Pain of Campaigning V: Suitable Villains

So, let’s see, you have pre-planned your campaign, started it out with a bang, managed to balance a bunch of squabbling players interests in the game and even dared to put politics into it. Sounds like a great game, huh? Job’s over?


A recurring villain is one of the simplest ways to increase the excitement of a game and give it lasting consequences. There’s a lot of thought that can go into choosing a proper villain and this article is going to focus on that: making a villain that works for your PCs. In the future, I will discuss dos and don’ts for making the villain you selected into a formidable, challenging adversary without burning the PCs out. First thing, however, is selecting what kind of villain to use.

Five Man Band

The PCs are a well-honed adventuring team, why don’t they pick on someone(s) their own size instead of dog-piling on one guy! Preferably, the villainous team ought to have a catchy name. Some of my favorites from past games have been “Collateral Damage” (later my Rock Band name due to its legal double entendre and a great opportunity to use Arnold lines) and “The Band of Ishtara”.

Pros: The glory of an enemy team is that it scales so perfectly. At first level they can skirmish with a single low-powered member of the team. As they level up, the PCs can face more powerful members or just plain old of more of the team (plus the enemy team can gain new levels and tricks too), until the climax where you have an evenly matched knock-down, drag-out fight. By this time, you’ve hopefully developed grudges between individual members. Typically, PCs have come up with nefarious tactics to take out their most hated rival on the enemy team. Secondly, after defeating the enemy team, you have an instant new bad guy: their master/commander/king/god. Instant feud! Third, you can be really be creative with a team. No need to just use a bunch of PHB classes: try to slap some templates on some monsters or templates on normal PC stuff (Death Knight Paladin much?) These guys are the bad guys: make ‘em bad and have fun! Lastly, if the PCs are heroic, it’s likely some of the bad guys may not actually be killed. Having one of the former foes team up with the PCs, but keep their dark side, is great drama and a fun NPC to run with!

Cons: Instead of one bad guy, try making five. In combats you have to use all of them well. Almost inevitably, even if you play to your tactical finest, the PCs are going to use their resources more efficiently and make smarter decisions (it’s five on one and they use their PCs fulltime.) So, be sure to give yourself a cushion and give the bad guys the edge in raw power and make sure the PCs know it to heighten the drama!

Evil Overlord

A much more typical bad guy that broods in a forbidden land doing nasty things and threatening to take over the world. He’s got to be powerful enough to have staying power, but also beatable at a certain point of the game. You could always give out a big fucking sword to miraculously even the odds, but its better that the PCs be able to do it on their own. There’s nothing wrong with even giving him a Five Man Band to do his dirty work anyway.

Pros: Want to make a super min maxed 20th level Wizard, well here’s your chance. He’s big, tough, smart, and powerful enough to be a foe for your whole party. If you give it a little thought you can come up with some story reason for just about anything out of Monster’s Manual to be working for the guy, so just be sure to make it clear he’s the one behind it all.

Cons: At the start of it, your PCs are necessarily way too underpowered to stand up to your villain, so you have to build the hatred from afar. Even if you do want to make them come face to face earlier you better have an exit strategy to keep the PCs from totally getting their clocks cleaned. PCs aren’t dumb though, and having NPCs save their ass constantly is frustrating, not fun. While a fantasy mainstay, it works having some other bad guys to supplement the threat from afar.

Face/Heel Turn

It’s hard to start with this particular villain, but they make great hidden forces. Basically, have the benevolent mentor, wise king, or helpful Godling end up not being such a nice force. Maybe its all a complicated Xanatos Gambit and the PCs were deceived (but be sure to leave clues along the way) or maybe the once good-guy has been corrupted by the very victory which he sought, but either way nothing stings quite as bad a betrayal.

Pros: Instant drama and hatred, especially if the PCs former friend REALLY screws them in addition to turning on them. You just have to pull off the heel turn reasonably. If PCs scratch their heads and wonder what the hell just happened, that’s probably bad, but if there eyes widen with fright as they realize they’ve just been double-crossed, that’s good.

Cons: Its hard to start a game off with this one, but if you’ve seen Kill Bill you know it can be done from the get go (they were all pretty bad guys anyway, though).

The Survivor

The goblin that got away. The guardsman that lost his job after the PCs’ jailbreak. The Wizard Apprentice that sold the PCs that Knock scroll. The son of an on the job rival that just didn’t get that the party member was a PC. Just think of the devastation an average adventuring party leaves in their wake. Actually, don’t just think about it, use it to create a villain with a real gripe! The how is not too important, surely some sort of dark ritual can be undertaken or awesome power can be developed, but make sure the tone fits into your campaign.

Pros: Using past adventures’ minor (or not so minor) characters as fuel for a major villain creates an organic feel for the campaign. Moreover, in these instances, it might not be that the PCs know why there’s an insanely powerful demonic goblin after them, but you do and you can string it out. If you aren’t sure what direction your episodic first few adventures are going try throwing this villain there, but don’t just pull it of your ass!

Cons: This tends to be a reactive villain, and like the Face/Heel Turn does not necessary make it easy to plan for the start, though it can be done with some foresight. If you’re game is part of a long-running game world this can easily be done with some character the player’s remember from their days as high level powerhouses, but thrown in as a villain against the new youngsters.


Far from an exhaustive list, these are a few of my favorite and most effective. Stayed tuned for the follow up where we look at how to spice up your villain to make them the proper combination formidable, awesome, and dastardly.

The Pain of Campaigning I: Story and Pre-Game Decisions
The Pain of Campaigning II: Starting the Game
The Pain of Campaigning III: The Plot Thickens
The Pain of Campaigning IV: Put a Little Politics In It
The Pain of Campaigning V: Suitable Villains


  1. Whoa! A RPG Trope post not written by me! Let me sit back and enjoy the ride.


    The 5 man band can now be made more easily in D&D 4e. You just make 5 monsters whose powers are synergistic and you can increase their power level almost effortlessly… (Just nix the ‘dead at 0 hp’ for recurring NPC and you’re in business)

  2. OriginalSultan says:

    Another type that works well is The Taskmaster / Lieutenant to the Evil Overlord. As you mentioned, the problem with the Evil Overlord villain is that the PCs usually never meet him until the final battle. But if the Evil Overlord has a Taskmaster / Lieutenant to do his dirty work, this character will make an excellent recurring villain that the PCs can run into again and again.

    The Lieutenant also gives you lots of options at the end of the game: 1) battle the Lieutenant as a warm-up to the Evil Overlord, 2) Lieutenant face turns and joins PCs to help vanquish Overlord, possibly sacrificing himself, 3) Lieutenant escapes (again!) after Overlord is vanquished…possibly returning in another campaign as the new Evil Overlord.

    The 5-man band as a whole can usually do a good job of filling the role of the Taskmaster / Lieutenant, or the Lieutenant can just be the leader of the 5-man band. Other times its better to just have 1 guy – easier to manage as DM and it focuses the PCs hatred onto one person.

  3. One of the better give-aways for this years Free RPG Day is a humble little dungeon crawl with a heckuva hook. Paizo’s D1.5 “Revenge of the Kobold King,” which follows directly after their DC1 “Crown of the Kobold King”

    “Crown” took the well-troden D&D scenario of ‘kill kobolds, take stuff’ and managed to put that wonderful Paizo polish on it. But, in the end, the players think they killed the lil bastarad after a tough but winnable fight.

    Toss a simple one night adventure in between, and then *blammo* hit them with the “Revenge,” where the kobold is now a very nasty undead critter in the service of an evil god.

    Combines the Survivor with the Overlord, and makes a lovely setup for the start of a Five Man Band (with the Kobold King on lead guitar.)

  4. I just thought of this, although it’s not a new idea. Wouldn’t it be cool if the PCs were the bad guy but didn’t know it? If somehow a number of their past actions were used in the worst possible way or something?

  5. TheMainEvent says:

    -> This trope fits in nicely with “The Survivor.” If someone gains popularity try using it!


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