A hero is a hero, but everyone loves a good villain. It’s just the way things are. Villains have elements to them that make them far more compelling than heroes can be, unfettered by the position of a main character status or the role of a hero. Their unique world view and their twisted schemes can be more complex to explore than a hero’s simple desire just to save people and do good, usually.
Villains are a factor that appear in almost every narrative. After all, if you’re going to include conflict, it’s a good idea to include a person that represents the conflict of that story. But, the strange thing about villains is that, unlike other characters, I would argue, villains are fairly easy to set up and easy to make engaging, especially in D&D. In my personal opinion, not all villains need to be developed, at least right away. Villains don’t need detailed motivation or powerful minions, they can be your standard generic evil, especially in a high-fantasy setting of D&D.
The right villain only needs one thing on their side to take their villainous agency to the next level: presentation.
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, I’m going to be telling you about the tenth session of my D&D campaign: Dorvine and the lessons I’ve learned whilst running it. Ten sessions, solidly in the double digits and I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty excited, even more so since we’re going to have a section of today’s segment focusing on villains and also a few tips and tricks for pacing and engaging your players in less intense moments. My water slaying, persecuted players are as follows:
Dion is Kassadin Lightfade, the Neutral Evil Tiefling Fighter.
Joey is Granny Megs, the Neutral Evil Night-Hag Warlock.
Lukas is Teoku Skia, the Chaotic Neutral Shadar Kai Warlock.
Beth is Lady Elizabeth Grey, the Chaotic Good Human Barbarian.
Jacob is Vedrir Tarrenstar, the True Neutral Eladrin Ranger.
All character art drawn by Dion Russell, whose other work you can check out here: https://www.deviantart.com/floodrushforever.
Whence last we met, the Fellow Vagabonds had finished exploring the lower depths of Alecto’s cavern. Though they failed to meet with Alecto, they did find remnants of her activities and a portal to another plane, crumbling in disrepair. Vedrir and the two warlocks closed the gate, only for the ranger to be pulled into a plane between planes known as the Ways. There, Vedrir met his long lost sister who advised him to seek out Kalvin, a Firbolg with connection to her, who she said would show Vedrir ‘how to see’. Before he had a chance to explore this further, a group of mummified humanoids attacked the pair, forcing Vedrir to flee. Finding his way back to the material plane and his party, Vedrir and Megs construct a plan to head to Cinder’s Grove. The party leave the cavern, shacking up back in the fortress at the town of Whitepoint, hiding in the keep due to rising tensions between the civilian population and the presence of foreign parties in the area.
Between last session and this one, I sent the players a small piece of fiction to further hype up the strangers bound in wrappings Vedrir had encountered in The Ways. The piece was long enough, so I won’t place it here, though I might make a post on a week where we don’t do a session basically posting all the written bits I’ve done so far for the campaign and talking about why I did it and how to make written pieces like this for campaign effective. In the piece, I named the six individuals, possibly a mistake, but also slid in the usual cryptic build up, which aided in the sense of scale and gave small details for the players to notice. The beings had been ‘awoken’ and the main leader voiced the idea of putting half of them ‘to sleep’ again, saying that three of them would be enough. The group also made a vocal effort not to pursue the players, as their characters were too low level to matter but their deaths would have signalled to higher parties of the stranger’s intentions: ie, the Raven Queen, Queen of the Unseelie Fae and Dormin.
The piece was well received by the players, who were terrified of these powerful foes who considered the party beneath their notice.
Of course, all these tense feelings and the high combat of the last few sessions did mean the players were feeling a bit overwhelmed. Joey, in particular, had not enjoyed the dungeon grind of the past few sessions and so I decided to expand on a different style of play this session, focusing more on role-playing and less on the action element. The results of which, well, we’ll have to see about that.
Finished with their adventuring for the night, the Fellow Vagabonds file into the private bar for Bartax’s staff and settle down for the night. Vedrir takes a corner to himself, nursing a strong drink to numb the pain of leaving his sister. Megs settles down in her own little corner, pulling the lovely Clacker aside to entertain him with an evening of romance. Clacker, as expected, has little idea of what’s going on but the blissfully dumb kenku is content all the same. Much to the chagrin of the bar’s other patrons, Lady Elizabeth Grey initially attempts to get some tea, before Teoku persuades her to try some large fruity cocktails. Half-way through her first, the door to the bar bursts open and a man with a thick black beard enters.
“Alright,” he begins sharply, “who the hell is responsible for those horses out there attached to the cart?”
The Vagabonds, being one for teamwork and equal blame, accuse Lady Grey and leave her to the stranger’s wrath. The man approaches, slamming the door shut behind him and squaring up against Elizabeth, anger in his eyes.
“Those horses,” he explains, “need proper care. Their manes are a mess and the hooves need a farrier to clean them out.”
Elizabeth gives into her embarrassment, responding with enthusiasm.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. Poor dears. I’ll keep that in mind, is there anything else I can do to keep them healthy?”
The bearded man’s anger deflates quickly after that comment.
“Well,” he ponders, “I…er…I think that should do just…just look after them, they’re magnificent creatures.”
“Oh, that they are,” Lady Grey agrees, “I promise to learn to take proper care of them.”
“W-well, in which case ma’am, I’d be honoured to give them the once over for tonight,” the man replies, clearly overwhelmed.
“Aw look,” one of the soldiers calls from the back, “Shaw’s in love!”
Shaw tries to ignore his comrades but ultimately excuses himself after thanking Lady Grey for her time. With Shaw gone, the group settle in, looking forward to a relaxing night.
Kassadin has different plans.
He pulls his lovable friend, Ouskarr, aside and orders ten shots. Ultimately, he settles on a drink the bartender calls ‘Dormin’s Kiss’, named for a Devil that once tried to conquer Dorvine, or so the bartender says. Kassadin tries to ignore the namedrop, and instead, focuses on inducting Ouskarr into a very prestigious club: the Drunken Garrison. Whilst the Platinum Garrison were mostly a religious order, there were a small sect of the roup who enjoyed partying. Kassadin was obviously a member and now wishes to extend an offer of invitation to his new friend.
“It’s easy,” Kass explains, “there are ten shots, so we both have five lives.”
He braces his arm on the table,
“We arm-wrestle. Every time you lose, you take a shot.”
“Interesting,” Ouskarr concludes, bracing his own arm against Kass and preparing to start. In a matter of moments, Ouskarr’s knuckles are smacking against the table, just in time for Elizabeth to return for a refill for Teoku and herself from the bar.
“Kassadin,” Elizabeth says in a warning tone, “what are you doing?”
“Just playing a game,” Kass replies, a wide devilish grin on his face.
“Don’t worry Lady Grey,” Ouskarr replies, knocking his first shot back and descending into a brief splutter of coughs, “I can handle this.”
“If you’re sure, Ouskarr,” Elizabeth comments, “I just don’t want anything bad to…”
Ouskarr’s hand once again smacks against the wood and the half-orc takes another deep drink. As the class clinks down, the half-orc blinks his eyes, smiling in a goofy grin. Any attempt at remaining formal falls to the wayside as Ouskarr braces his arm once more,
“One more!” he grunts encouragingly, “come on, one more! I’ll get you this time!”
Kassadin laughs in return, preparing himself as well.
“Yes, Ouskarr baby!~ Show me what you can do!~”
A single word from Yuvari snaps away Kassadin’s focus. Ouskarr slams Kassadin’s hand down to the table, securing his first win. Kass winces before turning to the other tiefling, sitting alongside a love-struck Megs. Kass shrugs as he takes his first shot,
“What?” Kassadin grunts.
“Baby,” Yuvari replies, “you called Ouskarr ‘baby’. You never say that.”
Kassadin gives her an odd look.
“That a problem?”
“You…” Yuvari glances away, “you just sound like…you know what, never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
Yuvari lifts up her hands and walks over towards Vedrir’s table. Kass watches her go, his eyebrows furrowing at the strange way she’s acting. Just as he goes to stand, Ouskarr is slapping his shoulder, getting his attention.
“Come on,” Ouskarr growls, his words slurred, “one more. One more.”
Kassadin gives in and offers the half-orc a re-match.
Once more, Kass’ hand meets the table and he takes another shot, eyeing Yuvari arguing with Vedrir across the tavern. They’ve been hanging out a lot. Kass grunts, clamping his arm back down against Ouskarr’s own. What does it matter anyway? Kass tries to dismiss the thoughts but no matter how hard he tries, he’s lost his concentration. Ouskarr continues to win their game, each slam of his fist on the table making Kassadin shiver as his throat burns in anticipation for the next shot.
Megs, meanwhile, has finished her date with Clacker, the bird now being well and truly gone for the evening after downing an entire bottle of wine. Spotting the depressed Yuvari across the bar, Megs sighs and forces herself to trot over.
Always the Grandma, it would seem.
“You alright?” she asks.
Yuvari gives a weak reply. Megs shakes her head.
“What are you drinking?”
“I like keeping all my faculties,” Yuvari replies.
Megs is not one to take that for an answer and orders two large cocktail bowls for them, Elizabeth and Teoku excitedly chiming in that they want their own refreshed. The bar-man provides and a few minutes later, everyone at the table is passed out. All of them except Teoku, that is, who sways with each footstep taken and eventually, collapses into a chair to watch Kass and Ouskarr finish their fight.
With one final crack, Ouskarr brings down Kassadin’s hand and gives a loud laugh at his victory.
“Yes! I’ve done it!” he cheers, “I’m in!”
The half-orc reaches for his victory pint. Kassadin, still barely buzzing after so much strong alcohol, begins tapping his hand on his knee in a quick beat,
“Oh, we are the Drunken Garrison and drinking is our game!~ And when you drink with the Garrison, you finish your drink in: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2…”
Ouskarr falls to the floor, his pint empty and his face frozen in a grin of victory as he snoozes. The bartender turns to Kassadin and sighs,
“You might wanna pick that up.”
Kass nods, crouching down to hoist Ouskarr over his shoulder. He glances over to the table full of passed out comrades and shakes his head,
“First rule of the Drunken Garrison,” he proudly states, “make sure everyone gets to bed.”
Kassadin has a busy next few minutes, carrying each of his drunken friends to bed. As he’s making the last run, carrying Yuvari in his arms, he hears a gruff voice call to him across the courtyard.
“I take it everyone had fun?” Legate Bartax asks.
“Yeah. Thanks for this.”
“I’m only sorry you couldn’t celebrate in town properly,” Bartax continues, “the locals are…not the kindest of people to new people.”
“Or new races,” Kassadin notes, “why do you stay here? Knowing that they’re like that?”
“It is my duty to protect them, doesn’t matter if they like me or not.”
Kassadin’s face falls into a grimace.
“Trust me, from experience, you don’t want to live in a situation like that.”
“Thank you for your concern,” he replies, “but I’m sure I’ll manage. I have thus far.”
Just as the conversation is coming to an end, a guard from the wall suddenly calls out to Bartax.
“Messenger at the gates sir!”
“Let them in,” Bartax yells back.
The gates open and from the blackest night, a lone rider wanders in. She’s a young woman, her and her steed looking exhausted from the travel. Whilst Shaw takes the horse to one side, the woman approaches Bartax.
“Letter sir,” she says, “from the regent.”
Bartax gives a slow nod.
“Go get some rest soldier. You’ve earned it.”
The woman nods and retreats to the barracks, leaving Bartax to open the letter with a single flick of his long claw. The Dragonborn peels back the envelope, flicks through the note and a look of concern begins to brew.
“What is it?” Kassadin wonders.
Bartax lifts his head.
“Get her to bed,” he instructs, “and then I’ll need to see you and any of your friends still awake in my office. Immediately.”
Kassadin’s joyful attitude fades and he briskly sprints off to put Yuvari to bed, returning to the tavern briefly to retrieve the inebriated Teoku. Despite his clearly less than ideal state, Teoku allows Kassadin to lead him to Bartax’s office. Once there, the Dragonborn issues the group with a warning. The letter he has received is from Odo Bayeux, the head of the Black Rose, the paladin order that has been hounding their footsteps. Odo is sending a member of his own Blackguard to reinforce Whitepoint, fearing the small fishing town will fall into the hands of rebel sympathisers in the coming war. This will effectively cement Whitepoint’s position as an Imperial stronghold of Dorvine, and Bartax will even be allowed to retain a limited capacity of his power. The Fellow Vagabonds, however, will definitely be unwelcome. Dismissing their prior involvement with the Rose, which, thankfully, Bartax is oblivious to, tieflings and spellcasters are exactly the kind of thing the Rose are trying to stamp out. Bartax has ordered Shaw to prepare the carriage but encourages the party to leave as soon as possible to avoid meeting Black Rose resistance. Kassadin and a drowsy Teoku collect their supplies and their friends (Panther included), loading them into the carriage, before riding off into the night.
“Cinder’s Grove,” Kassadin considers, “last safe space on the map. Guess Megs knew her stuff when she told us where we were heading.”
Teoku doesn’t hear his musings, already snoozing in the back of the carriage, curled up beside Ouskarr. Kassadin sighs, and resumes steering.
Throughout the first day of travel, Kassadin explains to the Vagabonds the events of the past night, before settling in to catch up on some missed sleep. Their journey to Cinder’s Grove doesn’t look to be too long, but it’s the most time they’ve been on the road together: four days. The first few days of travel are quiet, peaceful affairs with only Vedrir’s cold outlook and the lingering threat of the Black Rose in the group’s mind to bring down their travel.
On the evening of the third day, the Vagabonds finally pull in to a form of civilisation. The main road they’ve been following curves up the straight run to Cinder’s Grove, all other villages and farms on paths branching off running into the distance. Met with a bright glow of orange from the dying light caught in the trees and the expanse of a small farming village, Vedrir pulls the carriage in besides a small tavern, the Lonely Dragon.
Megs takes the initiative.
“Well then, let’s go get some rooms,” she says, hopping down.
“You guys go on ahead,” Kassadin calls out as he exits the carriage, “I need to get some stuff from the local store.”
“I need a few arrows too,” Vedrir comments, hopping down from the front to join Kassadin.
“Oh, I’ll come with!” Teoku puts in, “they might sell what I’m looking for here.”
“I’ll go with Megs,” Elizabeth volunteers, “though I’ll be heading to bed. Didn’t sleep so well on the rough ride.”
“Well,” Megs concludes with a loud ‘hmph’, “I suppose I’ll have to make do with the company I have then!”
Linking arms with Clacker and Yuvari, Megs struts off into the tavern. Ouskarr follows close behind, insisting he’ll look after the group as they go to get settled. Kassadin, Vedrir and Teoku continue on their way and find a local store just as its closing. The group quickly purchase what they need: a set of arrows for Vedrir, bird seed for Clacker and trail rations for the rest of the group. Teoku sadly fails to get any poison for his efforts and instead is forced to retire back to the tavern with the others.
Stepping into the Lonely Dragon, the first thing the group realise is how cosy the setting and, more than that, how welcoming the staff are. The owner of the bar, an older woman by the name of Glynda, is by far the most welcoming person the party have ever encountered, treating them all with respect, dignity and eagerly supplying high quality service from the food to the rooms. Megs easily gets along with her and the other party soon get pulled in. Kassadin even gets so comfortable he decides to risk taking off his helmet. As he reveals his Tiefling features for the first time, Glynda lets out a mild gasp. All of Kassadin’s faith begins to shatter, his nerve crumbling as he realises the whole room is watching.
Glynda reaches forward with a napkin, wiping at an oiled smudge on Kassadin’s cheek.
“There,” she encourages, “all better now.”
She whispers a brief message of support and then retreats back behind the door to serve her patrons. From the corner, two human looking individuals reveal themselves to be shifters, donning animal features and holding up drinks to Kassadin in greeting. The Tiefling feels a swell of joy in his chest, which carries easily to the rest of the Vagabonds.
This tavern, they decide, is a good place.
Megs does have one sticking point on it, though, and it isn’t the tavern itself.
When she first entered, a local farmer tried to enter, only for Glynda to demand his son stayed outside. The farmer, unable to complain, stood down. Megs gave into her usual amount of trickery by drinking her ale in plain sight of the boy, but he didn’t react in the slightest. His dead stare still made her skin crawl and even though the boy had settled outside, Megs is sure to keep an eye on the doorway.
Just in case.
However, by keeping an eye on the door, Megs completely misses the group in the corner eyeing Kassadin. They stand and draw their swords and approach.
“Hands up!” the leader shouts, “we’re taking you in Tiefling!” In their free hands, they clutch to curled up wanted posters, crude caricatures of Megs and Kassadin staring back. Glynda quickly approaches and warns the bandits not to do anything rash. The moment the bandits strike out at her, the Vagabonds decide as one: these punks are going down. Vedrir tests a pair of knives on the leader’s kneecap, going to incapacitate rather than kill. Kassadin takes a similar approach, but the two magic users are out for blood. The fight ends before it even begins, a small gathering of foolish boys unable to compete with a squad of seasoned adventurers.
One tries to make a run for it, stumbling through the door. The little boy is almost pushed over, but has enough of a chance to glance inside and see the remains of the fight. Four dead, three bandits and a farmer. The leader of the bandits is naught more than ash as remains of Meg’s hellish rebuke still crackles around what is left.
The boy leaps from the door, pulling a bell from his pocket and ringing it with a steady shake,
“Bring out your dead,” the child calls, his voice shaky and hoarse, “bring out your dead.”
As his warble echoes through the empty street, Vedrir and Teoku take off after the retreating bandit. Glynda panics and the rest of the local patrons share her worry.
“T-the windows,” Glynda begs, “b-block the windows. And the doors…all of them.”
Kassadin wastes no time and races forwards, barring the door and levelling tables against it, whilst Teoku closes the curtains and cowers beneath a table. The farming folk respond in kind, hiding and hoping whatever is about to happen passes with relative ease.
Vedrir pins the escaping bandit down with a well-placed ensnaring strike but he and Megs, being outside, get a front row seat to the action. Above, the black night sky goes thick with a mist that descends on the area surrounding the tavern, swirling in a never-ending spiral. As the summer air grows colder still, Vedrir and Megs take their new captive and retreat to a hiding place beside the tavern. As they do, the clopping of a horse’s hooves echo in the abandoned street. Vedrir takes a chance and fires another ensnaring strike at the child ringing the bell to stop whatever his happening. The child is restrained, but the clopping of hooves only gets louder. Megs take a glance, peeking around the corner and sees the silhouette of a horse and carriage trotting its way out of the mist. Two humanoids get off the front and open the doors for another figure, who drifts his way out onto the street, flanked by two fresh more figures. Whilst two watch over the carriage, the other three, including the drifting man, float over towards the barred door and begin knocking. Megs, willing to test her current situation, summons her unseen servant and sends it over towards the horse, trying to startle it away and distract the onlookers. In return, the horse simply kicks out at her servant, dispersing it instantly as its mane flashes red, burning. Megs feels a shiver trace up her spine.
She isn’t dealing with average individuals here.
The door rattles as the knocks become more frequent. Steadily, each heavy thump of a knuckle upon the door leaves the inhabitants shaking with despair. Kassadin stands watch as Myontiy (Monty), the Half-Orc cook, shuffles the bodies into the cellar. The knocking continues for another minute, steady but growing louder and louder. Suddenly, the door shudders and in a flash of green light, the wood begins to rot and corrode before Kassadin’s very eyes. Stepping through the dust of both door and tables alike is a lean figure, whatever muscles his body has hidden by only thin dead skin. A blue glow flares in this creature’s eye as he surveys the room, the silver rusted crown upon his head hiding layers of greasy dark hair.
“You,” the figure begins, “have been blessed. Blessed by death. I am here to deal with the bodies and provide grievance in your time of need…”
From the archway now covered in dust, two more figures step forwards, pale grey skin rotting into scabs. Their fine chain armour is hidden behind formal robes and undertaker’s garb, long pointed hats and long coats. Their hands reach for their blades, eyeing those around.
“We,” the dead creature continues, “are here for the bodies.”
The room is silent. Then, with a series steady thunks, Kassadin plants the corpses of the bandits and the farmer upon the bar.
“There,” he grunts, “take them and leave these people alone then.”
The man smiles, his dead skin flaking around his lips as it moves.
“Thank you,” he hisses, taking a step closer towards Kassadin, “please…accept our payment…”
He offers out a hand, containing a single black coin. Kassadin reluctantly takes it.
The instant the black coin hits his skin, a shiver passes through him, a gnawing feeling entering his mind. It burns and chills all at once, numbing his senses and leaving him breathless. The squad of un-dead undertakers file away with the dead bodies. Two steps from the door, the un-dead figure stops and turns to look to Teoku, hiding under the table.
“…Child of the Raven,” he mutters, “your Queen…her end is nigh…”
“No!” Teoku gasps in desperation. He goes to move but the un-dead man flexes his hand, tendrils of black energy fire off, latching on to Teoku and restraining him to the floor as he wails in agony. Ouskarr runs to help him, but its clear at first glance the spell isn’t going to fade any time soon. Pleased, the un-dead creature bids a solemn farewell before throwing another piece of the black gold towards the child and getting back into his carriage.
As soon as the carriage had entered, it leaves and the fog lifts with it. A tense peace hangs in the air, one that leaves Kassadin and Teoku shaken. Megs takes the chance for a quick clean-up, dousing oil on the surviving bandit and burning him alive in an attempt to dispose of the body. Vedrir, horrified, watches on as she finishes the job and then wanders over to the child. As Vedrir inspects the boy, Megs spots the black coin and instantly pockets it.
The coin is so heavy.
But so good against the skin.
It calls to her.
“Put down the coin.”
Kassadin turns to Glynda, seeing her panicked expression.
“Put down the coin,” Glynda warns, “you’ll end up just like the kid. He gives people coins for the dead and…then he comes to collect them when they die.”
Kassadin nods slowly, opens his palm and moves his hand. He gets half-way before it stops, his fingers still clenched around the coin, holding it in place.
“Let go of the coin,” Glynda implores.
“I…I will…” Kassadin insists.
But he doesn’t.
The coin feels hot on his fingers, nice and soothing.
More might feel even better.
Even more of them might…
A hand finds Kassadin’s shoulder and Yuvari’s soothing voice finds his ear.
Kassadin’s fingers un-tense. Gravity does the rest. The black coin falls from his grasp, clinks to the floor. Instantly, Glynda retrieves it with some prongs from the fire place.
“Myontiy,” she calls, “take this, put it with the rest.”
Myontiy does, taking the prongs and carrying the coin into the cellar. Kassadin, panting from the exertion, looks to Yuvari, and then to Glynda.
“What the hell was that?” he asks.
“That,” Glynda replies, “was Tarvirus the Husk.”
Glynda explains that Tarvirus has been around for the past six months, slowing seeping his way into the village via posing as an under-taker. The black gold has an alluring quality and whilst Tarvirus claims it’s actually worth more than platinum, those it infects are less willing to give it up. A recent claim saw a man with ten of the black coins lose any sense of time or any desire to sleep or eat. He only wanted the coins. In the end, his body just shut down. Tarvirus then collected him as well. The Husk seems to collecting dead bodies and with a small army of un-dead behind him, no-one is willing to cross him.
After that tense exchange, the group decide rest is the option. Cinder’s Grove and this strange Husk can wait until tomorrow. The group retreat to bathe before bed, Teoku seeking comfort for the fight with Ouskarr and Kassadin entreating Dormin’s support. The Devil, surprisingly, does pay Kassadin a visit, though gives him advice Kassadin was not sneaking: to claim ownership of others and assert his power, even if it means taking out Husk, even if it means abandoning any pretense of ‘friendship’ with his party. Kassadin has a lot to think on as the group settle for the night, haunting visions of the Husk encounter running through their mind.
As they prepare for sleep, Megs leaves her room. Sneaking down into the quiet tavern, she heads for the cellar. Once there, she is just in time to see Myontiy burying a small casket. As soon as he’s left, Megs wanders past and uncovers the spot where he was digging. A small locked box lies within. Inside, ten black gold coins gleam back at her.
More black gold.
More is good.
And thus concludes session 10 of the Dorvine campaign. This session was more relaxed than previous sessions, focusing more on roleplay, world exploration and, of course, on the introduction of a new recurring villain for the foreseeable future. As I’ve previously mentioned, I approach my DMing mainly from a writing standpoint and if there’s one thing I love, it’s villains in stories and how they work, so that’s going to be the main focus of today’s lessons.
Embracing drama and making villains your own.
The very concept of a character being villain implies not only a high amount of antagonism between them and the party but more over so, an element of evil about them. Villains are not usually the type of people to go around and shop at stores or rest in taverns on the weekend. A lot of the options for villains in D&D are either monsters with an alien understanding of the world about them, fundamentally different from those of others, or if they are human, a more selfish and bitter personality.
This is not to say that one cannot craft interesting villains in a role-playing setting or that the players can’t pick fights with lawful good antagonists. Typically, however, villains in D&D have an element of generic-ness about them. Dragons want gold, Mind-flayers want brains and Beholders want everything but themselves to die because it deserves to, tiny little xenophobic meatballs that they are.
However, such an idea should never be limiting. Generic villains or villains that are un-apologetically evil can still be as compelling as other villains of a more sophisticated edge. It all comes down to the way they are presented to the heroes. Tarvirus the Husk is definitely not an original idea. In truth, he was inspired by the character Kalarel the Vile from Keep on the Shadowfell, as portrayed by the brilliant Matthew Colville in his ‘Running the Game’ videos, with a few twists thrown in to keep the character as his own entity. The undertaker aspect of his plot, the mists rolling in whenever he appears and the stats for the ‘black gold curse’ were all original additions and minor variations to the character from my first exposure to him. Even still, I will not hesitate to say that Tarvirus the Husk is still as generic as any other villain in D&D. He’s a necromancer, a Death-lock using the new stats from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, who is seeking to create an un-dead army and using the black gold as a manner of expanding his reach and gaining more influence. That, to me, sounds like a plot that has been explored hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
In almost every campaign, I’d wager there have been a few Tarvirus the Husks. This is also not a bad thing.
The beauty of D&D is that during the experience of running it, you are catering not for a large audience, but for a small set of people. Few of these people will have experienced a Tarvirus the Husk or a Kalarel the Vile before, and if they have, they’ll still be engaged with the character and willing to enter into the story with it.
The reason for this is two fold.
- D&D is a personal experience for people, much more personal than any movie or TV show. Sure, Tarvirus the Husk is a generic idea and there really might not be a lot going on with his plots and such when he first enters the picture. But, the beauty of D&D is that no two Tarvirus the Husks will be completely the same. Over the course of your run of the game, your players will make different decisions and your villain will naturally become more fleshed out the more you think about it and allow him to interact with them. The Tarvirus the Husk that currently stands before the party in recent sessions is not the same Tarvirus I threw together because I had never explored un-dead enemies in great detail and I wanted to try out a variation of the Kalarel the Vile Colville showcased in his own amazing videos. Characters evolve, shift, change and develop all the time and even if your villain isn’t entirely original, chances are the party won’t care, because this villain is THEIR villain. There’s a personal element to the story that pulls the players in and makes them more willing to engage with the character and see where it goes. For the DM, as well, they will never end up running their Tarvirus the Husk villain the same way twice even if they do reuse him in other campaigns. The freedom of D&D means different results and approaches will happen in every game. In another game, Tarvirus wouldn’t have tried fighting Teoku for his association with the Raven Queen, because Teoku wouldn’t have been there. In another game, perhaps the party would have thought Tarvirus and ended up being slaughtered. In another game, perhaps they even won. The infinite possibilities mean we Dungeon Masters have a level of flexibility with our characters and a potential for exposing depth that can rarely be matched.
- 2.Villains like Tarvirus the Husk are the perfect chance for being dramatic. Every Tarvirus the Husk might come searching for bodies to recruit his un-dead legion, but only your Tarvirus will do so in a cool carriage with undertaker henchman carrying black gold and blight a door out of existence just because it was standing in his way. It’s in these little differences that we as Dungeon Masters get to shine because we get to add depth and dramatic flair to our villains. Throughout this entire sequence, from descending mist until Tarvirus’ exit, the party were hooked on my every word and chilled to the bone. It just goes to show that a bit of effort in presentation and showmanship is all you need, sometimes, to make a generic villain seem original and to fully take someone else’s idea and make it your own.
So, I suppose my main advice for running your villains is to not afraid to be cliche, not to afraid to get ideas from other sources (though that’s just some good advice in general) and, most importantly, don’t forget to be dramatic if you wish to give your villain presence. Of course, your dragon could just swoop by and land before the players.
Or, it could burrow its way out of the ground and spit lightning at them. You have options is all I’m saying.
Let your players make their own fun.
For this session, I took the player’s advice and started the session just after the group had been debriefed by Bartax. Originally, I had planned to throw the players out into another situation, skipping the story til morning, but seeing that the group simply wanted time to themselves and time to relax, I gave it to them. The first half of this session was a drunken night of RP and it helped create a relaxing atmosphere. Honestly, I was surprised. The whole RP sequence must have been around two hours out of game time that flew by with the players just having fun. It’s a little moment but it goes to show that if you give players freedom and a chance, they’ll easily make their own fun and you won’t need to fuss.
I didn’t plan for Ouskarr and Kassadin to have a drunken stand-off, for Megs and Clacker to have a little date, nor did I expect Vedrir to drink himself into a stupor, quickly followed by the rest of the group. Thing happen sometimes and the freedom of D&D means that giving players these little moments to explore the world on their own can be just as crucial as your big plot revelations.
The second half of the session, the travel to Cinder’s Grove and the night at the Lonely Dragon, was different in tone from the lighthearted celebration at Bartax’s fortress, but was still very enjoyable. The combat was simple, but also more plot-focused and, most importantly, the scene with Tarvirus was almost like something out of Call of Cthulu or a horror movie rather than D&D. It was tense, gothic and enjoyable. Keeping in tone with the more relaxed tone (before the bandits and Tarvirus), the group had time to shop and perhaps the most interesting thing I didn’t have space to mention above was that the players spent a good few minutes just wondering what they wanted to eat for dinner.
I suppose the main lesson to take from all of this is to really push that variety really is the spice of life. Flexibility of tone and customisation of your campaign to better suit your players can really give you a solid experience and create an enjoyable time for others, even letting them do most of the planning for you in some cases.
That is going to be it for this session of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as the Fellow Vagabonds finally finish their journey to Cinder’s Grove and we’ll discuss monsters, recurring plot-lines and cliffhangers.
Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you enjoyed today’s session of From the DM’s Chair. Please leave a comment, positive criticism is welcome.