This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.
MONDAY NIGHT. The heroes are mid-paragon tier and enjoying a love/hate relationship with a guild of tiefling thieves and cutthroats called the Horned Alliance. Over the course of several adventures, they’ve thwarted a major operation, killed several high-ranking members of the guild, and dealt the guild a severe financial blow. Now they find themselves in the cellar of The Dead Crow, a tavern in Io’calioth that serves as a front for the Horned Alliance, standing across the dining table from the guild’s supreme leader: a grandmotherly tiefling named Dorethau Vadu. What better opportunity to bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones—the heroes have other fish to fry, and so does the Horned Alliance. Enough blood has been shed, and neither side is eager to escalate the violence. More importantly, the heroes have information that Dorethau desires, and she has information useful to them.
Both sides agree to an information exchange. However, before the exchange begins, a servant places a covered platter in front of Dorethau. She rubs her fork and knife together expectantly as the platter lid is removed… revealing a cooked dragonborn baby.
The Monday night group was horrified.
To understand the point of this article, one must first understand the Horned Alliance. This tieflings-only club of miscreants and malefactors operates something like the Mafia—it wants to mind its own business (however criminal) and be left alone. That said, the tieflings in my campaign are a shattered race; their empire was wiped out by the dragonborn empire, and in Dragovar society, most tieflings are regarded as third-class citizens.
Over the course of several levels, the heroes crossed swords with a number of Horned Alliance tieflings. There was Suffer, the brutal tiefling thug who spoke with a Brooklyn accent; there was Zaidi Arychosa, the aria singer and wealthy dilettante; there was Zaibon Krinvazh, who lived on a ship called the Hellstrike and collected the flayed bones of his adversaries; and there was Prismeus, Zaibon’s crafty tiefling lieutenant with the acid-scarred face.
For the supreme leader of the Horned Alliance, I needed someone more memorable than all of these other tieflings combined—someone with the smarts, the temperament, and the prescience to run a widespread organization yet who also embodied the Horned Alliance’s abject hatred toward the Dragovar Empire. Dorethau Vadu is old, wise, and not about to pick a fight with a bunch of people who slay monsters for a living. The Horned Alliance is her house, its members are her children and grandchildren (metaphorically speaking). She would be likeable and admirable except for one thing.
She eats babies.
This wasn’t some randomly assigned fetish. It makes perfect sense in the context of the campaign; one thing the heroes know is that the Horned Alliance detests the ruling dragonborn empire, so how do I embody this hatred in the guild’s leader? The answer is perfect in its awesome evilness: Dorethau Vadu employs thieves to kidnap dragonborn babies and then eats them! When the idea came to me, I was walking my dog in the woods. Reggie, my three-legged silky terrier, gave me a quizzical look when I shouted “She eats babies!” and immediately sent myself a text message so I wouldn’t forget. (Like I’d forget something that cool!)
The juxtaposition of the grandmotherly figure with the image of the cooked baby told the players everything they needed to know about Dorethau Vadu—and at this point, the negotiations were over. The looks on my players’ faces said it all: There was no doing business with this woman—she had to die.
As a DM, I sometimes make the mistake of relying too much on dialogue to make my villains compelling, but players are quick to dismiss evil monologues, insults, and hissed invectives. They’re just words, after all. What my players remember about Dorethau Vadu aren’t the words that came out of her mouth, but the baby that went into it.
Actions always speak louder than words.
I’m not suggesting that you add infanticide to your campaign as a means to shock your players. What worked for one villain in my campaign won’t necessarily translate to villains in your campaign. The dragonborn baby stunt merely illustrates that the heroes need to see the villains do bad things in order to appreciate what they’re up against. Simply knowing the bad guy is evil isn’t thrilling enough.
There’s a throwaway line spoken in the film Quantum of Solace to remind us that heroes, in large part, are judged by the strength of their enemies (“They say you’re judged by the strength of your enemies”). Well, truth be told, everything I know about creating villains I learned from James Bond novels and films—and my villains’ “strength” is determined by the extent they’re remembered long after they’re gone. For you, it might be the villain who “brands” his captives, the villain who betrayed one of his own to save himself, or the villain who wears a cloak made of the stitched faces of his slain enemies.
A villain needs only one good gimmick to be even vaguely memorable—be it a deformity, a white cat with a diamond collar, a razor-rimmed hat, or something equally obvious.
Villains are defined by their deeds and quirks. It only takes one deed or quirk to make a lasting impression.
Next week I’ll present the winning entries from last week’s BEST VILLAIN EVER! contest, and then we’ll leave villains alone for a while to talk about what wonderful things can happen to a campaign when a player leaves the group.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 04/07/2011 Results:
Which of the following dastardly duos is the most despicably awesome?
The Joker and Harley Quinn (Batman: The Animated Series): 26.9%
- Spike and Drusilla (Buffy the Vampire Slayer): 14.9%
- Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction): 11.1%
- Saruman and Grima Wyrmtongue (The Lord of the Rings): 9.0%
- Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six (Battlestar Galactica): 8.9%
- Faith and Mayor Richard Wilkins III (Buffy the Vampire Slayer): 6.6%
- Mr. Burns and Smithers (The Simpsons): 4.7%
- Gul Dukat and Weyoun (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine): 4.3%
- Auric Goldfinger and Oddjob (Goldfinger): 2.6%
- Hans Gruber and Karl (Die Hard): 2.5%
- Dr. Drakken and Shego (Kim Possible): 2.3%
- Kang and Kodos (The Simpsons): 1.6%
- Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (Bonnie and Clyde): 1.4%
- Shere Khan and Kaa (Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book): 1.4%
- Lursa and Betor (Star Trek: The Next Generation): 1.1%
- Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Fargo): 0.8%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 04/14/2011
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.