Quests for Villains

by Mike Shea on 30 December 2013

Note: This article has been updated since the original published on 15 February 2010.

"You sent them to their death," said Akti the Ice Lich. Arantham turned to him. "They knew it. We all know the stakes. With the power of the soulstream no longer in our grasp, we needed more time. Their attack will buy us that time. We must uncover the Reliquary before the Shieldbashers do."

"Stay here in Sigil," said Arantham to Atki. "Should they return, you must slow them further. Shonvurru and I will return to Death's Reach, finish the excavation, and notify the Prince of Undeath of our progress.

Ghovran Atki kept his dead gaze on his master as he nodded.

Arantham turned to Shonvurru. The six-armed, demoness tossed a cloud of red dust into the portal and it roared with black-red fire, illuminating the chamber in strange light.

"Death's Reach," whispered Arantham. "Let us complete our quest."

Quests for our PCs solidify what our heroes do, what options they have available, and give experience or treasure for meeting a set goal. Good quests can tie together a larger storyline and expands the background of the PCs. They're a great tool for DMs to help build structure around their storyline and help clarify what might otherwise get muddied in a complex arc.

What about our villains? Why can't it do the same thing for them? What possible quests could they be working on while your party of PCs carves their way through some dungeon? What motivates them and what do they hope to gain?

In a static game, we find that our PCs alone posses quests while our villains sit in their onyx thrones, fingers steepled, waiting for the heroes to arrive and promptly wipe the floor with said villain. The world is static until the PCs set their points of view upon it.

It doesn't need to be that way.

Quests for villains, or any set of NPCs for that matter, can serve the same advantages as quests for PCs. Quests for villains helps solidify your storyline by tying together motivations and goals. They keep villains focused on a set outcome. They help fill out the personality and character of the villain you have in mind.

Example: The Necromancer and the Frozen Dread

Your party has the quest to hunt down a necromancer in the icy north. They have to find his evil tower, defeat its guardians and traps, and face the necromancer himself. That's a good solid party quest. What about the necromancer? Perhaps his quest is to release a terrible primordial evil buried under the ice for half a million years. To accomplish his quest, he has undead slaves digging deep into the ice while he researches a spell to awaken the beast below. As your party hunts down the tower, the necromancer is likewise moving forward in his own quest, sending his guardians to locate old tomes of forbidden knowledge. He is enslaving a local barbarian tribe, slaughtering them and reanimating them for his slave pit. If the party cannot move forward fast enough, he might even succeed and awaken the Darkness Below.

The nice thing about this idea is the feeling that the necromancer is just as alive as the PCs. He's moving forward, following his own path while the PCs follow theirs. Instead of villains filling up monster closets, just waiting for a PC to open the door, the villain has his or her own path.

A good villain quest might also include a timeline. How long will it take the necromancer to dig down in the ice to the beast below? What would slow him down or speed him up? How long will it take him to unravel the dark magics required to awaken the beast? As your party thwarts his plans, it might push his timeline out. If they fail in one path, it might speed him up.

The roleplaying game Dungeon World captures this idea in a system known as the Front. We've talked about this before in the article Fronts in D&D. They're a great way to build a continually moving situation in which the PCs are involved. Instead of a static world waiting for their action, the world moves around them.

Quests for villains are an easy way to make your villains come to life. They give your villain purpose and motivation. They give your villain a goal and steps into which the lives of your PCs can mingle. They help make your villains come to life.

If you liked this article, take a look at the Lazy Dungeon Master. You might also enjoy Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.