The fulcrum of a campaign – building compelling one-time villains
C: Last episode in my campaign, y’all faced a key villain—one of several in this current story arc, Grenton—and it got me thinking about how to construct episodic D&D enemies, how to make them resonate with players—
A: Hold on. What do you mean ‘one of several’? I thought we were done. We saved Grenton.
C: ‘Pack it up boys, Grenton’s fixed.’ Sorry, there’s still a few to go.
A: Well, at least we killed one of them. I say ‘we’—I just stayed at the back, fighting her minions while the others tackled the main bad guy herself.
C: Don’t do yourself down; you did some great stuff.
A: I flanked a lot. After two years I’m finally like, ‘Got it, I can do the flanking now, guys.’ And I’ve become pretty obsessed with it. But anyway, villains—we killed Fulcrum, whose name, incidentally, I will be spelling the correct way.
C: And I will be spelling the correct way—Fulchromme.
A: We knew her vaguely before this session—we’d seen her in the distance. We dealt with her lackeys and cronies two episodes ago. Fun fact, they’re now dead. Some killed by us, some killed by her for failing to kill us.
C: Yeah, you guys had dealt with repercussions from her actions, but this session was the first time any of you had substantially interacted with her in person. And the last.
A: She had been this very distant, albeit threatening, person, and then we got to fight her so she stopped being so distant, literally and metaphorically.
C: Plus one of you guys was her captive at one point, so there was a little more interaction there.
A: This was going to be my point.
C: Oh shit.
A: I was going to circle back elegantly and be like, ‘But, before we faced her, we got to see her be a regular person through her interactions with an imprisoned player character. And it was super interesting.’
C: Oh. Well, do it now, I guess?
A: So, before we faced her, one of our party had been conveniently kidnapped by her.
A: Exactly. It turns out nearly all our party has shocking Will saves, so when the religious zealots cast Hold Person on us, it worked on, like, 90% of us, including our witch, Kalika, with whom Fulcrum then spoke. And during their conversation, we got to see her be human—which isn’t to say, be good—but it gave her depth.
C: Yeah, she became a character in a way that she hadn’t been before. Admittedly y’all actually saw her and briefly spoke with her like years ago—years in our world, like in 2017 or something—but this was really the first interaction where more about her was revealed.
A: And I think in a weird way, that made us both more excited to stop her, but also feel way more bad too.
A: Well, I think my character was like, ‘I don’t think I can ever save this person, but their death will be something I remember.’
C: I get you. I’m glad you guys felt that way.
A: Did you always know that she was going to have this character depth and that she’d speak about her past and stuff?
C: Well, I originally didn’t think you guys would get so much of her story. But once I realised that Kalika was going to be captured, I anticipated this happening because Fulchromme had reason to mislike Kalika (besides the obvious) in her backstory, unbeknownst to Kalika herself. So, for a couple of episodes, I guess, yeah, I knew it was coming.
A: Kalika is one of the more recent members of the party; Grenton was a fixed point before she was, so I really didn’t anticipate this added dimension to the current stories. And because we don’t usually send people out of the room—
C: We don’t usually do ‘whispers’—that is to say, one-on-one, player-to-DM conversations; we tend to enjoy the dramatic irony of everyone hearing secrets—we’re just like, ‘The rest of you players need to deal with the fact that your characters don’t know this.’
A: So we all got to sit there as these backstory moments were revealed. It was so intriguing and exciting to get these fun little teasers about Kalika, but also about Fulcrum.
C: Right. This is, in my opinion, a good way of bringing out a villain. You can do it with villains who are main backstory villains, and I think you can also do it with bad guys who have some past history with player characters even if they aren’t arch-enemies, which is how I’d describe Fulchromme and Kalika—sort of ships passing in the night. And you can also do it with villains who don’t have immediate backstory beef with player characters, as happened previously in my game with the Derro Magister.
A: Already a classic villain because he has an Australian accent. All of Calder’s worst villains are Australian.
C: Right. He was a bard, and he challenged Farrar to a sort of bard-off while also antagonising her about her own backstory, which helped reveal his personality and gave the party reasons to want to fight him. He was a one-off, episodic villain—a villain-of-the-week who by the end of the session was donion rings. But I wanted to make his encounter matter, and it was the same with Fulchromme. I set it up so that you had a couple of close encounters with her and she also attacked your base while you weren’t there and stole people—
A: She didn’t steal all of them. She left us a hand.
C: True. But basically, my DM takeaway from this is: always try and flesh out your monster and villains. I actually came away from this thinking that episodic villains are pretty similar to long-running antagonists. For both of them, you want the characters to be like, ‘We feel this. This is personal now.’
A: I’d say you managed that with Fulcrum.
C: All the kidnapping and torture and zealotry—
A: Yeah, and all the drownings. The drownings really tipped it over into hatred.
C: If someone’s been a villain from Day One, the players are likely to have beef with them, and their character is constantly alluded to, which means when you do get to finally square up, it’s satisfying. But I think you can do this with one-off villains too; you just need to work up motivations against them.
A: True. I was very motivated against Fulcrum.
C: And for both temporary and long-running baddies, in the episode when they square up, try and emphasis their existence a little bit more, and give them some space to exist and talk so that they have this depth.
A: I need to work on this more in my game. I’m not quite there, but I’m trying with Thomas Gorey.
C: I think the biggest difference between an episodic villain and a long-running villain is that the long-running villain is in the background for at least a little while before they become an episodic villain. Plus, there is the chance that an episodic villain, or anyone really, may become a multiple-episode villain. They might survive their encounter and come back to fight another day, like some sort of Gary Oak figure—if it isn’t already obvious, I use Pokémon for a lot of my game-design strategy.
A: I use Riverdale for mine.
C: That’s very telling about our respective campaigns.
A: I don’t think you always need to have these big character showdowns—sometimes an encounter in the marshes can be just that—but if you want an enemy to be a ‘villain’ rather than a ‘monster’, then giving them personality and depth is a good way of doing that. Then you can have all of these beautiful antagonists.
C: ‘Beautiful antagonist’ also being literal in your campaign’s case.
A: Of course.
C: Right. And all this doesn’t have to be major; an enemy doesn’t need to be Grona Grishmal, who killed a character’s father forty years ago. But having something you can weave into the narrative gives the players something to emote about, be it tragic or fury-inducing.
A: Or comedic. My necromancer, Thomas Gorey, really likes painting horses—
C: And poetry.
A: And the players’ main reaction to him is one of extreme mockery.
C: Does he write poetry about horses?
A: You don’t know—no one read his poetry book! This is why he hates you guys! Everyone’s a critic.
C: Oh jeez. We’ll have to give it a read.
A: You should. I’ve written all the poems for it.