Inspired by some recent events in my campaign, and discussion with others, I have decided to write a series of articles on Antagonists. Not Villains, but Antagonists. That is, characters that oppose the party because of conflicts of interests, whether those are material or metaphysical, or both. That does not mean by the way that I never run Villains, and limit myself to magnificent bastards and masterminds. I do not stay away from antagonists that want to erase all life in the planes, or some of the classics like the fiend, the undead necromancer and so on. There are all kinds of tropes and templates when antagonists are concerned. From the slaver to the corrupt baron, to the hustler, to the lich, to the hag, to the fiend, I hope to give tips that apply to all of them.
But still, putting myself in that mindset that I run Antagonists, not Villains, means that even for a devil, even for an undead necromancer, I think how they came to their motivations, and if they can change their ways. At the very least, they feel like a character to me, not a narrative device.
In the first part of this series, I will write about strong antagonists. I shall refer to my hypothetical antagonist as Lady X. In a latter part of the series, I shall write about weak or powerless antagonists.
Why is the Antagonist not crushing the party?
When we think of D&D villains, we think of violent people that would crush the party if it came to it. Strahd, Tiamat, Acererak, and the numerous other enemies found in official modules are often Big Bad Evil Guys. They might have various goals and consider themselves justified, but there is no doubt they are miscreants. The reason why those antagonists do not crush the party might be multiple. They are toying with the party, using them. Or perhaps it was simply Tuesday.
Chun-Li: My father saved his village at the cost of his own life. You had him shot as you ran away. A hero at a thousand paces.
M. Bison: I’m sorry. I don’t remember any of it.
Chun-Li: You don’t remember?!
Bison: For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.
Antagonists often have goals that require to be left alone. Some can have their own fortress, e.g., Strahd has his demiplane and castle. A few others must operate in the open, for they need to snatch power. Or they need to survive at a very competitive level, like a guild-master or noble amongst their peers. One way to do that is to overwhelm the opposition through might. Another is hide. And what better way to hide in plain sight, if not in plain light? Today, let us see how you can use the power of love; we shall explore the power of fear later.
The power of love
In his famous work The Prince, Machiavelli write about power, the ways to obtain it, the ways to keep it, and how you shall treat your allies, your enemies and the people. As an astute observer and official of the Florentine Republic, he was in a unique position to do so. This is very applicable to Lady X. Her actions are ultimately political, for they force others to act according to her will. Keep in mind that power is about exercising control and imposing your will. No surprise then that love and fear go particularly well with it.
It is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved? It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both: but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.
— Machiavelli, Chapter XVII of the Prince
Machiavelli’s chapter XVII is often reduced to that simple bit (and even compacted and crushed to “it is far safer to be feared than loved”), but it is far more nuanced. The chapter explains how the Prince must balance their good sentiments and their compassion with the exercise of power, one that sometimes require violence and fear. Rather than saying that it is better to be feared than loved, one could reformulate Machiavelli’s point as such: if you don’t have the talent to be both, then focus on being feared. This seems to hold true for many BBEGs. Because their writing leave little room for nuance, they focus on being feared. It is, after all, not so easy to write an antagonist that is lovable.
Show, don’t tell.
If you were to tell someone that infamous Warlord Lady X has a good side to her, they would not believe you or they would not care. That is why you need to show them, not tell them. Show the effects of her good reputation and efforts.
Greatness and Leadership reflect on your followers
Lady X has faithful lieutenants, that show reverence and are ready to sacrifice themselves for her. For instance, Knight Helmud has been in her service for twelve years now. His reputation is impeccable and the temple of Bahamut credit him with no less than the slaying of two green dragons. He his a hero of epic proportions, and yet he remains in the service of Lady X. This creates so many opportunities to develop that character and its relationship with Lady X, or the party, that you should feel your DM senses tingle with excitation at this point. Do Knight Helmud know about Lady X’s villainy? If so, why is he serving her? Is he hiding some darkness himself? The possibilities are endless.
The way to someone’s heart is through their stomach
The people love her! She has distributed homemade pastries to the crowds of children and adults alike. She accepted eagerly to take part in the latest carnival, and even participated as a target in the pie throwing contest. Lady X went so far to accept to be roasted on scene, whereas other nobles barely let the crowds run wild.
A generous soul, patron of the arts
And of course, the temples praise her generosity. She donates money, helping the poor in the process. Remember that there is a deep connection between religious values and popular values. Lady X also sponsors prestigious orders of exalted art, or donate work hours from her followers. Perhaps, she has even taken care of the ailments of a few lepers and tubercular beggars — there is not that many people able to use low level healing magic.
Surely, what is appreciated must be good
Lady X is courted by foreign and local emissaries, either for business or marriage. A simple consequence of her status, yet, if she conducts herself well, she can emerge above the pack. And if she is courted by someone the party knows to be of impeccable moral standing, then that is a good point for her.
And last, she is too busy to make time for all of those, but she somehow manages to pull through thanks to her dedication. Lady X has great goals, and those require a lot of hard work. Way more work than the party is putting in, whatever their current goal is.
Villains are people too
Those actions might even be genuine. Remember that power often binds the ruler with multiple constraints; ironically, the powerful is rarely free. Hence, Lady X would enjoy greatly those occasions where she can act as she will, outside of the bounds of her plans, and the shackles that come with power. Show the tension between the person and the figure with an anecdote of sacrifice, or Lady X departing from her code or status. A few examples:
Righteous Among the Kingdoms
Is there a religious war in your kingdom? Lady X is sheltering and evacuating the religious minority, despite being one of the city’s official and a member of the main religion. She could be feeding the escapees into her demonic cult, or slowly increasing the ranks of a rebellion.
Lady X and her Sisters of Mercy
A gang of orphans has formed, they started with stealing foods but slowly escalated till they are now full-on thieves. Lady X has an impeccable reputation for being a harsh judge and inquisitor, one that does not tolerate even the pettiest of crimes. But Lady X’s love is wide, and she has opened an orphanage for them, run by the Sisters of Mercy. And she can also handpick the most promising ones to train them as elite assassins or thieves.
A noble mind is above slave morality
When the crown publicly disavowed Knight Helmud for adultery, Lady X petitioned the royal council to forgive him. This earned her the scorn of the cuckolded duke, the disapproval of one of the temples, and set back her own petition to gain some land. But Lady X knows the blood of the sorcerer Melchior runs deep into the veins of Helmud. He is the perfect key to the legendary tomb of the Archmage, where the Staff of Magi lies. Or she simply did it because she has the power, because she dislikes that kind of public humiliation. Such is the nobility of her mind.
The wicked are always ungrateful
Lady X is the vengeful arm of the Temple, and she has killed many who defied the Great Exarch. Yet, a few years ago, after a stinging defeat and a great escape that required she pushed herself to the limits, she feinted near the village of Brewshine. When she woke up, she was in an unfamiliar yet warm bed, and the smell of carrot soup filled the house. A widow, Serena, tended to her wounds, and even fed her the past three days as she was unconscious. She never asked for payment. Every night, she would pray to the goddess of Ishtar, and invite Lady X to join. While she refused because Ishtar was a deadly enemy of the Great Exarch, when Lady X was back on her feet and left that village of heretics, she made sure to bury its name in the archive, and declare it under her protection.
Home, sweet home
A great example to show someone’s tender side is to explore what home means to them, and who might have been their caretakers. If plenty of characters have a tragic backstory, Lady X might have one too. I won’t go into examples, we have seen so many of them. At least, up the ante, if only to give to Lady X a glorious goal. For instance, if she is seeking revenge, it’s against an alliance of four kings, an ancient golden dragon or Bahamut himself.
On the opposite, if you want to cultivate the cheerful side, consider the most normal things. She might have a loving family, even better, a dog. But beware, hell hath no fury that can compare with Lady X avenging her dog.
As you can see, if you simply treat Lady X as a character, you can sprinkle a bit of love here and there.
Nurture the party’s love
Try to be subtle about it. The party is so rarely helped by people they have never met, that they are unlikely to trust a newcomer who just solves their problem. If you go down that path, make sure to use the previous section so that the party gauge your character as one of the good guys. You could also follow this simple plan in three steps:
- Establish Lady X as a distant character in the background, and use a party’s ally to introduce her. Someone the party trust. And since that ally trust Lady X, by transitivity, they are ready to trust Lady X.
- Have her introduced in person later, if possible as a side character in a scene. Politeness and/or camaraderie is of the utmost importance, as well as respecting titles, ranks and exploits. In short, Lady X is a fan of the party, or an equal that admires them.
- And then, have her help the party.
Congratulations, your villain has earned the trust of the party.
Shower the party with love
Now that the party somewhat trust Lady X, or at least do not consider her a threat, this is a good time to make her score points with the party. Preferably in a win-win scenario.
Treasure hunters or treasure hunted?
The party needs to find the legendary Scepter of Arturion? Here is a map, however the place is heavily warded (in fact, against Lady X’s kin). And it just so happens that Lady X owns the last two fragments. Once the party has gathered the remainders, she shall steal those from them.
Oh, by the way did the party know that Alena One-Eyed wants to kill them? Here is the proof, sadly she can’t take care of it because politics. But she will support you! The fact that Alena is an enemy of hers that she can’t touch is entirely unrelated. And if the party go through with it, Lady X can now link them to a murder.
This can morph in a subtle extortion scheme, as Lady X also use Fear as one of her other tools. A great extortionist do not threaten directly, they make it seems as if they are doing you a favor. But that’s a topic for our next article.
The damsel in distress
Psychologically, we are often grateful and more likely to help people that have asked us for a favor, than the reverse. Hence, Lady X could ask for a favor, it would make her more trustworthy. Here are some examples.
She wants the kingpin dead. He killed one of her friend, or is ruining the neighborhood that she loves so much. In truth, he’s competition and is outselling her in the docks and the halfling ward. Or maybe he’s too nosy, and his secret pirate’s cove headquarters is situated just above Lady’s X own ones. Either way, no one is going to miss him.
Give me money for my pyramid
Lady X needs money — figure that, a villain that is poor, the party will never see it coming! However unlikely because players love their gold too much, she still could manage to convince them. This is an interesting one, because as a creditor, you have a vested interest into making sure the debtor repay you. Perhaps she needs the cash to open a shop or start a venture, offering a stronghold and a decent return? If it is a criminal enterprise, Lady X might even set up the party as the fall guy.
Odd job for a lady with golden fingers
Lady X needs protection. A faction hostile to the party has send assassins after her. She does not even need to have ulterior motives for that one. And just imagine it! The party and Lady X on the run, the night comes, they find refuge in the shabby cellar of a kind elf. There, they must stay on watch and sleep, the five of them cramped between bottles and old wood. The air they share, they recycle through each other lungs. Truly the perfect opportunity to bond over stories.
Upcasting Animal Messenger : Party Messenger
Lady X needs an introduction. She wants to meet that dragon that gave a quest to the party ten sessions ago; she has grave matters to discuss with her. Of course, she understands if that is not possible, but she hopes the party can try to arrange that. And now, she can follow them to its lair, and enact her own plan (whether it is standard killing, or a bold heist).
The pay off
At this point, you might feel I have forgotten Lady X is the antagonist. That I made her into some sort of protagonist, pushing the adage that “Everyone is the hero of their own story” a bit too far. Fear not. Whether she has grandiose plans of destruction, revenge, or conquest, her goals do not align with the party. Hence, the clash is unavoidable at some point.
If you can’t beat them, join them
The party might feel conflicted as they have gotten some understanding of Lady X at this point. At the very least, they know she has some good in her, and thus they likely empathize with her, they could even try to redeem her. This might encourage some characters to join her side, which could be a great development!
Crush the party with love
He killed them with their love. That’s how it is every day, all over the world.
— John Coffey, in The Green Mile
Love is a weapon. A terrifying, overwhelming weapon. In the Green Mile, John Coffey explains how Billy got two kid sisters to cooperate with him. Using his strength, he separated them, and told each one that if she resisted, if she screamed, he would kill the other.
Now, no need to go for something so extreme. But if Lady X gets to know the party, or can spy on them thanks to her beloved status, she knows what they care about, and what makes them tick. She can separate them without triggering suspicions, and can use other classical stratagems such as poison or placing her allies before the conflict breaks out.
This is not a hostage or ransom situation! There no bargaining, no hope. The party, caught unaware, has no choice but to surrender to Lady X’s conditions, or suffer an incommensurable loss. Make them choose between the end of the world and the life of one of theirs (ally or party member). There is no limit, really, but your twisted mind. Whatever they pick, they lose; there is no such thing as refusing the choice.
Hence, why players hate it, just like anytime their agency is greatly diminished. It is better to check (months in advance) if your players are fine with that kind of situation, or imply that there is an out, even a costly one. For, as much fun as we DM can have with our antagonists, we must not forget those antagonists might clash hard with the party. The line between players and characters’ feeling then become blurred sometimes, not to mention the (healthy) leak of emotions from one to the other. Hence why constructive communication at the table is important, and I must admit I don’t do enough of it.
You can find article number 2 here, dealing with the Power of Fear.
Follow me on twitter (link below) to receive updates on new content. And spread the love!