A Cacodemonic Cantata

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Wellp, on my free day off from work, I'm placed in the position of starting to draw together threads for the next few levels of my pirate campaign.  And my mind turns to one of my absolute favorite parts of being a DM...

I speak, of course, of the archvillain.

I love villains.  I always root for the bad guy in the movies, and I try the quality of any story by the measure of its villain.  Star Wars wouldn't have been a hit without Vader, everyone cheers a little bit louder when Bill finally gets his due, and any Disney movie would just be musical tripe and bright colors without a villain.

And my campaigns--well, my good ones, anyway--always have an utter slew of memorable archfiends, all with their own agendas, methods, and personalities.  I draw from a vast well of vice...movies, television, comics, literature, games, Jungian archetypes, anywhere and everywhere! And with a little creative forging or reforging can come some of my favorite homebrew D&D villains.

So, the question I put to you, fellow DMs...where do you get your villains? Which are the best, or your favorite from your campaigns? What makes them different from just any other monster or bad guy? What do you do to make them more than just a block of stats for your players to defeat? Do your villains continually seem to crop up in your games?

Share your concepts! Regale us with your dark fables! I'll chip in with my own favorite bad guys, and the concepts I want to explore in my current game once we get into the swing of things here.

Which, perhaps, might have been my villainous intention all along...

Many of my villains are just spur of the moment character ideas that I expanded upon as need dictated. It's very rare that I sit down and come up with a character from start to finish in a single sitting. Sometimes an idea I have for a bad guy ends up being made a good guy and vice versa.

This being said, I don't have what one would call a favorite villain. I have some that I prefer for the game options they afford me and some I like because they're more fun to roleplay than others may be, but none of them really stand out in my mind as a favorite.

A memorable villain of recently is Nero Rosso, the leader of the Red Hands assassins. The Red Hands have been bugging my players for ages. Every campaign takes place during a different time period, but the Red Hands are always there to throw a wrench in their lives. The players just recently learned of Nero near the end of their last camaign, and have made it their mission in the new one to track him down and stop his organization once and for all.

The fun part is, they might be more likely to seek his help at the rate their going XD

The fun part is, they might be more likely to seek his help at the rate their going XD

This.  I love nothing more than to watch the players struggle - they, oh so badly, want to kill the 'villian' but... he has or knows something that they need to complete their quest - what a conundrum!  Do they swallow their pride and hold off on getting their vengeance or do they destroy their chances by slaying their so called foe?

I had the most excellent villian - Kratcher - who was a lesser demon, and the players got saddled with him because he was the only one with the knowledge of a ritual they needed to banish another demon back to the Abyss (Kratcher's master unbeknowst to them - who was stuck in stasis between the planes).  The whole time, Kratcher was bossing them around and even went as far as hiring some thugs to ambush the party - even after figuring this out they were not able to 'dispatch' him as he was a needed part of completing their quest and Kratcher was able to talk them into listening to him because they essentially had no other choice.  When they finally reached the ritual location they made preparations for the ritual and the party decided that once the ritual had begun they would slay Kratcher, as they would no longer need him - Little did they know that Kratcher not only foresaw this but actually built this into his plan - Which of course was to perform an altered version of the ritual which would allow Kratcher to completely summon his master to the prime material plane rather than banish him.  This version of the ritual demanded the blood of a demon - and so as they performed the ritual the party worked towards their own failure by killing Kratcher at the moment of the ritual where the demon blood was needed (because they suspected Kratcher was working against them - which he was), though they had not realized that Kratcher's death would bring them a step closer to not only failure of their quest but accomplishing the exact opposite goal.  In the end they managed to correct the ritual and banish the demon to the Abyss but not before they inadvertantly released several other lesser demons into the world and experiencing great fear as they realized they were a hair's breadth away from releasing a more powerful demon.
"The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us." - Friedrich Nietzsche
You never know who is going to turn out to be good villain. Spike, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was intended to last only a few episodes, but it was decided to keep him and he became a major character of the series.

The only enemy I ever devised myself who has gained any traction was an oni that was only planned for a single encounter. The players' plan enabled the oni to hide and take the form of one of his victims, and he tried to lure them into a trap. They saw through this, and walked away, and he taunted them by calling them "Fooooools!" Think Aku from Samurai Jack.

Later, they were in another fight in a good position. The enemy threatened to kill a female prisoner if the PCs did not give some ground and allow for a fair fight. The PCs did so (partly because they could see my frustration with the fight set up), and the prisoner ran to one of the PCs, holding tight.

Subsequently, the PC tried to move and couldn't. The prisoner had grabbed him and was leering up with a distorted face and saying "Foooooools!" Then it flew off, again like Aku.

They thought that was pretty great, and it's the one good surprise I can ever remember pulling on them. They've asked for him to come back, and I just didn't make it as much of a priority as I should have. At this point it wouldn't make much sense, but as we're collaborating on adventure design they might see something I don't.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Wow, I'm starting to wonder if I'm the only fellow who pre-plans his campaign.

Then again, I'm probably the only DM with such a predictable party...though they still do surprise me.

For instance, the party was sent to negotiate between a group of loggers and shipbuilders and the druids who control the local forest to get the lumber supply flowing again.  The druids were supposedly not allowing trees to be felled, and were sending animals to attack the loggers whenever they entered the wood.  The party hits the scene, only to find the forest more reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow than Lothlorien, because it's been corrupted by something, and the druids are being killed.  Come to find out, there's been an internal schism between the druids, one being a traditionalist camp, and the other having become twisted and more focused on the predator-prey dynamic.  The new bloods have embraced the feral, bloody side of nature, and it's driven them a little crazy.

So I started playing with the villainous narration when I started introducing these druids.  They had enslaved local spirits, and bent the animals to their will using thorns...so a wolf under the control of these druids would be wrapped in painfully-tight thorny vines (which also made a nice mechanic for taking automatic damage whenever struck by a melee attack).  Worse, the druids themselves could turn into animals, which was all well and good, but it was much more fun seeing them in humanoid form.  One, as I recall, was a dark-haired elf girl who could turn into a wolf and had some nice control powers, and whose face and hands were covered in blood, and she took great pleasure in licking the blood off them.  My players thought she was creepy as hell and despite the tactical advice to the contrary, blew every encounter power they had to kill her first.

By contrast, the druids' leader, Rowan, was a well-spoken, apparently sane philosopher-type who tried to convince the party that his philosophy was right even as they tried to kill him.  He almost had them on the ropes, using his thorns to dominate the minds of the defender and the healer, and was laughing as he casually turned on the rest.  I had planned for the party to kill him...interestingly enough, however, they only knocked him out and subdued him, something which actually did surprise me!

They said they're planning to take Rowan back to the traditionalist druids now that he's subdued and his plan to corrupt the forest has been thwarted.  They said they wanted to see what the Elder Druidess would do to him after he killed all her students and twisted the rest.  I couldn't be more pleased.  Letting me get more mileage out of a villain? You guys DO love me after all!

I think I'll have the Elder's heart go out to poor Rowan, who she practically raised and believes is only the victim of the wrong way of thinking, and she'll try to rehabilitate him.  I'm wondering if I'll have him turn away from the dark side, though, or whether he'll break out and cause some more havoc.  And even if I do turn him good, there's still some of his wayward disciples still out there to carry on his philosophy...

And that's just what I hatched up this past level.  Now the party is descending into the criminal underworld of their local port city in order to find a rogue that our Ranger has a personal score to settle with...oh, what delightful villainy can I devise for this adventure?
My best villain had three sources, as far as I can remember.

1) Jonathon Coulton's song Skullcrusher Mountain.

2) A desire to take some of the creatures in the monster manual and mix up powers and stats to create hybrids.

3) Asking myself the question, "What D&D race would make the most unlikely villain?"

The result was Ien Opee, a Halfling Wizard with a penchant for creating hybrid creatures, who preferred to be called "Phoenix Darksoul" (his real name means "Blue Cheese" in the Halfling language), and worked way too hard at being evil when he wasn't really very good at it. He built a tower, filled it with monsters, puzzles and traps, and then was delighted when an adventuring party showed up. He arranged a meeting with them so he could explain how honored he was to have real live heroes in his very own dungeon, offered them tea and biscuits, then told them they would all die horribly and teleported away.
I pull NPC inspiration from just about everywhere (books, movies, music, random musings in the shower) but as Centauri notes it is the player reaction that really moves the bar from "villainous NPC" to "arch-nemesis".

One NPC I had some luck with was actually intended to be a rather mid-level bad guy, "Jahan the Skinner" (a psion who was a combination of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and the Ace Hanlon character from the movie The Quick and the Dead). I had built in a series of encounters with a healthy dollop of alternate combat goals that allowed Jahan to escape with relative ease (while leaving evidence of his awful hobbies behind), and even in the "final encounter" the players rolled so poorly that he ended up escaping once again. He was such a nasty customer that the party really ended up loathing him, so I recycled him for the next adventure setting with some new powers and henchmen to make him a bigger deal. I wish I had been able to keep him alive longer, because the players never seemed to emotionally engage his evil bosses nearly as much.

I had another set of relatively minor villains who really got under the PCs' skin. There was a pair of mercenaries named Thrax and Ferog whose specialty was showing up mid-combat to complicate whatever the alternative goal was (saving the kidnapped noblewoman, defending the town's water supply, helping the caravan across the bridge) and then flee whenever one or the other got bloodied. They didn't always thwart the PCs, but they consistently made things painful enough that the party would drop whatever it was doing in combat to turn their full attention to the two whenever they showed up (which, hilariously, caused them to fail even more goals). They eventually cornered them and put the boots to the pair in an admittedly anti-climactic fashion, but I have never seen players so glad to see NPCs dead.