In this month's exclusive interview, Robert Schwalb, designer for the new Exemplars of Evil, delves into the darkest recesses of all that is villainous. In the interest of better involving the player community with the D&D website, questions for this interview were solicited in part via the message boards. Our thanks to everyone who took the time to submit their queries.
Wizards: Let’s start with the premise of the book. How exactly are you defining “exemplars” of evil, and what role might they fit into a given campaign?
Exemplars of Evil presents a selection of nine villains that take classic nefarious archetypes and breathes new life into them, establishing coherent and logical motivations, clear objectives, and, above all, personality sure to make your players’ heads explode. So in this sense, I’d say the exemplars function as models, ideal versions of the sinister villains that resonate with D&D fans, but spun in a way to make the concepts fresh and exciting. Rather than just another lich necromancer, we have a githyanki exile that has designs on overthrowing the totalitarian rule of the Lich Queen to liberate his people. Instead of an orc warlord bent on widespread destruction, we have an orc warlord whose primary objective is to found a new orc nation from the ashes of those races who have deprived his people of their rightful place in the world.
The exemplars are all useable as described in the book, but really, our primary aim was to get your creative juices flowing. You shouldn’t feel shackled to the goals, plots and objectives of the characters featured; you can take the parts, plots and nasties you like the best, and build your own exemplar of evil.
Wizards: With the book’s nine exemplars (not including their various minions), what sets them apart from one another aside from Challenge Ratings? When creating them, did you have specific niches or environs in mind that you were looking to fill?
Robert: When I received the brief on this project, it included a selection of nine archetypical villains, each representing a tried and true concept tied to an appropriate Challenge Rating. It was my job and the job of the awesome designers (Eytan Bernstein, Creighton Broadhurst, Steve Kenson, Kolja Raven Liquette, and Allen Rausch) who worked on this book to bend, twist and tickle these characters into interesting and compelling villains. We had a lot of room to develop our bad guys in whatever ways we wanted.
For example, I transformed the two-headed villain—two bad guys linked in some way—into disturbing twins. Brother dear is vile, corrupted by long proximity to the warping effects of his imprisoned grandfather. Sister, on the other hand, is spared the worst of the corruption and is instead installed in a nearby city where she and her wererat minion work to blackmail nobles to get the monies needed to secure the means to breach the wards containing her grandfather. Toss in a bit of Far Realm, a healthy dose of Kyuss, and a smattering of corrupted servants, you have the making of a scenario that will leave your players shuddering.
Wizards: In the Villainous Archetypes section, you discuss the non-evil and sympathetic villains. With the book’s exemplars of “evil”, do any of them operate under the guise of good, lawful or sympathetic motives?
Robert: The villains in this book are unapologetically evil. However, not all of the minions are. There are a few examples of minions in this book that are neutral or even good! This said, this book is meant to be a toolbox, a sack full of ideas to spark your imagination. Go back to the twins example above. The sister is a reprehensible villain as described, but she needn’t be. Maybe instead of trying to find a way to release grandpa, she’s hunting for a cure for her beloved brother. She can’t operate in the open because if she did, her brother would die at the hands of an unforgiving paladin. So, circumstances and love force her to use less than savory techniques to get the funding she needs to hire the right sort of spellcaster to remove whatever curse has befallen her family. You’ll be able to retool the exemplars with little work to fit different archetypes simply by changing a few motivations.
Wizards: Can you tell us something of what inspired creation of these exemplars? Do they arrive from various games you’ve DMed or played, from campaign setting information, and/or real-world influences?
Robert: I think all game designers sneak their favorite characters into their work. It’s unavoidable. By the time I got this assignment, though, I’ve already inserted a number of more favorite villains into other sourcebooks, both for Wizards of the Coast and other companies. So here, I had the chance to explore different sorts of concepts, using the structure of Chapter One to create characters with interesting motivations and attainable objectives.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t draw inspiration from other sources. As an unabashed cultist of Bruce Cordell, Return to the Tomb of Horrors remains one of my all-time favorite adventures. Aside from the massive scope and sexiness of the format, it was Moil that most excited my imagination the most and I had a great time tormenting my players with the various tricks, traps, and appalling horrors stalking the ruins of that ancient sinking city. Ever since, I’ve wanted to jump in and explore Cordell’s playground, so the lich necromancer in Exemplars gave me that chance.
Wizards: Although all of the exemplars are your children in a sense, do you have any favorites among them? (And for that matter, any favorite or memorable villains of your own or others’ creation from games you’ve played?)
Robert: Oh dear, must I choose? My fellow designers proved to be especially devious, creating a whole bunch of sexy villains. I really like Emmara, the blackguard—she’s my kind of nasty. Borak the Thunder Tyrant presents a blue dragon with surprising motivations. Of the ones I designed, I think my favorite is the two-headed villain, the Tolstoff twins (but don’t tell the others… they get a bit fussy when I play favorites). I have a soft spot in my cold black heart for physical corruption, disturbing evil, and maggots, so I turned the dial up pretty high on these two. Edgar, the cancer mage, is downright disgusting. A cancer mage, he’s covered in tumescent pustules, his decaying flesh slick with corruption. He’s the suppurating wound at the center of his chapter, only just concealed by the beauty and allure of his twin sister.
Outside of Exemplars, I’ve played D&D for over twenty years and in that time I’ve faced, fought and designed a number of wicked characters, many of whom are still near and dear to my heart. Looking back, it’s hard to pick one from the rest, but since the gun’s to my head so to speak, I’d have to say Cathandramus. He’s an interesting case for a number of reasons. Cathandramus is actually a misspelling of Catharandamus from the classic Palace of the Silver Princess. He makes an appearance in the Tome of Magic too, by the way. Coincidence? He was also an accident. I never intended for him to become a principle antagonist in the campaign; he just wound up that way.
The bold heroes were investigating the queer ruins of the Palace. The encounter with this villain was cool, memorable, and led to Catharandamus escaping with his life intact. Since he lived, a rarity for many villains, I jotted down his name—incorrectly—so I could use him later. When the opportunity presented itself to reveal him again, I, on the fly, recast him as a cultist of Asmodeus, who was a principal adversary in that massive campaign (some 30 players, two to three groups, and spanning almost a decade of gaming). My villain managed to escape again, this time bloodying the PCs’ noses. Over the months and years to come, he would make several appearances, each time escaping, each time stoking the fires of hate within my players. Cathandramus grew with the heroes, evolving with the campaign until he finally set aside his mortality to become a dreadful lich. Cathandramus was responsible for the spread of a vile cult, an instigator of numerous wars, corruptor of allied NPCs and very nearly brought the world to ruins with his sinister plots and wicked machinations. When the player characters finally confronted and defeated him, it was one of the signature moments in the campaign and one they still talk about almost an entire edition later. So, yeah, Cathandramus. He’s my boy.
Wizards: Aside from the exemplars themselves, what does the book discuss about villains in general? What advice do you offer DMs looking to create and implement their own exemplars?
Robert: Chapter One contains all the tools you need to create interesting and compelling adversaries, while the rest of the book shows the application of those ideas by presenting a cast of bad guys. Generally, Exemplars is intended to guide DMs through the processes of villain-building, starting with the fundamentals, such as the villain’s frequency, power, role and type, and then moving on with a discussion of archetypes, goals and motivations. Each section is arranged as a collection of choices, like a great big menu, so if you’re new to creating villains, all you have to do is go to section, pick an option, and move on to the next set of options. The chapter is also full of examples showing DMs specific realizations of nebulous concepts like guilt and love as driving motivators, while also exploring how villains build their networks and organizations, benchmarking suitable Challenge Ratings based on their use and function, and more. I think this information is useful for both novice and experienced DMs alike. For the beginning Dungeon Masters, it’s a great way to learn the process of creating cool bad guys with interesting motivations and realized plots, while veterans can use the chapter to spark ideas and fill in gaps in their own adversaries.
Wizards: In addition, the book also introduces new feats and spells. What types of powers do these provide to villains… and of course can they be utilized by players as well?
Robert: When it came to the new mechanics section of the book, I looked for opportunities to give long-term villains a bit more punch, and for ways to allow the villain to survive longer than a 5 round combat… or at the very least, provide abilities that allow the villain a way out of the encounter. The alternate class features replace class features that do not particularly add to a villains’ arsenal, and give them more immediate and useful powers. For example, when you create an evil cleric, the class feature outside of spells is the ability to rebuke undead. Unless you want your cleric to invest in divine feats or support him with an army of undead creatures, this class feature isn’t altogether useful. Blasphemous Incantation replaces rebuke undead and allows the cleric to invoke the power of his dark god and sicken all good creatures within 30 feet. This ability weakens the PCs, leveling the playing field for the villain, and frees up the villain’s feats for vile feats, tactical feats, and other options to make this character more tactically interesting.
When it came to feats, I focused on options that alter how class features worked and provide avenues of escape. Evasive Maneuvers, for instance, lets a villain cast a prepared invisibility (or use a spell slot) spell when caught in the area of a damaging spell. Twist the Knife allows a villain to sack sneak attack damage to impose a tough and persistent penalty on attack rolls, damage rolls, checks, and so on.
Spells followed these themes. Friendly fire redirects a ranged attack to another target within 30 feet. Alliance undone suppresses teamwork benefits, the effects of companion spirits, allegiances, and other similar abilities for 10 rounds. Of course, there are a few nasty spells that are just mean. Phantasmal injury implants a suggestion that the target is disabled. Ring of fire creates an area of bubbling lava that eventually hardens and imprisons creatures caught in the area, while stiffen is an alternative to the save or lose flesh to stone spell.
Some of the options here are clearly tempting for players too. The Strength of Conviction feat allows you to apply the effects of a smite attack to creatures of any alignment. Monks who are willing to give up evasion can pick up the invisible fist class feature allowing them to turn invisible for 1 round out of every three. Since the intent of the design for this chapter was to provide options for adversaries, players should check with their DMs before going nuts with these options.
Exemplars of Evil is being featured as part of the D&D Insider website; what’s in the works for a Exemplars enhancement?
Robert: To support Exemplars, I’ve designed two more villains. The first presents a non-evil villain, while the second fits with a new elder evil and adventure both due later this year. The first villain deals with an ambitious priest who cleaves closely to a rather restricted interpretation of St. Cuthbert’s dogma, while the second explores a created villain, a hero who has fallen after being exposed to mind-shattering horror in the tunnels far below the Crater Ridge Mines.
Elder Evils also releases later this year; would these two books be accurately described as companions? If so, what connection do they share, and in any case what sets Elder Evils apart from Exemplars?
Robert: I’d say so. Elder Evils is a natural evolution of the themes discussed in Exemplars, and while there are few overt connections, there are plenty of seeds planted in Exemplars to whet your appetite for bigger, scarier threats due out toward the end of this year. One of the villains in Exemplars has strong ties to the worm that walks (an elder evil), while another villain serves an old friend from Lords of Madness. Borrowing the 4th edition parlance, then, if Exemplars is for the heroes and paragons, Elder Evils is for epic characters. Each elder evil described in that sourcebook seeks to leave your campaign setting forever changed, altered in a fundamental way, whether it means destroying the world and all things in it, or triggering natural disasters on such a scale you’ll need to redraw every continent. Exemplars are significant threats, make no mistake, but their agendas, usually, do not involve pushing the “candy red history eraser button.” Elder evils, on the other hand, want to push the button again and again until there’s nothing left.