Content of the article: "How I Accidentally Created a Most Nefarious Villain"
In a current campaign, I introduced a villain who I expected to be a short-term antagonist, but ended up being a much more compelling version of Major Man. I reverse-engineered my steps, and put together a roadmap for how this villain was created. Hopefully this helps anyone planning their own villainies!
STEP 1) A Seed of Deception. When you first introduce this villain, she must deceive the party in a neutral way. The deception should not anger the party. Rather, it should confuse them. They should ask themselves, "Why would she deceive us? What did she have to gain?" In my case, the villain was the lord of the land… but she introduced herself as an unarmed traveling monk. The reason for the deception is up to you. No matter what, it will cause the players to be suspicious, which is exactly how you want them. Importantly, you must introduce this villain 2-4 sessions before she becomes important to the campaign. That way, the players have time to theorize, and your villain has time to observe the PC's and enact her plans.
STEP 2) Puppet Show. This villain does NONE of the dirty work herself. She anonymously hires thugs, lures a dragon into the area, or magically poisons the local well. Give the PCs reason to suspect her, but no hard evidence. For example, if the villain is a tiefling, perhaps the townsfolk saw a "red horned devil" stalking at night. Perhaps they heard her speaking "in a devilish tongue". If there's only one red tiefling in the area, your players will correctly suspect the villain, but will have no true evidence. Be obvious with your clues. Even clever players will jump to the wrong conclusions if you don't spell things out. Give them something incontrovertible, like finding a letter detailing her plot, with her initials written on it. If they make a successful Investigation or Insight check, straight up tell them "Yes, you're certain the villain was behind the plot."
STEP 3) Foe or Friend? The villain must help the party deal with the problem that she, herself, caused. She doesn't have to help directly. For example, if the party is trying to rescue a missing boy, perhaps they kill the kidnapper… but the boy was hidden in a separate location, and the villain "finds" him and saves him. This step must happen AFTER the party suspects the villain's evilness. That way, they know the game that's being played… and they know that they're losing. Bonus points if the villain can steal the glory for the quest, or ends up getting the reward for it.
STEP 4) Humility. This is where it gets good. When the players inevitably confront the villain, she must treat them with humility. PC's always feel affinity for a character who humbles herself before them. She sees them as heroes, and is proud of them for pursuing justice, but claims they, unfortunately, have the wrong person. In fact, she offers to help them find the true villain. She gives the PC's no reason to attack. If they attack anyway, she'll label them as killers and evildoers. As such, it's important that the villain is never in a room alone with the PC's. If they only ever meet in public, or in a place packed with the villain's friends, the PC's will think twice about dealing swift justice. Again, this is why it's important that the party has no solid evidence against the villain. If they did, then justice will be brief and anticlimactic. If they attack, they'll have to find a way to clear their names. If they stand back and do nothing, they'll be forced to know that an evildoer still roams the land.
STEP 5) A Step Out of Line. Eventually, the hammer must fall, and the PC's must righteously defeat your villain. After she's succeeded a few times, your villain must make a terrible mistake. Her arrogance may cause her to gloat in public. Maybe her closest ally turns against her and looks to the PC's for help. She's exposed herself, and the PC's have no other option… and no better chance at vengeance. The PC's must be given a clear, green light to take her down. Killing her will be an epic tale of heroes finally ousting a hidden evil, and whatever happened before, the players will find vindication.
BONUS POINT) Weakness. The villain is not overly powerful. They are always in an advantageous position… not an unstoppable one. You must make the players aware that they are powerful enough to outright kill the villain. Perhaps one of them gauges her strength and you reply, "She seems too powerful for you alone, but you feel confident that the party could best her together." If she's too strong, or if the players think she's too strong, they'll feel helpless and frustrated. You must make them aware that, in a straight up battle, they would win.
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