How to Create a Compelling DnD Villain: Villains Die

As Dungeon Masters, we follow the player characters in our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. If we’re playing D&D as many believe it should be played, the player characters are the movers and shakers, the folk we focus on. They adventure, interact with the world, and ascend in power. We help them rise from novice wizards and green fighters to epic archmages and weapon masters; from arrogant vagabonds to heroes of the realm; from disparate allies to close companions. However, they will rarely evolve without a catalyst. We must curate the perfect catalyst for them, else their growth will cease and our campaigns will suffer.

For our campaigns to thrive and the player characters to evolve, we must create compelling villains.

But the formation of a villain is a complex process, especially in a game like D&D. In a movie or novel, creators know how the protagonists will react. They understand on what terms good and evil will battle. They control everything. In D&D, that’s not the case. Our players and villains are like two stags fighting: rugged antlers clashing, scratching and piercing. Our players perform difficult-to-predict actions with their characters. Perhaps they’re more intelligent than us (and thus our villains). Or maybe they wish to ally with our villains! The possibilities are endless, but that should not frighten us; it should excite us.

If we can figure out how to create a compelling villain and run them successfully, we will drive PC evolution forward and improve our campaigns, laying the groundwork for years of exciting games.

Villain Backgrounds Volume I

In September of last year, I released my first supplement on the Dungeon Masters Guild called Villain Backgrounds Volume I. While this series is completely different and dives into what makes and how to run a compelling villain, the supplement assists in making a great villain using the Backgrounds system that arrived with fifth edition D&D. The book is pay-what-you-want, includes six villain backgrounds: the Boorish Thug, the Elder Entity, the Fallen Angel, the Mad Researcher, the Misguided Fool, and the Psychopath, and has been received positively. I'm currently writing the second volume, but if you're interested in the first and would like to support my work, here is a link to it!

The Most Important Fact About Villains

Laconically, the ideal villain consists of four parts:
  1. A clear primary motivation
  2. A unique personality
  3. A connection to the party
  4. An array of interesting tools
However, before we dive into this multi-part installment on villains, there is one fact we must all understand.

We want our villains to invoke rage, disgust, and horror in our players and their characters. Plus, we want our villains to challenge our groups and threaten their lives. It’s only natural. We must remember that, in D&D, we’re trying to build an exciting, pleasurable, and gratifying experience for us and our group. There’s a fine line we must balance when we create villains. Despite all these negative emotions we want them to evoke, we also want them to contribute to the fun of our games. If we build them to be too conniving to face and they frustrate not only the characters, but the players as well at every turn, we might want to rethink them. Or if they appear to be a pushover that’s mowed down by the party in half-a-round and outwitted in almost every situation, we probably need to ameliorate them.

Art by William O'Connor

Our villains should inspire fury in our groups, but they should also make the game more fun.

Remember, the game revolves around the player characters and their actions. Our villains are secondary actors. They should foil the characters and eventually be defeated. Which leads to the primary focus of this premier article.

Villains Die

As we set out to construct the perfect foils for our D&D groups, we must understand that it is unlikely they’ll last forever.

The sinister trio of liches who’ve domineered a poor archipelago will certainly be defeated, their phylacteries shattered. 

Yeenoghu will probably be banished back to his layer of the Abyss and the land will most likely be saved. 

The death curse will be halted and its vile creator will, in almost all cases, be punished for their transgressions against the world.

Art by Franz Vohwinkel.

Villains can win—of course—but it’s quite likely the player characters will defeat them. As Dungeon Masters, we need to be ready for that. Many of us insert an abundance of effort into our villains. After all, the players have their characters and we have the foes that undermine and assault them. Since villains are the primary catalyst for our parties’ rise to glory, they’re probably the people we’ll be portraying the most. Or at the least the ones we’ll be thinking about the most. It’s surprisingly common for Dungeon Masters to become too attached to their villains. When the adventurers finally do outwit, outplay, or outlast the villain, some DMs intervene to protect their precious machinator.

It’s the end of a two-year campaign. Tiamat lays near death. The adventurers surround her. But suddenly she rises again, reinvigorated and ready to destroy—as everyone else remains on the edge of life.

It’s the conclusion of a mini-arc in a greater campaign. A certain someone has grown close to their rakshasa villain, so even though the group has stripped the creature of all valuables and it has exerted all its spells, it manages to teleport out!

We need to accept that our villains will die. Sometimes they will escape—when it serves the story and helps build animus toward them in our groups—but many times they will die.

That nasty gnoll warlock with a bone hyena mount? She might die in a single round.

That awesome, mighty, magnetic red dragon who was supposed to be the antagonist of the entire campaign? He could be locked down and defeated in an epic, premature battle thanks to a genius plan.

Villains die. They die all the time. A campaign might go months without a player character death, but a dozen villains might bite the dust. We need to understand that and not get upset when our players outmaneuver them, whether strategically on the battlefield or socially in the halls of a queen’s court.

Art by Tomas Giorello.

As a brief aside, the “death” of a villain does not always need to mean their physical demise. Quite a few villains are defeated without dying. Here are a few examples to inspire us.
  • The jaded wererat wizard joins forces with the party against the lords who lured his deceased friends into a trap.
  • The maniacal halfling warlock is trapped in a soul gem and used as a consultant on planar matters.
  • The draconic goddess is forced into the bowels of her plane of existence, ceasing to grant her followers divine power and losing them all in the process.
  • The corrupt half-orc cleric is imprisoned for his crimes, despite his repentance and assistance to the party.
Once we’ve cemented these ideas into our minds, we can explore avenues we can use to ensure our villains make a lasting impact before they meet their destined end. There are plenty. After that, we can begin to create our villains.

Villainous Impact

We’ve concluded that villains die constantly, but they need to be the driving force for the player characters to evolve. How do we achieve that? We ensure they make an impact on them. To make an impact, our villains can do many things. Simple concepts like attacking the party, stealing from them, or hurting someone they care about can form a firm foundation. Complex ideas such as infiltrating the party, manipulating a faction or notable figure to the party, or pursuing the same goals as the party (albeit using different means) can be layered on top.

And even these ideas can be broken down further. Let’s look at one simple idea and one complex idea and break them down.

For example, attacking the party could mean:
  1. The villain attacks the party.
  2. The villain sends minions to attack the party.
  3. The villain manipulates another, unrelated faction to attack the party.
  4. The villain sends minions to attack the party, falsely comes to their aid, and gains their trust.
As for a more complex idea, infiltrating the party could mean:
  1. The villain comes to the party disguised as an ally or patron.
  2. The villain uses magic to enter the minds or dreams of the party.
  3. The villain sends a doppelganger to gather information from the party.
  4. The villain kidnaps one of the party members or someone close to them, uses an intellect devourer to consume their thoughts and memories, and has the devourer continue to portray the kidnapped individual.
In many of these examples, though the villain is obviously impacting the party, they are not at risk of death or capture. They are unlikely to be defeated. It may be simplest to showcase a villain by having them assault the party or stride before them, but it’s also the most dangerous. Truthfully, their impact does not even need to be their own direct doing. Storytellers on the street might speak of the villain and their machinations in hushed voices. Evidence of the villain’s actions lie strewn about: a toppled tower, a razed village, a scorched forest, or an assassinated king. Lore about them lurks in lost tomes. The villain doesn’t always need to be targeting the party—but their actions, present or past, should always be affecting them.

Art by James Zhang.

If we want a long-lasting villain to also have impact on our groups, they constantly need to be in their thoughts.

And if we want our villains to survive combat encounters with our groups, we need to provide them with the necessary tools to do so. But these tools should be alluded to, understood, and mechanically sound. We’ll discuss this more in the final part of this series.

Lessons Learned

Finally, we’re discussing villains. Remember what we learned in this first part.
  • Villains die. Once we accept that our villains won’t live forever and aren’t the stars of the show, we can create and let go of them much easier. Our focus is on ensuring the campaign remains fun for everyone involved—and plenty of that relies on a compelling villain that the party loves to hate.
  • Villains must impact our groups, and there are many ways to accomplish this. From direct attacks on the group and faraway manipulation to merely reading about their vile deeds in a book or discovering one of the player characters is related to them, villains must have an impact. They are the catalysts for adventurers—they are the calls to action.
Be on the lookout for the next part on villains. We're far from finished.

Until the next encounter, farewell!

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Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

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