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.
Normally I’d kick things off by describing some thrilling event or happenstance from my home campaign, but we’re breaking format this week to bring you the three winning entries from the Best Villain Ever contest. Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry!
When I began analyzing why I liked these particular villains, I realized each one was a textbook example of a villainous archetype: There’s the villain born out of the heroes’ backstory, the villain hiding in the heroes’ midst, and the good-aligned creature turned evil. Many of the contest entries fell into one of these three classic archetypes, though there were other archetypes represented as well: the world-destroying super-villain, the vengeance-driven villain, and the benefactor-turned-villain, just to name a few.
Are these three truly the best villains ever? That’s ultimately for you to decide. I chose the villains that resonated with me personally; had you been the judge, you might’ve gravitated toward different things. However, all of the submissions did have one thing in common: Each villain was a deeply embedded element of the campaign, not just some disposable bad guy.
Dragen Blackstone, Warlock Knight of Vaasa
My “Best Villain Ever” is from my home Forgotten Realms campaign. He is a Warlock Knight of Vaasa named Dragen Blackstone. The players crafted backstories for their characters, and a couple of them made up stories that involved their homes being destroyed when they children—but they weren’t really specific about the regions they were from. I decided to make them from the mountains surrounding Vaasa and tied them together by the common thread that their villages were all destroyed by Dragen. Their first run-in with Dragen was while they were still very low level, and he knocked them unconscious and left them for dead, lying in the dirt. A wandering shaman (a new player joining the campaign) discovered them and healed their wounds. The shaman was also very familiar with Dragen—his tribe was constantly avoiding the Warlock Knights. My players will have many run-ins with Dragen’s henchmen before they are powerful enough to get their revenge.
The best twist of the campaign is that one of my players thought he’d be clever and not create a backstory for his character. He told me his character woke up in the mountains with amnesia and has no recollection of his past. As the story unfolds, he will learn that he used to be one of Dragen’s henchmen!
Here’s an example of a villain the heroes are expected to despise from the get-go. Dragen’s deeds are directly responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, and their reasons for hating him are hard-coded into their backgrounds.
I admire a DM who can pit the heroes against a villain far too powerful for them, allow the villain to prevail without ending the campaign, and offer players the promise of sweet, sweet revenge. Dragen doesn’t need a black hat or a white cat to get the heroes’ attention. The day the heroes finally meet Dragen on equal footing promises to be the high point in the campaign!
Also, the Warlock Knights of Vaasa are just plain cool.
The Porter Who Might Be King
The best villain we ever had in a game was a hired porter for the party. He was a kind, wiry old man who shared fatherly advice and told great stories around the campfire. The party loved him... until one night when the party uncovered a powerful artifact they had retrieved from a lich and decided to camp outside the dungeon immediately afterwards. In the darkest hour of night, offering to watch over the camp while the party slept, the kindly old porter killed the PC with the artifact while he slept and disappeared into the night. What they didn't know was that the old man was once a cruel king who had been dethroned at a younger age and now had a way to get back what once was his.
Sioux Falls, SD
“Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”
The villain who lurks among the heroes is a great premise... difficult to pull off but incredibly gratifying when executed well (no pun intended). Sometimes a betrayal comes out of left field—usually when the idea occurs to the DM late in the game—but I think this one was planned from the very start, and that’s awesome. Bravo!
I often tell new DMs not to drink from the “betrayal” well too often. You can’t have NPCs betraying the heroes at every turn; it makes the players suspicious of everyone (best-case scenario) or just plain angry (worst-case scenario). I’m a big fan of the “villain in our midst,” but if your players have been stung in the past, it’s wise to drop a few clues before the big reveal. That way, when the players think you’re screwing them over, you can point back at the clues and say, “Au contraire!” (or whatever they say in South Dakota).
Havok the Betrayer
Havok the Betrayer was an adult gold dragon that disagreed with a council of other good dragons and set out to make himself powerful enough to overturn their plans. He sought to raise army of undead, obtain a tome of vile magic, and steal godlike power from a primordial. He liked to disguise himself as a small humanoid—the players hated him as a smug blue goblin! Heck, they didn't even know he was a gold dragon until epic tier. The first time the party saw Havok's true appearance, they said: "It's okay you guys! Gold dragons are good!"
I like challenging players’ expectations, and a classic D&D example is the evil-aligned metallic dragon. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s often overlooked. My campaign includes a polymorphing silver dragon with evil ambitions; he’s not nearly as capable or dangerous as Havok, and I confess that I’ve used him as comic relief on occasion (I recall a time when the dragon—as he was taunting the heroes with a villainous monologue—landed on a wooden platform that couldn’t support his weight).
Havok has the added virtue of being a monster as opposed to a two-armed, two-legged villain. Monsters are underused as major campaign villains, in my humble opinion. If a gold dragon can hold the heroes’ interest for multiple levels or even tiers of play, imagine what could be done with an evil treant hell-bent on purging the natural world of civilization, an iron golem imbued with the sentience and ambition of its evil creator, or a beholder crime lord.
Havok the Betrayer rekindled my desire to flip through the Monster Manual in search of the next big bad guy in my campaign, and that’s why he made the cut.
Would I pilfer these villains for my own campaign? You bet. A campaign can never have enough good villains—I truly believe that. Aside from their admirable characteristics, the Best Villain Ever contest winners reminded me of three important things:
Villains (even smart ones) make mistakes. Sometimes that includes not killing the heroes when they have the chance!
Not every villain needs a world-shaking agenda to be cool.
Villains come in all shapes and sizes.
It’s a bit of a digression, but Boraxe (one of our community members) has some wonderful DM advice embedded in his forum sig, which I’m paraphrasing here: Dangle lots of plot hooks in front of your players. Anything they do not bite can come back and bite them later. I think the same advice applies to campaign villains. You never know which villains will rattle the players’ cages, so the trick is to keep inventing new ones.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 04/14/2011 Results:
Which of the following evil Forgotten Realms organizations is your favorite?
The Red Wizards of Thay: evil merchant wizards: 30.9%
- The Zhentarim: evil conquerors supported by assassins, spies, and soldiers: 27.0%
- The Shades of Netheril: powerful, enigmatic beings of shadow: 12.9%
- The Cult of the Dragon: creators and followers of undead dragons: 12.2%
- The Night Masks: a powerful thieves’ guild: 6.0%
- The Church of Cyric: followers of Cyric, an evil mortal who became a god: 5.7%
- The Twisted Rune: a secret society of undead spellcasters: 5.3%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 04/21/2011
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.