In D&D, the Big Bad is the Main Character

 By RJ on 16 April 2023.

This far into the life of Dungeons & Dragons, many people understand the player characters are important to the game. Without them and their antics, the game dies. However, they're not the most important characters. They are not even the main characters. The player characters may be the protagonists, but they are reacting to someone else's plots; they are the antagonists in someone else's story: the big bad.

Shocking, right? I may have just scorched the outlooks of a few people. Give it a ponder, though. It's true.

  1. The big bad is the center of the plot.
  2. The big bad regularly interacts with other characters, both PCs and NPCs.
  3. The big bad is the most important and influential individual in the campaign or adventure.
  4. The big bad's actions provide the impetus for the player characters' reactions.

In most D&D games, the big bad is the main character. They can make or break an entire game. Thus, like every great character, they need serious thought put into them. To explore this, let's analyze one of my most treasured villains...with a twist. This big bad, despite me checking every box, failed.

Meet Lazarus the Glutton.

A D&D Villain: Lazarus the Glutton

My third D&D campaign, called The Enoach Desert, revolved around the recovery of an ancient necromancer's scattered organs. Vaugashir was the deceased spellcaster's name and of course, he was an ultra-powerful red dragon. Each of the big bads in the campaign possessed or was in pursuit of one of these valuable organs which a forward-thinking faction scattered across the desert to ensure his soul could never reform a new body or reunite with his old one. 

A yuan-ti anathema called Sevra Tan sought Vaugashir's heart. The ancient blue dragon Nauthog searched for his claw. Meanwhile, Platyz Aphidious needed the dead necromancer's brain. However, my favorite and by far the best was Lazarus the Glutton.

As his name suggests, Lazarus was a ravenous entity. Trapped in his lair, he was an obese red dragon. After decades of unhindered consumption, he was barely able to move but had dominated a host of minions into scouring the surrounding lands for more and more food. In his lair, he feasted. Days turned into months which turned into years.

Essentially, he was big, he was bad, and he was connected to the characters.

Much of the conflict surrounding the characters stemmed from Lazarus. Their early adventures, their personal plight, and the greater plot centralized around the dragon. While some of this, my input (the early adventures and greater plot) was planned, all the personal problems with the dragon emerged organically.

That's the key: every character needs to have personal connections to the big bad. The main character of the story should have a reason to interact with every character within the said story, especially the other important individuals.

Alongside these connections, Lazarus also had a variety of motivations. This spawned plots of his across the region. He wasn't only looking to eliminate a rival blue dragon. He also sought to scour the entire land of all the food and treasure he could find! He wasn't only keen on preventing the resurrection of his red dragon necromancer of a father, he was in a loose relationship with the Aphid Alliance and needed to siphon some of his own hoard to these thri-kreen criminals.

This long list of motivations ensured if one plot succeeded or was stifled by the party, Lazarus remained a threat and in the story. The only way Lazarus would disappear was if he was dealt with directly...or if the party up and left the region, which is always an option!

Why Did My Villain Fail?

Now that you know Lazarus the Glutton's background, motivations, and relation to the group, you're prepared to witness how he failed as a villain. Here's the funny part: he didn't. Instead, the group did.

This particular big bad never actually met the characters. Although his name was mentioned plenty, the party's plans revolved around his machinations, and they nearly encountered him in the flesh, he failed as a villain because the group fell apart.

Despite the group's desire to eliminate Lazarus and his rampant gluttony, interpersonal conflict and scheduling difficulty broke it. I learned from that experience and gained confidence from that failure. In good time, I'll write a full-on article about it, but for now, it serves as a focal point for the failure of one of my favorite D&D villains: Lazarus the Glutton.

Keep in mind: you might craft a great big bad, but they may never get the chance to shine. That's okay, it allows their plans to play out now and affect your world, or it gives you fodder for a future campaign.

How Will I Rebound With My Next D&D Villain?

Sometimes, our worst nightmares tear apart our greatest dreams. Lazarus the Glutton was my perfect D&D villain but he failed, in the end, due to no fault of his own.

In one of my ongoing campaigns, the Bannerless, the big bad is a human noble named Corin Calgrast. More particularly, his name is Lord Corin Calgrast, Duke of Desmaine. Here is a one-pager about him and his motives.

Even though I missed out on playing Lazarus with the party, I've brought that energy into my next big bad. Lord Corin is ready to confront my latest group. Any prior unfortunate events are learned from and in the past. Now, I look toward the future.

Don't let past mistakes or nasty events affect your current game in any negative manner. Learn from them and push forward.

Lessons Learned

That was a fun one to write. Here's what we learned this week:

  • Villains are the main characters in most D&D campaigns. Their actions affect the world just as much as the player characters. Most of the time, the PCs are reacting to the big bad's vile machinations.
  • Proper villains need a background, multiple motivations, and connections to player characters. This makes them easier to organically play and gives every player a reason to hate or become invested in the story of the villain.
  • If a villain doesn't work out, learn what went wrong and rebound with your next villain. Sometimes, a big bad not working isn't even your fault, it may be out of your hands. Do not like that discourage you.
  • Never linger in the past, learn from it.

Did you enjoy this article? If the answer's yes, check out last week's post all about crafting D&D monsters with the ranger player class.

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  1. "The big bad is the center of the plot.
    The big bad regularly interacts with other characters, both PCs and NPCs.
    The big bad is the most important and influential individual in the campaign or adventure.
    The big bad's actions provide the impetus for the player characters' reactions."

    I have run a couple campaigns like this (Rise of Neo-Nerath with Borritt Crowfinger & Red Hand of Doom with Azur Kul), but they're definitely the minority. I don't think this describes a typical D&D campaign, where as Gygax says, normally the PCs are the most proactive element. It's much more typical of Hollywood film making.

    1. Do you believe D&D is moving more in this direction as new players seek out grand stories to create / be a part of?

    2. I think official D&D was doing that for a good while; I have the 2e AD&D Villains book - which is pretty good. Still, published adventures always tended to have prettty static setups. In the past few years Crawfordian D&D been moving away from that though to more 'cosy slice of life' stuff.

    3. Oh, I ran Paizo's Curse of the Crimson Throne, where Queen Ileosa fits your description. My recent/current campaigns like Barrowmaze, Stonehell, Arden Vul and Faerun Adventures (Norrin's Band, Faerun 7) don't fit this, though. And really I tend to prefer the greater freedom of action you get in a game without a single central threat.

  2. You're right, I think it's all down to group preference. There are some people who prefer to drift from adventure to adventure with no real connecting villain, just a connected world and overall plot. Others need a source of friction. Most of the time, the big bad is that source.

    1. I'm running Odyssey of the Dragon Lords too, which has the elder titans Sidon & Lutheria as the BBEGs. The players definitely do enjoy that I think.

  3. What bothers me here a bit is the assumption that a BBEG is even *needed*. I've ran several campaigns without one.

    That being said, if there is going to be a big bad protagonist, understanding their goals, flaws and motivations is very important, no argument there

    1. Another agree! This claim only stands true if your campaign has a Big Bad. If it doesn't that's fine...and you've given me another idea to write about: the various driving forces of D&D campaigns. Do you run a reaction-driven campaign, one completely steered by the characters, something with adventures entirely disconnected, opposing factions, et cetera. Thank you!!