I’ve talked about villain design in this blog before, but now that the Dust to Dust campaign is over, I want to use them as case studies in that conversation. In my view, DtD’s major villains were one of the most-right things that we did. This is not “in comparison to some other game,” to be clear; the other LARPs I’ve played have also done great work on villain presentation.
From the earliest writing on the game, we knew it was going to be a three-way conflict. It’s an article of faith for me in game writing and running that you should never have two sides in a conflict if three is an option. (More sides are okay, but start to muddy the waters of exposition too much.) Philosophically, the three sides amounted to a very traditional Good Guys/Domination/Destruction, or Heaven/Hell/The Abyss. It might be a stretch to say that any side really had the best interests of humans and homunculi at heart, though the Light of Heaven’s philosophy of free will and self-determination was unquestionably the only one the PCs could find palatable.
That is, the villains argued their philosophies energetically, and there were areas where they were factually correct about this or that, but really, there was not much chance that the PCs would just capitulate and accept tyrannical rulership or annihilation. On the other hand, huge portions of the game were about trying to gain aid from one enemy against another enemy, or to at least buy a temporary peace.
In addition to the high-level three-fold conflict, each side also had significant internal conflicts that PCs could exploit, and did. At times, this was itself a wedge issue among the playerbase, either because of secret cooperation, or because of disagreement over open cooperation. I don’t want to get into it in this post, but there’s a colossal amount to say about the issues of whose “stupid,” risky, or unorthodox plans get enacted, and whose get condemned.
With that said, I want to go through the major villain NPCs in at least modest detail.
The Lieutenants of the Most Foul
The Tendril of Ruination (Sagart Niall, Ofilire) was, by a long shot, the most powerful of them, as the Most Foul’s high priest and most favored servant. In addition to his personal power, he also had his swords, the Children – the most powerful of the Lenga’Hiduis. Further, he had the Mask of Unfettered Horrors, and while we didn’t get to explore this in the course of play, the Mask was a villain in its own right. He held the power of the Most Foul’s Mark, which allowed him to compel any of the other Lieutenants to act – and end their constant squabbling.
The Tendril of Ruination was banished from the world prior to the start of the campaign, which was our way to maintain his threat in the story without having to explain why he hadn’t already exterminated humanity. We decided that his banishment would end somewhere in the middle of the campaign, but we got one chance to put him on-stage before that, when the PCs went to Tontura. He was in a partially-manifested form there, and still unstoppable and deadly. This let us display his threat and get his image into the players’ minds, without making him a boss that the PCs had to defeat. You don’t want to overuse a villain (or any other NPC) to make their presence predictable or banal, but it’s a terrible waste for a main villain to have no screen time other than the final fight.
In short, we needed a lot of emotional investment in hating him. One big piece of that was making him the author of a terrible violation: he killed Lavine, the protector-dragon of Gaunt. For a fair number of players, a whole season of the campaign was consumed in dealing with the consequences of this. He also showed up as an illusion created by the Malady of Thought.
For reasons that were beyond our control, the Tendril of Ruination was not as active or present in the last two seasons of the game as he might have been. To explain this absence, he spent as much of his time fighting the Houses of the Nether as the PCs did. I wound up playing him for the final battle, because we just couldn’t end the campaign without one serious throwdown. I think his philosophical position was a great example of how villains are the heroes of their own stories – true of a lot of our villains, but really exemplified in his case.
The Amethyst Queen (Empress Meadhbh, Chulda) controlled the volcano-palace of Halsethil, every kind of lycanthrope, and the mighty amethyst scepter, Shadecall. There was never any chance we were going to field her in a head-to-head fight, as Tanya was just not going to fight in the AQ’s costume, but her agents showed up all over the place, to talk as often as fight. She was our Evil Galadriel, and we tried to make her agenda more known than unknown (but of course you never know how much you don’t know).
I see the AQ as one of the best examples of the three-way conflicts we wanted to set up, because she and her servants were the ones you could talk to about fighting the Houses of the Nether. This created an impossible situation for characters who wanted to establish a hardline, no-negotiation stance, but we never promised that such a stance would be tenable in the long term. Now, trusting a bargain with the AQ and her servants was always a fraught proposition, but to the best of my recollection, they always honored their word.
The Mistress of the Sea (Ceannasai Caitr Tarbh, Harthani) is an example of a larger plot intention that got dropped when a particular player stopped showing up regularly. We did circle back and tell stories with Harthani again later, kicked off with one of the best modules we ever ran (I got to play totally-not-a-mindflayer and Serella’s costume kicked 800 kinds of ass), but there was a gap of a year or so in which we dropped her almost completely.
Harthani was an outlier among the Lieutenants, largely embittered from previous conflicts and more interested in pursuing her own goals in the Realms Below (that rarely intersected with the PCs). In a few significant cases, her previous interests and commitments drew her back into the conflicts of this world, such as the sea monsters that blockaded the Free City of the Hulder during the Verdien civil war, and her presence in the renegotiation of the Draconic Compact. In this way, she showed that even the Lieutenants are far from monolithic. She and the Amethyst Queen got along not at all, and only the Tendril of Ruination could compel cooperation between them.
The Smith (Bedrauglig, Gizem Coskun, Shahnaz, the Corruptor, the Putrescent, &c.) was probably our single most successful villain portrayal. Sean was simply masterful at presenting Bedrauglig’s point of view in ways that introduced doubt and, from time to time, sympathy. This was the character intention from earliest writing, but until Sean played him for the first time, I would not have guessed that that intention could be so well realized.
The inspiration for this character was a blend of Hephaestus and Czernobog, which added up to the world’s greatest smith who also ran a human-sacrifice cult. It was particularly important to his story that he was one of the Fallen, who had become disillusioned with the goals and limitations of Heaven and the Host. We never used him as a field battle opponent, but we had assigned him mastery over teleportation magics as one of his traits; it would have been difficult to present that in a fun way. More than our other villains, Bedrauglig was about tempting the PCs with offers.
Bedrauglig is also a great example of how we wrote villains deeply into setting history. He personally shaped the history of Ophira and the Caliphate of Dusk in several major incidents, as well as influencing the history of the Imperial Smiths of the Hulder. This provided a strong emotional hook for PCs of those cultures, and gave him a lot of grist when discussing his past actions.
Bedrauglig was also an irreconcilable enemy of the Undying Hate, and the PCs exploited that enmity to great effect. The dynamic between Bedrauglig and Varas is one I’d like to see replicated more widely in gaming. Bedrauglig survived the campaign with his cult and connections badly damaged, while Varas was the second of the Lieutenants to die.
The Eater of Fates (Jytharic, Cestasis, the Namethief) was a human who had become a Hollow One (DtD’s term for a lich), the creator of the ghuls, and the last Magus of Ton Isiq. In combination with further rituals, his Mark allowed others to become Hollow Ones. He was also a traitor against the whole group of Lieutenants, as he had bargained with the Houses of the Nether for power after the Most Foul’s death. This is the one Lieutenant that was “mine” – that I both played and primarily wrote.
All he actually wanted was to know everything, but his means were horrific: the ghuls learned everything known to those they ate, and could deliver that knowledge back to him. He cared – in his own twisted way – about exactly one person other than himself: his daughter Mina (Devora the Watcher, played to perfection by Wendy Holler), and so he placed his heart in her flesh when he became Hollow. Sure, that seems… fine.
He appeared on-camera extensively in just one event, but he was deeply woven into the history of Ton Isiq, and Mina likewise into the personal histories of a group of PCs. His ghuls were also a constant reminder of his presence in the setting, and he showed up often in text props or in stories related by other NPCs. (Also I’m not sure I’ve ever worn a character costume that I like as much as his.)
The Skyblackener (Mohannad Saleh, Kasirga, Dayender) showed up in only a few stories in the course of the campaign. He was a human priest who tried to establish direct worship of the Light of Heaven, expecting the Light of Heaven to respond directly and favorably. When this didn’t happen, he went to Mount Kuthat to prove his worth to the Light of Heaven, but you can’t cheat your way to the end of a vision-quest. The Light of Heaven cast him back down the mountain, and he went looking for a god more willing to do business: the Most Foul. As a result of these things, he became a mummy who could turn into a sandstorm.
Though I think he was underused overall, I like that he was our foil for the heroic Molten Sheikh, and for the PCs who followed in the Molten Sheikh’s footsteps toward wisdom. As the campaign’s name makes clear, I was always interested in exploring religious themes, especially Abrahamic ones. When our original cast for the Skyblackener had to leave the game, the character faded into the background for a couple of years, until finally I wound up playing him.
The Frozen Castle (Jarl Lomwijar, Sturkne) was the first of our villains to “die,” which we never would have predicted at the start of the campaign. A number of PCs from different teams showed a lot of interest in opposing him, though. When we needed a fairly self-contained story arc for guest staffers to help us with while Rabbit and I took a step back from game-running following the birth of our first child, a trip to Oresund and a fight with the Frozen Castle was just right.
His form of evil was originally about direct, physical violence, but after the Most Foul’s death he became a minor god in the Hall of Immortals and used his power to build the Frozen Castle, which animated corpses that were brought to it by trolls, cultists, and anyone looking to make a few coins off of their dead relatives. This is one of the setting’s more evident lifts from the Black Company novels. He was our main source of zombie horror.
He also had a direct connection to PC backstories, and the PCs exploited those connections to deceive him and his high priest in one of the big showdowns. I would like to see more major villains in gaming with suggestions for personal connections to the PCs.
He couldn’t exactly die, of course. The Hall of Immortals wouldn’t mean much if he could! But he was firmly defeated both in the world and in Tontura, one of the Realms Above, so he was banished for an unspecified number of centuries.
The Paladin Queen (Vyrakotha dai Dessa) started the campaign mostly-dead. She could contact the world through her Mark, but she had to wait for her servants to gather the locked-away weapons and armor that held her power. We were fairly sure she would become an active part of the campaign, but it was much less certain than with the Tendril of Ruination. The core of her story was an act of self-sacrifice that the Most Foul turned toward evil. In her particular case, I wrote her backstory to hook into a particular player’s history. She was also such a centerpiece of her culture’s history that she touched the backstory of every PC from that culture.
She had only one meaningful connection among the Lieutenants: Bedrauglig had created her armor. Her loyalty to the other Lieutenants was otherwise compelled, rather than earned or given. On the other hand, she had strong emotional ties to Oriset (formerly a hero, but who had become a champion of the Houses of the Nether). She still had considerable affection for the PCs whose backstories connected to hers, so she was pulled in every direction.
In the end, she was a compelling character and I think her story was a success, but not a villain. This ran counter to initial, internally-stated intentions, but there you go. That happens sometimes.
The Malady of Thought (Yeudlif Mizeria, Mind-Ache) was our body horror and mindfuck horror villain, sometimes more like a malicious and self-aware meme than a person. He appeared “in the flesh” only once, when the PCs found his comatose body and used a logic puzzle to murder it. He didn’t have particularly strong connections to the other Lieutenants, but he did have ties to other villain groups.
Much like the Cthulhu Mythos skill in Call of Cthulhu, learning Lore: Sharat Gan meant learning about Yeudlif, and was thus severely damaging to one’s sanity. Toward the end of that storyline, this was reified as actual worms writhing around in your brain. To be clear, Lore: Sharat Gan was also immensely helpful for solving the kinds of problems that the PCs cared about, including most kinds of magical research. You were just likely to get a horrific and punitive encounter or event-long effect out of it as well.
As a result, though, Yeudlif was a particularly delicate balancing act. From this vantage, it’s easy for me to say that I wish we had done still more with this particular horror, but we consciously steered away from outright compulsion. Once you’ve taken choice away from the player and rendered them a plot-controlled character for a scene… how much damage are you doing to the player’s experience of the event? Our social contract expects good sportsmanship in a wide variety of circumstances, but the other side of that is Plot acting with care and foresight.
The Undying Hate (Ylipo Varas) was a body-hopper, able to shift his consciousness into another body at the moment of death and seize control of that body. He couldn’t go to just any body – he had to have Marked that person – but still, it made him incredibly good at fighting the PCs, losing, and living to fight another day. His death was a kind of puzzle with several moving parts, which required the PCs to do a bunch of research into the exact way that the pieces of that puzzle fit together. They did solve it, late in the game’s third season.
Other than his incredible gift for survival and getting re-cast as different people each time he died, Varas was the weakest of the Lieutenants. He was the field battle boss of our first full event, and actually only shifted bodies one time after that. On the other hand, he had a deeper and more pernicious role in the setting’s history than just about any NPC other than the Most Foul himself. Given that, and the particular person he jumped into, he generated a simply phenomenal amount of hatred. On the other hand, talking to him for five minutes – even when he was at the PCs’ nominal mercy – generated more outright loathing than other villains did from slaughtering whole towns. This is a rockstar technique for getting emotional reactions out of your PCs.
Okay, that covers the ten Lieutenants (yes, an overt references to the Ten Who Were Taken). There are a lot more DtD villains than I can reasonably cover in this post, so I’m going to hit just one more, the most significant named NPC of the Houses of the Nether:
Oriset (Iresto, the Champion of the Lance) was another former hero – easily one of the shiniest heroes in the setting’s history, but with flaws that made his turn sort of inevitable. At the start of the campaign, his disappearance at the end of the Great War was an important mystery for celestial PCs in particular. The story unfolded over a long process of research and inquiry. Because we cast a non-staff-member in this role, we didn’t want to have the character on-stage all that often; I think we eventually had either three or four appearances, all in the final two seasons?
This character never directly fought the PCs, though he did oversee a battle. It’s just as well; he was statted to fight any one of the Lieutenants to a standstill, with the possible exception of the Tendril of Ruination. I think the PCs correctly got the hint that attacking him would be a serious mistake, but one they wouldn’t have long to feel bad about (signaled especially by the fact that he didn’t attack them first).
The villain faction that he represented sought the total destruction of the world, so that it could be cleansed and rebuilt, as opposed to the conquest and tyrannical control that the Lieutenants and the Most Foul favored. I mean, the Most Foul really wanted zealous worship and unquestioning obedience, freely given, but failing that, he would have been great with iron-fisted control. The cosmological reasons behind the Houses of the Nether’s goals are again involved enough that I won’t get into them here, but the important thing is that Nether’s agents could plausibly claim that their way was the only way to repair the world. The Lieutenants could reasonably say that allying with them to defeat the Houses of the Nether was the only hope for the world’s survival. We knew from the start of the campaign that a third way was possible, but we didn’t paint big signs on it – in fact, we had a lot of very knowledgeable NPCs, including quasi-deities, state that they thought it impossible.
What I’m trying to get at with all of this is that I want tabletop games, and especially published content, to get to more engaging, memorable villains. I plan to go through a number of adventures in my collection, to study how they’re using their main and secondary villains. Depending on what I find, I’ll be thinking about ways to intensify those characters.
As I’ve discussed over in Tribality, D&D and most tabletop games have no idea who the heroes are going to be, and so can’t plan the narrative around them. They know who the villains and the rest of the supporting cast will be, and they have the span of the adventure to present that content. Oh, sure, the PCs are the stars of the show, but this is what foils are about. If villains aren’t memorable and don’t emotionally engage the players, what’s even interesting about defeating them? Watching the numbers next to “gp” and “XP” go up?
I’m interested in published villains, in official or third-party content, that you have found especially memorable or engaging, whether that’s because your DM rewrote them or because the original content writer did a good job. Let’s take it as a given for now that Strahd von Zarovich is on everyone’s lists and I’ll be talking about what makes him such a successful villain, other than being a really strong riff on Dracula. Also, presumably, Orcus and Vecna – though I don’t have an adventure on hand to study how writers have used them.