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 break into a safehouse belonging to a guild of tiefling thieves called the Horned Alliance. Their objective? To free a captured member of a rival guild.
The heroes manage to free the prisoner and make their escape, only to find themselves pinned down on a rickety balcony overlooking a city built along the edges of a sunken grotto. An evil silver dragon working with the Horned Alliance lands on the balcony and blocks their escape. As the dragon begins spewing its villainous monologue, the balcony creaks under the dragon’s weight, shudders, and breaks away.
Before the dragon can spread its wings and take to the air, it crashes into the city below and disappears in a cloud of dust and debris. Suffice it to say, the players are dumbfounded and seize the chance to make good their escape.
My villains, unlike their mad creator, are imperfect. They’re not omniscient. They don’t know everything, and like the player characters, they arrive at erroneous conclusions based on faulty assumptions. They miscalculate. They fall down. They suffer setbacks. My villains are deeply, profoundly flawed. And that’s why my players like them to a fault.
The best thing about faults is that they can be exploited. Case in point, here are three villains from my Iomandra campaign, each of whom has faults for clever players to exploit:
Prismeus: This tiefling henchman works for Zaibon Krinvazh of the Horned Alliance and has been loyal to the crime lord ever since Zaibon bailed him out of prison. While imprisoned, Prismeus was tortured by his dragonborn captors, his face scarred by acid. His ill treatment and disfigurement has made him resentful of all dragonborn, and his loyalty to Zaibon is beyond reproach. When Zaibon is killed off by the heroes, Prismeus turns the Horned Alliance against Zaibon’s killers, putting the entire organization in jeopardy and leading to a standoff between him, the heroes, and the Dragovar authorities who would like nothing more than to see the Horned Alliance broken once and for all.
Cale Blackstrand: This oily cad works for the Dragovar Empire. When he’s not escorting criminals to the island prison of Zardkarath, he’s cutting deals and taking bribes to allow criminals to be set free. He also has a weakness for powerful women. When Andraste (Michele Carter’s character) needs help freeing her aunt from prison, she reluctantly turns to Cale. Under normal circumstances, Cale would betray her in a heartbeat, taking her money and leaving Andraste’s aunt to rot, but he’s smitten by Andraste and, like a lovesick fool, blindly agrees to her terms. It never occurs to him that he might be the one betrayed.
Osterneth the Bronze Lich: She’s the ex-wife of Vecna (from the days before he became a god) and a powerful lich who hides her true form behind the illusion of a charming noblewoman. When the heroes cut a deal with an aspect of Vecna, Osterneth is sent as the Maimed Lord’s trusted representative to assist them in their endeavors. Although she provides the heroes with crucial intelligence, she’s also gathering secrets for her dark master. What Osterneth fails to see is that her trusted changeling manservant, Metis, might one day betray her and divulge her secret—that she has her husband’s shriveled, still-beating heart lodged inside her ribcage, and that its destruction would spell Vecna’s doom.
I’ve played in games run by experienced DMs who portray villains as unerring, evil-minded extensions of themselves. These villains seem to know everything and always have the advantage because they’ve been imbued with an inexplicable omniscience. It threatens my suspension of disbelief as a player when my character confronts a villain only to learn that the DM has gifted his precious bad guy with an unbelievable amount of precognition and insight into my character’s plans, intentions, and secrets. Omniscient villains are boring; I’d rather face a villain who gets my character’s name wrong or flees upon taking a critical hit. Suddenly, that villain seems infinitely more real to me.
PAX Prime Time
If you are planning to attend the Live D&D Game at PAX 2011, be warned! This article contains umpteen SPOILERS. You might want to skip this section.
For those who don’t know, this Saturday, in the Paramount Theater in Seattle, I’m running a live game for the gang of Acquisitions Incorporated (Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins, Scott “PvP” Kurtz, and Wil “Don’t be a dick!” Wheaton) in front of a crowd of 2,500+ PAX attendees. I’m told there will be grand entrances, pyrotechnics, costumes, and live minstrels (as opposed to dead ones, I suppose). For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been neglecting my home campaign to prepare for this blessed event, but costumes and minstrels aside, the thing that excites me most about the game is the opportunity to take Acquisitions Incorporated somewhere they’ve never been and pit them against a worthy villain.
If you can't attend the event, be sure to watch our live streaming coverage.
When last we left Jim Darkmagic, Omin Dran, and Binwin Bronzebottom, they had just freed their not-so-dead companion Aoefel from the prison-fortress of Slaughterfast. With the gang reunited, it was decided to draw them to New Hampshire for the reading of the Last Will and Testament of James Darkmagic I... Jim Darkmagic’s grandfather. The main villain of the adventure is Jim’s cousin, Percival Darkmagic, who doesn’t get the inheritance he’s expecting, namely a secret chest of magical lore that the Darkmagics have kept for generations. To make him interesting, however, I needed to give him some faults.
I hit upon the notion that Percy had foolishly promised to deliver this chest of “Darkmagic magic” to the Wortstaff family, a rival clan of archwizards, and woe to him should he fail! I also gave him a more peculiar fault that could have very interesting consequences: Due to a curse placed upon him as a child, Percival is incapable of seeing or hearing creatures of fey origin. I suspect Wil (who plays the eladrin Aoefel) might have some fun with that!
To Percy’s credit, he’s not a buffoon. He’s a very, very bad person, and his plan to seize his “rightful inheritance” is quite clever, if you ask me. (Spoiler: It has something to do with the Darkmagic mansion itself, which has some unusual magical properties.) He also has a “thing” for his sister, which makes him appropriately loathsome.
The most memorable villains in television, film, and literature have faults as big as the San Andreas. These faults not only make them seem “real” but also lead to their inevitable ruin. In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, Admiral Cain (played by Michelle Forbes) can’t see past her hatred of the Cylons, and that hatred destroys her. In the Bond movie Casino Royale, the villain Le Chiffre is undone by one too many bad gambles. Hannibal Lector’s fault is his affection for Clarice Starling which, on multiple occasions, nearly costs him his freedom. Annie Wilkes’ fault is her sycophantic adoration for Paul Sheldon, which blinds her to his ultimate betrayal at the end of Stephen King’s Misery. These faults do not make these characters any less fearsome or menacing. If anything, it makes them more likeable.
So here are the key takeaways:
Villains aren’t perfect, and like the PCs, they don’t know everything and they make mistakes.
Let the players see your villains’ flaws so that they might exploit them.
If you’re unaccustomed to concocting flaws for your villains, consider some of the classics: love (the villain is infatuated with one of the characters or another NPC), hatred (the villain is blinded by hate and can’t think straight), ritual (the villain cleaves to certain predictable habits), arrogance (the villain doesn’t kill the heroes when presented with the chance), fear (the villain is afraid of something), gluttony (the villain is never satisfied and always craves more), deformity (the villain suffers from a physical impediment), and curse (the villain is tormented by an affliction, bedevilment, or unusual malady).
Maybe your villain is blind or haunted by ghosts. Maybe your villain needs a special elixir to stay young, or maybe your villain has the world’s stupidest henchmen (like “Mom” in Futurama). In branding your villains with flaws, you might inadvertently turn them into clowns, fools, boobs, or imbeciles. Fear not. As long as they do bad things, your players will still love to hate them.
As for Percival Darkmagic, it remains to be seen whether he can hold his own against the heroes of Acquisitions Incorporated. Frankly, I’m more concerned that Aoefel might go wandering around the Darkmagic mansion by himself—and we all know what happens when you split the party! In any event, if you can’t attend the live game at PAX, no worries: The game will be filmed and posted so that the rest of the world can see how things went down at the Darkmagic estate.
Until the next encounter!
—Dungeon Master for Life,
Poll 08/18/2011 Results:
1. How would your players describe you as a Dungeon Master?
In charge yet easygoing: 39.2%
- Tough but fair: 32.1%
- Depends on the day: 17.0%
- A soulless monster: 8.2%
- A total pushover: 3.6%
2. What type of combat encounters do you find the hardest to create?
Fun killer encounters: 37.2%
- Fun level-appropriate encounters: 31.3%
- None of the above: 16.3%
- Fun easy encounters: 15.2%
The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 08/25/2011
Which resident of the Darkmagic estate is actually an evil spy in league with the Wortstaff family, the Darkmagics’ mortal enemies? And no, it isn’t Jim Darkmagic or his evil cousin, Percival. (The spy will be whoever or whatever gets the most votes before Saturday’s live D&D game at PAX.)
Which resident of the Darkmagic estate is an evil spy in league with the Wortstaff family?
Dolores Darkmagic (Lady Wortstaff), Jim’s dotty grandmother-lich and Wortstaff exile
Martha Darkmagic (Lady Shadowbright), Jim’s delirious mother
Wanda Darkmagic (Lady Severguile), Jim’s mysteriously guilt-ridden aunt
Olivia Darkmagic, Jim’s sultry and conniving “kissing cousin”
Gorgon Darkmagic (Lady Hellbranch), Jim’s mean-spirited aunt
Wretched Darkmagic, the cousin who hides her face behind a mask
Hideous Darkmagic, the antisocial cousin who plays with snakes
Dimzi Ironwick, the dwarf handyman with a crush on Binwin Bronzebottom
Valkar the Magnificent, the drunk tiefling butler
Snarl, the mute dragonborn coachman
Clatterby, the animated suit of armor
Gygax, the family cat
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.