Mastering the Dark Side

Tonight, I’m engaging in a deeper level discussion about villains in my GM coaching program.

All too often, villains become corny, one-dimensional NPCs. All we know is that they want to destroy the world and the PCs. However, this becomes repetitive over time.

Players: What’s the villain doing now?

Johnn: Trying to destroy the world.

Players: Again?

Johnn: Yup.

When you’re a maul, everything looks like XP. You just want to hit things. There’s no nuance, strategy, or variety. That’s not a smashing outcome in terms of a great campaign.

But what outcomes do we want for an epic villain? What does such a villain do in a campaign that makes them an NPC the PCs love to hate (or maybe even hate to love)?

Here are d4 things….

1. Ground-Level Evil

The villain makes it their day-to-day business to see their plans come to fruition. While not on the front lines, the villain orchestrates lieutenants, sergeants, spies, soldiers, and flunkies personally, ensuring every detail of their diabolical strategy is attended to.

Our GMing goal here is to have the world change before the PCs’ eyes, and change for the worse because of the villain. The villain isn’t a remote, conceptual boogeyman. They’re right here, on the party’s turf, making life interesting for them.

2. Persistent Presence

Your villain hides in plain sight, operates from the shadows and proxies, or doesn’t hide at all and brazenly commands evil actions for their minions and allies to enjoy.

Every session, the player characters have dramatic brushes with your villain’s forces in some fashion. Perhaps they manipulate political figures and lawmakers. Maybe they send assassins, law enforcement, or both. Perhaps lesser villains hinder the party and other opponents. Finally, they degrade culture and society by stirring up unrest and sowing false narratives.

The players should feel like the villain is harming or even ending a good world, their world, and changing it in ways antithetical to their PCs’ personalities, beliefs, and goals.

3. They Evolve

As the party grows in power, knowledge, and agency, so too should the villain’s strategies evolve.

Early on, the villain underestimates the party or holds out hope for an alliance. But as the PCs begin to threaten the BBEG’s plans, the NPC becomes increasingly antagonistic towards the characters, giving their interference ever higher priority to deal with in ever more cunning and evil ways.

As GMs, we can also study the tactics of the party and have the villain and their lackeys learn from them, using the PCs’ own moves against the players.

We can also make our villains naïve and poor decision-makers. But then they learn not to commit the classic villain mistakes and become stronger over time not because their attack bonus keeps going up, but because they begin to outmaneuver the party.

4. Personal Stakes

Our villain should have a personal connection with each character that gets dramatically revealed mid-campaign. This connection might evolve through play or be rooted in character backstories.

Maybe there’s a shared family history with the villain, they take something from a PC, they vie with a PC for the same goal, or they have an ideological conflict with a character.

What About You?

Use these four approaches to turn cardboard villains into three-dimensional NPCs your players will obsess about.

There’s no greater player engagement in your campaign than when the party decides to stop your villain at any cost.

Have more fun at every game!

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