Playing The Reoccurring Villain in D&D 5e
Running Curse of Strahd has been a fantastic experience for me. Running a hardback adventure has been a welcomed “break” from tirelessly prepping a long-term homebrew campaign. While CoS does have a few flaws or pain points that my homebrew games tend to cover, it’s been a fun experience overall.
There’s still plenty of work to do as a DM, but I find myself spending considerably less time prepping and more time focusing on the story and how to draw the players into it.
One element that’s been super fun to play with is Strahd von Zarovich. I’ve noticed that I tend to gravitate toward villainous organizations, so to play a single villain that goads the party throughout the campaign is a new experience for me.
While a single-villain campaign does have its downsides such as scalability, but I think it’s a great concept for a shorter campaign like CoS. There’s only so long that the big bad guy stays big when the party is constantly grabbing magical items and gaining levels.
Let’s go over what I’ve learned about playing a big bad and how you can use this info in your campaigns.
Who is the Villain?
The first order of business is to establish a villain. Who are they, or hell, what are they? Villains don’t need to be humanoid or humanoid-adjacent.
In fact, who they are isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Giving the villain an interesting backstory or making them “relatable” to the party is fun extra stuff. Nailing a great villain will undoubtedly enhance the game, but it shouldn’t be your priority when creating one.
What is important, however, is the villain’s motive and goals. Your villain should be able to answer the following questions without hesitation:
- What are they doing?
- Why are they doing it?
- Why do they care about the party?
The party doesn’t need to know the answers to these questions, but you should absolutely know what’s what. For example, here’s what I used for the cult that served as my previous campaign’s villain:
- What are they doing? Seeking to summon Tiamat to burn the world down and life can have a fresh start free of “corruption”.
- Why are they doing it? The cult believes people have destroyed the world and they are the only pure and just people left. They also believe that there is no viable option aside from a fresh start.
- Why do they care about the party? The party knows of the existance of the secret MacGuffins they need to summon Tiamat and is constantly blocking their attempts to obtain them.
It’s not like I wrote Shakespeare there. My cult was a pretty basic villain, but I always knew what they wanted and why they wanted it. This information gave me a realistic way to determine what their actions would be each time the party interfered with their plans.
Establishing who your villain is, and more importantly, what they desire is paramount to role-playing them properly.
A Slow Burn
Your villain doesn’t need to be present at the beginning of the campaign. In fact, it may be a disservice to the campaign if you have your all-powerful villain focusing on some no-name 1st-level adventurers.
However, if your campaign revolves around your villain, you’ll still want to introduce them to the party in some manner so that they’ll become invested in ensuring the villain’s demise.
This is where the slow burn method shines. A slow burn is where you slowly introduce the villain to the party over time. This is done indirectly by things like hearing rumors about the villain, seeing the impact the villain has on the common folk, or squaring-off against the villain’s supporters/henchmen.
As the party becomes more powerful, they’ll get more face time and direct interaction with the villain, as the villain will finally see them as a threat.
An Ever-Looming Presence
If your campaign revolves around the villain, you need to make them the primary theme of the game. Everywhere the party goes should have some connection to the villain.
The best way to showcase the villain’s ever-looming presence in the game is through the common folk. Any big, important action will have ripple effects throughout the world. Oftentimes these ripples impact the common people the most.
For example, the villain’s search for a powerful artifact displaced the monsters that lived in the nearby cave. These monsters are now destroying the nearby fields and stealing chickens to eat which is impacting the farmers and the food supply for the village.
That’s an issue a low-level party can solve that also demonstrates the villain’s impact on the world.
Keep in mind too that a villain’s actions aren’t always a negative impact on the common folk. In fact, a cunning villain might try to aid the masses so that they have their unwavering support, making it difficult for the local government to take action against them.
My favorite part about playing Strahd is all the face-to-face meetings he has with the party. Every so often he’ll pay a visit to them simply to test their power and see how much of a threat they are. It also works well as a way to get under the party’s skin and ensure that they remain focused on defeating Strahd.
However, meetings with Strahd or any other villain don’t always need to devolve into combat. Social encounters are also a way to interact with the party, gain that face time and recognition, and size-up the party’s growth since the villain’s previous meeting.
How these meetings work is entirely up to how your villain operates. A calculating villain that toys with the party like Strahd will constantly wish to poke and prod at the party. However, a more combative villain may exchange a few threats, spar with the party, and then take off.
The only requirement for this type of interaction is that the villain has at least one reliable way to escape. After all, you don’t want the party slaying your big villain before the campaign’s climax!
Calling Cards and Rumors
Villains might leave calling cards on bodies or at locations they’ve interfered with. These serve as a constant reminder to the party that the villain is still active and gaining power.
This is a useful way to build-up to a reveal with a more secretive villain or villainous organization. It ensures that the party is aware of their presence, even if they don’t know who it is they’re up against.
Rumors are another vehicle for this type of interaction. The party can hear off-hand accounts about their nemesis from the locals they speak to. This also gives you a chance to sprinkle in some personal bias that different groups of people might have regarding the villain.
Indirect interactions like these are a useful tool even for more boisterous villains like Strahd. It’s been fun for my party to learn all the different perspectives, accounts, and histories on Strahd. Not every rumor is accurate, but sussing out what is or isn’t is half the fun!
Unique Relationships with Individual Party Members
Talkative villains, like Strahd, will likely find ways to single-out party members. They may find that certain members of the party pique their interest in one way or another. The villain might even find a sense of kinship or respect for a party member.
Leveraging this relationship is a potential gameplay element. A silver-tongued villain could convince a character to aid them (knowingly or otherwise), or even forsake the party and join their ranks.
A villain having a decent rapport with a party member can sow a seed of discontent within the party. A bit of lacking trust goes a long way, and a manipulative villain will attempt to breakdown the walls of trust and respect the party has for each other at every meeting.
After all, a party that isn’t united will fare much worse against the villain come the campaign’s climax than one that is.
Building Up to the Endgame
These constant meetings, interactions, and seeing the impact the villain has on the world have a purpose. They’re meant to show the party who the villain is and what they are capable of.
Each meeting should move the plot forward. The stakes should be raised, and if they aren’t, the villain should reassess their plans after seeing how much the party has grown. For example, after sizing the party up the villain realizes that they need to set their plan in motion sooner rather than later.
Don’t be afraid to let the party explore the world, do side quests, or complete other objectives they have that are separate from the villain’s plot. All of that is fine and dandy. However, the idea is that the villain keeps the ball rolling throughout this period of “downtime”.
While the party completes other tasks, the villain continues to build their way to their end goals. They’ll gain followers, conquer land, obtain powerful artifacts, etc. Once the party realigns themselves with the villain’s trail, they’ll now need to work their way through these raised stakes to thwart the villain.
The villain should constantly work toward their goals just as the party is constantly gaining power.
Making a singular person a villain in your D&D 5e campaign is a common practice for many DMs. It’s a great way to build up a personalized relationship between the party and their sworn nemesis, but it does come with some unique challenges.
The villain needs to find ways to stay relevant throughout the entirety of the campaign. After all, someone who is a threat at level 1 probably won’t be much of one at level 10 if nothing has changed in the meantime.
This forces the DM to keep increasing the scale of the game as the villain and party gains power. Depending on the stakes, this could make a sort of cap on how much power the party can feasibly gain in comparison to the villain. Ending the campaign at level 20 just might not make sense!
However, this enables you to focus on a singular villain and how they interact with the party. This constant cat-and-mouse game will make for plenty of interesting social encounters and inter-party conflict. The result of which will give you tons of plot hooks and most importantly, a truly memorable campaign.