Has there ever been a better time to talk about big bads, minor bads, smalltime bads and local bads and examine D&D villain ideas than now? Popular culture has brought us some epic villains in the past few weeks and this post is going to explore the character dynamics of some genuinely nasty pieces of work.
When we explore the motivations of D&D villains, what they will and won't do, and when we 'enter' the character, it brings huge depth to the game experience and hopefully some mind bending terror for the players.
Previously when we examined the whys and wherefores of villainy , this blog examined nine villain types. In this post we're going to look deeper into villain motivation by exploring five contemporary baddies pop culture baddies and what drives them, so there are spoilers ahead.
The Vecna Vendetta
In what strange upside-down universe could we discuss D&D villain ideas without examining the villain de jour, Vecna/Henry/No#1 in the most recent series of Stranger Things? Vecna, named after a vintage 1st Edition D&D super bad not only turns out to be be the villain in this series of Stranger Things, but in reality had been the bad guy hiding in the shadows since season one. In this series there was an interesting transition in bad guys, as Dr Brenner, Eleven's one time captor, mentor, toxic father figure and then perverse manipulative Master Yoda, eventually redeemed himself by setting her free as he lay dying in the desert. However, back to Vecna. What does he tell us about the art of creating a great D&D villain, what D&D villain ideas can we glean from this story?
Players can easily deal with impatient bad guys, ones who simply pick up a weapon and start swinging with it. Often in D&D games, the player is focused on what is happening immediately around them, what challenges lie ahead in the next dungeon chamber. They can't percieve of a villainous plan that is put together in stages over months and possibly years. If you have the privilege to run a long term campaiagn, a patient villain that seeks revenge over a long timeframe is a great way of bringing drama, tension and dread to the table. In addition to this, the villainous plan might involve 'seeding' the game with incidents, artefacts and NPCs who interact with the players.
Vecna wanted to defeat Eleven and torture her by making her watch as Hawkins and the rest of the world were devastated by the Upside Down. By sparing Nancy, he intended to use her to draw Eleven back to Hawkins in order to pay her back for blasting him into the Upside Down. It's easy enough to create an angry, vengeful villain, but the backstory has to be intimately connected to one or more of the PCs actions in the past. The PC might have cost them an eye or a limb, so they might want to incorporate this mutilation into their own attacks on innocent townsfolk, as a calling card to taunt the PCs.
A much deeper part of Vecna's motivation however, is explored when he candidly tells Eleven that he really found his purpose in the Upside Down. The arrogant and superior Henry/No#1, who murdered his family because he believed they were inferior to him, becomes Vecna when he bonds with the Shadow Monster in Stranger Things. Imagine a party deals with a corrupt official, a robber baron or a noble who terrorises their people. One great D&D villain idea might be to leave the death of the villain as a mystery and to have the players constantly second guess whether in fact they were truly vanquished. The villain was, in reality, accidently thrust through a dimensional portal into some sort of hell and forced to make an unpleasant bargain with its ruler. The villain, sent back with enhanced powers and minions is allowed to wreak havoc on the PCs and the powerful and evil benefactor gets something too (a gateway into the mortal realm, a power belonging to a PC, something suitably high stakes). Throughout this, the process of transformation into a new and enhanced form of evil is kinda like therapy for the bad guy, who really feels like a better form of himself with fangs and bat wings.
The High School/Village Douchebag
In our quest to find new and exciting D&D villain ideas, sometimes we can leapfrog over minor jerks in order to get to the major big bads. However, what if this is a level one campaign. Do we need believable D&D villain ideas at this stage? Yes, of course, and the low level douchebag is a great place to start. Just because their powers are small, it doesn't mean the scope of their douchery has to be. One of cinema's enduring douchebags, Biff Tannen, makes for magnificent cinema, as his stupidity, combined with vindictiveness, cowardice and bullying makes the mountain of manure that covers him in each movie a genuine pleasure to watch. In each series of Stranger Things, an assorment of high school jocks, local bad boys and assorted assholery make for compelling secondary villains. How can this play out in D&D? What D&D villain ideas can we find? Well if we're starting off low stakes, we might situate the PCs in a town or village with a local lord/crime boss/ official that runs things. Said lord/crime boss/official might have a spoiled and entitled son/daughter who acts as the local bully, with their gang of fellow jerks on father's payroll. Even though they might not have massive firepower at their command, they can use daddy's authority to cause the PCs problems, they might also find themselves serving much more powerful entities who also have a vested interest in hunting down the PCs.
The Clandestine Problem
If you have been watching Disney's Ms Marvel, you'll be all over this one. The Clandestines in the show are Kamala Khan's enemies, determined to harness her power. They want to open the portals between their dimension and ours in order to return home, but in doing so will destroy our reality. This is the 'sounds like a you problem' villain, who is motivated to improve their lot and resolve their problems, but often at the expense of everyone else. For this type of villain, it is rarely personal, until the PCs get in the way. This motivation is slightly different to the Thanosian genocidal utopianism (I am serving the greater good, too bad for you), but it results in much the same thing, a villain who is unbending in their goals and determined to succeed no matter what. How do we translate this into some awesome D&D villain ideas? Perhaps the party, whilst adventuring through the Greenwood discover a rot in the trees and polluted dark water pouring into the ponds and streams. Could this be Droge, the spirit of rot and corruption, freed from his eternal prison, crafted for him by Elaydh, the Fey Queen? Yes, of course it's him. He isn't particulary interested in the PCs at this point, all mortal life is largely irrelevant to Droge. However, the moment that the PCs cross his path to thwart him, all hell breaks lose.