Dungeons and Dragons: Creating a Memorable Villain
Not every campaign needs a villain or big bad evil overlord, but many of them do or at least have mini-villains throughout. Here are some ways that you can create a memorable villain in your dungeons and dragons game. I like it when I hear about a particular NPC or adventure several years later from my players. There are a lot of ways to bring a villain into your game and to be honest 90% of them will be forgotten, so how can you make the last 10% live rent-free in your player’s brains for years?
Give them a motive
One of the most important aspects of a good Dungeons and Dragons game is having a memorable villain. This villain should have a motive for their actions, something that makes them stand out from all the other villains your players have faced. Maybe they’re seeking revenge for past injustice, or they’re trying to achieve some dark goal that will endanger the world. Whatever their motive, it should be something that your players will remember long after the game is over.
Create a backstory
Your average dungeon-crawling party of adventurers is likely to face all sorts of enemies: goblins, giant spiders, dragons, and so on. But these creatures are usually nothing more than obstacles to be overcome. They’re not really villains in the traditional sense; they’re just monsters. To create a truly memorable D&D villain, you need to give them a backstory that makes them feel like a real person, with motivations and goals that go beyond simply wanting to kill the players.
Creating a memorable villain can be difficult, but with a little effort, you can come up with something truly unique.
Start by coming up with a backstory for your villain
Here are some questions to think about:
- What is their alignment (not all villains are evil)?
- How did they grow up?
- What do they want out of life for themselves?
- For others?
- Are they trying to bring about a different future?
- Has the villain seen a future that must be avoided?
- How powerful are they?
- Are they raising to power or fully established by the time of your campaign?
- What are their level and class?
- Do they have any special magical abilities / powers / items?
- Are they a ruler of an entire kingdom? If so, how did that happen? Birth, conquest, something else?
- What is the basic organization underneath this villain?
- Do they have die-hard followers? If so, like a cult, or are they bound by the villain’s vision or sheer power?
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Give them a personality
This begins with the player inventing a personality for the villain – something that makes them come alive and make sense as an individual.
How does the villain carry themselves?
- Charismatic leader / Cult leader
- Quick to anger / Rules with fear
- Quiet / Calculating
- Genius / Studious / Solution for any problem (real and imagined)
- Crazy / Insane / Chaos in physical form
- Lawful / Order rules in all cases, with no exceptions
If you want a list of over 600 personality traits you could use for this see our article here.
The best way to get ideas is to see what backstories villains get in media. Also, note that many villains believe that what they are doing is for the greater good of the people. This can be used to justify killing individuals and small groups. Also, you don’t need much more than a paragraph or two for the backstory unless your campaign will involve digging up the mystery of who the villain is and how the villain rose to power. Otherwise, it is enough to know just enough to figure out their motives and personality.
If you want to delve into the Myers-Briggs personality types many villains tend to be in the analyst section (I am an INTJ, I know you were dying to know 😉 ).
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Make them believable
Very few villains are over-the-top unbelievable and those situations work well in genres where that is expected. If you are playing superheroes in a non-Dungeons and Dragons RPG it makes sense to have a cape-wearing evil supervillain. It makes sense that he loves to hear himself speak and is more than happy to the grand plan before leaving the room expecting the crazy machine to kill the heroes.
Instead, make the person or monster that will be the villain believable (in a system with magic and undead and dragons, bear with me). You make them believable by giving them a backstory that is relatable and a personality that real people have seen before. I can understand abandonment and revenge as a backstory. A villain is quick to anger but at times is chaotic and insane when pushed too far. Then feels guilty afterward, but he is unable to stop the behavior. This and many other backstories and personalities will remind your players of real-life people in their own lives (even if through other media) and ground your villain in reality.
Bend the rules
Like all rules, there are places where you can and should break it. If you have beings from another plane of existence that is very foreign to the material plane (where most of your campaigns probably take place) then the villain could be seen as totally alien.
Think of the motives and backstory for the aliens in the movie Alien, Aliens, etc. They seemingly just wake up, kill, and plant their offspring into living beings. If they have a greater plan it isn’t really known (at least in the first 3 movies, I didn’t see the 4th one and can’t remember if Prometheus covers this).
It may be really enjoyable to have a campaign where the villain isn’t a singular being but an entire group or species coming from outside the plane. Their motive and story are unknown and they may never be known. I know many people don’t like ambiguity but I enjoy it occasionally.
Make them powerful
A powerful villain is intimidating and can hold their own against the players. They should have a variety of skills and abilities that make them a challenge for the players to defeat. Think about what class and level they will be. Do they have any important artifact or group of others that surround them with their own powers? Maybe the villain isn’t one person or thing. What if they are a group dedicated to the same end result? They are willing to do what is necessary to make that happen. Maybe they have been made invulnerable for a number of reasons and the players need to hunt down the secret, the villain’s Achilles’ Heel so to speak before they can confront the villain.
Use them to your advantage
Villains can make or break a Dungeons and Dragons game. They provide the players with someone to fight, someone to hate, and someone to root for depending on their motive. Villains can help drive the story and potential actions of your players. This allows you, the dungeon master, to help move the story along or create events for the players to react to. If you want more details on how to create a Dungeons and Dragons campaign click here.
I will say that this is hard to pull off. For proof of that just look at Avengers: Infinity War. The concept that maybe Thanos was a guy doing a horrible thing for good reasons just didn’t make a lot of sense in the movies. In the comics, he did all of that for purely selfish reasons, but in the movies, they tried to get us on his side. The issue is that removing half the universe’s population randomly to stop overpopulation is sort of dumb. I know some may then point to the Eternals movie, but it is hard to not feel like that wasn’t a clumsy save for Avengers: Infinity War. Feel free to comment about this below, but be respectful.
Have fun with them!
One way to make your villains more memorable is to have fun with them. Add some humor whenever possible and give them a notable role-playing aspect. It could be a laugh or nervous tick or something that when you start to act like the villain everyone knows who it is. For example, you could give your villain a catchy name, like “The Dread Pirate Roberts” or “Dr. Evil.” You could also make them overly confident, and always ready with a witty comeback. Combining many of these tips will help your players remember them long after the game is over.
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In conclusion, by creating memorable villains in your Dungeons and Dragons game, you can make the game more exciting and engaging for all players. Villains can add a new level of challenge to the game and can help to further develop the plot and story. So why not take the time to create some truly memorable villains for your next game?
About the Author:
Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.
He loves to play many different types of TTRPG’s, including Pathfinder, GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.
Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi and fantasy.