Introducing a villain is difficult to get right. A good villain shouldn’t feel like a cartoon supervillain who laughs at the heroes, then leaves them alive and well. However, without a proper introduction, your final showdown will begin with questions like “wait, who is this and why do I care?” and that’s just not how you want to end a story arc. This is the first of a three part post which will go in-depth on three ways to introduce a villain in your campaign. Each post will cover how that particular method of introduction works, go into some examples, and suggest some techniques you can use to improve the introduction of villains in your game. We’ll finish up this week with a pair of posts on establishing a villain in your game after their introduction - all about how to make sure your players don’t forget their nemesis even when a few sessions go by between conflicts. Now that you know what to expect, let’s get into it!
Today’s post is focused on the most obvious method of introducing a villain: direct interaction. Your players meet the villain, interact in some way, and both sides leave the encounter alive. As we get into details, an all-important, oft-repeated question arises - why is the villain doing this? (Here, interacting with the characters directly) It may be an incidental meeting, the villain is putting their evil schemes into action and the players happen to be the in the same area, leading the villain to say “Hey, back off. I’m doing things here.” This can lead to a fight, which the villain should probably retreat from, leaving their minions to do battle with the players. This is one of the most believable ways for the players to meet a villain, and it offers a good reason for the villain to retreat, because they’re working on a big scheme and they don’t have the time or resources to do battle with every group of adventurers that blunders into them.
But what if it’s intentional? Why would a villain reach out to heroes? The villain needs to gain something from the interaction, that could be information about the heroes and their capabilities, it might be an opportunity to mislead them by revealing false clues, or the villain might plant something on the party or in a nearby location. This works especially well if the villain isn’t revealed as a villain yet. For example, the king’s vizier who wants to study potential foes before seizing power, or a disguised vampire who intends to gain the party’s trust before betraying them. Direct interaction is a great introduction for unestablished villains, especially if your players enjoy interacting with them as a friendly NPC.
The second question you should ask in this situation is what the players stand to gain from interacting with the villain directly. If your game has more than one villain at work, or multiple factions in conflict with each other (and your players haven’t picked a side), one villain could contact the players and offer to reward them in exchange for helping him defeat his enemies. The villain might also be willing to pay the players not to interfere, offering a large sum of gold if they simply look the other way. They might take the gold and betray the villain, but you might have expected that and had the villain plant a cursed coin in the payment which tracks the location of its owner. And if the players take the money and leave, then the villain is free to score a major victory. As mentioned in previous posts, every outcome should further the story.
In a direct interaction it’s important to determine whether or not the two sides can affect each other. If the villain sends a message to the party, whether that’s an old fashioned letter, a magical sending spell, or a fantasy version of facetime, the party can’t actually do anything to affect the villain, forcing them to just talk. Or kill the messenger, which some groups will do immediately. In this situation, the worst case scenario is the party turns down the hook you’re offering: a chance to get to know the villain. Well, the real worst case scenario is your villain brags about their unstoppable plan and reveals everything to the players. Don’t do that. Instead, if you want to figure out what your villain should say to the players, get to know their goals and motivations.
If you know a villain would do anything to protect his family, for example, that will help you guide and shape the conversation he has with the party. Anything they offer him that furthers this goal, he’ll agree with. Anything in opposition, he will refuse. It sounds simple, but it’s a very effective technique to determine what sort of bargains your villain will accept, and it’s far more interesting than letting the players make a persuasion check to convince the villain to be less evil. We’ll talk more about skill checks and social encounters with villains later this week, when we get into how to establish a villain over multiple interactions.
Each of the villains in Tyrants & Hellions will include an introduction section with advice on how to handle first contact between them and the players. While these introductions differ somewhat between Tyrants and Hellions, the villain’s personality and agenda is a much greater influence on how they are best introduced.
Steven Gordon - The 2CGaming Team