How to make your players hate your villain, but not your game

How does one build the character of a villain such that the players (playing heroic characters) hate the villain as much as possible without detracting too much from the quality of the game?

What motivations, habits, etc should the villain have to make them particularly despicable? Should the villain be based off of the PCs in some way or is it more effective to base the villain off of some objective standard of villainy? If the former, in what way should the villain be based off of the PCs?

In order to back up your answers, please either a) provide examples of published works making use of the technique/method you recommend, b) cite real-world RPG experience evidencing the success of your technique/method, or c) cite published material on the subject supporting your position (DMGs, Academic papers, Dragon articles, blog posts, etc)

The best answer will provide unique insight into the causes behind player responses within the character-driven framework, provide critically successful example works exemplifying the particular method advocated, and provide a source where for information on the method/subject, if desired, can be acquired.

How to make a low CR villain more dangerous

My PC’s in one campaign are currently traveling to their first major town and, unbeknownst to them, there is a Rakshasa, disguised as the town mayor, using the town to feed and kill as he pleases while performing experiments on the town’s populace etc etc other evil acts. While I like the character I have made for him so far, and don’t want to give HIM more powers, I need him to be more of a threat in the story.

Rakshasas focus mainly on deception and trickery, But aside from literally turning the PC’s on each other (which I’ve thought about) I can’t think of alot of ways to add more depth to this villain. The town has a Thieves Guild indebted to him, and he has several Chuul under his command, working for an Aboleth that is his master, but this would still be a pathetic fight if I just threw them at the PC’s.

The CR of a Rakshasa in 5e is 13, the party is comprised of four characters at level 6. This seems rather even, but Rakshasas are very non-combat focused, so the CR is only a rough estimate of his abilities

The goal for this villain is to be a Master strategist. The Rakshasa is arrogant, so he’s likely to reveal himself too early to the PC’s depending on how things work out, and I’m okay with that, but he should not be caught flat-footed. What are some ways I could use cleverness or manipulation to give him the advantage in an urban setting against PC’s that like to get violent?

The best way to do this would be with the least amount of flair. The Rakshasa needs to keep his cover or lose all power in the town, so blockading and attacking the PC’s needs to require the least amount of overt effort on the part of the Rakshasa. Subtlety is key.

How can I have a villain restrain PCs in an “intelligent” way without killing or disabling some or all of them?

The party got captured during a showdown with a major villain at the end of the last session: three of them died and the survivor got trapped while trying to flee the dungeon.

All four of them can cast spells, and the villain saw them doing so during the fight. He also saw that two of them have magical companions (it’s 5e D&D, they are an Imp familiar and a Ranger’s Primal Beast) that they can summon to help. He’s a spellcaster himself, so he’s intelligent and he’ll be aware of the capabilities of an Imp familiar, which is a handy companion to have when you’re planning an escape.

He doesn’t want them dead: he wants to send them as slaves to the even more-major villain that he’s working for.

As a clever person, aware of the escape risk posed by spellcasting characters with magical companions to help, I can’t see any reason why he wouldn’t just kill the two with companions and keep the other two bound and gagged, or even unconscious, until they’re at their destination.

But this is a game, and we’re here to have fun, so I’d prefer that not to happen. I’d prefer they weren’t even gagged so they can, at least, hatch an escape plot. I’d also prefer not to have a deus ex machina solution, such as a rescue party arriving, for the same reason as it robs the PCs of their agency. It’s more fun to come up with a plan yourselves. Ideally, I’d also prefer not to fall back on a tired old trope like "the villain is so arrogant he ignores your magical powers and leaves you unbound".

Are there some good ways I can give the players a fighting chance in this situation without making my villain look like an idiot, or taking away their agency?

How can I handle a PC wanting to be a “twist” villain?

My group has been following a premade campaign that has a decentralized plot structure that relies mainly on adventurers "finding their own adventure". This means that while the campaign provides ample worldbuilding information and premade side-quests, the campaign has no clearly defined antagonist or central plotlines. Normally, in a group focused on exploration and combat this wouldn’t be a big deal, however in my group there’s been a general feeling of dissatisfaction at the current lack of plot progression, as well as the lack of a main antagonistic force.

In order to help develop a centralized plot, one of my players recently came up with the idea of his PC secretly acting as a twist villain. The basic premise is that they would conduct certain actions between sessions in secret (i.e. assassinating certain NPCs, instigating strife between factions, etc.), such that the other players would have mysteries to uncover, as well as a means of driving change in an otherwise stagnant story.

In order to prevent the player from gaining an unfair amount of agency and spotlight, the following would be enforced:

  • The PC will not become "the BBEG". That is to say, they will never become the primary antagonistic force in the story. They will never work fully in opposition to the other PCs, but will follow goals that the other PCs may view as acts of evil.
  • The PC’s villainous acts will serve to develop a larger storyline. The PC will only be privy to information pertaining to their own actions; the player of said PC will not be aware of the overall direction of the story.
  • The player has agreed to relinquish control of their character to me (the GM) in the event that cooperation between them and the rest of the party becomes impossible.

I’ve heard that PVP generally has a negative connotation and I have some concerns with the idea of a player having an elevated degree of control in the storyline, mostly related to spotlight issues. However twist villains appeal to me and I think that the other players will appreciate the resulting narrative shift.

RPG.SE has a vast array of experiences and I’m certain that this scenario has occurred before. I’m hoping to draw on that experience to help answer the following question: how can I handle a PC wanting to be a twist villain?

  • What steps can I take to ensure that this doesn’t come across as an act of favoritism?
  • How can I prevent this from turning into an instance of "My Guy" syndrome?
  • Are there any pitfalls of this choice that I may want to avoid?

Preferably, I’m interested in answers that ensure that the mystery surrounding the villains identity is preserved, while reducing any potential in-real-life strife.

Contextual points to consider:

  • The group has historically responded well to story-driven adventures. Roleplaying abilities are generally strong and players expect the presence of heightened drama.
  • When we started this campaign, we were aware that the campaign was more open-ended than others we’ve played in the past. It was selected as an experiment of sorts; needless to say the experiment has proven somewhat unsuccessful and everyone involved is aligned on the fact that the campaign requires a stronger storytelling backbone in order to remain interesting.
  • Session Zero has already occurred and this sort of behavior was never fully discussed. Players are aware that their PC’s goals will not always fully align, and that PVP may occur, but we haven’t discussed the possibility of players being fully villainous.
  • Players are aware that they may receive more or less narrative attention based on their choices and the direction of the story.

How to create a villain for level 1 players

I want to build a cool devil overlord as a villain for a group of three level 1 PCs.

How would I go about making a villain who’s more powerful than them without going overboard? Should I be scared to make it incredibly hard since there are only 3 party members? Do I make a villain like I make regular D&D characters? Or should I try and stick to the book mostly since I am new?

What would it take for a villain to get his domain transported to Ravenloft on purpose?

In all the cases I can remember in which somebody got taken by the mists to become a Dark Lord, it happened to an unwilling subject (which makes sense, given the torment they suffer there).

Let’s imagine the situation where somebody knowledgeable about Ravenloft lore would try to get the Dark Powers to kidnap him, along with his domain, into Ravenloft on purpose. To make the situation even worse, his ultimate motives might be honorable – he knows that if his castle stays in the Prime Material plane for another month, the entire plane will get destroyed (or at least very seriously damaged, a mass extinction kind of event). Let’s assume no frame challenges on this point – destroying the castle itself is not an option (it won’t help and moving to other plane than Ravenloft is also not possible).

From a very good description about Dark powers, we can read:

The Dark Powers seek those who transgress. Those who become Darklords are guilty of deliberate, passionate evil, often done in full knowledge that the deed was wrong. Whether the nascent Darklord is a deluded oathbreaker like the Lady of Nidalia (Islands of Terror), a power-hungry tyrant like Azalin or the lord of Falkovia (Ravenloft Campaign Setting) or simply a murderous monster like Harkan Lucas (Ravenloft Campaign Setting), the Dark Powers seem driven to find deliberate evil and punish it in their own peculiar fashion. Dispassionate or accidental evil does not have a history of attracting the attention of the Dark Powers, and there is no Darklord capable of communication that is not canonically shown to be fully aware of the sin(s) that lead to their damnation (some Domains have unknown Darklords, like the Nightmare Lands, or alien Darklords that may or may not be capable of meaningful communication with humanoids, such as the Elder Brain that serves as Darklord of Blutspur).

The villain in question is completely amoral – he has no issues with performing bad things, including sacrificing people in cruel ways – but he has, let’s call it, a pro-ecological mind, which wants to avoid the destruction of entire world due to the event he has originally triggered.

Is there, anywhere in the lore, a way to convince Dark Powers to pull out a piece of land towards Ravenloft? Will they be swayed by ‘being evil’ when your ultimate motive is kind of proper? Can you think about any smart way to fool them ? (last question might be better for WorldBuilding forum, so ignore it if it is too much off topic)

How can I foreshadow the identity of a villain without making it too obvious?

I am currently running a campaign where, in one of the main story arcs, the villain is a rogue(assassin) with the charlatan background. He a very charismatic man who already commands a fair amount of respect and power having lied, cheated, and murdered his way into a position of nobility – his alter ego. In reality he leads an organized crime ring, and has an insatiable thirst for power. Meanwhile the surrounding kingdom has gone to war on a front far from the city in which the villain, and my players, live. The military presence is thin, the guardposts are empty, and the villain is not the sort to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Over the course of the campaign the villain plans to use his crime ring to destabilize the government of the town from which my players conduct their operations. Meanwhile his alter ego will be attempting to win the heart of the people, promising to stabilize the region and keep them safe. In the final stages of his plan he will sell out the criminals he commands, who are oblivious to the connection between his identities, and assume leadership of the region in a populist uprising which the depleted military is unable to prevent. It will be up to my players to keep him from assuming power, or otherwise take him down.

Leading up to the end-game big reveal I want to drop in a few clues that the “noble” is not what he seems. The clues should not be so heavy-handed as to give away the villain’s plot on their own, but should hint to my players that something is amiss, and is probably worth investigating. I don’t want to let things spiral out of control without giving my players the opportunity to stop it. How can I foreshadow the villain’s true identity given this context?

Help making my villain who wants to rid my D&D world of all magic [on hold]

So, who I plan on making the big bad of my current campaign (a powerful wizard who tapped into the magic of the void and is almost invincible [ofc not really cause they need to be beatable] when it comes to magic), I want to give the goal of trying to absorb and ‘delete’ all magic in the universe other than themselves, making them the sole magic user and holder. But, this is D&D and I want a huge epic final battle and it will be hard with no magic! Basically, what this villain is doing is going under the guise of this omniscient being that stops really powerful magic disasters (that they put into play) so that they can convince everyone to reject magic (all magics arcane and divine). But I just don’t know what to do to keep this idea going, I would really appreciate some help!

Psychotic Villain vs will save witch hexes?

I have a major villain who used to be the strongest member of the party, but gained psychosis and is now under my control and gaining mass amounts of power to be used as a boss against the party soon.

I have a player playing a witch who mostly uses hexes that are listed as mind altering and attempts to cause permanent mental damage to most of the intelligent major bosses they have fought.

So my question is regarding whether the psychotic boss would take extra damage against these mind altering hexes, have resistance against them from already being in an altered state, or if the hexes should affect them as normal?