Villains! And other memorable NPCs

edited January 2010 in Story Games
My all-time most memorable NPC: Mordecai the Evil Flamboyant Dwarf. He was the main villain in a D&D 3E campaign. He stole the macguffin from the PCs, and they spent the next several game sessions trying to get it back. He was sort of a classic "dashing" bad guy - he dressed real fancy, and was unfailingly charming and polite.

Why he was awesome: Often in my D&D games, the Big Bad Guy was intimidating solely because of his stat block. Mordecai was genuinely frightening as a character, to the point that the PCs fled town when they realized he was there and *might* be after them. As someone responsible for making the game fun, that was an enormously gratifying moment. They were all like "Oh shit, no way. We're getting OUT OF HERE."

And there was never a single combat scene with him!

How I made him awesome: In the first session with this NPC, I presented him as color, instead of a threat. The PCs liked him, and assumed he was in the adventure as a source of information. Then, after he robbed them, and they went after him, they decided he was merely a low-level distraction.

But in later sessions, they met other people who were fearful of him or warned them about him - slamming doors at the sound of his name, or lowlifes fearfully claiming to know nothing of him while looking over their shoulder, that sort of thing.

Then there was a big "storm the tower!" session where they went up against a sorceress and her various dungeon-style minions (iron golems!), only to find that Mordecai had beaten them there, and assassinated the sorceress in a gruesome and horrible fashion. Since *she* was a known bad-ass, they inferred all kinds of stuff about *his* capabilities without me having to drop broad hints.

So I tried hard to always show the effect he had on the world as a bad guy, rather than telling them he was a major villain, or just having him kick their asses in a fight.

I don't do that often enough.


  • My best villain/NPC was a character called Nicholas Scratch. He was the devil, only he had lost his power and now was just a pain in the ass on Earth. His stat block consisted of just a few special abilities to keep annoyed players from killing him outright. Otherwise he was a plot device, a bad guy with a slow southern accent who knew things he wasn't supposed to and always had an alterior motive for helping out. He was the villain they loved to hate.
  • Michael, when you ran Nick Scratch, what did you do to make him memorable? How did the players respond to him inside/outside the game?
  • My best villain was probably a necromancer, the name of which I can't recall all these years later, who would show up in the background of my Rifts games back in high school. The only time I've ever run a game that went that long (nearly 2 years, 1-2 games a week on average). He didn't interact with the PCs at all for his first several appearances, but was always associated in some way with the Villain of the Week. Then at a certain point he started making himself a direct threat, and the PCs' mentor revealed the true extent of his involvement (a little nose-leading, but it was a high school game). He ate people's hearts to gain their power. The best moment of the game was during the final climax, when in a bit of a surprise turnaround, one of my more megalomaniacal PCs decided that when the necromancer fell, he was going to eat the villain's heart, gaining his power! Sneaky.

    If not him, then perhaps a Nephandus in Mage: The Ascension. I spent a lot of time building up the evil of the Nephandi and how they weren't to be trusted, and so when one of my PCs' daughter ran off with the half-demon being raised by a sinister and suave Nephandus named Antonio Montressor, and Montressor came to the PCs for help in tracking down the eloped kids, it made for great tension. Of course, Montressor had a slightly different objective when it came to retrieving the lovers; his inevitable betrayal came shortly after they started to grudgingly trust him, making his undoing very cathartic for my group.
  • Adam, it sounds like your most memorable villains (like my example) were from long-term campaign games. Maybe that kind of in-game history helps make a good villain great.
  • One of my favorite NPCs was Hassan el Quasir, this rich and powerful munerarius (owner of gladiators, who delighted in "collecting" the most exotic warriors he could afford). He bought as slaves a bunch of bizarre cross-breads PCs after they were captured by local guards. (The party consisted of a half-dragon/half-minotaur, his half-elf/half-dragon brother, a local half-elf/half-celestial, a foreigner hald-human/half-celestial and a were-cat ninja girl.)

    In his youth he was a young slave who found he had a knack for entertaining people, so soon enough he was enrolled into the best and most prestigious gladiatorial school. After quite some years of glorious exposure, he won his freedom and won a lot of influence among the nobles. He spent the best part of the following decades acquiring, training and managing his very own troop of gladiators. He never lost his entertainer's skills, so it paid out quite well and his fortune was bast and obvious. By the time the former sultan was overthrown, he used his influence to support the usurper, so his political power was cemented.

    He was stern and cold, yet educated and (relatively) fair. A natural leader and entertainer at heart, he would rather give a good show than abuse his charges. And he made a point at never personally punishing his slaves for their failures. So even while he was truly cruel and heartless, the players never quite disliked him (even while he was the origin of most of their suffering). They did despised his guards and made every effort to get even at them.

    Most of the time, he was not too interested in bragging about his might or influence, but whenever he had to act, it was plain obvious he was powerful enough to face all PCs combined efforts with ease. I even had all his stats recorded, although I never had to use them even once.

    The only problem the players had with him was memorizing his name. I resorted to calling him a spanish equivalent of "Beardy", and they started calling him like that soon enough.
  • Damian, did the players KNOW he was behind all their troubles? Did they like being in scenes with him, even though he was a villain?

    What stuff did you do when running him to make him memorable?
  • Most of my memorable characters have had immediate "hooks" that people could hang their hat on: Vladimir the shady hotel owner refers to himself in the third person and yells all the time. The meth dealer isn't OCD but he is prissy-clean. Things like that.

    Probably my most hated villain(ess) was one that I played exactly like a player character. She made snarky quips, casual plans, cussed, and bantered with her colleagues. I even used some of the players' own mannerisms.
  • edited January 2010
    Posted By: BWADamian, did the players KNOW he was behind all their troubles? Did they like being in scenes with him, even though he was a villain?
    Things were pretty transparent. The guy was not above threatening them or stuff. It was just that he didn't get his hands dirty.

    Players enjoyed interacting with him. So when he was just lecturing them or stuff, their interest tended to "phase out", but conversations and stuff were nice and cool.

    I think what did him so punchy was the way he was confident but subtle. He never bragged, never threatened in vain, never acted in a showy, patronizing or arrogant way. He had power, of course. So what? He simply focused on what he wanted (and how he wanted it). He just dismissed threads and made sure everyone knew his place. I think I successfully portrayed that when performing for him. I would speak in a controlled, firm but gentle voice. I'd take some time to listen to what they had to say, but in the end he'd never concede something against his own agenda. If needed, he'd use just the right amount of force, influence or magic to get the work done. He'd never hold something from the characters, as long as it was in his best interest to let them know.

    That confidence made the players respect him. It was enlightening. That respect was a lot more memorable than my previous attempts at playing annoying, horrific or dangerous villains.
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