From ghost stories during my days in scouts to wanting to be a fiction writer since I was only three years old, it’s safe to say that I’ve always appreciated a great story. So it shouldn’t be any surprise I eventually found myself enthralled by the group storytelling of tabletop RPGs.
My first game was a 5e D&D game and fortunately, I quickly found myself surrounded by experienced TTRPG players who love all kinds of different tabletop systems, which led to adventures in Call of Cthulhu, Monster of the Week, Werewolf the Apocalypse, and The Dresden Files, just to name a few.
There were a few things that the best campaigns, or even the best story arcs within longer games had and that was an interesting, memorable Big Bad.
Using the lessons I’ve learned from decades of fiction writing and years of DMing, I’m going to give you some easy steps to help you make more interesting villains that your gaming group won’t soon forget!
Treat Big Bads Like PCs
Create your Big Bad like you would a PC, including backstory. Especially backstory! Knowing how the big villain became that way, how they justify their actions to themselves, and what truly motivates them allows you to create a fuller and more in-depth villain.
This leads to an NPC who can interact or toy with the adventuring party in unique ways that sets them apart from your common tropes.
- How did the villain become evil? Do they believe they’re good? Victimized to the point of feeling justified to “fight back?” Is there a weird logical fallacy they bought into?
- What is your Big Bad’s personal code? Are they random and chaotic, possibly because of a madness or curse, or is their cruelty very targeted and direct?
- Do they have a soft spot from their life before they became who they are now? Are there little quirks that get their attention or cause moments of mercy that seem to baffle those who receive it?
- Why does your villain want to accomplish what they want to accomplish? What’s the end game?
- If the Big Bad is a conventionally “evil” entity like a Red Dragon – what quirks can set them apart? Do they like toying with adventuring parties by taking human form and feeding bad information to them? Do they have an odd tick or habit where they feel the need to have X conversations with their meal before feasting? Some small quirks can go a long way to setting conventional baddies apart as something special!
Thinking about what the Big Bad is doing in the meantime fills that NPC out as a character and a villain, lets you know what’s on their mind. Where were they and what were they doing when they first became aware that the adventuring party might be a legitimate threat to their plans?
Remember that your game takes place in a living world. The bad guy isn’t there just to be a foil for the players’ adventuring party, but they have their own goals, their own actions they’re taking to achieve their goals, and their own lives they’re living.
Simply asking “Why?” a few times is one of the most effective tools to creating more in-depth and interesting enemies for your adventuring party.
Sometimes you just need a Big Bad for a high stakes campaign, and that’s fine: you can have an uber-evil bad guy who is bent on destroying all that is good, but digging in a bit deeper still makes for a more interesting and nuanced Big Bad.
The Lich King wants to raise the undead and slaughter all the living in the province.
Look, that’s not a bad setup for a Big Bad guy. It’s actually a pretty neat one I’d love if I was playing Pathfinder, D&D, or any high fantasy TTRPG, but how many more storylines and plots could the players uncover if we asked “Why does the Lich King want to turn everyone undead? Why did he get to this point?”
That might lead to a backstory like this:
When the Lich King was alive they suffered tragedy after tragedy from those too high up to be prosecuted by the law. This lack of order led to him being experimented upon by a mad wizard of noble blood, which led to him losing all humanity and eventually becoming an undead lich.
Order could have prevented this pain and tragedy, and the undead follow his orders without question – so only an undead kingdom, free of meddlesome living wizards, would have the order and justice he sought in life.
Still a bad guy, still a Lich King, but puts an interesting spin on how he perceives the world, its citizens, and how things work. Also makes the wizard an immediate target in the Lich’s Lair, or may oddly make the Lich King see a paladin as misguided – but respects their Lawful nature.
Add A Motivational Twist
Your party finds themselves going up against a vicious barbarian king infused with power from a chaos god. Great – what can make them different?
Adding some wild magic surge elements can be fun, no doubt the king has a magic weapon, but why not throw a curve ball the party doesn’t see coming? Imagine building the tension as they are sneaking through a seemingly deserted hallway in the occupied palace, confused by the lack of guards…or guards who don’t seem to care if the heavily armored member of your party botches a stealth check.
When the party enters the great hall the Barbarian King greets them happily, yells something like “Some worthy adventurers who have come to slay me!” and the entourage cheers and offers a stat boosting meal to the party before the fight.
Why? The Barbarian King tells a story of accepting the gift of power that was a curse, and now there was no thrill to battle, no challenge. No one seemed worthy of ending him and he dreamed of the day a worthy group who could earn victory finally appeared.
It’s a strange honor code – but it makes sense and can lead to a very confused looking party before the boss battle kicks off.
Tropes Are Made to Be Twisted
Small twists can really throw off a group. Maybe in your Sci-Fi game you come upon a planet where the angelic people appear great but are quite cold and heartless, while the Demon People living in the harshest parts of the world are gruff, but friendly and good-hearted.
When running a Monster of the Week RPG the monster isn’t bad, but is infected with a ghostly parasite causing it to go mad. Maybe the immortal who needs sacrifices isn’t randomly murdering victims, but picking out truly bad people – information that is only found with enough investigation and then gives the problem to the party of whether or not they want to stop the creature, or help it find a way out of the area…and away from the eyes of local hunters.
Think of stereotypes that come with your game world and throw a curveball. Have Dwarves speak with an Aussie accent instead of a Scottish one, back road country farmers hiding supernatural scholarly libraries in refurbished barns, or discover that aliens avoid Earth because Earth is “That bad side of town” in that side of the Milky Way.
Subverting common tropes is a great easy way to change things up in a campaign, and that should be applied to villains. Defy expectations and be different!
Use Your Players’ Back Stories
While you won’t always have an obvious Darth Vader “I am your father,” moment, look at little “throw away” details from a PC’s backstory and think about how they could unexpectedly come back into play in the campaign.
Maybe they knew the family of the now Big Bad, went to school with them, or the villain knew their family or mentor on friendly terms. What happened to cause this rift in paths with them going bad and you being guided towards good?
When players know their backstories will come into play in fun or entertaining ways, this not only gets immediate buy-in but it also tends to make many of them more open to creating backstories that intentionally throw the DM more material with it – just to see what the DM can come up with.
In summary for better villains remember to practice:
- Ask “Why?” to dig deeper into why your bad guys do what they do and why they are the way they are now.
- Add twists to the bad guys’ motivations
- Treat Big Bads and villains like a PC and form them starting with their backstories
- Tropes exist to be subverted – feel free to do so!
- Use your players’ back story to add twists into your game world
You’re Ready for Better Big Bads Now!
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for fiction writing applies to creating better DnD stories and that’s this: “Remember, no one is the villain of their own story.”
Approach the bad guys in your campaign from that point of view and they will act differently, and often prove themselves unforgettable.
So what are you favorite methods for creating interesting Big Bads? Which villains from your home games were most memorable and why? Let us know in the comments – we’d love to hear!