Create Better Villains for your Adventure

April 20, 2013

Villains are the mainstay of any good adventure. With very few exceptions, there is always some form of evil mind plotting dark things in the background. Whether this is a mindless mob of creatures that just happens to be devouring the locals, or a masterfully devious court magician manipulating a king to sinister ends, you can't get away from the guys.

This blog post aims to assist you in building memorable villains that are more than just numbers on a sheet of paper. If you're a player and not a game master, the character building advice in here might help you too, but this is specifically geared towards the folks weaving the story behind the encounters.

The Nature of a Villain

While it's fairly obvious that a villain exists to ruin the lives of good people, a truly memorable villain has much more than that going on. He has his own motives and desires. He may be acting in accordance with his own morals, or he might not care at all.

Most frequently, a villain's goals shouldn't be an end, but a way to reach some other starting point. The kobold king isn't sending raiding parties out to nearby villages because he feels like it; he's weakening the nearby human presence so his people can expand outward from their all-too-small cave system.

The depth of a villain's forward thinking depends on how intelligent you want him to be. Don't restrict a villain's planning just because he's a minor NPC in your adventure. Players will inevitably do something you don't expect, and if they just happen to latch onto your minor villain, you'll then have a direction to take that in.

Journey of the Hero

The player characters will only grow stronger as a result of having a characterful villain as their foil. You can consider your adventure a success when not only does it give your PCs the magical loot of awesomeness they've been waiting for, but it also encourages them to reconsider their characters' actions and motives.

Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces is a fantastic guide to setting up an epic story. His writings on the “road of trials” in particular are relevant to creating worthwhile villains for the players.

A player character that's just starting out usually has weak stats, basic equipment, and almost zero personality. She might have a single personality quirk or cliché that her player jots down to guide her role-playing, but rarely will players take the time to build a full story for their characters. After all, that's what they're hoping you will do.

As the PC encounters and interacts with your adventure's many challenges, locations, and characters, she will grow in both power and personality. If her player is into role-playing, this will happen sooner rather than later, and with more depth. She will need a good villain, though, to balance that development against.


Creating a villain should start with looking at what you want to achieve with the adventure and with the campaign at large. An adventure isn't a set narrative that you can just write and expect to stay the way you wrote it. The players will do things you don't expect and interact with the environment in ways that force you to adapt the adventure to fit their actions. As such, your villain should support your goal with the adventure, rather than just play to the script.

Jot down a few notes about your adventure's premise. Is it a classic battle of good versus evil? Is it a day in the life of an adventurer? Is it an exploration of the unknown? Think about your favorite movies or books that fit the theme you're going for. What twists in those stories really got your blood pumping?

Potential for Loss

Think about what would really hurt the player characters. I don't mean in terms of hit points lost or character sheets thrown away – I mean tragedies that specifically target each PC's hopes, dreams, and beliefs. Whether the players are into role-playing or not only determines whether you have more or less fodder for this; it's still possible to make a tactical gamer sit back in his chair with a thud when his character loses something dear to him. It usually just changes the context.

Build something of that potential loss into each villain of the adventure. You don't need to include every player character in every adventure, but you shouldn't focus on only one player character either. Also, choose a handful of NPCs and target their potential for loss also. It helps build a living world when you include characters other than the players' in your adventures.

Potential for Gain

Saruman was originally a hero, but gave in to temptation.

Now think about what the villain can offer the player characters. Temptation plays on base emotions; use it. For tactical gamers, this could be a particular piece of loot that they want desperately. For role-players, it might be a bit of information about a relative they've been searching for. For every player, write down at least one thing that the villain might have the ability to provide.

As with the potential for loss, also make sure that some of your NPCs stand to gain something by working with the villain. Even if that incorruptible priest of all that is good can't possibly be turned to the dark side, the players might not know that, and that creates tension. Tension is what every great story (and adventure) is built on.

Villains are Story Generators

Other than trying to provoke emotional tension from players through the potential for loss or gain, a good villain should also act as a way to move the story along. The best stories, whether they're explosion-ridden Hollywood blockbusters or 1500-page literary masterpieces, are about the heroes changing in some way over the course of the story. Villains are almost always the catalyst for that change.

If your players are craving action, send a wave of minor baddies against them. Let them know that the villain made this happen, whether directly or indirectly. Weave a spider's web with your villain at the center. Even if he is not of the evil genius persuasion, he's still fully capable of planning ahead.

Summary / TL;DR Version

Keep your villains close to your players' hearts. Tension is a great story device, so use it. Tempt the PCs. Hurt the PCs. Make a list of the villain's goals and aspirations.

And, above all else, remember: villains are not just stat blocks, they're people too.