The city of Carrhae is ruled by its Duke and a council of royal advisors. When the party arrives they are excited to meet with the Duke to discuss the suspicions they have of a takeover by Thaes, the neighboring kingdom. But upon meeting the Duke they realize he is an unwell individual. He bumbles and cheers excitedly when he shouldn’t. He’s enthusiastic about all the wrong things and far too pleased to meet and re-meet the same individuals.
When Nold Banning, his bard advisor, approaches to handle the rest of the discussion the players figure it out: the Duke’s been afflicted by charm magic for so long that it has begun to affect his mind. Who could possibly have done something like that?
The first time my party met Nold Banning I did not expect for hatred and animosity to grow. When I realized that they despised him because he had done a horrible thing to an otherwise good NPC I filed that information away for repeated use. As it turns out, even neutral parties don’t like monsters.
One of my more recent creations has been Arzia North, an Olenna Tyrellian old lady of sassy wit and puncrafting. At the beginning of the adventure the players loved her and thought she was hilarious. She made fun of the other villainous NPCs and she even helped the party a bit when they needed a distraction. When they learned that she arranged for the kidnapping of nearby elves so that they could be cooked for her dinner they started to change their minds about Arzia North. She wasn’t a sweet old lady anymore.
But that’s enough about villains. Your campaign won’t be populated entirely by villains or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s nice for the party to have good NPCs they can interact with or even rely on when they need to. Even if all they provide is help off-screen or an amusing joke now and again then they’ve accomplished their task.
Althian Locke was one of my first characters. A sarcastic and unconcerned Warlord who rarely ever bothered to think through his decisions. Now he’s one of my most reused NPCs because he tends to stand out to my players. He helps the party when they need it but is otherwise entirely unconcerned with whether they succeed or not. When they need help from a mercenary company he’s there but he has no interest in actually plunging into dungeons or doing any work of any kind. He’s more of a drinking mercenary.
Now let’s distill some of what I’ve learned about character creation into easily digestable bullet points:
- Villains need to be villainous. If villains never do anything that makes them worthy of the evil alignment then why the hell are they villains? Chaotic neutral individuals can make good villains but they tend to be rivals or pains in the ass. Villains kill, maim, murder, and mayhem (that’s a verb now). They can’t just be bad. They have to be evil. And vile. And perhaps even a little cruel.
- A good atrocity really upsets the party. Cannibalism is a great one to use. It’s the next step past “killing people” on the “you real crazy” scale. Just because a villain has people killed doesn’t make them a bad person. Hell, the party kills people all the time. But eating people? That’s a bit harsh.
- Consider the following atrocities for your villains: Arson, Kidnapping, Larceny, Trapping people inside artwork, Serving White Wine with Red Meat, Desecrating Holy Places, Consorting with Devils, Demons, or Astral Travellers, Breeding an Army of Spider Monsters, Mind Manipulation, Executing Good NPCs, Being a Wanker, etc.
- Good NPCs don’t have to be saints. Good NPCs can be guilty of plenty of crimes but if they’re helping the party and not actively committing crimes they consider unforgivable then you’ve got a good mix going on.
- For example, Althian Locke burned down an entire forest in order to scatter an army of elves. The party was a bit peeved but it served a fairly good purpose in the end so they didn’t push the issue.
- Good NPCs are not the DMs avatar. I have a pet peeve about DMs that want to play in their own campaign. The entire point of running a cool campaign is to show people the kind of awesome things you would want to play in.
- When you insert yourself into your NPCs and try to control the path of the party then I have a word to describe you. That word is asshole. You’re an asshole.
- Good NPCs help when they are asked (or paid). Good NPCs shouldn’t be pushovers but they should certainly be there to help the party rather than hurt them.
- That said, that help should be withheld until the party wants it or pays for it. Chaotic NPCs aren’t running a charity over here. You want help you better cough up some forgotten knowledge or at the very least a bejeweled scepter or two.
What’s my one rule? Villains are villains, heroes are heroes.