Quite often, the “Boss” or reoccurring villain in a D&D campaign is more than a number of hit points with an evil laugh. They, like their PC counterparts, should have personalities, backgrounds, and back stories that give them depth and substance. In many ways, the more interested the players are in your villain (rather it be love or hate) the more exciting the moment will be when the inevitable resolution comes.
So, if you are a DM looking for villainous inspiration, where do you turn? For me personally, the answer usually comes from another source. To quote Aaron Sorkin, “The good borrow from the best and the great steal from them outright.” To illustrate what I mean, here are eight examples of villains I have picked from various sources of pop culture who make perfect additions to many D&D situations.
(In Alphabetical Order)
Agent Smith (The Matrix Trilogy)
There’s something to be said for a drone-like foe who suddenly finds itself growing more powerful than its masters. Why just take out the hero when you can take out the hero and make yourself lord of the world at the same time! Specifically, I think that Agent Smith is an excellent example of a villain that shows growth at roughly the same rate as the hero does and that’s an excellent goal for all DMs to strive towards. If you are going to introduce a baddie, especially a reoccurring one, don’t make them exactly the same encounter after encounter. Keep adding to and changing them, after all, villains should gain levels too.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (Star Wars Universe)
This is the best example I can think of for the “once great and now fallen hero”. Anakin began his career with so much promise and accomplished so much good before his corruption to the dark side. Then, after his transformation to Darth Vader, he quickly became one of the most feared and terrible villains in the Star Wars Universe. Personally, I have dabbled with this concept many times in my adventures and often to very good results. I usually have an NPC join the party at an early stage and then slowly corrupt them over time. Then, at some point around 7th or 8th level, they break off from the party and become the main antagonist for the remainder of the campaign. The final battle with these types of villains can be terribly bittersweet for both the DM and the players.
Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
Here’s a little experiment for those of you who are both fans of the HBO television show and Drow Elf society: Every time there is a scene with Cersie Lannister, I want you to close your eyes and picture her character as a Drow Matrion Mother. They fit together eerily well except for those times she decides to obey her father. Anyhow, from a DM’s point of view, Cersie Lannister is exactly the type of villain you want when there is backstabbing and intrigue to be done. She is competitive, fierce, devious, and fantastically brutal when the need arises. Combine all of this with her fanatical loyalty to her family and you’ve got quite a lot of material to work with.
The Joker (DC Universe)
“Some men just want to see the world burn.” When you need a villain to misbehave just for evil’s sake, there’s no better template than The Joker. If he were a recipe, he’d be a cup of insanity mixed with a cup of genius blended together and then added to a gallon of chaos. And, one of the best aspects of The Joker, is almost everything he does is meant to test, challenge, incite, and confuse his foes. In my opinion, this kind of psychological warfare can be ten times more damaging to heroes like Batman than anything that could be done to them physically. Why not carry that over to your PCs? If you’ve never had a villain more interested in messing with the PC’s minds than doing damage, I highly recommend you give it whirl.
Locutus (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
What do you get when a relentless, fanatical foe manages to convert one of your best players? Trouble. This is a concept that I have also used a few times in the past to very good results. It works something like this: You start off with a normal group of players but you allow one of the players to have a few extras. Maybe they have a special item, or maybe you give them a small bump to their stats, or an extra ability, etc. Then, after a few levels, you raise them up a bit higher by giving them access to some mysterious power. They probably have no clue where it comes from, only that it works well so they use it when the need is great (and the DM should make sure that the need is great quite often). Eventually, the power consumes them and the story becomes less about fighting evil and more about the other players trying to save their comrade (just like Locutus). How does it all turn out? You decide.
Loki (Marvel Universe)
This baddie is similar to The Joker in the way that he leans more toward the mental and emotional attacks than the physical ones. But where Loki really distinguishes himself is in the realm of ambition. His sights are firmly placed on his end goal which is asserting himself as the supreme ruler of Asgard and all of the worlds under its protection, including Earth. He is a wonderful example of how a villain can be defeated time-after-time and still manage to progress and get stronger. His schemes, aided by his illusions and other powers, are complicated, often misleading, and keep his foes guessing/paranoid. This often leaves them tired from chasing non-issues by the time the real danger arrives and it is an excellent strategy for any D&D villain to emulate.
Lord Voldemort/Tom Riddle (Harry Potter Series)
Here is the story of a young man so wrapped up in the search for his own immortality that he ignores any reservations he may have about morals or the wellbeing of others. Indeed, one could say that Voldemort’s entire existence was in the pursuit of immortality and it ironically got him killed. This kind of all-consumed or zealous villain is common, but from a DM’s point of view, I think that it is important to give these villains as much depth and color as possible. From Harry’s point of view, Voldemort was someone to be both reviled and pitied. So too should your villains be seen by your players in multiple lights.
Magneto (Marvel Universe)
Ah yes, the perfect example of the villain who sees the world as a flawed place that needs to be destroyed so that it may be rebuilt. In many ways, these antagonists don’t view themselves as evil. They are just willing to do what needs to be done for the greater good. Personally, these are my favorite types of villains because they are always straddling the line between what should and shouldn’t be allowed. Magneto in particular has a very strong argument for the remaking of the world because he grew up during a time in human history where someone was trying to remake the world in a very negative way.