There are a few ways how to introduce a villain in D&D. You can choose many methods but if you go about any of them poorly you will not have the effect that you want.
The best way to introduce a villain in D&D is by making the players know about the villain before they encounter the villain.
If you can avoid these two things then you will be able to successfully introduce your villain. How do you not screw up? There are a few common screw-ups for almost every villain entrance but the most important thing is the players.
The players are the most important thing when you consider how to introduce a villain in D&D. Each group has different players. Some players are more serious and willing to go along with whatever you put forth.
Other players are crazy and want to kill anything in their path.
The last broad generalization of players are those who will just do something absolutely crazy that makes no sense.
I have gone through all different sets of players.
The 1st set is easy to deal with. When you introduce a villain they will go along with it and try to fight the villain or realize that this is a bad idea and back off. Live for another day and find a way to defeat them.
The 2nd set is where horror stories come in to play. Dungeon masters set forth a villain that can’t be killed by the party and must kill them at all costs. This is where the party dies or pulls off a miracle when you introduce a villain early on. If the villain is hidden and the players know that the villain is in x city, they might just burn x city to the ground.
The 3rd set is where they do something completely unexpected. Instead of going with the plot they want to ally with the villain. When confronted they decide to collapse the whole building instead of fighting. Something strange and potentially able to kill just about anyone.
The 3rd set is hard to give a proper response to, but if your players have earned a victory let them have it. If your players have just changed your entire game up then you need to adapt. D&D is about creating a story together instead of the players following pre-scripted events after all.
With all these potential issues you might wonder how to introduce a villain in your game. It is hard to do correctly since 2/3 groups will respond in ways that will potentially destroy your villain’s introduction. that is why I am going to go over a few scenarios and show you how to minimize any sort of risk.
The least risk method that you can use to introduce a villain is to give the party a villain they created. Did the players screw over someone and think that they got away? Guess again. The world has consequences and this method is based on player action having consequences. If you are wondering how to properly use consequences in your game look at our article on consequences here.
Now that you understand a little bit about consequences, why not use them to make a villain? It is only natural that your players create their own worst adversary.
They can create a villain by killing their villain’s master, stealing from a shopkeep, angering a lord, or just making a villain out of someone who normally would not care about them. This could be where the players take care of a minor villain like a necromancer but the true villain now takes notice of the players since their supply or information has been cut off.
How to introduce a villain in D&D of your own player’s design is a bit trickier. You don’t want to give them the information or ability to combat this villain right away. At best, you would give your players some knowledge that it is happening but have an immediate threat take precedent.
This villain needs time to grow and establish a network of minions if the players made an enemy out of someone who was ‘good.’ If the villain is established and the players made an enemy of them make the villain go after the players with minions. Not weak minions either. Threaten something that the players love like their home or an NPC. Make it personal.
When the players realize who the villain is they can put the pieces together easily and will find out that this villain is a problem because of them.
Here is a good example of creating a villain.
My players ended up trying to close off a portal to another world that was opening. They partially succeeded and some energy came through. The man who created this portal escaped. The players chose not to hunt this man down because it would be a hassle.
Since the players didn’t clean up their mess that energy went to a human who now is a crimelord and will be an opponent of the players. They are not hunting either of these people and will get a rude awakening that their negligence has let evil fester and cause most of the problems that they have faced.
This method has almost no risk since the players will hear about and understand the villain before they ever see them.
This requires your players to screw up though and not every party has constant mishaps or just abandons quests as my party does. This is where you might want to establish your villain through the ‘i’m too powerful to kill ‘ method.
I’m too powerful to kill!
This is one of the most hotly debated topics on how to introduce a villain in D&D. there are many horror stories about how players killed the big bad evil guy (BBEG) in the first encounter. This can be because of lucky crits, rolls, or just some ridiculous plan.
There are a few problems here. The players are intentionally going to stop this enemy, and it doesn’t make sense for the enemy to just leave them alive.
The last time I did this the party was introduced to a being who was about 10 levels too high for them but was doing something else. The players were going to save a person and didn’t even know that this BBEG was there.
The players came and technically saved the person, but they also tried to challenge the BBEG. This didn’t go over well. The enemy had too many protections, stat buffs, and everything else so that he wouldn’t be touched by the party. A 10 level difference is the minimum to make this work. The party should not have any chance of success even if the BBEG rolls a lot of 1s and your party critically succeeds.
At the same time, the party shouldn’t be aware of the BBEG and the villain should have an alternate method that is more important than killing the players.
At this time, the villain was Cyric who fell from godhood and needed to kill Bhaalspawn in order to ascend in a ritual. The players ended up bleeding on the ritual tainting it and Cyric was pissed. He decided to blind one of the party members permanently and cripple another.
After he deemed that they were no threat he moved on since he needed to hurry and become a god again. They were dealt with and he had more important things to do. The party saw how visibly angry he was at the ritual being disrupted and talked about how long it will take to make happen again. They could, however, tell that he felt rushed.
This made it believable that the party was less than important and that he had more important things to deal with. The party also luckily leveled and had access to regeneration, but still. It was a huge blow and they seemed like nothing more than ants.
This is how you need to introduce a BBEG. Make sure that the party cannot kill them no matter what AND that it makes sense for the BBEG to not dispose of them.
If you want to go about it more stealthily and breadcrumb your villain’s introduction you can do that too.
Breadcrumbing is the most methodical way. How to introduce a villain in D&D with breadcrumbing is by making the party hear about them before over and over.
Here is an example:
The party at level 1 hears about a gang. The party takes out the gang and learns that the gang works for the brotherhood. At level 3 they take out 1 of the main gangs in the brotherhood. At levels 4-6 they continue this until they face the BBEG who has been in charge of the entire brotherhood.
In this example, things started small. The players heard about the main antagonist from their first encounter and it escalated. The players had to deal with parts of the whole before they could kill the head of the organization.
In turn, when the players became a problem more and more of the organization tries to fight the players. This is a natural escalation of the situation that does not feel forced.
Why set forth your most valuable people to deal with a problem when there are others who are paid less and can do less? Use those more powerful and valuable individuals in more important matters. That is how a business works and why players are able to become a threat to these organizations.
You can also breadcrumb with rumors. How to introduce a villain this way is by having your players hear about this monster somewhere. In a tavern or in gossip are some great ways. Let the players keep hearing about it as background noise. Then have the players start dealing with these threats that link back to the BBEG just like an organization would.
Breadcrumbing can be done in a variety of ways but at it’s core is the organization around an individual. There is 1 more type of buildup that you can use to introduce a villain.
Suspense and mystery
How to introduce a villain in D&D without breadcrumbing but not making your players face them is by suspense or mystery.
This method is very similar to an organization.
The players hear rumors, fight cultists, and eventually have to fight a resurrected god. Or something like that.
The key in suspense and mystery is that the players either don’t know what they are stopping or know that they have to stop it.
The players might be trying to stop cultists from summoning ‘the great one.’ It could be an elder god and no one knows who the elder god is.
If the players are trying to stop a minor god then they know the target. They have an idea of what to face but don’t really know the full scope of who they are facing.
These reveals should not be a complete surprise to players. If your players go to stop the resurrection of such a being don’t have them find out ‘it’s not here. You’re too late!’
Give them a timeline, location, and chance to stop this being from being summoned. If they stop it great! They now have to protect it forever or it can become a villain. If they do not stop it or you don’t want the players to then delay them. Throw waves of minions at them whatever. Give the players a slim chance of success.
The final fight might not be the corporeal form of the creature. Instead, the players might get to fight a weakened version. This gives the players a chance to beat the BBEG and feel good about their accomplishments.
This is okay. You are not trying to win against the players. They will have worked hard and gotten rewarded for sealing away this monstrous creature. If it is summoned then have the players deal with it normally. Just be flexible depending on what happens.
Hidden in plain sight
This, in my opinion, is the riskiest way on how to introduce a villain in D&D. If you hide your villain in plain sight and expect your players not to guess who it is, you are most likely going to surprised.
Players are insane creatures that somehow with no evidence can foil your best schemes. There are generally 3 or more people on the other side of the table. You are 1 person. If you think that you are smarter than 3 people who will hopefully be talking about the game outside of the game, then you are in for a surprise.
The only effective way that I have seen this happen is if the villain is someone close to the players and doesn’t mean them harm. If harm is directed at the players then they will be able to sniff out who wants to harm them.
When the players have to solve jobs that harm others or are not intended to harm the party, then they will have a much harder time figuring out who the villain is.
This person should have a lot of power that the players can use and shouldn’t be in a place of obvious power. The evil mayor is going to be found out quickly. The evil blacksmith who knows everyone and keeps getting the party favors from others and is super helpful will not be found out right away.
Once the players find out they might even try to deny the evidence. This is when you have a good villain who has hidden in plain sight. The players really won’t believe it could be them not because it logically makes sense, but because they don’t want to.
When going over how to introduce a villain in your D&D game make sure that you do it properly. You need to think of your players and how they will react before you choose your method. If the method won’t work well with your players then choose another.
We put forth quite a few methods on villain introduction for you to choose from.
You need to make sure there is a valid reason for every action and if explained the players should say that it makes sense. Don’t pull punches and let the players getaway because of some stupid reason. Make sure that players are able to understand why they are not dead and be glad for it. Make them feel lucky.
If you are making your players own actions create a villain make sure that they understand slowly the implications of their actions. It might be the most satisfying villain that you have ever made.
For breadcrumbing follow the steps and you will have the formula to introduce your party to a villain they have wanted to fight for some time. You can change up the formula a bit but keep the organization or parts intact and have a BBEG at the very end.
Most of these methods I have refined through screwing up, trying again, and looking online for help.
I hope that you were able to find what method is best for you, just don’t force things to happen that don’t make sense.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!