So you are sketching out a new campaign and drafting up a list of villains, trying to figure out their motivations and what drives them. Sometimes you will blank out on new ideas or potentially start recycling villains. To get around this consider looking over your character’s backgrounds and see if there is any synergy to incorporate their past with NPC villains you are making up.
For my weird west game I had a few general ideas of the villainous movers and shakers in the alternate 1870’s world I was crafting, including some evil organizations. As a first adventure, I set about the players being asked to deliver a holy artifact after being betrayed by a trail guide. However, I only had the barest of ideas though and needed to solidify a few main villains for the game. Tasked with this I scoured over the backgrounds of my players to get a few ideas for evil NPCs.
I fell in love with the 6th Gun comic and really dug the idea of a relentless group of undead soldiers. One of my players was a former soldier so I prodded him for a few more details. He saw himself from a long line of farmers that bred horses. His family and farm got wrapped up in the Civil War and he found himself fighting for more out of defending his home than for political reasons. At the conclusion of the war as it ground to a stalemate and eventual truce, he lost his family and land when it became territory for the other side. Losing everything he became a despondent snake oil salesman out west, more keen on drinking laudanum than selling his wares.
Getting that background, I asked for more from him. Of course he was a former cavalry officer, so I asked for more details on his commanding officer during the war. The only bit of solid information I requested would be that officer was someone the PC despised and thought sadistic. The result from him was Major Clancy ‘Buck’ Futter. A gross glutton with an enormous gut that nearly buckled any horse he rode. Joking aside with the nickname, this got my mind running with ideas.
I latched onto that key characteristic of a fat glutton and the idea of someone with a ravenous hunger surfaced. I envisioned the unit near the end of the war getting caught up in a siege. Cut off, surrounded by an enemy army with winter set in, Major Clancy Futter ordered the horses to be eaten. Starving still for weeks, some rumors in the fort fell about that wounded soldiers were quietly disappearing. When the enemy finally stormed the fort, the player had escaped believing his commanding officer was killed in the battle. All of this back information the player knew about.
What my player didn’t know was that Major Clancy Futter survived. Aching with hunger and fearful of starving to death, he was enticed into invoking a ritual of dark magic with some of his men following suit. Culminating this foul ritual by eating human flesh, he would transform and be undying. It was successful but he was cursed with the wendigo. Forever alive, he would be driven with a ravenous hunger that could only be sated for a short time by consuming human flesh. His cadre of men around him were also cursed with this affliction.
That villain stuck out for the campaign. One of the first clashes the group was at a church, the group inside surrounded by men on horseback. Unable to enter the hallowed ground they called for the PCs to throw out a holy artifact they wanted. My snake oil salesman player quipped something back. I then described some of the men parting and a gaunt fellow riding slowly forward. Despite its emaciated frame covered with a tattered uniform and cavalry officer hat adorning its head, it still had a grotesque paunch of a gut. The villain called out the PC by name, ‘Cyrus McClintock! That you in there? So you made it out of Fort Bean alive.‘ Trust me, jaws dropped at the table as players realized someone in the group had dealings with this creature before.
A small idea from a player back story cemented into a foundation of being a major villain for the game. It became a driving, relentless evil force, ever pursuing the PCs. Additionally it was taken from a player’s past and was a way of drawing that PC into the world, as they had a shared history with the villain. Instead of me having to fill in the story, that player could step up around the table at that moment describing how they knew the NPC, and its likely intent.
So I encourage looking over your players’ back stories and try to mine it for adventure ideas. People and events of note in their past can easily become the villains for a campaign. Asking details from players on a name, description, and mannerisms all can help give the NPCs a life of their own. Best of all the players become part of the world building process for the campaign and become greater invested in the setting. So don’t try and force yourself to think up everything, allow the players to help carry that creative load.