We get it, DM. You’ve tried your hardest to write up your own BBEG. And we agree with you. Not all BBEGs can be Strahd. Sometimes you try for Heath Ledger Joker and end up with Jared Leto Joker.* And some days, it’s just easier to reskin a Final Fantasy villain for the eighth time and call it a day.
But- and it hurts us to tell you- your “Big Bad Evil Guy” is more of a “Bad Bad Evil Guy.” While there’s no map to narrative success, there are little problems you can be aware of.
*Hot take: Leto was a decently cool villain in Suicide Squad….just not a cool Joker.
Your BBEG Is Flatter Than A Character Sheet
Let me ask you this, DM– do you actually go to a Batman movie for Batman, or the villains?
Again DM, writing is hard. It takes time, effort, more time, a solid hour where you stare at the void and question your life choices….
Right, let’s get these truisms out of the way:
- There is no shame in using a pre-made BBEG.
- No, you don’t need to go into full obsession mode when developing your BBEG...
- …But you need to at least put in minimal effort.
You’ve probably heard this before– people love a certain villain because they have that special something. Maybe it’s their personality or charisma. Perhaps it’s a subtle character trait that makes them interesting. Or maybe they have this really funny story about a spoon. Either way, your favorite villain has a special little something and- in addition to having to improv your way out of corner every game night- you have to figure out how to do that with your BBEG.
Another offshoot of this issue are straw man antagonists or ones who lean into themes/agendas too much. Exploring themes is far from a bad thing to do in narratives. But when they eclipse a story/characters, it can lead to lackluster characters. (*Cough Cough* Genderbent Strahd….*Cough Cough* No, I’m not letting go of that just yet.) A BBEG should be a character with a theme attached, not the other way around.
Thankfully, there’s numerous sources out there to help flesh out your BBEG; one of them being the writing community itself. (In fact, the amount of writers who actually D&D are pretty surprising.) Most of the time, it’s about asking yourself questions about your BBEG. What was the most defining moments in their lives? Are there any quirks they have? How would they describe themselves? Again, there’s no need to slap the Inception machine on and do a deep dive into your BBEG. Sometimes just a little bit of fleshing out can go a long way.
Your BBEG Is Always the Same Character
Yes, it’s true that most JRPGs have you fighting some incarnation of (a) god. Okay, Link usually finds himself squared against Ganon. And god forbid that you have me pick a specific James Bond villain out in a police line up. However, all these antagonistic encounters actually takes great pains in maintaining some individuality between each other.
Granted, it’s understandable for your BBEGs to have some smalls similarities to one another, given they come from the same mind. But if a flat BBEG makes your players tune out, a constant stream of interchangeable BBEGs would make them comatose. However, rather than just one area to focus on differentiating BBEGs from one another, there’s actually five parts of a character to think about.
Okay, so your BBEG is out to control/destroy everything. Why? Surprisingly, there are actually numerous motives aside from “I want to watch the world burn.” Maybe they’re just power hungry. Maybe they’re acting out of trauma they internalized. Maybe they’re trying to impress some romantic interest. Either way, this actually tied into–
Leaning into the previous section, a great way for a DM to separate BBEGs from one another is by making them act like different people. Even Zelda does this with usual villain Ganondorf. For example, in Ocarina of Time he was your standard aspiring overlord. In Twilight Princess, he had bit of a more vengeful slant. And in Wind Waker, he was more or less a burnt out part of destiny’s pattern. There are a number of methods to help a DM achieve this. (For instance, having one BBEG be the opposite of another personality-wise.)
With a system that allows creatures limited only to your imagination, a DM has no excuse to add variety to the physicality of their BBEGs. And yes, variety in species/gender/body type/so on makes for a vibrant rogues gallery. Take a look at the Final Fantasy series. Yes, it usually follows the normal beats. Some rando wants to take over the world/destroy its collective sh*t, a group of plucky heroes stop them, and capping the adventure off with a final fight in a semi-religious/symbolic/kinda sexy in a weird way form. However, almost all of them differ physically/biologically, the offered variety often being the memorable part of this beloved series. In fact, any DM worth their salt should actually experiment with physical aspects such as species or gender, as to broaden their horizons.
Less about what they are, and more about how they/their environments look (i.e. outfits, faction motifs). Falling into an aesthetic rut is what I like to call “Marvel Movie Villain Syndrome.” Outside of a few outliers (outside of Spiderman), much of Marvel’s antagonists can be described as “guys with flashy powers and tight suits.” Similar styles, similar abilities, similar everything. Their vibes are too similar to make a unique impression, which is something that any good DM should avoid. And even D&D‘s high fantasy genre leanings isn’t an excuse, considering that past baddies include a gothic vampire overlord, a many-eyed crime boss, and the goddess of dragons.
Yeah, you’re right, DM. This is a weird section to think about. But this is actually a three point question to think about: what is the BBEG’s moral standpoint, how do they themselves see their moral standpoint, and how do their actions relate to their morality? For example, Ozymandias from Watchmen. Guy kills a boatload of people, gives people cancer, and then drops a psychic squid on New York that claims millions of lives. But why? To keep the U.S. and the Soviet from nuking each other. Sure, your BBEG can be evil for the sake of being evil, but perhaps internally they have another thing going on. Also, spoiler alert for Watchmen.
Your BBEG Is The Worst…And Not In A “I’m Evil” Sort of Way
Yes, you BBEG is your party’s antagonist, but they have to be able to stand being around said BBEG. Okay, sure, you want your party to take after this villain, so of course they have to have negative qualities. However, if you hit the mark too wrong…
This is a problem that comes in many flavors. Maybe they’re annoying. Or they’re too edgy to be taken seriously. Maybe the BBEG’s entire personality is based around memes.
Sadly, this is also often a problem that pops up after a period of gaming, when you can finally take your BBEG out for a spin. If you’re worried about this, it might be smart to ask your players how they feel about the BBEG. You can slowly tweak the character from there, gradually developing a face that everyone would be happy to smash in.
Only this time, not because they keep making Tiktok references.
The Big Fight Is Awful
Okay, maybe the creation of an evil/interesting/so on BBEG is too hard of a nut to crack. Yet maybe that doesn’t matter! Maybe you’re actually a DM for a bunch of murderhobos who only see characters as squishy bags of meat and XP. Maybe you could get away with having a BBEG that’s exciting as toenail clippings if the fight’s fun, right?
…Er, it is fun, right?
Yes, DM. You have to obsess about making a good BBEG, and you also have to worry about their fight. Even better news? There are three sides of this problem to worry about.
The BBEG’s Overpowered
Yes, DM. Your boss is supposed to be a challenge. However, it’s supposed to be a challenging fight that your players have a decent chance of beating. This might be a no-duh, but an inexperienced hand can easily stuff enough legendary resistances to turn your BBEG into the Highlander. In addition to getting a second set of eyes to look your battle plans over, it’s also smart to look into how to make a monster, if not running play tests yourself.
The Fight’s Railroad-Powered
How does the ambitious DM celebrate a game meant to foster imagination and creativity? Why, fencing your players into said DM’s specific designs. Honestly, it’s very easy to worry about the narrative to the point of fusing it to every part part of the game. Maybe you’re trying to use this as means of proceeding the plot. Maybe you’re going for a symbolic approach. Either way, this is the part where the DM needs to step back and remind themselves that D&D is all about collaboration.
The BBEG’s Underpowered
So, DM. You were in fact worried about accidentally TPKing your party, and opted to premtively prune your BBEG’s stats. That’s great…except for the fact that you nerfed the guy to the point of your life cleric one-shotting them. The cure for this is pretty much the same as an overpowered fight; second opinions, monster making lessons, playtesting, and so on. Good news, though! This is a perfect segue into the final problem–
There’s No Payoff
Your dwarf paladin’s whole arc hangs on this one wizard that showed up and slaughtered his village, leaving him the sole survivor. He took his Oath of Vengeance within his village’s obscure god, which people mocked him for in addition to his height. Many a sleepless night, he questioned his faith. Was this even worth it? What if he never found the man who stole everything from him? Yet, somehow, he kept on trucking. Then one fateful day, Master Evil-Wizard showed up. This was it. After months (if not years) of playing, your paladin’s arc is going full swing. By god, he’s practically vibrating with joy.
Except- surprise, surprise- the wizard wasn’t evil! Nope, it was all a misunderstanding. The village wasn’t actually destroyed, the wizard draping it in illusions for reasons more convoluted than your average time-travel plot. In fact, he’s actually a good guy and…yeah, story arc over! Now shut the heck up paladin and- Wait, why are you packing your stuff up? Why are you getting up? Hey! Get back here! It was just a plot twist!
Yeah, no. This wasn’t a plot twist. It was a plot snap.
There’s a fine line between trying something crazy with the narrative and doing something too crazy for your players’ liking. Hence why you should talk to your players about what sort of story they’re looking for, in addition to using your gut intuition about what does/doesn’t fulfill them.
Yes, I know. If we had social awareness, we probably wouldn’t be playing D&D in the first place.