Creating a Villain
Creating villains in Dungeons and Dragons and other TTRPGs can be a lot of fun. I enjoy attempting to balance personality, appearance, motivations, and abilities in a way that makes sense and is meaningful to the players. In this monster spotlight, I am going to discuss the creation of a villain that appeared recently in one of my campaigns.
My players found themselves in a position where they needed to deal with a creature believed to be a deity. There were multiple avenues of solving this problem, one of which was to find a way to trap the creature. Conveniently, one of the players was secretly working with a past adversary and he was able to offer the location of a magical item that could contain this deity, a purple wooden box.
I’m not a big fan of MacGuffins. Objects should have real purpose and history, not just serve as a plot device. So I developed the history of the box. When it was created, who created it, and most importantly, what it was used for. There was no reason for an object powerful enough to store the essence of something believed to be a deity to be empty. It’s a magic item of immense power and value. It was originally created for a specific purpose, to trap something powerful. Something that could not be killed. When the box was opened, the deity creature was immediately sucked into it, but what was inside was also released. Enter Noloq the Lifedrinker, an ancient primordial creature that was essentially a force of existence itself. Wild, unkillable, hungry.
Making an Impact
In my opinion, a good villain elicits some sort of response from players. Be it fear, respect, interest, discomfort, whatever. The last thing you want is for players to be indifferent toward a character or monster that is supposed to be the center of events. With Noloq, I decided to go primarily with “unsettling”. I’d already established that he must be extremely powerful (or at least extremely durable), but I didn’t want that to be his defining characteristic. Powerful is rarely enough to make a character stand out and be memorable. It was his appearance and mannerisms that I needed to really shine.
As I previously discussed in my post, “Drawing Inspiration“, I often pull ideas from things I’ve seen/heard in the past. In this case I decided that Noloq would be a creature that would approximate a human/elf in appearance, but in a way that showed an obvious lack of understanding. Like if a wolf were to actually wear a sheepskin in an attempt to fool the sheep. Noloq was going to be a predator attempting to fool his prey. His appearance became a bit of a combination of two concepts, the Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
An image was crafted based on my description, the essence of the character was captured perfectly.
Noloq was well dressed, thin, pale, unnaturally long-limbed, and uncomfortably pleasant. Next I had to decide on a voice for this creature. He’d been locked away in a box alone for thousands of years. Not only would that make it difficult to remember how to speak normally, he was also speaking a language he had basically just learned (gleaned from the minds of those who freed him). So I tried to come up with a voice and cadence that matched this. His voice would need to sound soft and calming, like someone trying to sooth an animal in a trap before they clubbed it, but it also needed to sound broken and deranged. Initially I used the introduction of Half-life 2 as a rough guide for the broken cadence:
The final result was more uneven and jerky, an effect used to make the voice mimic the marionette-esque movements of the creature. Here is a sample of the final result:
Finally, after all of the important details were hashed out, it was time to actually give the creature some stats and abilities. For me, this part is almost an afterthought. It’s important, but not as important as all of the details that came before. When I came back to D&D in fourth edition, my DM at the time always stressed to us, “Combat is fun, but it’s not the part you are going to remember. It’s all the other things that happen that will stand out.” He wasn’t wrong. I remember the odd fight here and there, but it is the silly or epic moments that stand out in my memory. The player characters, NPCs, or enemies stood out because of the things they did, not the battles we had.
Anyway, while not as important as what came before, I did still need to flush out Noloq’s game mechanics. The primary focus of his abilities was in his name, “the Lifedrinker”. Noloq was able to drain the life essence out of other creatures and take it into himself. This had the possibility of exhausting the creature as well as placing a healing curse on them. His secondary skill was in puppeteering corpses to do his bidding. This was not a form of undead animation, but more the use of invisible strings to move the bodies about. Not only did he use this ability to control corpses, he could also use it to force the living to perform actions.
In addition to this he was given melee attacks, lair actions (focused around draining/slowing) and legendary actions. When trying to determine strength of abilities and stats, I will typically find a monster of the approximate strength (CR) and use that as a base to alter from. I tend to heavily modify the stats and abilities but if you are not comfortable with balancing the game statistics, it is best to choose a creature of the appropriate difficulty and just use it’s stats, saves, and attack/damage values.
In the end, Noloq was received exactly as I’d hoped. The character that first freed/met him just barely escaped with an NPC, and only after a bargain was struck in which the player agreed to allow Noloq to “taste” them (which was a great way to telegraph the danger of his lifedrinking). When they finally had the opportunity to tell the group about him, the whole experience was described as horrifying.
From there the party interacted with him indirectly for some time. They caught glimpses of him periodically in the distance, talking to himself or playing with corpses. They also had a serious run-in with an army of corpse marionettes sent to recover the character who freed him. Before they were finally prepared for the confrontation with Noloq the party was well aware of his strength and his derangement. He’d already left an impression.
After much build-up, the party finally met with Noloq and was not disappointed. They found him unnerving and disturbing. When combat broke out, the battle was grueling and multi-faceted. The characters struggled to hold their ground against the powerful foe. While I hope that the battle was memorable, I think it more likely that my players will remember the unsettling creepiness of the character. He is a villain that successfully elicited discomfort and fear, and one that my players are unlikely to soon forget.