How to Run a Good Bad Guy

by Dru Pagliassotti

Sometimes we DMs get so busy counting turns, rolling dice, and keeping track of our monsters’ hit points and spells that we forget to act, which is a pity, because acting’s a big part of the fun of being DM. Some of my favorite times as a DM are when I get to play the obstructive secretary, the blustering father-in-law, the arrogant aristocrat, or—my favorite—the shifty villain. I love villains. I’m the kind who tends to cheer for the bad guys to win. And I think that a good, er, well-played archvillain can make or break an AD&D campaign.

Darth Vader or Moff Tarkin?

The first thing you have to decide is whether your villain is major or minor. A major villain—an archvillain—is one you’re hoping to keep around for a while. A minor villain is just a cameo role, a one-adventure baddie. Major villains deserve to have some work put into them, to be given personality and depth. Minor villains don’t need to have much attention paid to them—you’ll have plenty of fun just using an instantly recognizable cliche (e.g., the dumb thug, the sleazy weasel, the bragging windbag, the grim killer, the knock’em’dead vamp, the psycho loon). They’re relatively simple to roleplay. But the archvillain—now, that’s a challenge. This essay will address how to create major villains—the kind your characters will swiftly learn to swear at and blame for all of their misfortunes, regardless of whether the villain was actually involved.

Nemesis or Hidden Mastermind?

Your major villain is either somebody who will (you hope) plague the characters for levels and levels until The Final Showdown, or somebody who has been operating behind the scenes throughout the campaign and has just been unmasked.


The Nemesis is hard to run, because this villain must escape justice every time s/he has a run-in with the adventurers. This is a comic-book cliche that can be very frustrating for the players if handled poorly but a lot of fun if engineered to seem natural. A good DM should be willing to sacrifice the Nemesis if there’s no way to weasel out of it, but should try hard to keep the Nemesis one step ahead of the characters whenever possible. Moreover, there should be only one Nemesis in a given campaign, although it’s OK to create a new Nemesis if, despite all your planning, the previous Nemesis is killed (in this case, it’s a time-honored tradition that the new Nemesis be a lover, spouse, friend, or relation of the slain Nemesis, and that s/he now specifically seek revenge against the player characters).

If the Nemesis is captured, do your best to convince the characters to “do the right thing” and send the villain to jail. That gives the villain a number of opportunities to escape—on the way to trial, in the middle of the courtroom, on the way back from trial, out of jail, or right before the execution. You’ll only get a chance to do this once—after that, the characters will be likely to kill the villain the next time they get a chance—but it’s always fun that one time, and it’s guaranteed to elicit a round of groans and thrown dice from your players.

Other ways to keep the Nemesis alive is to give the players the option of either capturing the villain or saving an innocent (preferably one of the character’s family members or friends); of capturing the villain or capturing an even worse threat (or at least one who poses a more immediate danger to society); of letting the villain bargain free by offering to swap vital information for his liberty; or resorting to less satisfactory methods, such as having the slain villain melt away into a puddle of icewater (“Argh! A simulacrum!”) or having a Contingency Teleport activate just as the sword blade touches the villain’s neck.

The Nemesis should start at a slightly higher level than the characters—no more than two or three levels higher, though—and should keep going up in level as the characters go up. Ideally, the Nemesis should be seen or alluded to about every fourth or fifth adventure. Remember, the Nemesis doesn’t always need to make a personal appearance. Just a note with the villain’s name mentioned in it, a familiar seal on a discarded envelope, a whiff of the villain’s favorite perfume or cologne, a business record mentioning that the shop is partially owned by the villain, or a trademark mutilation on a dead body should be enough to make the characters gnash their teeth and swear undying revenge.

Hidden Mastermind

The Mastermind is the one who’s been behind all the minor villains in the course of the campaign, the evil genius who has been manipulating the players as though they were pawns on a chess board. (The Mastermind can be behind the Nemesis if you really want to make your campaign complex, but this may be too much of a good thing.) The Mastermind is a much easier villain to throw into a campaign, but does require a bit of preparation. You should plan on introducing the Mastermind toward the end of your campaign, if it’s naturally winding down, or when the characters are beginning to reach a point where dungeon-bashing for gold is starting to bore them. It’s best if you make up your mind to include a Mastermind when you first start your campaign, because it’s easier to weave plots together if you’re doing it from the git-go, but it’s not too hard to bring the Mastermind in later if you’re willing to take some time to set up the scene.

First, you’ll need to look at all of your previous adventures and decide how many you can possibly link together. Maybe this unrelated kidnapping really had to do with that robbery and the presence of that monster in that mountain range yonder … but how and why? That’s what you have to decide—and then let the players figure out. I often sketch out a sloppy diagram with arrows pointing from NPC to NPC and notes jotted on the margin when I’m at this stage. Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy with your initial ideas—you can always go back and smooth out the rough edges and add a little more logic later. Any NPCs, including intelligent monsters, who have escaped in previous adventures should be placed into future adventures, creating definite links between the events (as hirelings of the Mastermind, they are naturally involved in the Mastermind’s other plots and criminal activities). Some of these can become mini-Nemeses, if they keep surviving from one adventure to the next!

The second step is to start building this information into your campaign. Slowly but surely the characters should realize that there are links between what they’re currently doing and what they’ve done in the past. If you can show how their past actions actually helped a criminal in some way, all the better (“The ‘innocent little orphan’ you saved from the kidnappers and placed with a fine, upstanding aristocratic family just revealed herself to be a polymorphed archmage who kidnapped the family’s only heir!”). Make the characters angry—make them feel like they’ve been manipulated. Make them paranoid. And then listen carefully. Once the players realize there’s some kind of master plan in the air, they’ll start trying to second-guess you, and at that point their combined imaginations will begin to spin webs of paranoid delusion that will leave your ideas in the dust. Take notes. If they come up with some twist that you like, use it. They’ll never know that you hadn’t planned it that way all along, and when they find out they were right, they’ll be that much more satisfied with themselves and the game.

The third step is figuring out how to finesse the inevitable Unmasking. Who is the Mastermind? In some campaigns the characters may already know who the Mastermind is—for example, if they live in Ravenloft, they won’t be surprised to find out that the Lord of their Domain is behind all the evil in the area. But I think that’s too easy. Your players deserve more of a challenge. Make the Mastermind somebody the characters know and trust. Is it a family member? A trusted mentor? Their most valued NPC friend? The king or queen they’ve served faithfully for years? The DM has two options at this point—make the characters suspect their best friend and find out they’re wrong—or find out they’re right. A truly nasty Mastermind might frame somebody else, who will only be proven innocent at the last minute in front of a Detect Truth spell in court….

Making the Mastermind somebody the characters love and trust provides the maximum of angst and roleplaying opportunity. However, I suggest you don’t make it somebody too important to the characters—for example, probably not a husband or wife. The goal of the game is for the players to have fun, and completely devastating their characters’ chances at a “happily ever after” ending is unlikely to be much fun for them. But you know your players best. Choose a Mastermind who will provide the most emotional impact without souring the game. And remember, the Mastermind is an evil genius. Just because the characters finally realize who it is doesn’t mean the Mastermind won’t have long since vanished to a secret hideout in preparation for The Final Showdown.

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