All right, tabletop roleplaying gamers. It’s time to talk about a real problem for your long-term roleplaying happiness: enemy NPC fatigue (ENPCF), or “boredom,” for short. We’ve all been there: you’re on a dungeon crawl, twelve levels down the tower, and the monsters are starting to blend together. What was that last one? Tarrak, tarrasque, tourrette… it doesn’t really matter, actually. The slavering mandibles, grating claws, and magical damage resistance all look the same at that point. Granted, it’s been fun to collect loot and advance your character, but if you wanted to go grinding or farm resources, you might as well be playing Skyrim. It’s time for a serious villain overhaul.
The following are a few memorable monster villains from my own playing history. Let these creatures and people be an inspiration to your own memorable villain repertoire and take your games to the next level.
1) Rifts - The Evil Blob
A telepathic alien entity had taken control of a supercomputer. The supercomputer/monster then embraced (enslaved?) a race of cave-dwelling creatures. It taught them to read, write, and manufacture; it trained them to build and use amazing technology, established a social structure and government, and it even served as a quasi-religion. All it demanded was food in return, and it received enough that it grew into an enormous, fleshy blob. Our party came at this creature sideways. We were being attacked by bands of these small, hairy, Gollum-like cave-dwellers. We didn’t think much of it, random encounters being what they are, but we started to wonder when we accidentally captured one of them. The creature told us that we had to leave, that we were invading the territory of their tribe, and that their great leader would destroy us. Intrigued, we did a bit of reconnaissance, and discovered “the blob”. In the end, however, our group determined that this blob-like creature had in fact improved the quality of life for these cave-dwellers immensely. Rather than invade and fight the blob, we decided to establish a bi-lateral trade agreement with it. Whaddya know? This was memorable because we didn’t have to fight it at all. There was enough grey area to decided that killing it would probably be worse for the hairy creatures in the end. To keep things interesting, create villains that the characters don’t need to fight, but can be overcome in other ways.
2) D&D 3.5 - The Vampire Lord With The Crazy Castle
This villain is both a creature and an environment. At the beginning of this encounter, our party was warmly welcomed into a castle. The castle was well appointed, tastefully decorated, and we were fed a luxurious meal. We were waited on by a group of lovely ladies, the daughters of the lord, who later surprised various members of our party by arriving in their bedrooms. That’s where the red flags went up. They were, of course, vampire spawn who were working for the vampire lord of the castle. As the illusions faded, our characters began to see that the tapestries in this castle were rotting, there was black mold and cobwebs everywhere, and our hostesses were, in fact, undead abominations. The castle then became a magical labyrinth of bloodstained dungeons, torture chambers, decaying dining halls, and all-round horror. The castle itself eventually herded us into the great hall for a final showdown with the vampire lord. While I don’t remember the name of this creep, I will surely never forget the feeling of sick dread I had while moving inevitably through his castle of horrors to meet him. Environment can make the villain!
3) Shadowrun - Bug Spirits
What is big, horrifically alien, deadly… oh, and can’t be harmed by ordinary weapons? Shadowrun Bug Spirits. Denizens of a poorly understood nether dimension, these spiritual creatures have manifested on Shadowrun’s parallel earth to… well, nobody really understands why they’re here, which is part of what makes them so scary. To destroy the living? To consume everything? To reproduce? Also, if they get ahold of you, they will either eat you (which would be a mercy) or they will take you back to their nest, where a gentle, well-meaning madman plants a spirit larva inside you. It takes possession of your body, and you will become either a true believing member of a bug spirit cult, a hybrid bug-human drone, or the shell of an egg that will hatch into a spiritual insect. I still shudder. During an extended Shadowrun game, Bug Spirits were just one element in probably the most convincingly storied game world I have played in; they were nevertheless one of the most memorable creature villains I have ever encountered. Better than Ridley Scott’s Alien, it makes the so-called ‘mindless’ monster deeply personal on both a physical and a spiritual level. Did I mention that ordinary weapons don’t hurt them?
4) Rifts - The Coalition
The Coalition forces from Kevin Siembada’s Rifts are a great, multi-layered enemy. Xenophobic, merciless, and dressed up in black skulls, they make perfect cannon fodder for gamers just out to bash some bad guys. It’s like being Indiana Jones and punching Nazis. In one game, however, we players got a closer look at them and the Nazis began to look more like the Germans from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Some prisoners we had captured seemed a little too human, a little too close to home. Think about it: these people are the last major human power in the game world, the descendants of those who survived the coming of the rifts. Why do they fight against DeeBees? Because this is their earth. Why are they xenophobic? Because many, many of the things that have come through the rifts have been incredibly dangerous, or utterly evil. What made these villains most memorable was being able to stand in their shoes. We realised that, if the world really did erupt with magic and extra-dimensional beings, humans would likely only survive if they banded together - and it becomes easy to see yourself joining up with the Coalition just to survive. Have some sympathy for the devil; there is a lot of power in having sympathetic villains with their own agenda.
5) D&D 3.5 - The Desolator
The Desolator was an evil half-orc, half-ogre chieftain who allied to dark powers that planned to unite the orcish hordes to annihilate the world. Sounds like a fairly straightforward Dungeons & Dragons character at first glance, but I could have kissed the Dungeonmaster. Maybe I did, I don’t remember. This villain was capital ‘A’ awesome for me because he was a direct response to the character I was playing. My character was a half-orc barbarian (classic!) who had become the king of a tribe of orcs who were trying somehow to be good. Yes, we took some liberties with the canon, it’s a part of the hobby. I made a long write-up trying to reconcile this bizarre situation, but the short version is this:
My character, whose leadership was in dispute, had used a once-in-a-generation war cry to call all the orcish tribes to war against the Desolator and his buddies. The Desolator, on the other hand, had used the same war cry to call the orcs to fight against my character and the forces of good. Part of the final battle involved an argument between him and I to persuade the orcish onlookers whom they should follow The physical victory over the villain was that much sweeter because of the moral/political victory of winning the hordes over to my side. The best villains have a personal connection to the players’ characters and the characters’ players!
Create villains who have a rational agenda to create interesting grey moral areas. Allow more than one way to overcome villains in order to keep things interesting. Add an environment that matches your villain to create a more memorable experience. Use monsters that can do worse than just killing a character. Finally, make villains personal by connecting them with characters in important ways. These are just a few suggestions; hopefully these experiences will help you to change things up and keep your games fresh!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Image source: Art of the Genre’s article on Shadowrun’s Bug City
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.