Posts Tagged ‘villains’

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…

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In many Dungeons and Dragons campaigns death is merely a hurdle. In fifth edition PCs and NPCs alike can return from death with a diamond and a 3rd-level or higher spell slot. Creatures can return from death as wights, revenants, ghosts, and other more powerful undead.

Now I know in most D&D worlds returning from death isn’t possible for common folks. One must have the money and the means to return. While the masses may not have access to such means, many adventurers at least have access to someone who can cast revivify by 5th level. In a world where such things are possible, I would assume that even if many have no hope of access to such magic, they have heard of these spells. That awareness would certainly change the way the world interacts with the characters.

Here’s a few tips for you to use in your campaign that make death and returning a more layered and complex story in your campaign world.

PCs Coming Back

The fact that there’s a chance PCs can come back to life after dying is probably not a complete shock to your villains. They know the spells are out there and if they’re aware the PCs have access to other higher level spells, they might assume raise dead is also in the mix. Even if that’s not the case, if the villain or a henchman kill a PC and that character returns to face them again, the game is up. They know that magic is out there now and that the PCs have access to it. What might villains do with a vulnerable character in their clutches to assure they stay out of their hair?

The first option is that enemies may go for what I call the super kill. A simple beheading after a PC has died dramatically increase the resources needed to bring the character back to life. Instead of diamonds worth 300 gp and a 3rd level spell slot for revivify, a single diamond worth 1000 gp (a more difficult find) and a 7th level spell slot for resurrection is required. If the villain disintegrates their body and they tosses it in the wind or throws the corpse into lava, suddenly diamonds worth 25,000 gp and a 9th level spell slot are needed for true resurrection. Heck if the villain absconds with the body of the deceased, the PCs have to go on a mission to get it back if they can’t cast true resurrection. If they hang onto the body for longer than 10 days, raise dead isn’t going to work anymore. Something more powerful is needed.

Of course there might be even craftier villains. PCs can choose to knock a target out with a melee attack instead of kill it. Why can’t villains do the same? They could run, fly, or teleport away with an unconscious PC and lock that person away or torture them for secrets. Suddenly an exciting prison break adventure is on the menu. Or perhaps the bad guys kill that PC, steal the character’s head, and cast resurrection on it as soon as they’re back at their stronghold. They party tries to raise the fellow adventurer only to find the spell doesn’t work because that character is already back from the dead and imprisoned.

There are also otherworldly forces that could stop the return of PCs from coming back from the dead. In a fourth edition D&D campaign I had two characters royally anger The Raven Queen, who was the goddess of death. She did not let them return from the dead when their spirits were called by the magic of their companions. Instead she threw them into a demiplane where time passed differently and her servants tortured them for the equivalent of 100 years. Then she gave them a mission to do in her name and returned them to the Material Plane. Their characters and the story were completely changed by this action.

Death and Returning Modules

If you want character death to have a more debilitating impact on PCs in fifth edition D&D, checkout the modules I created. The first module limits the number of times a PC may return from the dead and has some add-on features which make dying more easy and coming back more difficult after each death. The second module features tables of random effects which might occur when a spell such as raise dead is cast.

You can pick up the PDF of these modules over in the Free Game Resources section of this site anytime. If you go there feel free to also explore the backgroundsmagic itemsmonstersD&D fifth edition rules modulesspellsadventures, and more  I have made for fifth edition D&D.

When Villains Return

Of course in a world where the PCs have access to powerful, death-defying magic, why wouldn’t the villains have access to it as well? Any intelligent, high level NPC is going to have a back-up plan. There’s a cleric friend coming by each week to check in on the villain who can cast raise dead or an invisible druid nearby with a rod of resurrection. Many of our villainous NPCs have many resources at their command. If I was someone with a pile of gold, a high-level cleric or bard would probably be the first person on my retainer. When villains like this come back again and again like the Tyrant in Resident Evil 2, your PCs will be searching for a way to destroy them for good.

I’m baaaaaaack!

Some villains might return as undead instead of their former selves. Vampires, liches, mummies, revenants, and more might seek the characters as vengeance for their deaths. In the same fourth edition game I mentioned above, the PCs were taking on a cult of Orcus-worshipping baddies. Since he is the Demon Lord of Undeath many of the high-ranking members of the cult would be killed by the PCs only to return later as more powerful, undead versions of their living selves. This was great fun for me to role play and gave the PCs a preexisting relationship with the villains they were facing.

Be sure to only bring villainous NPCs back from death when it’s going to make the story more interesting and fun for your group. Doing this with every single villain will get tiresome and become a predictable trope! You don’t want the shock of a returned baddy to lose its surprise.

NPCs Want to Live!

If the PCs require help from an NPC, the NPC might contractually obligate the party to bring him or her back from the dead if the unthinkable happens in the line of duty. The husband of a soldier who died defending the town from orcs might beg the PCs to bring back his wife. A PC’s best friend and sister dies in a dragon attack that was a response to the party raiding its hoard. If word gets out the PCs have the power to return themselves from death other people will be pressuring them to use that power on themselves or those they love.

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Your lips kiss the foreheads of your children. Your hands wrap around your husband at night. You greet your neighbors every morning and your back hurts after working in the fields. But you did not choose to do any of these things. Your life is not your own. This is the horror of the mystauk.

Trapped within your own body, you watch and listen as your words persuade your wife to head deeper into the swamps, looking for sweet casgrove fruit to sell. She does not know your words will turn her into a helpless puppet just like you. This is the horror of the mystauk.

Your neighbor comes by, priest by his side. They are here to release you from your prison. They know you have been trapped for years. Your words and movements belonged to another. Suffocating, you were forced to watch your life through your own eyes lived by another. But they will release you! Until you uncontrollably reach forth, your enhanced strength allowing you to punch your fist right through the priest’s chest and out his back. Your other hand grabs your neighbor’s head and crushes his skull. This is the horror of the mystauk.

Ecology of the Mystauk

Mystauk are a type of fly-sized, green beetle living in the swamps of Verda. The insects feed on yellow-orange, citrus fruits called casgroves and live a life cycle of about a hundred years. Although they are insects, these tiny creatures reproduce at about the same rate as humans. But of all these features the most important is this – mystauk are mind-controlling parasites.

When not inside a host, a mystauk’s intelligence drops to an animal level. It relies on instinct to seek out food. Instinct also drives the creature towards the brain tissue of intelligent humanoids. By crawling through the ear, nose, or mouth a mystauk can attach to a humanoid’s brainstem and seize control of its body, memories, and mind.

Upon attachment with brain tissue, the mystauk becomes super intelligent. After this awakening, most mystauk desire nothing more than to remain in this enlightened state. The parasite will often assume the identity of the host and use this cover to awaken other mystauk. To the insects, this is the natural way of things. All parasites need a host.

While inside an individual’s body, the mystauk can often play the host perfectly by accessing memories. The only real change in the host’s behavior could be the mystauk’s insatiable desire for citrus fruit, which they often force the host to consume daily. Other behavioral changes can occur, but the mystauk is often careful about these as to not tip-off others that the host is possessed.

Another change comes from the mystauk’s ability to harness all parts of an individual’s brain – increased physical prowess. A mystauk-possessed host has almost supernatural strength and toughness.

The mystauk will sometimes leave the host’s body to mate. It will gather with other possessed hosts, who will hold down the humanoid host while the mystauk it out of the body. The mystauk will return to an uninhabited body after mating and return the favor of standing guard while the other insects mate. Often during these times, a mystauk will re-enter a body different from the one with which it came, which is fine by the insect. To have many different experiences in life is preferable to a mystauk.

When the host dies the mystauk immediately detaches from the dead brain and seeks out a new host or swampy environment instinctually. Its intelligence returns to an animal level, but if it finds a new host, it will remember all of its past experiences.

A mystauk also has a special sense. It can tell when another inhabited host is in their presence and can communicate telepathically with any other awakened mystauk within 25 feet.

The Goals of the Mystauk

Most of the parasites share a single goal once they have attached to a host – help their unenlightened brethren awaken. Mystauk may infect an entire tribe or village in this way without anyone realizing until it is too late. Though these occurrences are few and far between, the mystauk will obviously act more freely when they are with only other mystauk-inhabited hosts.

These communities of awakened mystauk are dangerous indeed. Many prefer to remain isolated, guarding their secret from outsiders and woe to the travelers who wander into these settlements. There is always a need for host bodies and always another mystauk to be awakened. If one of these settlements is discovered it often means a bloody conflict. The parasites will not give up their bodies without a fight. The biggest fear is one of these communities could overpower another and slowly add more and more awakened mystauk to their ranks, creating an army of inhabited hosts.

Individual mystauk also pursue other interests that are as varied as those of humans. These interests are often related to their now heightened intellect and creativity. The mystauk may take up artistic and academic endeavors, or travel the world looking for unique experiences. Often the mystauk is smart enough to make these behavioral changes gradually if their host had different interests before inhabitation, as to not tip off family and friends.

Discovery and History of the Mystauk

The tribes of Verda have long spoken of a strange force in the swamps that grabs one’s mind and makes one’s body into a prison cell. However the cause of this phenomena was discovered ten years ago by the first Aeranorian humans exploring the swamps of southern Verda. But first, these explorers found casgrove fruit. It’s exotic flavor made it popular overseas in Findalay and Parian for cooking, baking, juicing, wines, and raw eating.

The tribes of Verda warned the explorers to stay away, for there was a mysterious mind-controlling evil in the swamp. But the opportunity for profit was too great and the Aeranorians went deeper into the swamps to continue harvesting the fruit. One day an entire camp of farmers and their families left the swamp in pursuit of other endeavors. Aeranore, confused about the sudden halting of operations sent a team to investigate. After talking with the tribes and venturing in the swamps, this team uncovered the truth of the mystauk.

The farmers were eventually captured or put down. The prisoners were studied and Aeranore’s druids eventually discovered that a successful feeblemind spell will detach the mystauk from the brainstem of a host, drawing it out. However, the mystauk itself must still be killed and the host still suffers the ill effects of the spell, needing to be healed in the normal fashion.

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Eventually, Aeranorians created hooded, netted outfits so they could continue their profitable casgrove farming safely. Currently, Aeranore’s government will pay, house, and feed any citizen looking to make a fortune in the casgrove swamps of Verda. For many this is a ticket to the new world. Still, with so much casgrove fruit being farmed… accidents do happen, outfits do tear, and mystauk claim their hosts. And with all that casgrove fruit traveling to Findalay and Parian… who’s to say a few mystauk haven’t hitched a ride?

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A block of villains! I’m going to begin a few posts here that will all be about potential villains my campaign world might have. I’ve talked about the importance of having some bad guys who are pure evil in a world of gray. First up, The Sleeping Ones.

I’ve mentioned these creatures a few times in the past. They are half-aberrant, half-devil beings that have the alien mind and feeling of entitlement to Canus of the former, and the cruel and cunning mind of the latter. Indeed these creatures are tough, smart, and powerful. They also hold a belief that Canus was a land their ancestors dominated long ago before it was stolen from them by lesser beings. They wish to take back their world back from these unworthy usurpers.



A History of The Sleeping Ones

Long ago when the metallic dragons fought the aberrants for control of Verda, the dragons summoned legions of devils to aid them in their cause. Some of these devil escaped the dragon’s thrall and sided with the aberrants. The devils and aberrants produced a horrific offspring, with the abilities and strengths of both of their bloodlines. To their parents and dragons this race was called morchia.

As it became clear the metallic dragons and tieflings we’re going to achieve victory, the pure-blood aberrant and devils sacrificed themselves so their beloved children could retreat to Verda’s Underdark. Still many morchia died in the final days of The Dragon Aberrant War. Those that lived, recovered and began to form their own society deep below Verda.

Thousands of years later the morchia came forth from The Underdark of Verda. They fought with tribes of monstrous humanoids and humans on the surface slowly reclaiming their lost lands. The morchia were called The Awakened Ones by the tribes who did not know the history of these strange creatures. The tribes knew only that the beasts had awakened from somewhere deep within Canus, hence their new title.

While the morchia were powerful, the tribes were far more numerous and their superior numbers helped them survive – for a time. It became clear that eventually The Awakened Ones would win out against the tribes.

However, the tribes were not Verda’s only inhabitants. The tieflings saw the way the war was going and for a time remained safe in their Spires. But the tieflings feared correctly they would be the next to fall if something was not done. So they began to research all of their tomes. They search every last aberrant ruin they could find. They spent all of their energies trying to find a solution while the tribes of Verda were slaughtered.

Finally, the tieflings used ancient magic unlocked deep within the ruins of Verda, and combined these old rituals with spells taught to them by the dragons. The ritual took hold of the morchia and opened the ground beneath them. As The Awakened Ones fell deep into The Underdark, a deep slumber overcame them. The powerful ritual, referred to as The Reckoning Spell, consumed many tieflings in the process of its casting, but the morchia had been defeated. Any that had not fallen to the ritual were quickly killed off or ran deep into Verda’s jungles. The tribes took to calling their defeated foes The Sleeping Ones – a warning to themselves that these creatures might someday return.

The Sleeping Ones Today

Oh man. Oh man.

Oh man. Oh man.

The people of Verda have a long memory as far as The Sleeping Ones are concerned. Nightmarish tales are passed down through generations about the horrors the tribes endured at the hands of these beasts. Most of the people in the tribes have never actually come face to face with these creatures, but they still speak their name in a soft whisper. These tales are not the kind used to scare naughty children. Oh no, they are the kind that make grown adults retch and cry out in the night.

The tieflings broke apart and hid the scroll that detailed the components of The Reckoning Spell. They thought a tool so powerful should be one difficult to retrieve and one they be tempted not to use. Now the scroll lies in five pieces in various parts of Verda. A piece might be entrusted to a tribe chief of an obscure but powerful clan or deep within and ancient ruin or somewhere in Verda’s uncharted territory. Each piece’s location is known only to one tiefling. Thus the knowledge is spread across five individual tieflings and their identities are known only by The Grand Council. They only come together and reveal their information if The Grand Council calls upon them, which has not happened… Yet.

Some of the morchai escaped into the jungles of Verda and remain alive and awake. These villains rarely show their faces though sometimes an individual will cause mischief. Enslaving a tribe to cause havoc and destruction is a favorite activity of these vagabond morchai. They also search for ancient artifacts left behind by their ancestors, slaughter lesser beings to prove their dominance, and seek others of their kind to keep reproducing.

There is a darker truth being uncovered in Verda. Many morchai have come together and plan to wake their sleeping brethren. They believe The Reckoning Spell can be reversed and have made it their mission to seek out the scroll and revive their kin. Then with Reckoning Spell in hand, they will lay waste to the lesser beings on Canus and take back their home.

Abilities and Appearance

Just. Wow.

The morchai runs the gamut in appearances. They all have features that point to their devil ancestry – horns, tails, claws, sharp teeth, and fiery eyes. Their more random features are the aberrant ones. Some have the tentacles of a mind flayer or otygyuh, or the eyes of a beholder or mouths of a gibbering mouther or the beak of a grell, etc. Some have more than one of these features. The combination of these alien and devilish features is grotesque and at times mind-bending.

As far as powers go, The Sleeping Ones are resistant to fire and poison and damage from non-magical or non-silvered weapons. Those resistances come from their devilish lineage as well as a claw attack and a flame projectile attack.

From the aberrant side, The Sleeping Ones have a powerful domination ability that allows them full control of an individual’s body. Since their appearances vary based on their aberrant lineage, so too do their powers. I can roll on the table below to generate these random abilities.

Roll 1d12 and add an ability to the base morchai.

  1. Tentacles (grant a grab attack that deals damage)
  2. Eye rays (multiple eyes grant the creature a few unique eye ray attacks)
  3. Beak (granting a bite attack)
  4. Gibbering mouths (horrendous sounds may nauseate enemies)
  5. Mind blast (an attack that can stun enemies)
  6. Extra crab claw (grants a grab attack that can be used as part of another attack)
  7. Flesh wings (grant a fly speed)
  8. Shapeshifting (can shapeshift into any creature of the same size)
  9. Sonic scream (attacks all enemies within a particular radius)
  10. Enormous maw (can swallow creatures whole)
  11. Supersized (creature is one size category larger and gains a trample attack)
  12. Roll twice on this table, if this result comes up again, roll three times on the table.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!