Designing the perfect villain for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign can be incredibly difficult, especially for beginner DMs. It’s an NPC that will regularly antagonize a party throughout their adventure, and making it over or underpowered can have serious repercussions for an entire campaign. Fail to make them interesting or threatening enough, and players will have little reason to pursue the story’s conflict. It’s a delicate balancing act that can be difficult to pull off, but there are very few things more rewarding than nailing the perfect design for a big bad.
There are a lot of things to consider when crafting a Dungeons and Dragons antagonist. Designing a campaign, in general, is difficult enough, but it can be a lot harder to transition to a new villain without some difficult narrative work or a complete campaign reset. Be careful when first introducing the villain to the party. There’s always the possibility that the Bard will try and do something stupid to end the campaign in the first 20 minutes - it’s kind of their M.O. Be sure to plan for them messing around, just in case they try anything.
It’s okay to draw influence from other villains in pop culture and use them to help influence a design. Think about what makes characters like Darth Vader and Handsome Jack cool. Which would be a better fit for the campaign’s narrative if they were just to be dropped in? Which traits from each would make for an even better combo? By analyzing these factors, it’s possible to make an amalgamation of other Dungeons and Dragons villains, which can lead to some pretty stellar design. Keep expanding the pool, adding a little bit of creative flair each time to create something truly unique.
More than anything, a good villain needs a compelling backstory. This is something that can be played around with throughout the campaign, as players steadily begin to learn more about the antagonist as they adventure through the world. The richer a backstory the villain has, the more players will feel engaged with it. Having a good backstory will also make it easier to act out a character for those looking to role-play as them. Being able to convincingly portray the villain in a unique way will make them much more memorable, and memorable villains make for memorable campaigns. At the end of the day, that's all a good DM can really hope for.
It also helps if the players have some type of personal connection to the villain. This doesn't always need to be the case, but it can certainly help craft some difficult decisions for the players to work through. Maybe the villain is a close friend that fell from grace or some other likable NPC that is now on the opposite end of the moral compass. This extra layer of connection will make each decision feel like it has more weight in the fight against the antagonist.
It's easy to design a villain that's just pure evil. A Godzilla or a Sauron that, more often than not, is a metaphor for some real-world catastrophe. But creating a villain that's a bit more morally ambiguous, and throwing players in situations with no "right" decision, can have a profound effect on a game. If players are beginning to question whether they're wrong or right, the DM is doing an excellent job. Without any ambiguity, Dungeon Masters run the risk of creating a boring villain, which can lead to an entire campaign dragging.
Villains need to be powerful. It's okay to be just a tad bit sadistic - or really sadistic. If a player loses an eye, arm, or some other body part at the hands of the main antagonist, they'll be a lot more interested in pursuing them. It also makes for a more interesting player character. It can add a few layers to role-playing and can shake up combat if the DM wants to create a few house rules. Try it with a player that's having trouble getting invested in the story. It can be a clever way to draw them in, while at the same time providing some shock value to other members of the party.
Deciding when to drop the villain in front of players can be a difficult balancing act. In Curse of Strahd, one of the best spooky campaigns, the villain, Strahd, is a looming presence, creating tension. That doesn't always need to be the case, but it is important to remind players what they're fighting against and why.
There will come a time when the campaign needs a new villain. Yet another big bad that's bigger and badder than the one that came before it. The same rules apply to that creature, human, or whatever it winds up being. It can be a difficult transition to nail, though, as any longtime DM can attest to. Give the players some time to recover and celebrate after defeating a major antagonist. Run a few sessions with some smaller scale, more playful adventures. Not only will it let them feel as though they've actually saved the world, town, or hamlet that the villain was threatening, but it will also come off as a little less campy. A bigger, eviler villain popping up right after defeating the first one can be a bit hard to buy into at times.
It takes a long time to begin nailing good villain designs. Making a villain that players will care about takes lots of practice, and no villain will be astonishing by the end of the first session. Take time throughout the story to reinforce why players have to defeat them, and it will add up to a great experience overall. There are tools out there for those that aren't confident in their abilities, but it's always fun to see a player-designed villain keep the party engaged.