Origins 2009: D&D 4e Villains Seminar

rodneythompsonrobertschwabAt Origins 2009, Rodney Thompson and Robert J. Schwalb hosted a seminar (courtesy of the RPGA) about designing villains for your 4e game. The seminar described the process of doing the villain design, from role in the campaign to touching on some of the mechanics you might use. Here’s my notes from the session.

First thing is to decide what “duration” you’ll see the villain: 

  • campaign-long villains
  • tier-long villains
  • adventure villains
  • encounter villains

Once you determine the scale of the villain, you’ll know how detailed to make it.

They took some suggestions from the audience, and assigned them to some of the roles:

  • social city villain: encounter or adventure villain
  • destroy the artifact: campaign villain
  • descent into evil: tier villain

The Encounter Villain

The next step is to figure out its MO. A social/city villain probably uses deception and trickery, but also probably uses lackeys for the physical aspects.

Next figure out how the PCs are going to interact with the villain, and what he is after. In this case, he wants to gain political power. Once the goal is in mind, ask “why does he want that goal?” An easy answer is that he wants to gain political power to get more wealth.

Now, since it’s an urban villain, you’ll want to pick some race that works well in a political environment… in other words, not an otyugh or gelatinous cube. This also describes the rough physical form, and you should give one or two descriptive details- this provides a hook to recall the NPC later. If you inflate a characteristic to almost caricature level, the players will latch on to it. It may seem melodramatic to you, but it helps aid rememberance. Remember, in a regular encounter, the PCs will only be interacting with him for about an hour.

One example of a memorable hook: a villain with no skin or hair, but his face was nailed to his skull. PCs always remembered that guy. Players miss the smaller details unless you say it 3-4 times.

Suggestions from the audience: Human Necromancer, Doppelganger, Wily Gnome with Quirky Sense of Humor, Human Reformed Barbarian Thug. They settled on: “Wily Gnome Seeking Political Power Because He Wants Wealth.”

Then figure out the monster role. Skirmisher was suggested. Skirmisher has to have mobility. Since he’s probably not going to be a solo, he needs some flunkies. While you’re not building the encounter, just building the guy, it still helps to know who he hangs out with.

He has some sycophants also out for money- Wererats. Gnome Politician with Wererat flunkies.

Skirmisher mechanics need to be distinct from wererats, but play well with them as well. If he’s wily, needs some tricking abilities. Start with big power that makes him “pop”: encounter power. One suggestion: he creates illusion of himself, gives immobilize plus combat advantage. Stops things from moving around, and helps wererats. Gives incentive to take out gnome first.

(At this point it was mentioned that the restrained condition is worth 4 dice of damage in monster design. I wonder if the rest of this formula will come out in a future DMG).

So the mechanics: the main power is done. He needs an at-will attack, and just look up in DMG for standard damage by level for skirmisher. Pick a weapon, which doesn’t have to match damage die.

Recharge is determined how often we want the power to be used (4-6 is every other round, 5-6 is every 3rd round). Avoid giving recharge to multiple monsters in an encounter. Also avoid giving a single monster multiple recharge powers. Otherwise, there’s a lot to track. Recharge rule tries to establish a rhythm with the monster. 

If possible, give both a melee basic attack and ranged basic attack. Otherwise, monster gets sequestered off to the side with nothing to do.

One example of an unfortunate monster: goblin with area burst attacks with recharges and one mace attack. Goblin fires off powers, then is mostly done. (And it was a solo).

A lot of lurkers have powers that recharge other powers. Lurkers have low damage lurking mode and higher damage out of lurker mode. Lots of ways to get creative with recharging powers without using recharge die rolls.

Gnome fires off illusion, sustain standard. While gnome isn’t attacking, wererats come in. Very oily politician thing to do: distract you while minions attack.

Alternative: forget sustained, make it an illusion that lasts until attacked. (Maybe it blows up when attacked). Gnome becomes visible when it’s attacked. Recharge when there’s no illusion.

The design took 20 minutes, and creates a villain that can be reused.

Tier-Long Villain

Descent Into Evil, PCs are going into enemy territory, facing against villain on his own terms, for the paragon tier.

Start with MO. Some suggestions: gathering sacrifices, vision of utopia in secret HQ, corruption of campaign NPC. Combined into one suggestion: villain is trying to create his utopia, needs campaign NPC, has to corrupt him via sacrifices.

Why does he want it: because he wants his utopia.

What does he look like: Fishy thing, like an Aboleth. Don’t have to start with an existing monster, could make a “sentient angler fish who lives in a bone palace surrounded by potato pod people”

What makes him unique: He’s surrounded by innocents that have been corrupted. Lures people down to his underwater domain. Has a lot of followers, the ones you will fight are the most zealous converts. Some people haven’t been fully transformed. PCs decide between the irredeemably converted and the ones that can be saved.

Tier villains have to be introduced early. A villain will show up for the battle at the end of Paragon, and signal change into epic. Has to be someone who lives in the PC’s mind. Introducing early and often is one of the best ways to make your players care about who they’re going to fight. Come up with 5 instances how they’re going to encounter the villain before they fight him.

One example: an empty village where the PCs see the consequences of not stopping the villain from his plot. Or an initial moment where cults are popping up. Add some instances where the villain doesn’t need to actually be there. In the coastal town example, you don’t know who is behind it, but it intersects with your current adventure. It’s a great chance for an “AHA” moment later.

On villain foreshadowing: the general inclination is to have villain show up, be unattackable, then leave. This can be very unsatisfying for PCs. Leave out direct confrontation until they can fight him. There are plenty of ways he can appear without being a combatant. The PCS can catch sight of villain as a fight starts. Give them the illusion of choice of going after the villain.

Another idea is to have a fight that can’t be won unless the players gain some more knowledge. This can be frustrtating too, since in 4e, most players expect to have a chance in every encounter, even if it needs tactics and luck. The key is if the players get frustrated, they won’t hate the villain because of what he’s done, they’ll hate him for the wrong reasons.

Always be prepared for your villain to die early. Also, if you’re going to show your villain, make sure to have a stat block for him in case he gets into a fight. 

It’s done a lot with deities, but can do it with lower level villains as well: give them an escape plan, just don’t turn it into the “Cobra Commander” where they always get away in the nick of time, cursing the heroes.

The tier-long villain should be more powerful an encounter, and  there should be multiple ways to victory. The first decision is to decide what his position is in the encounter.

In the case of the fish villain, maybe something that transforms when bloodied. Or could introduce two elites, one that comes in after the other is defeated.

Resist the temptation that every boss fight should be a solo. Like minions, use them sparingly when appropriate.

Campaign villain

Everything in the campaign ties back to him. Don’t reveal it early, but allow them to connect back. Give the players an “aha” moment when they realize he was behind it all. This can be tricky when introducing a villain over 30 levels.

When starting a new campaign, establish the scope of the campaign. Then take each tier and divide it into 2 bands. Figure out what you want to happen in each band, and the climax moments happen in between each band. Then slide in cool ideas after overall campaign structure. Decide what band the villain will be revealed. It’s good to have a villain that the PCs strive after.

Favorite villains are the incidental villains who happened to get away, and didn’t plan on them becoming regular villains. Anytime the players let somebody go, let him come back and hound the PCs. (The upsides and downsides of this were discussed later, about always killing monsters as opposed to letting them go).

Another good way to tie in the campaign villain is to have one of the other smaller scale villains join up with the main villain.

For the example of “destroying an artifact”, you can ask some questions like: does the villain become weaker when it’s destroyed? Does the artifact stop the villain, or is it just an important step?

Example from the audience: Necromancer chasing Hand and Eye of Vecna, PCs are racing the villain to it.

End villains: primoridals, princes of hell, demon lords, gods. Designed to be not fair. The PCs have to find some way to turn that encounter to able to be tackled. And not all have to be gods are similar to give an epic fight, like the movie version of Sauron that’s just a powerful wizard.

The final encounter is going to be this guy. The necromancer needs to intersect with the campaign. By the end of epic tier, most adventures involve facing this guy in some way.

Heroic Minions for the Necomancer:

  • Necromancer has hired priest of Vecna.
  • An Apprentice
  • Wily Gnome
  • Dragon

Allocate them based on power levels and how they’d appear. Also can construct a web of how they interact. The end-game villain shows up in the paragon tier, but is advancing.
Create wheels within wheels of campaign layers, since it’s over the course of a whole campaign.

All the previous ideas could be pulled together. “Descent into Evi”l could be the paragon tier, with the fish guy possessesing one of the artifacts. Could get an interesting three-way conflict with him and the campaign villain too.

It closed with some Q&A, talking about how to deal with players who kill absolutely everything, and some recommendations in putting in some antagonists for the party who aren’t necessarily evil.

Thanks to Rodney and Robert for the informative talk!

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Wow, this is some really interesting stuff. I like the idea of punishing the PCs for letting people go, but in moderation. I don’t like the idea that cutting a bloody swathe through the countryside is the only feasible way of dealing with enemies. But every once in a while, having mercy come back to bite can work. Though, only if the PCs have used mercy effectively before…if they just kill everything, then decide to have mercy, and it doesn’t work, they’ll just go back to killing everything.

  2. Thank you very much. I’m plotting a new campaign and this was quite helpful. I didn’t get to go to Origins. I hope there are some good workshops at Gen Con.
    .-= Nicholas´s last blog ..Deadliest Monsters: Red Dragon vs Gold Dragon – The Results =-.

  3. You missed part of the quote:

    “Gnome Politician with Wererat flunkies. That’s sexy.”
    .-= Geek’s Dream Girl´s last blog ..The Dominant Male Uber Pickup Artist’s Guide To Getting Laid Using Online Dating =-.

  4. Interesting ideas. Though, I don’t see why a social/city villain cannot be tier-long. You can easily interpret Prince John as a tier-long villain for Robin Hood.

  5. Jeb: They did say that any of them could work, they were just picking examples.


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