Posts Tagged ‘npcs’

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This article first appeared in Johnn Four‘s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #696.

It is time to put on your acting hat. Roleplaying NPC Mannerisms Part I revealed the importance of distinct, specific non-player character mannerisms. When a great game master inhabits an NPC, the character’s physical and verbal mannerisms help set it apart from the rest, reveal motivations, hint at history, and create a richer story.

This article builds upon the first by providing four NPC archetypes with corresponding physical and verbal mannerisms. Use the advice from that first article combined with the archetypes found here to roleplay NPCs to perfection.

How to Use These Archetypes

The descriptions and examples in this article are meant to be used as a base for creating NPCs. If you are a beginner GM or uncomfortable with acting, you can just follow the bullet points given at the end of each archetype and you will play a great character.

If you are an experienced GM who has been playing NPCs for years, use the bullet points but add one or more mannerisms each time you roleplay an NPC of that archetype. Make it a different mannerism each time to set Town Guard #1 apart from Town Guard #2. The players will definitely remember that #1 is a nose picker and #2 stutters.

Accents are always optional, but you are encouraged to give them a shot. Who cares if they are not perfect? You’re doing this for fun. If you do not quite nail the Ks of a Russian accent, no one is going to fire you. No one can even question your accent if you’re playing in a fantasy world. So what if your Spanish accent sounds like a combination of Bulgarian and Australian? Those countries do not exist in the world you create. That is just the accent of a person from Breland! Accents get better with practice, so feel free to go all out.

The most important guideline of all is to have fun with NPC mannerisms. The more you enjoy playing an NPC, the more the players will enjoy interacting with you. If you are having a blast playing your characters, your players will be more enthusiastic about playing theirs. As the GM, you set the tone for the game. If you appear awkward and forced, the entire game will feel that way. So relax – you are among friends and playing a tabletop roleplaying game. That is the best. Enjoy it!

Ancient Evil

Gods, demons, aliens, and other ancient evils often appear in our games. These superpowers should make your players quake with awe and fall to their knees…or at least convince them these are forces to be reckoned with.

Matt Mercer, professional voice actor and the GM of the hit web series Critical Role, did an amazing job playing the shadow demon Orthax. Mercer enters, leans quite far over the screen, and sticks his neck out with his head forward and up. This gives him a strange, unsettling appearance. While he is physically lower than the players, the position of his head suggests utter confidence. This unnatural posture immediately translates to otherworldly. The confidence of his tilted head suggests a powerful being who knows its capabilities.

Then Mercer speaks as Orthax. He brings his voice into a low register, which screams power. He adds a growl to his voice and some heavy breathing at the end of his sentences. These vocal qualities inform the players of the danger Orthax poses and his evil nature. They also give anyone hearing the voice the impression this being is just at the edge of its control. It could snap at any moment and unleash its otherworldly fury on the PCs.

When playing an ancient evil:

  • Lean far forward
  • Stick out your neck and raise your head
  • Speak in a very low register
  • Add a growl and heavy breathing to your voice

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement personnel are police officers, space marines, and town guards. They are in gatehouses, towers, streets, prisons, bars, and more, keeping the peace, taking a bribe, and chasing after thieves. These NPCs are often among the first a party of adventurers meets in a settlement. They provide information and directions.

Roleplaying them can be a pretty uninteresting encounter, but only if you play them as uninteresting people.

Let’s take another look at Matt Mercer. In this clip he’s playing a town guard in episode 1 of Critical Role. He first describes a pair of city watch dwarves observing the PCs. Immediately after describing them, Mercer takes on the physical posture of one guard. He mimes holding a spear comfortably, with a relaxed bent arm, and leans back. The NPC’s posture indicates he is comfortable with his weapon and at ease in his own city. Law enforcement should feel comfortable within the walls of cities where they wield authority.

When he opens his mouth to speak as one of the guards, the real magic begins. He leans back even further to show how relaxed the guard is even when talking to a group of well-armed strangers. His volume is a bit louder than normal, and his voice is steady and confident. It is a clear display of authority without being threatening. After all, the guard has no reason to distrust the adventurers at the moment.

As the guard speaks, he uses big arm movements. Mercer extends his arms fully to point to various landmarks and tilts his head in the opposite direction of his hand to give the impression his arms are even longer than they are. This action is another indicator of the guard being in his comfort zone. He has no fear that the adventurers or anyone else will accost him, so he feels fine leaving his arms wide open.

When playing law enforcement….

  • Lean back in a relaxed posture
  • Use big arm movements
  • Raise the volume of your voice
  • Keep your voice steady

Mercer sets his guard apart from the rest by making him a rather jovial fellow. He cocks his head to the side, indicating interest in the person he is speaking with, and lets the register of his voice get higher when the guard cracks a joke or gets excited. If you want a jovial town guard, add these mannerisms:

  • Tilt your head slightly to one side
  • Raise the register of your voice when you are excited

One final note on this scene. At the beginning of the encounter, Mercer briefly portrays both guards speaking to one another. You can tell them apart become he leans one way and speaks with a high voice before turning around to face the opposite direct and lowering his vocal register to be the other guard. It is simple and genius. A quick turn and a deeper voice make all the difference between the two.

Seducer

Seducers are manipulators who exude sex appeal. They are the kind of people who are attractive to everyone in some way. They are great performers, con artists, politicians, and business people. These NPCs can wrap anyone around their little fingers, and use their good looks and beguiling wit to make others do their dirty work.

We turn to the GM of GMs, Chris Perkins. In this clip from a 2012 Pax Acquisitions Inc. game, Perkins plays a seductress dark elf who convinces the plucky band of adventurers to steal gems for her. We hear her voice before we see any of her physical mannerisms, as she’s sneaking up on the PCs in the dark. It is husky and breathless, vocal qualities scientifically proven to be attractive. She speaks with a sultry lower tone, and to make things extra sexy, Perkins gives her a French accent (which is largely considered one of the world’s most romantic languages).

When she comes out of the shadows, Perkins displays the woman’s physical mannerisms. He tilts his head down slightly and looks up at the person he is talking to, which gives him a submissive air. When he speaks, he picks a specific individual to focus his attention on and keeps constant eye contact while leaning toward that person. This behavior makes a player feel singled out and special. An attractive person empowers them by giving undivided attention.

When playing a seducer….

  • Tilt your head down slightly
  • Focus your attention on each player one at a time
  • Lean toward the focus of your attention and maintain eye contact
  • Lower the tone of your voice
  • Make your voice husky and breathy
  • Use a French accent (optional)

Superior Intellectuals

Haughty wizards, know-it-all telepaths, and pedantic scientists are just a few of the people who fall into the superior intellectual archetype. They are the smartest people in the room and know it. Because of their smarts, these NPCs think themselves above every other living being. Odds are the players will cross paths with someone like as they seek an intelligent being to help them unravel some mystery.

Watch again as Chris Perkins portrays Flabbergast in the latest PAX Acquisitions, Inc. game. Like Mercer, he begins by describing the NPC. Then Perkins sticks out his neck just a bit so the rest his body is led by his head. This indicates he is intellectually focused. He then raises his chin and looks down his nose at the players, signaling Flabbergast’s belief that he is far more intelligent than the group. These physical mannerisms suggest a smart, conceited individual. They are enhanced by the fact that Perkins has chosen to stand. It literally puts him above the players.

Perkins then produces a voice which can only be described as nasally Alan Rickman. The nasal quality sells Flabbergast as an intellectual, and the low tone of voice mixed with disdain and condescension leaves no question that this wizard believes he is the smartest guy in the room.

The superior intellectual keeps his movements small and close. In general, these people are untrusting of others because everyone else is too stupid to do anything right. Perkins keeps his wrists loose and close to his body as he pets a phantom cat, or keeps his hands folded in front of him. These movements suggest the wizard is guarded, untrusting, and physically unimpressive.

When playing superior intellectuals…

  • Lead with your head
  • Tilt your chin up
  • Lower your voice
  • Use a nasally voice with condescension and disdain
  • Use small, weak movements
  • Stand (optional)

Flabbergast’s cat is a nice touch. It demonstrates the wizard prefers the company of animals to people and makes him an instantly distinct and memorable NPC.

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This article first appeared in Johnn Four‘s Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #693.

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Memorable non-player characters are distinct. Whether you created an NPC or it came out of a published adventure, it is up to you as game master to make each quest giver, tavern goer, and orc slaver different from the rest.

The key to creating a believable, distinct cast lies in your performances. This might seem daunting, especially since every other player at the table has only one character to worry about while you have dozens.

The truth is, even the least accomplished actors can create great NPCs by relying on mannerisms. With a little prep and some simple acting tricks I’ll supply you with today, you will play princesses and warlords with equal confidence, and your players will no longer confuse the innkeeper at the Dancing Goat with the bartender at the Ugly Banshee.

Importance of Mannerisms

Mannerisms are qualities that distinguish one character from another. These qualities must be actionable and can be displayed visually or audibly. A soft spot for animals or a short temper are not mannerisms. The way a nearsighted old woman gets close to someone’s face whenever she has a conversation is. The actions of your NPCs are just as important a part of their characterization as their internal thoughts, emotions, and ambitions.

NPCs are remembered in large part because of their mannerisms, not because they have a good heart or a conservative agenda. Yoda would be just one of many weird aliens if he didn’t speak backwards. Players get to know the intimate thoughts of NPCs over time, but mannerisms create first and lasting impressions.

Distinctions

Just like real life, people remember the superficial about others they know only as acquaintances. Giving every NPC one or more distinct mannerisms will help your players draw distinctions between them. If you present one knight as blonde and another as brunette, it is difficult for players to know the difference between them since one actor is playing both characters (unless you bring wigs to your games!). But if you give one knight an accent and the other a stutter, the players will not only instantly be able to tell the knights apart throughout the entire interaction, they will also recognize the duo and remember who is who the next time they come upon the couple if you reintroduce those mannerisms.

Draw Players In

Mannerisms do more for your game than help players distinguish between and remember NPCs. They give your players a better idea of the person before them and hint at backstory, internal thoughts, and hidden emotions. A teen who constantly wrings his hands has a mannerism that indicates he’s a worrywart, even though his words may show a tough exterior.

These little indicators give your players a more subtle, complex view of the NPCs. Ultimately, it creates layered characters who are well-rounded. In turn, those NPCs provide a richer story experience to all involved in the game.

Diversity

If you want a believable story, NPC mannerisms will help create a diverse world that mimics our own. Think of the people you interact with every day. Their physical and verbal behaviors immediately spring to mind. If you want your NPCs to become real people in the minds of your players, then mannerisms are the answer. No person is a perfect robot who simply recites box text.

Fun

The final reason you should be ready to give every NPC distinct mannerisms – fun. Acting is a huge part of role-playing games. It is right there in the name. If you give each NPC a mannerism or two, you will have a better time playing the role and the players will have more fun interacting with the character.

If you are not having a blast playing the NPC, players will know it and become as bored with your performance as you are. Having a few mannerisms to draw on will ease your mind and help you become the NPC.

Mannerisms give you ways of acting that are entertaining to perform and watch.

Types of Mannerisms

There are two main types of mannerisms you can play comfortably at a table: physical and verbal.

Physical – Physicalities and Behaviors

Physicalities are mannerisms that affect the ways NPCs carry themselves. Perfect posture, slumped shoulders, and a cocked head for example. They define the way an NPC moves and sits. They are the first characteristics of any NPC noticed by the players, so set yourself up for success by choosing the right way to sit or stand before you even open your mouth to speak as that person.

Behaviors are physical actions your NPCs take that can be both conscious and unconscious. Facial twitching, nail biting, head scratching, finger-pointing, and more fall under the category of behaviors. Remember to keep these behaviors consistent and don’t give up. If you want mannerisms to do their job and help define the NPC, commitment is key.

Verbal – Accents, Tones, and Speech Patterns

Of all the mannerisms out there, it seems accents are the most intimidating to GMs. It makes sense. Some professional actors work for years on a specific accent and still can’t quite nail the sound. You don’t need to worry the way those actors do.

For one thing, you are doing this for fun. If you do not quite nail the Rs in an Irish brogue, the studio is not going to fire you. Odds are your players will not notice or care. If you’re playing in a fantasy world, no one can even question your accent. So what if your French accent sounds like a combination of German and Italian? Those countries do not exist in the world. What your players are hearing is the accent of a person from Waterdeep!

Tones help define your NPCs’ voices beyond accents. If all dwarves in your world speak with a Scottish brogue, then it will be difficult to tell every dwarf apart. But if the dwarf king has a high, nasally voice while the captain of the guard has a scratchy, gruff voice and the chief alchemist has a deep, soulful voice, then you’ve got some definition between each.

Speech patterns define the rhythms and habits NPCs have while speaking. Using as few words as possible, being extra loquacious, always using a particular turn of phrase, or turning every statement into a question are all examples of speech pattern mannerisms. Just like physical behaviors, commitment to speech patterns is key in using them to help define the NPC.

Inspiration for Mannerism Creation

While you can think about many NPCs and assign them mannerisms during your preparation time, it helps to have a list of mannerisms at your side for those times the players go somewhere unexpected and you find yourself creating on the spot. It even helps to have the same list with you during preparation time so you can remember mannerisms as you create NPCs.

Fiction

One of the first places to draw inspiration from is fiction. Your favorite movies, television shows, books, comics, and more are full of distinct characters. Ask yourself what specific mannerisms you love about your favorite characters. Copy those mannerisms down in a list.

When drawing from books and comic books in particular, do not be afraid to go back and read your favorite dialogue scenes aloud. As you do, get into it and really become the characters. You will find yourself giving them physicalities you did not picture in your head. That is more you can mine for your game. Add them to the list!

Real Life

Pull from real life too. The people you see every day at work and your family are some of the best places to pull from because you know them so well. Many people pull from the mannerisms of old teachers and professors, since so much time is spent observing them as they lecture. Celebrities and politicians are a gold mine for unique mannerisms. Go ahead and write all the ones you can think of on your list.

Mix & Match

Once you have your list, remember that you probably do not want to recreate a character who already exists in fiction or real life. It might seem fun to make a real estate mogul who sounds exactly like Donald Trump, but your portrayal could turn your game into a Saturday Night Live sketch.

If your NPC superhero The Terrific Tarantula-Man is exactly like Spidey, the similarities will remind your players they are playing a game in a fictional world and break the immersion.

Mix and match mannerisms to create totally new people.

Imagine an old lady with Professor Xavier’s accent plus Wolverine’s cigar-smoking habit and liberal use of the word “bub,” and you’ve got yourself quite a character!

Let each new mannerism you add to your list inspire others. Maybe you remember your father always runs his fingers through his hair. As you write down this mannerism, it could bring new ones to mind, like people who pull at their arm hair or constantly brush their hair out of their eyes. Add them to the list.

Once you have a full list, you can use it to make a random NPC mannerism table like the one found at the end of this article.

Playing Mannerisms

The key to pulling off effective NPC mannerisms is your level of comfort acting them out. The less nervous and more committed you are to the mannerisms, the better you inhabit the entire character. Even if you’re not one of those GMs who did improv in high school, you can be an amazing storyteller who inhabits many different people by taking a breath, telling yourself all you do is for fun, and really going for it.

If you’re not an actor or experienced GM, start small. Assign NPCs mannerisms you feel comfortable playing and only put the same sort on your random table.

Give each NPC just one distinct mannerism to start, so you don’t have to worry about scratching your head and making up nonsense curses at the same time. One mannerism is enough to make a memorable NPC.

If you’re picking a physical mannerism, make sure it is one you can do comfortably for a few minutes without hurting yourself. Remember this is for your own enjoyment as well.

Practice

Practice your NPC mannerisms to get comfortable. If you know your PCs are going to meet with someone from your cast and you already assigned that NPC a mannerism, say impromptu lines in that character’s voice as part of your preparation. Try to have the interaction the NPC might have with the characters during the game. If you cannot think of anything to say, grab your favorite book and read a passage aloud as the NPC for practice.

Specificity

The more specific you can make a mannerism, the better. If the characters meet an old wizard who strokes his long beard, decide exactly how this movement occurs. A raised pinky with a twisting wrist is distinct, memorable, and says a lot about the wizard’s personality. The pinky suggests he’s got a proper upbringing in a noble house while the twisting wrists might give away he’s a bit of a nervous nelly.

If you were to rub your chin a different way each time the PCs meet this wizard, the mannerism is not as effective or fun to play.

[Comment from Johnn: take a selfie while practicing the mannerism to remind yourself how to portray NPC in the future.]

Even if you’re creating an NPC on the spot, take a moment to think about how the character would execute its mannerisms and get specific with your movements, tone of voice, vocal patterns, and posture to really give unique performances.

Commitment

Commitment is the second most important factor when it comes to NPC mannerisms. If you are comfortable with acting this will come easy, but you can force yourself to commit if you are feeling a little nervous. Go ahead and do that accent full on or pick your nose with gusto in front of your friends. Maintain the mannerism throughout the entire interaction and see what a difference it makes.

Dropping a mannerism partway through an interaction because you are uncomfortable will not do anybody any good. When it comes to NPC mannerisms, if you are going to do it, do it all the way and do not look back until the NPC makes an exit.

Don’t Be Perfect

The most important factor in displaying the mannerisms of your NPCs is fun. If you remind yourself your accents do not need to be perfect, that it is fine to laugh at yourself, and you should relish playing the NPCs, using mannerisms in your games will be some of the most fun you and your players have at the table.

How Matt Mercer Portrays a Maiden

Take a look at this video of Matt Mercer playing an NPC in the Geek & Sundry special, “D&Diesel.” In addition to being the fantastic GM of the web series “Critical Role,” Mercer is also a professional voice actor. He knows how to inhabit any NPC on the spot, even when he is under the pressure of playing with Vin Diesel on camera.

In the clip provided, Mercer plays a distressed maiden. He begins with a quick description of the character and then immediately begins enacting her physical mannerisms before speaking as the maiden. He slumps his shoulders and sticks his head out, leaning forward on the table to give the maiden a round-shouldered, frightened appearance.

Mercer then quickly darts his eyes all around the table, looking each of his players in the eye without moving his head. He does not allow his eyes to focus on any one player, but keeps them moving as he speaks. We know based on posture and the behavior of her eyes the NPC is terrified before she even opens her mouth.

Given Mercer’s career, the characterization and mannerisms become even sharper when he speaks. He has chosen a higher register to indicate the character is a young woman, but to make her distinct from other NPC young ladies and give her a deeper emotional feel, he gives her a breathy voice. She takes her time speaking with huge breaths between each sentence. These verbal mannerisms suggest a meek nature. When those verbal mannerisms are coupled with the physical, the character becomes unique, distinct, and interesting. Mercer throws in a British accent for good measure, medieval feel, and further distinction.

As the woman becomes more scared or confused, her mannerisms become bigger and more erratic. Her eyes dart more, her breathy voice almost sounds like she just ran a mile as she swallows air, her posture becomes even meeker, and her vocal pitch approaches the height of Mercer’s range. Our own real-life mannerisms tend to become more obvious when we are in an excited state because we lose a bit of control, so Mercer does that with his NPCs. Keep that in mind as your NPCs get joyful, terrified, surprised, and angry.

As the clip continues, Mercer reveals this young woman is not quite what she seems. She is a hag eager to sacrifice the player characters to her sister. As her motives change, Mercer keeps the NPC’s original verbal and physical mannerisms, but changes her attitude. This keeps her recognizable, but her new attitude changes the meaning behind the mannerisms.

Her hunched posture suggests her twisted, evil form. The hag’s darting eyes have a crazed wickedness to them. The voice is still high and breathy, but the breathing is more controlled, suggesting seductive evil rather than meek terror. All the mannerisms are still a part of the NPC’s portrayal. The character is the same, but her emotional state has completely changed.

In summary, here are the mannerisms Mercer used to play an elf maiden. You can think of the mannerisms listed below as a sort of stat block. Try creating these for your NPCs.

Maiden Mannerism List
  • Slump shoulders
  • Stick out neck
  • Dart eyes constantly
  • High voice
  • Breathy voice
  • British accent (optional)

Mannerism Table

If your game is tonight and you need some random mannerisms right now, we’ve got you covered. Use the table below to get started, and ignore or change any of the mannerisms you do not want to play.

Choose or flip a coin to decide if you want to give your NPC a physical or verbal mannerism and then roll on the appropriate table.

If you are an experienced GM who already plays an NPC mannerism comfortably, roll once (or more) on each table.

Physical Mannerisms

The NPC…

  1. has perfect posture
  2. slumps his/her shoulders
  3. picks his/her nose
  4. scratches his/her head
  5. clears his/her throat often
  6. blinks more than the normal person
  7. cannot look anyone in the eye
  8. is a close talker
  9. cracks his/her knuckles
  10. bites his/her nails
  11. picks at his/her ears
  12. runs his/her fingers through his/her hair
  13. inhales deeply before speaking
  14. rubs his/her chin
  15. stares without blinking for long periods of time
  16. breathes heavily
  17. cannot sit still
  18. has a face that cannot stop twitching
  19. belches uncontrollably
  20. constantly rubs his/her own shoulder
Verbal Mannerisms

The NPC…

  1. has a scratchy voice
  2. has a deep voice
  3. has a high voice
  4. uses the phrase over and over
  5. ends all sentences with a phrase that make them a questions (e.g. “you know?” or “do you follow?”)
  6. creates nonsense cuss words
  7. has a smooth, soulful voice
  8. has a Germanic accent similar to German/Russian
  9. has a Romance language accent similar to Spanish/Italian/French
  10. repeats whatever is said to him back before responding
  11. uses only gender neutral pronouns
  12. calls everyone by the wrong name
  13. stutters
  14. uses the same nickname for everyone
  15. has an American Southern accent
  16. speaks only in short sentences or nods
  17. uses far more words than necessary
  18. says “umm” for a long time before speaking
  19. speaks rapidly
  20. over-enunciates everything

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It’s time to talk about getting down with your bad self. On Tuesday I blogged about providing humanizing motivations for your campaign’s villains. Many readers seemed to enjoy this post quite a bit! I even used it to start a 1000 humanizing villain motivations thread on EN World. Yet a few folks out there wanted to know why all villains needed a relatable motive. What’s wrong with evil for the sake of evil? To simply (or simply not) explain why a being is evil and just know that it is? The answer is – nothing.

While a relatable villain can lead to a more complex, layered story, sometimes that’s not what a gaming group is after. Sometimes you want to present a mind-warping horror so evil its motivations beyond the comprehension of the players. Those sort of creatures come straight out of Lovecraft and entire RPGs are built around them.

There can be times you just want a villain to be an engine of destruction that is out to watch the world burn. Yeah, exactly like the Joker. You won’t put a lot of work into their motivation, because you don’t need to. Their actions speak for them and say, “I’m dangerous and crazy!”

Other times you just need an enemy that’s out there doing bad stuff to give the player characters an adversary. You just don’t feel like providing a villain with a complex reason for its motivations, so you just say, “This is a greedy thief who will kill any person in the way,” or, “This dude is a bandit because banditting pays well.” It’s also fine to do this. While his backstory isn’t especially rich, Hans Gruber is one of the greatest villains of all time. He’s just in it for the money.

A villain doesn’t need to be relatable to be effective. A relatable villain does help make a complex story, but isn’t necessary to tell an epic tale of awesome. So it is with that in mind I give simpler, less relatable villains the same treatment I gave to their richer brethren in my last post and provide you with some simple motivations for evil creatures.

Simple Evil Motivations

Below are some simpler motivations for evil NPCs.

Born That Way

Dungeons and Dragons gives you plenty of creatures in the Monster Manual who are evil because it’s simply in their nature to be so. Devils, demons, werewolves, and most undead spring to mind. Many DMs would also say chromatic dragons, orcs, drow, goblinoids, and others are always evil no matter the case. Obviously it is the DMs prerogative to change any of these expectations they wish.

Examples: A demon travels to the Material Plane and captures humanoids to torture in the Abyss. A red dragon steals a noble’s daughter, ransoms her for gold, and then kills the young woman anyway. A wight feels a constant need to kill because it abhors all living creatures.

Alien Mind

Some motivations can never be understood because the creature possesses an alien intelligence. Aberrations in D&D are the perfect example. Beholders, mind flayers, nothics mentally operate on a different level than most beings. They think themselves above other creatures, but their motivations for enslaving humanoids goes beyond their intellectual superiority. We can never fully understand why they do harm to others, and their strange abilities confound even the most powerful wizards.

Examples: A mind flayer seeks to break the minds of wizards everywhere with a massive psionic ritual. A morchia leads a cult of followers to their doom by making them leap off a cliff one by one. A void dragon scours the planet for beings worthy of being consumed.

Mad

Sometimes a creature is just insane. It commits evil acts almost out of pure boredom. These nihilists can be simple whirlwinds of violence, but they can also be master schemers and manipulators willing to lay it all on the line for a perfect moment of anarchy. Creatures this crazy are beyond redemption.

Examples: A serial arsonist keeps lighting bigger fires in more populated areas. A young bard sets up nobles to fall in love and then uses enchantment spells to make them cheat on each other. A genius goblin puts kidnapped civilians into timed death traps all over a city just to see if a band of adventurers can save them all before time runs out.

Original Evil

Some evil is so ancient that it seems to have been so since time began. It is unclear whether it was always evil or if a being has been evil for so long none can remember a time it was not so (including the creature itself). No matter the case this kind of evil has become engrained in the very essence of the villain and cannot be undone. These sorts of villains are often widely known and feared.

Examples: An enormous spider lives in a canyon and torments any travelers who come too close with its psionic powers. An ancient monstrosity rises from the sea every 1000 years and demands 100 babies as tribute or it will destroy the world. A cult of drow does whatever the pages of the Book of Vile Darkness tells them to do.

Efficiency

Let’s face it, evil acts can make plans easier and more effective. Tyrants rule with fear because it gets results. People rise to the top if they ruthlessly destroy their competition. Darth Vader gets stuff done by choking people who make a mistake and showing other henchmen they could suffer the same fate.

Examples: A tyrant noble whips any peasant who does not farm their field in the way he has ordered. A hobgoblin captain keeps order within the ranks by killing those who act out and allowing those who do well to kill and pillage to their heart’s content when raiding. A human mother kills any armed person (threatening or not) who comes too close to her children in order to keep them safe.

Greed

Who doesn’t want a lot of money? It can’t solve every problem, but it definitely makes some things easier. Sometimes it pays to be bad and it’s easier to get rich quick if you’re willing to steal or murder.

Examples: A group of adventurers fight and loot any person they come across. A giant holds a prince hostage until the king pays up. A group of kenku knock over jewelry stores together.

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A game like Dungeons and Dragons has loads of creatures who are evil for a supernatural or instinctual reason. Bit by a vampire or werewolf? Your alignment has shifted and you are now evil. Chromatic dragons? Born evil. Some even say orcs are simply inherently evil and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I can understand this approach to evil in a fantasy role-playing game. There’s a bit of a tradition when it comes to that idea. Dragons are evil and steal princesses and gold in many children’s storybooks because a nice dragon who never bothers anyone makes a pretty boring story. We don’t need to relate to the dragon, we just know he’s a baddy who must be stopped. Sometimes you just need evil to make an exciting story and don’t care how or why the evil came to be. It just is.

As many of us grow older we seek out more sophisticated stories with layered villains. The most compelling antagonists are the ones we can relate to on some level. The baddies who makes us think, “That could have been me…” They’re the villains who say to a hero, “We’re a lot alike,” and are actually right. I’m talking about your Darth Vaders, your Wilson Fisks, and your Purple Men. They are complicated, round characters who are more terrifying than those who are evil just because a story needs a baddy.

The sort of malice that comes out of causes or emotions we can understand is in many ways far more terrifying because your heroes can understand the villain. They can see what’s broken inside and have the realization that many people are one terrible tragedy away from becoming Norman Bates. In other words, the best evil creatures, don’t think of themselves as evil.

Reasons to be Evil

Below are a few humanizing, understandable motivations for evil NPCs.

Power

Almost all D&D villains seem to lust after power, but give your villain a reason to want total control beyond, “being in charge is great.” It isn’t always great. It’s a lot of high stress work. A motivation beyond wanting power for the sake of having it not only makes a villain relatable, it also makes sense. When an evil creature plots to seize power, it is often because they feel powerless in some way. The baddy wishes to show someone specific, a group of people, or the world at large that they are far more significant than their current lot in life suggests.

Examples: A forgotten bastard child of a monarch wants to show her royal father she is just as good as his other children, so she seizes the throne for herself with the help of an undead army she raised. An ancient dragon is incensed by the memory of a time when his kind didn’t hide in caves, so he begins destroying villages that do not swear allegiance to dragonkind. A maimed beholder told he’ll never be as powerful as the others because he’s missing some eyestalks begins murdering wizards for their magic items to make up for his disability.

Wealth

Similar to power, creatures who desire wealth and obtain it in a less-than-honest way don’t need a deeper motivation other than greed but a richer villain will have a drive beyond avarice. Wealth is very close to power because in most areas of life money is power. So just as a powerless creature may seek power by any means necessary, a villain who was once wretchedly poor make seek wealth and let nothing stand in the way.

Examples: A once rich noble has fallen on hard times and cannot feed her children so she turns to a life of crime, eventually becoming the head of a murderous thieves’ guild. A wizard keeps getting rejected from magical grant programs for his magical experiments which he believes will change the world for the better, so he begins selling orange spice. A mind flayer believes he can reconnect his ancestors’ home of the Far Realm to the rest of the multiverse if he can steal enough diamond dust to power a ritual.

Love

If you’ve played the original Ravenloft adventure, then this motivation needs no explanation. In fact if you’ve ever experience unrequited love, then this motivation needs no explanation. A good person can go bad when their heart aches, either because love isn’t returned, a lover’s heart is stolen by another, or a loved one suffers an untimely death. Remember love isn’t limited to romantic relationships. Children with absent parents, a sibling who has experienced another’s death, and more are tragedies that often results in great personal change. Many come out on the other side stronger, but some might seek retribution from the world in some way.

Examples: A necromancer who loses his family is determined to bring them back as evil wights. A woman loses her lover to the prince, and plots to kill each member of the royal family to make the prince and her ex suffer. A demon lord falls for an angel and hatches a plan to invade Mount Celestia and make her his bride.

Greater Good

Of course there are those villains who not only don’t think of themselves as evil, but see themselves as actual heroes. These villains might be the most terrifying of all, for they believe their cause is just. These baddies have an agenda and may even seek a noble outcome, but their means do not justify the end goal.

Examples: A druid seeks the end of humanity’s harm to nature, so she summons the princes of elemental evil to come cleanse the land of all human civilization. To stop a demon incursion in the Underdark, a drow wizard devises a ritual which requires a large number of surface humanoids to be sacrificed. In order to ensure the continued existence of their kind, a group of near-extinct lycanthropes plans a coordinated attack on schools to infect children with their curse.

Revenge

One of the most powerful motivators in many stories is the idea of revenge. Many heroes are motivated by this ideal, but how far a person goes and for what crimes a person seeks vengeance can tip the scales of this motivation from evil to good. If nothing can get in the way or if the sin being punished is small or unintentional, then the revenge might be bad news.

Examples: After her parents were killed when a conjurer lost control of an elemental, a young woman sets out to rid the world of wizards everywhere. A once peaceful orc king vows to murder all gnomes after a group of gnome bandits murder his queen. A dragon has a cup stolen from his hoard and razes the entire countryside in a rage.

Overlapping

If you look at the examples above you’ll see that some of the most-relatable motivations could belong under two or more of these motivational categories. For instance, “A maimed beholder is told he’ll never be as powerful as the others because he’s missing some eyestalks begins murdering wizards for their magic items to make up for his disability,” could be seen as power, wealth, and revenge. The more complex a motivation, the richer your villain’s story and the greater the emotional arc.

Tempt the PCs

While you can use the motivations above to make your villains relatable, you should also think about these motivations a way to tempt PCs into committing evil acts. If you have the kind of players who enjoy playing complex, layered characters and don’t take real world offense when another PC does something evil, then maybe try tempting a character with one of these motivations and see what happens. Odds are your players have included some pain and misery in their backstories which you can use as a powerful motivator. If the PC is tempted and commits an evil act (and the other players are cool with it), then you’ve just added a layer of complexity to your story. If the PC is tempted but doesn’t give in, then you’ve added a layer of complexity to that character that’s even subtler and more sophisticated. Maybe next time you tempt that character will give in…

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’ve been running a fifth edition game for almost a year and it’s clear to me that there aren’t enough high challenge rating monsters to provide me with the variety of combat encounters I like to have at my disposal. Yes, bounded accuracy lets me use the old standbys far after the PCs’ level is much higher than the bugbear’s CR. I just need to keep adding bugbears… but combat with a lot of baddies is slow and can become a grind. That’s not the kind of variety I’m looking for.

That’s why I submitted a series of monster articles to EN World EN5ideran online magazine which publishes content for the fifth edition of the world’s most popular tabletop roleplaying game. The first of those articles, “Epic Threats: High Level NPCs,” presents five new NPCs with challenge ratings of 12 and above to add to your game. If all goes well, there might be another article or two presenting some more of these high level threats to add to your game.

I have to say, if you’re playing fifth edition and craving more content, EN5ider is a great place to get it. I’m not just saying that because I’ve now written for them three times. You get one short adventure a month plus another three articles with advice on running chases, new diseasesnew druid circles, creating puzzles, and so much more. You get all that for $2 a month. If you don’t want the adventure, you can still score the articles for $1 a month. That’s less than a bottle of water in most places. The articles are of a great quality and EN World creator, Russ Morrissey, writes several of the best articles. You can grab some sample articles and an adventure for free so check it out.

I also have to give a special shoutout to EN5ider editor, James J. Haeck. He’s brilliant, creative, and a blast to work with. Every letter that man touches becomes better for it and this series of articles would be a lot worse without his input.

I think you should definitely checkout my latest article and all EN5ider has to offer. In fact I’m going to give you a little preview right now. Below is the Master of Nature, an NPC that was cut from the article for space. If you like this NPC, you’ll definitely enjoy the rest of the ones the article has to offer.

Master of Nature

Medium humanoid (any race), any alignment

Armor Class 15 (studded leather, 16 with barkskin)

Hit Points 237 (25d8 + 125)

Speed 30 ft.

STR

DEX

CON

INT

WIS

CHA

12 (+1)

16 (+3)

20 (+5)

14 (+2)

20 (+5)

12 (+1)

Saving Throws Dex +9, Con +11, Wis +11

Damage Resistances acid, cold, fire, lightning, and thunder

Skills Nature +8, Perception +11

Senses passive Perception 21

Languages Druidic plus any three languages

Challenge 18 (20,000 XP)

Elemental Strike. When the master of nature makes a successful weapon attack it can deal an extra 1d12 damage to the target. The damage type is chosen by the master of nature from the following list: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder. The master of nature can still use this ability when polymorphed by its Exceptional Polymorph trait.

Exceptional Polymorph. The master of nature can use its action to cast the polymorph spell on itself. While polymorphed in this way, the master of nature retains its Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores the master of nature can still use its Spellcasting trait.

Magic WeaponsThe master of nature’s weapon attacks are magical, even when polymorphed by its Exceptional Polymorph trait.

Spellcasting. The master of nature is a 20th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 19, +11 to hit with spell attacks). The master of nature has the following druid spells prepared:

Cantrips (at-will): druidcraft, poison spray, produce flame, thorn whip

1st level (4 slots): cure wounds, entangle, speak with animals, thunderwave

2nd level (3 slots): animal messenger, barkskin, flaming sphere

3rd level (3 slots): call lightning, conjure animals, meld into stone, sleet storm

4th level (3 slots): blight, dominate beast, stoneskin, wall of fire

5th level (3 slots): contagion, greater restoration, mass cure wounds, wall of stone

6th level (2 slots): conjure fey, sunbeam

7th level (2 slots): fire storm, regenerate

8th level (1 slot): earthquake

9th level (1 slot): storm of vengeance

Actions

Multiattack. The master of nature makes two attacks.

Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6 + 3) slashing damage plus 7 (1d12) acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage (see Elemental Strike).

Sling. Ranged Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, range 30/120 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d4 + 3) bludgeoning damage plus 7 (1d12) acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage (see Elemental Strike).

PDF

Would you like this NPC in a PDF along with all the other fifth edition D&D baddies I’ve designed? Grab them below.

Master of Nature

All Monsters

If you don’t want to grab them now, but decide you want the PDFs at a future date, head on over to the Free Game Resources section of this site where the documents will live along with magic items, backgroundsD&D fifth edition rules modulesspellsadventures, and more created by yours truly.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


I sit down with Jeff Greiner, Sam Dillon, Liz Theis, and Dave Gibson to talk about the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide previews and a recent Mike Mearls Reddit AMA. This podcast was recorded on November 13, 2014.

Links:

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcast Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!