Welcome to this week’s installment of “Only on Tuesdays!” This week we will be dissecting what makes a villain intimidating, and how we can use this to scare and motivate our players.
I believe that one thing that many DM’s strive for, is the ability to create a truly terrifying villain. Villains are after all one of the things we as DM’s have the most control over, and we want to create something that our players will be terrified of. We want the mere mention of our villain to elicit emotions from them, and we want them to desire to destroy our villain not only in the game but also outside of it. If our players dread the fact that they might have to face the villain, then we will know that we have succeeded.
Creating a scary villain is a difficult task, however. One of the problems with Dnd is how it lends itself to a power fantasy, which makes scary villains harder to accomplish. As soon as the players get a chance to fight the villain, there is a very real chance that he might just die. In the wise words of the murderhobo “If it has stats, we can kill it”. Making a villain that can pose a threat to the party, and also strike fear in their hearts is more complicated than just giving it a really high challenge rating. Weaving the story in a way that not only tells but shows just how dangerous the villain is, can really help you create a truly memorable villain.
Establish Why they are a threat.
First things first, we have to let the players know why they are the villain. Simply saying they did bad things and are now waiting in their dark castle is not enough. We have to show the world, and therefore your players, why they are a threat. There is a stark difference between traveling to town after town that has been destroyed by this villain, meeting hundreds of displaced people, and then facing the villain, as opposed to simply walking up to his castle and fighting him. If the players can feel his hand upon the world, then they will want to do everything they can to stop him. If they see the effects of this hand upon the world, then they will start to get an idea of what might happen to them.
When designing your villain ask yourself what the villain’s main plan is. If you can determine what the villain’s main end game is then you can work out ways to portray this through your worldbuilding and NPC’s. If the villain’s plan is to destroy the neighboring kingdom, then you as the DM should show the players this every time they visit that kingdom. Simply saying that it is devastated is not enough. It should be desolate, burning, and nearly destroyed. The people that live there, and elsewhere will speak of this villain in hushed tones. The atrocities that he performed will be spread about exaggerated a hundredfold, and people will fear that their kingdom is next.
Showing, not telling is a powerful tool in story design. When the mind is able to make a connection between two different things, it will have a much stronger reaction than if it were simply told to them. Showing the actions of the villain on the world will clearly communicate to the players why they must take him down. If you simply tell your players that he is the bad guy and that he is in the castle over there, they will feel no personal motivation to destroy the villain. By showing your players that he is a threat, they will begin to want to take him down, without you having to tell the players that they must.
Imagination is Stronger than Description
If you want your players to fear your villain, however, it is important that you keep the villain remain mysterious. The more your players know about the villain, and what they are, the less they will fear them. If you are able to give them the barest bits of information on the villain, the player’s imagination at what the villain could be will be far more powerful than whatever description you could have come up with. Even Hollywood, with all of the money in the world, will mask their villains in darkness, and allow our imagination to run amok because we can scare ourselves far more than any special effects ever could.
This point seems to contradict with the last, however, in that we need to make him a known threat, but keep as much about him as secretive as possible. A workaround for this, however, can be found in NPC’s. When you hear the NPC’s recounting the tale of how the arch villain stood as high as 10 feet and wielded a sword of living fire, the players will probably brush it off as a long tale. But it might spark some questions. “Does he actually have a flametounge?” “Is he actually that tall?” The tale the NPC may have said could have been completely false, but the fear can still be there. The less your players know about the villain, the more willing they are to fill in the gaps with whatever crazy things they can come up with.
The aura of mystery also works to our advantage, because it allows us to keep him out of harm’s way of the players. Like I said earlier “if it has stats, we can kill it”. The moment your players engage in combat with the villain, they will do everything they can to take them down. In order to protect our villains, we can keep them safe by keeping them out of reach, and simply feed information to the players making them imagine how a fight would actually go down. Then when the actual fight does happen, not only are you prepared but in a sense, so are the players. They will have imagined what the worst case scenario is, and will be afraid of what implications that could have. This will hopefully strike more hopelessness in your players, as they prepare to face their greatest threat.
Escalate the Threat
However as your players begin to level up, they will start to feel more powerful. With every level comes new abilities, and new ways for them to take down the villain. As your players are growing in power, it is also important that you escalate the threat. If a villain is able to take down a village when the players are level 1, then he should be able to take down a kingdom when they are level 10. Escalating the threat will make your players feel like they will never be able to catch up to them, which works out wonderfully for us as it makes the villain seem like an impossible battle for them to face. (More info on that in last week’s post, which can be found here.)
Escalating the threat also plays really well into the tiers of Dnd. In short, there are 4 tiers of play 1-4 is local heroes, 5-10 is regional heroes, 11-16 is national, and 17-20 is planar. As the players move up the ranks it can be very easy for you to move up the scale of the villain’s plans. This allows you to not only increase the scope of the campaign but also the threat it poses to the players. One of my problems that I had was I would keep the players in the regional, and national scale for too long, and battles in these tiers would feel underwhelming because the players could simply overpower everything they faced. By scaling the plan accordingly, you help to prevent the campaign from feeling out of place.
Creating an intimidating villain can be quite a challenge. Dnd is a game that encourages heroes to thrive and villains to die. When your great big bad is outnumbered 5 to 1, it can be very difficult to make him appear more threatening than the rest of the party. But if you are able to convince your players that the villain is not only a threat to them, but also to everything they love, then they just might begin to fear them. This fear is good for us, as it is a tool that we can use to push the party into situations that they may not otherwise do. This will create drama, and can make for a far more interesting game as the players decide how they are going to take down this powerful threat and learn whether they even can.
Thank you for reading this week’s post! I am about to start a new campaign, so I was in the mood to create some villains for it. If you have any ideas on how you can create an intimidating villain please share! As for now have a great week, and an amazing Tuesday!
2 thoughts on “Intimidating Villains”
I think you nailed it with how challenging it can be to create a villain in a system that produces super heroes. In addition to the challenge of making the villain dangerous or intimidating is developing the hate for it. During the first few sessions of a new campaign I try to present situations that will help me fish for what the characters care about or love. A good villain will present a threat to those things or even enact plans that harm people or ideas that the characters hold dear.
I agree with this. One of the reasons why the Joker has always been such a good villain is because he is the foil to Batman. Batman strives for order, and the Joker looks to upset that balance. Once you are able to find out what kinds of passions your players have it can be quite easy to come up with a villain that will challenge what they desire. This creates conflict which is the key to any story. It will also motivate the players to do better, because they will want to defeat this villain that is opposing what they want most.