by Mike on 29 May 2023
Villains often drive the story of our RPG. They frame the situations in which the characters find themselves. Good villains drive the game forward, building momentum and reacting to the characters actions.
Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master talks about building villains in chapter 16 on "building a lazy campaign". Return uses the term "fronts" from Powered by the Apocalypse". A front, like a weather front or the front line of an army, is a force moving the story in a particular direction. It's a nice term that includes drivers outside of conscious foes. The burning sun of Athas in Dark Sun could be considered a front.
But the lingo can be hard to grasp, so I'm moving to the term "villains". You're free to use whatever term best suits you. I recognize that villain can be an alien moon, a series of earthquakes, or the deadly sun of Athas. But most of the time, a villain is a sentient entity thwarting the region or world in a way the characters do not like.
There's a series of simple questions Lazy DMs can use to build villains and fill them out enough to drive our campaigns but not so much that we overprep.
Who's this villain? What are they called? Are they a powerful blue dragon sorcerer? A vampire lord? A world-devouring lich? A beholder crime lord? Get a basic idea who your villain is before answering the rest of the questions.
If you're stuck looking for a villain, the Lazy DM's Companion includes a villain generator on page 21. You can also find a random list of villains and motivations in chapter 3 and 4 of the 2014 Dungeon Master's Guide. Or steal villains from popular fiction.
A villain can be a monster, a powerful undead entity, a cult-leader, or a selfish wizard. It can just be someone who wants to watch the world burn. Most important – villains act against the goals and desires of the characters.
What drives your villain? What's their goal and desire? The Lazy DM's Companion includes twenty possible villainous motivations but you can often come up with your own. Do they seek power? Do they seek wealth? Do they seek destruction?
Good villains have understandable motivations. Magneto knows what happens if the world is left to its own devices hunting muntants. Often the best villainous motivations make sense but are done in the wrong way. Killmonger isn't wrong; he's just an asshole.
These villainous motivations help in several ways. They guide the villain's actions. They guide the villain's reactions once the characters start mucking up their plans. They guide how villains roleplay with the characters. These motivations might even cause the villain to change perspectives when it turns out their drive isn't antithetical to that of the characters.
Our final question asks what they're doing about it. How are they trying to achieve their goal? What quests are they going on? Villainous quests move their plots forward. Good villains don't sit around waiting for the characters to come and kill them. They're doing stuff. They're sending lackeys to accomplish things. They've sent heralds far and wide.
Choose three quests for your villain leading toward the villain's goal. These quests should be resilient. Villains shouldn't rely on a single branch of their quest to succeed in their goal.
For a nice rich campaign, develop three villains using the steps above. Each villain has an identity, a goal, and three quests they undertake to accomplish their goal. Three villains create a rich tapestry of movement, actions, and reactions as the characters get involved in thwarting these quests. Sometimes villains work together. Other times they're independent. As one villain goes down, another villain might stand up in its place.
Three villains, with goals and quests, give the characters an evolving and dynamic world. Things are going on. Situations are changing. During your prep, instead of trying to figure out what's going to happen next, ask yourself "what are my villains up to?" and see where the question leads.
This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos:
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patreons. Here are last week's questions and answers:
Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:
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