This post is part of a series on cinematic combat in Dungeons & Dragons 4E. You can see the other posts in the series here.

In movies, villains are often as important to the story as the heroes are. Entire scenes are devoted to introducing the antagonists, explaining their motives, and showing their progress towards their goals. In addition, the heroes often confront the main villain several times during the story but are either forced to flee or stuck watching their target escape. In contrast, most Dungeons & Dragons adventures give far less attention to the villain. Game play generally focuses solely on the action from the heroes’ point of view with the villain only really showing up for the final confrontation.

As part of thinking about how to better emulate movies at the table, I’ve been considering ways to make villains more memorable. That brainstorming resulted in a short list of things to focus on for any major villain: a name, a plan, progress, power, and screen time.

A Name

Your players should know the name of the villain well before their final fight. Even if your story relies on a big reveal of the villain’s true identity, the players should know a pseudonym that the villain uses with its henchmen and minions. This knowledge gives the players an easy and memorable way to refer to the villain both in and out of character.

Action Item: How can you let the players know your villain’s name early in the adventure?

A Plan

Your players should know the key points of the villain’s nefarious scheme. While the initial adventure hook might only be a small part of the villain’s entire scheme, the players and their characters need to encourage them to put a stop to those plans and provide a goal to measure progress against.

Action Item: How can you expose elements of the villain’s plan throughout the adventure rather than lumping it into a villainous monologue right before the final confrontation?

Progress

The players should see the villain making progress towards its goals despite their efforts to stop it. While the heroes of the story may put a stop to some of the villain’s plans, they can only accomplish so much. While they are pursuing one quest, the villain might be making progress on a handful of other goals. Seeing this progress should stress just how important it is that the characters manage to confront and defeat the villain before it is too late. Mechanics like the 5 × 5 dungeon from Dave the Game or horizons from Gamefiend could work great for demonstrating a villain’s progress.

Action Item: What other actions might the villain be taking towards his or her goal? How can you demonstrate the villain’s progress through in-character news, changes to the world, etc? What mechanics, if any, will you use to track the villain’s progress?

Power

The players should have firsthand knowledge of how powerful their villain is. The easiest way to give this is to have the heroes suffer defeat at the hands of the villain, but that is far from the only option. The villain could defeat a powerful friend or mentor of the player characters, send powerful henchmen against the characters, or even lead an army to victory over a city or kingdom the characters have visited. Any of these should demonstrate to the players that the villain isn’t just some madman sitting in a dungeon but instead is a dangerous threat to the world.

Action Item: How can you show your players that the villain is a major threat?

Screen Time

As I mentioned before, villains often get scenes throughout a movie and get to confront the heroes multiple times. The easiest way to incorporate this into a D&D adventure would be to plan for multiple encounters with the villain before the player characters finally manage to defeat it. While having the villain escape is one option for early combat, either the bad guy or the heroes could also have an alternate goal during their first meeting that keeps them from focusing on killing one another. A third option for an early meeting is to allow the villain to overpower the player characters and force them to flee.

An entirely different approach to giving the villain more screen time during a campaign would be to present the players with story vignettes showing the villain (one of many suggestions found in the DMG2). These short scenes would provide a Dungeon Master with plenty of opportunity to establish a villain as an important character in the adventure’s story. While I’ve never tried this approach before, it is something I’m really tempted to add to my game. Has anyone used teaser scenes like this before? If so, were you happy with how they worked out?

Action Item: How can you introduce the villain to the players? Does an early combat or role-playing encounter make sense in the context of the adventure? Do you think story vignettes featuring the villain would work well?

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3 thoughts on “Cinematic Villains

  1. This is really good advice. I’ve had trouble communicating to my players that enemies are actually a threat, since they were used to always winning combats and being the heroes. I kind of accidentally ended up doing some of these things for a villain by having the PCs unknowingly release him though they evaded ever actually seeing him (a mind flayer) at the first encounter at 3rd level. We had flashed back to help new players learn the rules and then bounced back to lvl 8, and then lvl 12. He’s popped up again from time to time and instills a real sense of power and threat to the players that I cherish. I didn’t totally intentionally do these things you suggest but I will consider them now to solidify him in the future. At this point he has been cause of some severe suffering and PC death but also one of the PCs (who has been touched by the madness of the Far Realm) is wondering whether he’s really all bad and if they may have more common goals with him than with some of the other villainous powers in the world. I like that he’s not just an empty evil vessel, and he may actually use the PCs in furthering his plans, but they (and I) don’t know quite what those plans entail at this point. It’s very valuable as a DM to have an interesting ‘villain’ to call on when needed, making for good complications when they or I least expect it.

    Keep up these cinematic posts, because I’m always wanting my D&D game to be more cinematic and less like a tactics/minis game.

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