When I design a campaign, one of the first things I ask myself is: Who is the main villain going to be? DMs are always eager to create intimidating, tough, unique, and slightly terrifying baddies. However, I find that very little attention is paid to the main villain’s support team. Think about it, most PCs have a very good support team. They have other PCs, often a mentor or a guide NPC, sometimes they learn special skills or pick up special abilities from adventuring, and often collect magical items that enhance what they can accomplish. So where is the villain’s support?
Sure, the DM can always up the hit points and the armor class, or give the villain a few items or special abilities, or also surround them with lackeys and minions; but the real challenge, and perhaps reward, lies in creating a true secondary villain. What do I mean by a secondary villain? I’m talking about a mini-boss and the main villain’s right hand man/woman/thing. Think of a secondary villain as the moat the PCs have to get over or past in order to get the castle (main villain) beyond.
Pop culture uses the secondary villain frequently and effectively. They are often first perceived by the heroes as the main villain until they later realize, usually to their dismay, that another and more powerful foe has really been pulling the strings all along. I personally created a home-brew campaign once that had three secondary villains, all of which the PCs thought were the main villain at some point. When they finally realized that a fourth and much more powerful foe was behind all of the problems, they freaked and I laughed.
If you need a little inspiration, or simply don’t quite understand what I mean by a secondary villain, here are a few examples from popular movies:
As the leader of Nockmaar’s armies, General Kael seems to genuinely enjoy riding around and killing others. What else would you expect from a man who fashioned his helmet out of a human skull and an animal’s jaw? Even more intimidating are his skills in combat and strategy that allow him to do this killing efficiently. General Kael answers to no one but the evil Queen Bavmorda and even then you sort of get the sense that he is only humoring the Queen until the time is right for him to claim it all. These sort of secondary villains who do the grunt work for the more advanced main villains are cliché but effective.
Sometimes you need to employ an undesirable to eliminate an undesirable and such is the case with Boba Fett. It is also interesting to note that here is a secondary villain (Fett) being hired by a secondary villain (Vader) to serve the purpose of the main villain (Palpatine). And this illustrates a good point, the number of layers you want to add to your campaign is limitless. In D&D, having your main villain employ mercenaries or even other adventuring parties makes for great story fodder and can eventually lead to big confrontations, crossovers, and even double-crosses.
Here is an excellent example of a character that you think is on your side and then turns against you at your weakest moment. These kinds of secondary villains can be the most heart wrenching for your PCs, especially if they don’t see it coming. It’s also an amazing process to try to pull off an 11th hour betrayal with one of the PCs themselves! I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a player, with my previous knowledge and consent, secretly work against his own party the entire campaign only to fully expose his treachery at the very last battle. It’s nothing short of delight to see that “I can’t believe it!” look plastered over your players’ faces.
Just the opposite of Saruman above, the character of Snape illustrates a secondary villain who you think is completely against you from the beginning but ends up being one of your biggest allies. These sorts of transformations may not be as shocking as their opposites but they do carry a good amount of satisfaction for the PCs. There is no small sense of accomplishment when players can struggle against an NPC, sometimes for months, and then finally win them over to “the good side”. It’s also interesting to set up the scenario where an NPC comes off as a villain but they are really just trying to challenge or toughen-up the PCs for the trials ahead.
Nebula (The Guardians of the Galaxy)
Here is a great example of the “what’s in it for me” secondary villain. In Guardians, Nebula is hoping to attach herself to a main villain powerful enough to slay her father, Thanos. Thus she will work for anyone and any reason necessary to accomplish that goal, even though she herself may not be completely evil. These kinds of secondary villains bring a lot of options to your D&D table simply because they are constantly motivated by opportunity rather than emotion. This means that they can change their allegiance several times a campaign depending on which side, or master, may give them the best chance of reaching their goal. Something I've never tried before, but might be extremely interesting, is a secondary villain serving more than one main villain. (Would you call that co-main villains?)
Regardless of their background or nature, a secondary villain brings depth and dynamics to your campaign. Give them the weight and the respect that they deserve and I promise you they will pay off. Perhaps you might even come to realize, as I have in the past, that a secondary villain can be even more fun/interesting than your main baddie. (I smell sequel!)