In a recent episode of Edition Wars, I got to talk to DM Samuel, Kainenchen, and Stands in the Fire about Chapter 4 of the 5e DMG. It’s a wide-ranging conversation about a very short chapter, which is about what you’d expect from Edition Wars. It left me with a lot of desire to dig way into the Villain’s Scheme and Villain’s Method tables. There’s a pretty good chance that this will be an occasional series; roughly two Jeremy Bearimies from now, I’ll turn it into a whole book on How to Villain in Fantasy Adventure Games and Fiction.
Tiers of Play
I’m starting, then, with just thinking about how the Villain’s Schemes section intersects with the four tiers of play in 5e. In the unlikely event that you’re reading this and don’t know about tiers, 5e loosely divides play into four level bands (1-4, 5-10, 11-16, 17-20), with an implication that the narrative stakes might expand at roughly the same times as those major power-increase points. If you wanted to think of it as local – regional – kingdom/continental – cosmic, you’d get plenty of pushback from people with other perspectives (it’s the internet, I don’t know what to tell you) but you wouldn’t be wrong.
Of course you could frame a game as going high-stakes early, as Stands in the Fire did in his 5e Planescape game – we were mucking around in cosmic stories in tier 1. That’s Planescape for you. I don’t know if the stakes would have grown if the campaign had continued, but probably? I’ve also seen many games go to kingdom-wide stakes at 1st level. It’s all valid.
On page 94 of the DMG, there’s a table of Villain’s Schemes, It has eight fundamental goals, each with four or six more specific approaches within it. This is the why and the high-level how of the villain’s long-term goal; the Villain’s Methods table on the next page drills down to individual plans and short-term goals.
This is the first scheme on the list – though it’s also a baseline feature for many fantasy supervillains. In Dust to Dust all of our major villains – the Lieutenants of the Most Foul, Oriset, and others – had long since achieved immortality by the start of the campaign. It appeals to a surprisingly limited span of high-tier villains. Humanoids, giants, dragons, and (sapient) monstrosities, I guess?
Aberrations, celestials, constructs, elementals (genies!), fey, fiends, and undead often have intrinsic immortality. Becoming more active in any regard is a choice to endanger that immortality. Sustaining an immortality that you’ve already achieved is one of the core stories of vampirism and body-hoppers.
If you have a villain who unexpectedly survives an encounter with the PCs, especially if their previous scheme is no longer necessary or viable, immortality is a great one to pivot into. Think of it as “oh jeez I almost died to these goons, that’s a critical security vulnerability.”
Acquire a Legendary Item to Prolong Life. I think it’s worth noting that this goal isn’t inherently evil, though your setting might regard it as inherently hubristic. This is the Grail Quest, so what makes it evil is the lengths you’re willing to go to in order to succeed. Seek it out with your semi-estranged father and your trusty friends? No problem. Sign on with the Nazis? BIG PROBLEM.
You are kind of borrowing trouble if a tier 1 villain has a real shot at a full-scale immortality item. Are you sure you’re ready for the PCs to get their hands on whatever it was? There are plenty of solutions here if you want them, though:
- The item is inherently antithetical to the PCs’ morality to use, like something that defiles/destroys life energy in a radius every time it’s used, or steadily over time. Or it’s stealing that longevity from something specific.
- The item is permanently attuned to the villain by the fact of its existence by the time the PCs catch up to them – this is your Dorian Gray solution.
- The item isn’t that bad, but it’s only prolonging, not full immortality. This is your potion of longevity solution.
- The item requires master-level academic understanding to use. A philosopher’s stone, maybe.
- Or, what the hell, go ahead and let a tier-1 character be ageless (but not deathless), or deathless-with-cost (so when the magic brings them back, it does something awful elsewhere). My PC in Shattered Isles had an effect like this on him right at the end of his career – which is to say, he took steps to end the effect and end his career.
I don’t know that tiers 2-4 change much at all for this scheme, except that the higher your tier, the more likely I find it that the PCs might be directly competing for the item. As mentioned above, it’s a Grail Quest, so the PCs should probably be the moral paragons that take the difficult and virtuous path, while the villain takes the shortcuts that prove their unworthiness.
Now, when I say “a tier-1 villain,” I’m talking about a villain that you’re planning on resolving within tier 1, or right at the beginning of tier 2. There’s nothing in the world stopping you from introducing a villain in tier 1 that you know the PCs won’t get to fight until much later in the game, so the tier 1 story is about chasing down clues. The immortality item never gets anywhere near the PCs until you’re marginally more okay with how them having it could change the game.
Ascend to Godhood. Honestly, I wouldn’t even try to run this with a villain the players could plausibly resolve in tier 1, unless the story is about you just talking someone out of a megalomaniacal episode. If you can defeat them in tier 1, I think we can safely say that they haven’t gotten very far with their godhood plans, unless your setting really embraces a Small Gods concept. In that case, one wonders why it was important to them to undergo apotheosis.
In my homebrew setting, lots of already-immortal villains have this goal. The Archfey, the Great Old Ones, and the Archdevils all specifically want to replace the Gods as the most powerful entities in the world and the ones determining its rhythms. In general, mortals don’t try to do this without first trying to become an Archfey, Great Old One, or whatever, and… well, that ain’t easy. I could see having a tier 1 story that is the first step of an apotheosis long game, but all they’re trying to do right now is transform into a low-ranked fey or whatever so they can start their climb. Maybe they’re even hiring the PCs to help with that!
At the other end of the campaign, this is one of the most classic tier-4 finales, which is directly related to why both Critical Role campaigns ended in a showdown with a villain who had this kind of goal. It works anywhere in late tier 2 onward, in my view. Enough campaigns never move out of tier 2 that I think you can ramp up stakes to whatever height you like in that level band.
Become Undead or Obtain a Younger Body. This is lichdom, asking someone to Embrace them, and body-hopping rolled into one, so it’s covering a lot of ground. Then there are those kinds of undead I’ve never seen a villain try to become as part of a storyline – mummies, death knights, wraiths, that kind of deal. Any of those would make interesting stories, particularly if you put a lot of energy into why the currently-living NPC wanted that (beyond “it’s their culture” for mummies, because that feels… not great).
Since “body-hopper” isn’t a rigidly defined thing in D&D, that one might be the easiest to bring in at tier 1. The great thing is, once you have a body-hopper enemy, you probably never stop having that same problem. It’s an enemy with an incredibly extra way of upgrading disguise self to Permanent duration. We got some great mileage out of this kind of villain in Dust to Dust with Ylipo Varas, who the PCs probably loathed more vehemently than any other NPC we staged. It was all Good Heat as far as I know, the kind of heat that got the PCs to consider violating their own beliefs just to hurt him.
(This was not a storyline about him becoming a body-hopper – he had achieved that in the distant past.)
Anyway, if you think preventing apotheosis “needs” to be tier 4, interrupting a lichdom ritual is about perfect for late tier 2 or anytime in tier 3. Stopping a villain who is aspiring to vampirism might mean disrupting the Embrace scene, chasing the villain into a ruin where the last of the great vampire lords is bound, or preventing them from acquiring a vial of demonic ichor. Not a lot of space between that last one and Acquire a Legendary Item.
It is customary to arrive fashionably late when stopping a villain from becoming more awful than you can possibly imagine. Makes for the best boss fight, you know? It’s the perfect “This is not my final form!” moment. That may be the key difference between this and apotheosis – godhood often moves the villain out of the reach of even 20th-level heroes, depending on the setting’s conceits.
Steal a Planar Creature’s Essence. You don’t see this one nearly as often, in my experience, but that’s in its favor. I guess there’s that one trapped naaru in Silvermoon City, in World of Warcraft, that the blood elves are extracting power and knowledge from. Anyway, trapping a high-ranking fiend or a powerful aberration isn’t necessarily enough to mark the action as villainy for some players, since letting them go free is also bad. Cosmic-evil creatures as victims is a hard sell, is what I’m saying.
You’re not likely to see a lot of tier 1 villains with the firepower to seriously inconvenience a significant planar creature. I mean, extracting essence from a lantern archon or a pixie is bad but not, you know, all that scary to the players. Even tier 2 is stretching it a bit here, though tier 2 villains with a carefully constructed magical device or containment facility could justify whatever you want. By tier 3, even binding a solar or planetar is “merely” difficult, not necessarily out of reach with some prep work.
The implication that I take from this scheme is that the villain steals the essence specifically to either bargain for immortality, or to transform themselves into the kind of creature the essence came from. Perhaps you wind up with its cosmic opposite – stealing celestial essence might make you more diabolic, if you’re Fallen right out the gate.
This is also a great stepping-stone scheme to things other than immortality. Want to create and expand your demiplane? Try siphoning off a bunch of elemental essence, so that you’re playing with the same LEGO bricks as the creator gods that built the Material Plane. Just want to make some really kickin’ magic items, or rain down destruction on your enemies? Having a bunch of demon essences to shove into items or spend like bullets in a gun is good gonzo fun. (Oh, sorry, that game is still a Playstation exclusive.)
I’m enjoying thinking about what each flavor of planar creature might be good for. Slaad get a particular WTF from me – if you really want to infuse something with cosmic chaos, go for it, but it takes a particular dedication to frogs to pick them over bog-standard Abyssal demons.
I guess I’m committing to at least an eight-part series here? Let me know what additional kinds of details you’d like to see in these posts, if they’re of use to you. This could just be a collection of story seeds for each scheme at each tier, rather than the chattier tone I’m taking. If this were to meander toward more formal publication, I’d probably want story seeds so that the product had a use-it-tonight part.