After several weeks away from my regular DMing duties, I finally got a chance to jump back behind the screen recently and was immediately reminded why I enjoy D&D so much. I mean, the power, right? OK, I kid (mostly), but wow, did I have fun. I can attribute this partly to the break and partly to the ease with which 4th Edition games move, but whatever the cause, it was great to get back in the saddle.
At last week's game, the characters had the opportunity to fight one of the adventure's main villains. He was really tough, the fight was long, and by the end, the players hated this guy. I started to reflect on why the players responded so viscerally to this villain. What about him got under their skins? And I realized that, in this case, I'd used one of my favorite villain tricks to make this particular bad guy more hateful. Several times during the fight, I'd have him pointedly call out one of the heroes on the battlefield. I'd slip into first person mode -- something I'm not as prone to do when I'm playing, but much more likely to do as a DM -- and I'd point at a character's player, and tell them, "You're next," or something to that effect. Of course, this was most effective when he'd just dropped someone, which happened a few times. Calling the characters out brought the energy up, made the fight memorable, and got me thinking about other ways you can make a boss fight the stuff of legend.
So I polled the D&D Insider staff and got several great ideas:
Bring 'em Back Again. And Again. Bart points out that bringing back a villain who was soundly trounced is great for upping the hate. I couldn't agree more. Like many of the tricks in this list, you don't want to overuse this one. Save it for a villain who was already memorable for another reason, though, and you'll really get under your players' skins. If you do use this trick, do it with a fresh spin. For example, make the death blow from the PCs' first encounter a prominent scar. Or consider upping the villain's power level a second time around. If he was pretty squishy in round 1, make him extra tough the second time around, and give him a new power or two.
Et Tu? Betrayal is a common trope of D&D villains, and one that can be overused. Chris Sims points out that if you betray your PCs too often, they'll come to suspect and resent every NPC you send their way, however innocent their intentions. Save your betrayals, he advises, for a really devastating moment. And only use the trick once or twice in a campaign. If you really pull off a good, unsuspected betrayal, your players will never forget that moment … or that villain.
Hit 'em Where it Hurts. Steve points out that the Ravenloft setting had some of the best advice on villains. Ever. "There's a reason why the villain is called 'master'." He's in charge. He's calling the shots. He knows about the heroes through his spies, informants, guards, and scrying. He knows what they're up to and is almost always a step ahead of them. He doesn't wait to be attacked, he carries the fight to the enemy and hits them when they're weak. He doesn't crush them with a single blow but delivers 'the death of a thousand cuts' (because making the players feel helpless and then prolonging their agony is the best). If every time the characters turn around, a villain has taken something from them -- an NPC they cared about, captured a city they'd just left off defending -- when they finally get to face him, they won't be able to restrain themselves from bringing the hurt.
Evil Is as Evil Does. Few things will get the heroes' backs up like pure, unadulterated callousness. Steve and Chris both pitched this idea, and I couldn't agree more. The simple coup de grace has served me well in the past, and we all seem to agree that a villain who really embraces his own vile nature is one the PCs will be eager to face and destroy.
So next time you're planning a villain for your next campaign, or for your next Dungeon submission, keep some of these ideas in mind. And never be afraid to stare a player in the eye and promise them that they're next on your list.