Updated: Dec 29, 2021
As a GM your Non-Player Characters (NPCs) are one of the most important elements of the game you bring to the table. Good NPCs for players to interact with can significantly improve an otherwise boring game. But great villains are the bread and butter of RPGs. They are the primary source of conflict for your party and they drive the story with their schemes. A good villain definitely is an essential ingredient to make a good game. Here’s five tips I’ve got to help build the best Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) for your next campaign.
1. Give them Clear Plans & Motivations
Plans and motivations are the cardinal directions of GMing a villain. As long as you know what a BBEG wants and why they want it, you can pretty much improvise the rest. As DM you need to know their plan and motivation like the back of your hand.
Let’s start with plans: they want to summon some lich, devil, or demon. Maybe they want to become king of the region, or find some powerful magical object. Maybe they need to find a specific person for a magical ritual, and so they’ve been going around testing all they can find. This plan should have several steps, and you should know what will happen if they succeed, you can’t depend on your PCs for anything.
Now that we have a plan for them, we need to know why they have that plan in the first place. Why would someone want to summon a devil? Perhaps the hardest part of a BBEG is coming up with a compelling motivation for them. Revenge is one of the best. They might also seek rewards from the devil, perhaps the devil has lied to them about who they actually are.
2. Keep Them Alive
This advice seems obvious, but is probably the hardest part since DND is based primarily on killing monsters. There are a few things we can do that not only keep your BBEG alive, but make them interesting in the process. Your first option is to introduce your BBEG at the beginning of the campaign. If the Player Characters (PCs) decide to attack them, they aren’t going to be able to handle a bad guy of the high level of your BBEG. Your BBEG enjoys humiliating them/creating fear, and leaves them to live. Curse of Strahd has this in spades, Strahd continually antagonizes the party until they bring the fight to him. This already plants the seeds of dislike and frustration you want your players to feel toward this BBEG from the first level.
Having the BBEG keep his distance after this first encounter can be nice, since it does ensure that he will survive. That’s where the rest of my advice can help develop your villain at a distance.
3. Give Them Lieutenants
This feeds off of the previous advice to keep your BBEG alive. If your BBEG can’t die right now, you need to have someone that could potentially die. These are lieutenants, powerful minions of your BBEG who can be instrumental in giving information to the players on what your BBEG is up to. They are the ones coming to town to buy up all the digging equipment they can find. Or goading your players into attacking the BBEG when they are still too weak to be successful. They may be the ones gathering intel on potential threats, watching the progress of your PCs as they become stronger and stronger.
4. Give Visible Indications of Progress
As the evil necromancer collects bodies from the local towns and villages his tower grows ever taller, looming over the land as a dark blot upon the countryside.
The mists begin to subsist through the day becoming more and more deadly, eventually they begin to glow a hazy, ominous purple.
More and more birds of every type begin to follow the party wherever they go, some begin talking to them, asking probing questions.
These are great to work into adventures before the party is actually ready to confront the BBEG. It shows her growing progress and power, which builds a sense of tension in your world. There are problems the PCs can’t solve right away and mysteries left to uncover. This will draw your players into the world and want them to continue playing.
The TV show Lost created these mysteries expertly, they just had terrible explanations. If anything, make sure you have satisfying explanations for these mysteries. Remember that magic can have strange side effects, in most cases you can use this as a decent explanation.
5. Give Them Spies
Spies are like covert lieutenants. Perhaps they are a towns person who is hired by the BBEG to keep tabs on what’s going on in town. Maybe they start giving the party missions to either 1) kill them off/set up a trap or 2) test their strength to see how much of a threat they are. Have these spies interact with the party in some way or another, maybe a local bard uses the writing of a new song as an excuse to ask into the party's exploits. This can give some fun social interaction and if the party is smart and suss out the spy they will be super proud of themselves.
The inverse of this advice also works: give your party a way to spy on the villain. Like a mirror on her wall which allows the party to see part of the villain’s lair, but she can’t see them. Or maybe a turned spy who is looking for revenge and a way out of working for the villain. This means you need to have a few scenes set up for your characters to see, but is a great way to feed information to your players about what the villain is up to.
A villain is a great basis for a longer term game. Try to think of at least one piece of information you can provide to players about the villain each session. This keeps them involved in the story as well, as your players learn more of this villain, they will start to find motivations to stop them.