Villainous trades – swapping out some useless spells
C: We both recently had sessions where the party faced some pretty beefy villains, which got us thinking about a topic that might be pretty good as a big ol’ discussion – namely: how do you build your villain?
A: Right. Both of us have tended to build villains—NPCs or otherwise—as though they were characters. My latest villain was a level four monstrous humanoid (as in, an ogre) who then had four additional levels in Druid. It was fun to build. He had a lot of stuff he could do. Probably too much.
C: Yes indeed—and hopefully we’ll do a second part to this conversation next week about combat with villains who have oodles of power. But for now we’ll focus on actually building them. Which, when you have a bigger party or when you get to a higher level, ends up being a big time-sink. It takes quite a bit of energy and work to pick all their spells and feats, and they have more abilities than you’re going to have time to use in, like, ten damn combats.
A: That’s one of the most annoying things with making new villains, especially because you’re probably not going to have more than—what, five-ten rounds with them? Like, my ogre Druid straight up had too many spells. It’s very frustrating building high-level enemies these days—or even using ready-made ones—because they just have too much stuff.
C: I think your solution of combining a level four monstrous humanoid with a level four Druid made for a nice little combo—we’ve talked before about how multi-classed baddies can be a great challenge for a party. If you want your guy to be big and strong but not have tonnes and tonnes of powers, levelling him up monstrous humanoid, as you did, works really nicely.
A: He did have a very good BAB. If only he hadn’t spent most of that fight blind and not hitting anyone.
C: And it can be a useful strategy, especially if you want to create someone to rival a PC—like if you have a backstory character—to make them be mostly the same class as the PC, and then they pick up something else. If you want an enemy specifically for your level eight Wizard, it makes sense to build that villain to be a level eight Wizard and then give them a few levels in something else. It lets you really challenge your players.
A: That’s very true.
C: And it’s often helpful in combats because that way they don’t have, you know, powers as though they were level fifteen.
A: My problem, though, is that I want them to have the level fifteen powers! I just don’t want them to have all the lower level powers. Enemies often have, say, four or five level one spells. And you know—they’re going to be using all the big-hitter, high level spells in combat. They’re never going to use Cure Light Wounds. That’s really a post-battle thing once you’re at such a high character level.
C: One possible solution to this problem of baddies having too many powers is archetypes. There are a few archetypes that get rid of a lot of powers and give you cool new ones. Like, Dreadnought’s a great one for Barbarians if you don’t want to do as much math.
A: Yeah. I used to not like archetypes, but I’m gradually coming round to them.
C: It can also be a lot of fun if you want to build villains who feel like they’re legit and like the PCs—but who have a new little sprinkle of somethin’ spicy.
A: True; the ogre actually had the Pack Lord Druid archetype. And you’ve commented before that the solution that a lot of DMs go for is building enemies from the monster rules, and being a bit more loosey-goosey about what they have.
C: Absolutely. There are a lot of DMs out there who build their baddies as if they’re monsters instead of being people, which does tend to make things a little simpler. Monsters tend to generally have fewer powers. And I’ve got no problems with this solution; I think maybe a year ago I might have made some gripes—like I would have been like, ‘Well, if it’s a human, it should be built like a human.’ But it’s about the story; if it makes sense to build your human as a level ten, like, Aberration or something for the powers, then just do that. You need to do what benefits your storytelling.
A: Yeah, that’s true.
C: But sometimes I also worry about fairness. It would be easy, for me at least, to start giving villains anything and everything once I’d broken that seal.
A: Right. My problem with this was always that I wanted a list or something so you could work out the trades for everything and make sure you were keeping the balance.
C: Yeah. The Monster Creation Rules are helpful for that, but they operate much like building high-level characters, so sometimes one still craves a quick-build guide to simplifying and streamlining big baddies.
A: And, guess what—I actually decided to make one for our game! I based it off the Tiefling Fiendish Heritage list, so now you can trade out all your zero-level spells to like, increase your speed by five foot. And I’m going to put it up here so that all our players can check it out and make sure I’m not doing anything crazy.
C: That’s very cool. I look forward to facing all of your villains who can now move thirty-five feet.
A: Well, my alternative solution was to kill you guys and to make you start at level one again, facing level two villains. Problem solved.
C: Extra movement it is!
Angela's list of alternatives to spells can be found here: Spell Swap List