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Thinking Through the Eyes of our Villains

by Mike on 4 October 2021

Few preparation activities are as useful as thinking through the eyes of our villains. Instead of planning out a long storyline that may never happen the way we think or building a huge campaign world the details of which never hit our table; thinking through the eyes of our villains tells us how the world acts and reacts to the actions of the characters.

Wherever and whenever we find ourselves with some extra time on our hands, we need simply gaze into the sky and say "what is my villain doing right now?"

Asking ourselves what our villains are doing right now gives us an idea how the game evolves based on the current character-driven situation. We may have multiple villains, each with their own goals, motivations, backgrounds, and steps to achieve their goals. These steps act as a countdown clock to their final destination, each step visible to the characters to show them the progress.

Example: Strahd von Zarovich

Let's ponder one of the most popular D&D villains as an example — Strahd von Zarovich from Curse of Strahd. In the beginning of the adventure, Strahd is happy to terrorize Barovia, seek out Ireena, and draw the characters into his domain for a bit of fun and respite from the mundane world in which he is trapped. As the characters grow in power, he becomes more curious about them, eventually inviting them to dinner at Ravenloft. Later, he may become fearful of the characters and their power, sending in his legions to thwart them or setting up unwinnable situations to bring them back to the negotiating table. As the actions of the characters evolve in Ravenloft, so too does Strahd's reactions. How does Strahd feel about the characters right now and what does he do about it?

Breaking Away from "What Will Happen"

One of the most common DM mistakes is assuming the story is going to go a certain way. Maybe you have a good guess but you have five creative brains on the other side of the table who may take the story into entirely new directions.

Far more useful than planning and plotting out a campaign or building detailed worlds beyond the sight of the characters is to prepare to improvise. Internalize the backgrounds, motivations, behaviors, and actions of the villains and prepare to improvise as the characters go in directions you never expected.

Next time you find yourself itching to prepare your game, ask yourself what the villains in the world are doing right now and watch the world come alive for you and your players.

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