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Building Villains Like Pro-Wrestlers

by Mike on 8 February 2021

I read a fantastic Reddit post called How to Create Pay-Per-View Worthy Adventures or How to Stop Worrying and Start DMing Like Vince McMahon I wanted to ponder and share with you. I recommend reading the whole post if you can. The premise of the article is that there's a big overlap between the storytelling of pro wrestling and how we run our D&D games.

Not being into pro wrestling, it took me some work to dissect the ideas in the article and turn them into ones I could understand and embrace.

Gross Storytelling

From my understanding, pro-wrestling is about gross storytelling. There's not much subtlety in the story. Not much nuance. It's about big bold moves, big actions, big events. Everything is over the top. Look how Vince McMahon walks. It's like Japanese theater where the warriors have to throw their knees out when they walk to show how big and powerful they are.

This same lack of subtlety can help us in our D&D games. Players aren't grasping half of what we DMs throw out during a game. Subtlety gets easily lost. Big gross moves get attention. Most of the specific ideas in the original post come from this idea. Big moves matter.

Give Villains Nicknames

Good villains are known many ways. It isn't just "Leto Skalle". It's Leto Skalle; the Scourge of Xen-drik, Slayer of Nartholex the Depraved, Platinum Hand of the Aurum, and the Black Blade of Sora Ketra. Good villains are known across the land for various deeds and the more of those deeds the characters hear about, the more they'll be intrigued by that villain. Give your villain lots of nicknames.

Give the Villains a Sidekick

Good villains have great sidekicks, the sidekicks players hate nearly as much as the villains. The sidekicks do their dirty work. The sidekicks announce their presence. The sidekicks are the annoying voices and worshipers of the villains. With a good sidekick, your players now have two villains to hate.

Give Villains a Gimmick

Maybe your villain always has a cup of tea in their hand, regardless of where they are or what they're doing. Maybe they have a pet flying snake. Give your villains a gimmick. Maybe they hide their identity with a toothpick. Think Blofeld and the white cat in James Bond. Players will dig this. They'll remember it. Give your villains a gimmick.

Leave Mysterious Blanks in Your Villain's Origin

No one knows where Leto Skalle came from. He seemed to be in the upper ranks of the Droaam for as long as anyone knew him. Suddenly he's a platinum ringer in the Aurum or off for a multi-year expedition in Xen'drik. He went into the tomb of Narthotex with forty soldiers and came out alone with one eye turned bright blue. He comes from "parts unknown". Leave mysterious gaps in your villain's history.

Recast Your Villains

If your villain dies early, bring them back. Give them a new origin, an new nickname. Leto Skalle may die early on but once resurrected by the Dreaming Dark, he now speaks with the voice of the Quori within him and has a stable of new powers. We DMs have an unlimited stable of villains but when the players are invested in one of them, we can recast them even when defeated; bringing them back as something worse than they were before. This works well with lichs and vampires in particular. Recast villains when defeated.

Build a Stable of Villains

Build a stable of villains. Leto Skalle is bad but not nearly as bad as Leto Skalle, his sister Cavellah, and the three Daughters of Sora Kell working together to build the new Weapon of Mourning. Build an evil Justice League working against the characters. Build your own Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. A stable of villains is much harder to defeat than one villain alone.

Villains Don't Fight Fair

Villains always fight when they have the upper hand. They cheat. They'll punch you in your injured shoulder. It's important, however, to watch those beats. While it's good fun for a villain to fight when the environment supports them, you don't want the battle to feel hopeless. Fight dirty until the characters get the upper hand. More on this in a moment.

Exploit the Villain's Weakness

Likely, in an evolving game, the characters themselves may find a way to exploit the villain's gimmick. Maybe we poison his tea. Maybe we steal the Xanathar's goldfish. Let the characters find a way to use a villain's own gimmick against them.

Stick it to the Metagamers

In the wrestling world you have "smarts", "marks", and "smarks". Smarts see the theater for what it is — theater. Marks like to believe every moment of it. They're in the story. Smarks known the story is theater but go with it anyway. In our game, metagamers are the smarts. They know how beholders work. They know how many hit points a dragon roughly has. Change things up. Give mages spells from Deep Magic that none of the players have heard of. Give the Lord of Blades a stable of warforged horrors from Arcana of the Ancients and Beasts of Flesh and Steel Change things up, shock them, surprise them.

Inject the "Swerve"

Let the story take unexpected twists and turns. Villains become bad guys. Good guys become villains. Villains try to ally with the characters against more dangerous foes. Often our games take strange turns all on their own but if things feel too straight, give them a shock. This is fine to do in the middle of a game but don't do it at the end of a game or you end up with Game of Thrones. Swerving is fine but at the end, give them what they want.

Let Players Get the Upper Hand

Vince McMahon may walk like a theatrical Japanese warrior but even he knows when it's time to get beat up with his own bedpan in his underwear. Your bosses may be complete dicks but your player almost certainly find ways to get the upper hand and, when they do, let them. Ham it up. Let the villain beg for forgiveness or scream about how unfair it all is. Let them fall into their own traps and burn in their own pyres.

Good Tips for an Evolving Game

One thing I love about these tips is that they don't assume what the characters will do. We can use all of these ideas without requiring that the characters go in one direction or another. When we focus on our villains, fill them out with gimmicks and sidekicks and stables of other villains, that work serves us whatever direction the game goes. This makes it a great tool for us lazy dungeon masters. Our effort is well spent because we know that, no matter what direction things go, our efforts will bear fruit.

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