grunt work of villainy.
The hidden villain is well-disguised for his own protection, whether he works directly against the PCs or not. The Skull Wizard, or the Green Marauder, or whatever he calls himself, can enjoy robbing travelers or extorting cash from foolish nobles while still visiting civilization in his undisguised form. These “villains moving among society” present a weak spot for heroes to exploit, if they can prove a villain’s identity: they have a chance to catch the villain when he’s not surrounded by his superpowerful minions (and, in fact, this may the only time he’s easy to catch). I haven’t seen a lot of adventures take this approach-- most villains hide out in well-defended dungeons, caverns, or castles—but it might make a nice change of pace for the party to discover that the King’s Minister Karovel is really behind it all.
The beauty of the disguise as a plot device is that gives heroes two great moments. There’s the moment when they figure out who the villain is, and the moment when they confront that villain in an unusual setting for a final combat. The end-fight at the royal court, or among a group of merchant princes, is tailor-made for special combat maneuvers (lots of big windows, ledges, tapestries, and chandeliers in a palace…) and can feature crowds of bystanders who oooooh and aaaah over the heroics on display. They also give your villain something useful: impromptu hostages.
The Wicked NPC: Ambiguous Villains
There’s a middle group between friend and outright foe: the ambiguous villain. This NPC isn’t obviously working against the party, but isn’t necessarily working with them either. It could be a countess who likes the heroes, perhaps even sponsoring one as her knight or introducing them to patrons and others who can offer the heroes great magical power. She might seem a little dodgy, and it’s clear to watchful PCs that she’s selfish… but she’s not clearly evil. This could just be a neutral-aligned NPC, like the captain of the town watch who keeps hiring the party to pursue bigger villains than himself.
Taking the countess example further, at the same time that she praises and assists the party with small matters, she also uses them as a way to discomfit her foes. For instance, she might plant evidence of wrongdoing on her political enemies, or even pretend to be the victim of an assassination plot. She might simply offer the party money to do things that seem legitimate, such as stopping smuggling rings… which just happens to be run by her rivals.
Ambiguous villains are interesting because their interest fairly often align with those of the party; they’re grey villains rather than black. In the long run, though, they usually push the party to do something so blatant or so selfish that the heroes finally balk; and at that point, the villains’ true colors come out. From then on, the ambiguous (and now scorned) villain uses all of her resources to destroy the party, including taking away any advantages, connections, or good reputation she might have helped them acquire.
Deep Treachery: The Sharpest Cut
Sometimes, a villain seems to be a friend for a while, then really messes with the party. This is a three-part trick that needs to be set up long in advance, ideally with an NPC that the party meets early in their career.
Stage One: Build Trust
At first, the PCs’ mentor or other trusted figure is similar to the ambiguous villain, though without the hints of grey-marketeering, sleazy ethics, or selfishness that an ambiguous villain shows. In other words, this stage is about setting up the NPC as a friend to the party, or at least to some of the more gullible party members. I’d recommend avoiding the skeptics and cynics for this; they’re much too suspicious to be taken in by it.
Stage Two: Setting Up the Treachery
The NPC has invested time and energy in the PC. Perhaps he repaired or augmented the warforged PC, or perhaps he taught the young paladin what he needed to know. But over time, the mentor became corrupted by something. Nothing so obvious as becoming a vampire or possessed by a ghost; more like greed or anger has slowly poisoned his good nature.
At mid-levels, you can show this when the mentor makes one or two strange requests, or withdraws a little from public life, less willing to talk to his old students or friends. Keep it low-key to avoid making the players suspicious, and frame the issue as a positive one that only seems obvious with hindsight. “Your mentor offers to enchant your holy symbol with a daylight spell in recognition of your service” or “The bailiff is gone on a pilgrimage; he left behind instructions for running the castle”. The holy symbol soon becomes the target of discern location, and the pilgrimage is really a trip to meet with evil allies. But at this stage, the mentor may still be conflicted, and doesn’t confront the PCs directly; the villain may even be ashamed of his slide into darkness, and leave the usual locations in an attempt to take his own failing away from people he might harm.
At this stage, you need a cover story for the villain if your subtle hints are too obvious and the players become suspicious. It may be something like “Oh, I gave that to the new enchanter to take care of” (to frame someone else) or it might be “I approached the cultists because I’m trying to reach their ringleader. But I think it’s time their dark deeds came to an end” (when all along, he’s been working with the cult, and may even tip them off again).
Stage Three: Trust Betrayed
At some point, the PCs will see that their mentor has gone to the dark side. Perhaps he sends a note as a cry for help (though by the time the party arrives, it’s too late). More obviously, a priest of the dark gods may suddenly be welcome around his house, or the ranger may notice that the villain mistreats his horses, dogs or animals. Something’s obviously wrong. The player’s first reaction may be to try to save the mentor from malign forces that have caused this evil. Here you have to decide just how ruthless a DM you are. If you prefer a softer, brighter world of heroism, the mentor’s betrayal and darkness can still be redeemed, though at a high price.
If you prefer a more bitter, cynical campaign, the mentor pretends to go along with this plan for redemption, but works against the PCs at every turn. Ultimately, they’ll have to destroy him, or risk losing everything else. If the choice is to kill your mentor or watch the kingdom fall into the hands of slave-lords or diabolists, most heroes will ultimately save the kingdom. But if you’ve set it up right, the memories of the good days will make the necessity much more memorable than the death of an obvious villain who has the same goal of enslaving the kingdom.
Hey, no one said being a hero was easy.
If deep betrayal hurts, why create a villain who turns the party’s world upside-down? It’s dramatic, it can be gut-wrenching, and it’s exciting in a way that’s different from most adventures. I’d never recommend trying to create more than one such villain per campaign; burning the party once may make them more cautious about who they accept as a friend. Burning the party twice in this way is just nasty. Obvious, ambiguous, and disguised villains all offer a change of pace from the standard “it’s a monster, let’s kill it” fare. They’re tricks that work well because they are usually trotted out just a few times in a campaign, but players usually find these villains really satisfying to uncover and defeat.
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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