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Running a Dark Fantasy Campaign – Wretched Villainy
Jun 29, 2022

DnD Article by Alex Caton

Every genre has its recurring threats, and those which haunt the halls of dark fantasy are unique in that their villainy must rise to meet the danger of a world steeped in darkness… without losing touch with the fantastical. This rich, contradictory foundation leads to evil draped in the tantalizing finery of charm while wielding weapons so terrible they stand above the everyday horror of a world facing its own bitter end. So how do you, as the GM, bring these glorious threats to life in your 5e campaign?

“True Evil…wore the skin of good men. It uttered prayers, not curses. It feigned mercy where there was only malice. It studied Scriptures only to spit out lies.” ― Alexis Henderson, The Year of the Witching

First, let’s quantify what you’re working with. We can divide the challenges available for loading into the story trebuchet and flinging in your party’s general direction into two broad categories: non-sentient and sentient.

In the non-sentient ammunition pile, there’s:

  • Plague
  • A general sense of the world moving on (think Stephen King’s “Dark Tower”)
  • War
  • Inquisition
  • Death of magic
  • Return of magic
  • Sun went out (like Jay Kristoff’s “Empire of the Vampire”)
  • Impending cataclysm
  • Aftermath of cataclysm


Your conflict projectiles of the sentient variety include such archetypes as:

  • Nasty royalty
  • Raiser of undead hordes
  • Power-mad sorcerer
  • Elder vampire
  • Twisted political advisor
  • Anyone really, really into immortality
  • Cult leader
  • Old god


Threats That Are Not Sentient, Still Scary

A major challenge of leveraging environmental threats is making them distinct from the overarching setting itself. This becomes a particularly tall order when the setting is as innately hostile as the lands sketched upon the many ragged maps of dark fantasy.

For example, if your world happens to be a war-torn one with shifting front lines and continent-wide conflicts as the blood-soaked backdrop to the party’s daily lives you run the risk of desensitization, losing a powerful weapon in your GM arsenal in the process. Consider how this backdrop can, instead, become present in the narrative to threaten the party, even when they’re not directly embroiled in the conflict.

Applying variant rules for resting is particularly useful in environments shattered by war, where safe havens are hard to come by and the vast, unforgiving lands between them veritably crawl with the cruel and the desperate.

Grim Hollow’s scaled-up resting rules are perfect to apply either to your campaign as a whole, or to select regions where the conflict draws perilously close. A “quick rest” is introduced, wherein players can use hit dice to regain hit points only. A “short rest” becomes 8 hours, and a “long rest” 72 precious hours during which the party must be warm, safe, and comfortable.

This approach works for worlds in the process of moving on, those enduring the aftermath of cataclysm, or where the warm light of the sun has not been felt in generations.

And of course, non-sentient environmental threats can be enhanced by or directly favorable toward your sentient big bads.

Consider plague. Yes, I know, we all have, are, deeply, unceasingly, horrifyingly, I’m sorry in my bones about it. May the world move swiftly on with many lessons learned. As a GM, however, disease remains a very effective way of introducing environmental challenges to a hardened party of adventurers.

If I were committed to being insufferable, I’d say at least we’re all acutely aware of how the invisible specter of plague transforms everyday environments into active threats. Instead, I’ll just remind you of the persistent wisdom to write what you know and we sure as hell know plague.

Weeping Pox Zombie Grim Hollow

Artist: Andreia Ugrai

Your overarching setting will do much of the heavy lifting here. If you’re using the Grim Hollow book, you have some finger-steeplingly diabolical diseases with which to lay siege to your party.

 

The Weeping Pox is a stunning example, able to be contracted on contact or merely by proximity, reducing the afflicted character’s constitution just a smidge every day unless they acquire the potentially rare, expensive antidote. And lo, is that a vital and perilous quest upon the horizon?

Leveraging environmental threats that can be communicated by lower-level obliquely increases the level of danger they pose, which is yet another way you can tap into the spirit of the dark fantasy genre whereby the mundane becomes deadly.

Now, about the thinky ones.

 

Villains – Love To Hate ‘Em

However morally grey and downright nasty your Dark Fantasy party wants to be, you get to be worse. That either excites you a great deal (join me), concerns you deeply (lawful good people are real), or both (insert kombucha-lady gif here).

The cheat-sheet for creating villains who are a thrill to play and mechanically challenging to face is to trope-flip enthusiastically, scale up subtly, and reskin liberally.

First, breathe new life into classic tropes by reversing archetypes and thinking about how they might operate in the inverse – an elder vampire becomes a young upstart, reducing the old rules of a life in the shadows to rubble and declaring all-out war with those who walk in the light.

Making classic foes into friends and those who hunt them the enemy is another way to reinvigorate well-trodden ideas: the cruel guild of monster hunters must be brought to justice when it is discovered that trolls just want to steam themselves in their bogs in peace.

And remember that today’s ally is tomorrow’s antagonist. A key point of tension in dark fantasy stories is having to choose between purpose and pals, so don’t be afraid to recruit those favourite NPCs to the even darker side.

Memori Lich DnD 5e Grim Hollow

Artist: Helge C. Balzer

Let’s say you now have your villain concept and… it doesn’t exist. You could build a stat block from scratch, that’s fun if you like work, but if you’re a ‘smarter not harder’ type, find the existing creature who is most similar to your idea mechanically (i.e. in terms of what you want them to do) and just give them a good old teen-movie makeover.

Once they lose those dorky glasses and borrow from your wardrobe, the party will have no idea what hit ‘em. By this I mean make your villains feel different without having to spend loads of time building stat blocks – not that you should make them all really attractive! Although…

Anyway, as an example: my personal favorite foray into reskinning was to wrap a flesh golem in fatberg skin, made of trash and spewing forth all the terrible detritus of rank, dank sewers. It took about 5 minutes to make and resulted in half a session of truly disgusting fun.

Next, scaling up subtly is how you transform a 5e game, recommended for ages 12+, into a dark fantasy game, recommended for usually older than that.

Grim Hollow presents a really easy way to do this – scale everything up by a challenge rating of about 3. So if your published adventure recommends a CR 2 enemy, pit the party again a CR 5 monster instead.

Other ways to make monsters more threatening to a well-equipped party in a darker narrative without it feeling heavy-handed are:

  • Increase their HP, although be aware this tends to make combat slower
  • Add a damage dice
  • Add an extra attack
  • Borrow an advanced attack or feature from something with a higher CR
  • Have them come back in a more advanced form after an initial defeat
  • Implement a necessary sacrifice to achieve a final defeat
  • Give them a lair and lair actions
  • Give them legendary actions


Grim Hollow’s very cool Legendary Templates leverage this last point to great effect. For example, when your party’s facing a group of lower-level enemies give their leader the Commander template. They can now use legendary actions to embolden their allies to attack, move advantageously, or get out of trouble. The whole group is immediately more threatening, just by giving one of them legendary actions.

 

Crafting Complexity in a World of Moral Dilemmas

Often in dark fantasy, the primary antagonist is actually the world and all its troubles. Everyone’s kind of terrible, but only because they exist within a system where being good just gets you dead.

The mechanical complexity comes into play here when your party inevitably encounters creatures doing some really sketchy stuff, but they’re actually just doing it to survive and if your players elect to stop them that struggle will end and it will not end gently.

Additionally, sometimes the victims become the victimizers. And while that’s never an excuse, it is still likely to evoke a degree of empathy and perhaps hesitation in your party which invariably adds another layer of emotional complexity to the campaign.

Ritual Sacrifice DnD 5e spell

Artist: Tijana Janković

This, by the way, should not be limited to enemies. Take note of the really sketchy stuff the party have themselves engaged in and either give obvious villains license to do the same or reveal to the party that they, too, are being hunted for their reprehensible crimes.

Another dimension to morally complex villains is making sure other inhabitants of your world acknowledge or communicate that complexity. Show don’t tell. Drum up believable grassroots support for your villains across the lands they terrorize by peppering their large-scale evil deeds with genuinely positive acts at the civic or personal level.

The tyrant who burns through magic-users in the thousands to fuel a relentless search for ever-grander heights of power may still command the respect, nay – love of the citizenry as they reap the myriad benefits of societal progress. Sure, the thought of your child being cursed with magic and called into the ruler’s “employ” turns the blood to ice, but even the least fortunate here have bread and ale to spare and our city is one of unparalleled marvels.

Remember your lines and veils, too: the villains should shock and hurt the characters only. If the players themselves are upset by the villains actions, then it’s not the villain doing it – it’s you.

Narrative Consequences that Vibe with the Vibe

Infusing your big bads, medium menaces, and small scumbags with moral complexity can summon a genuinely oppressive, lose-lose miasma that permeates your campaign, and may make your players wonder whether there’s any point at all to sending their characters out into this world. As can a world filled with unexpectedly deadly foes around every bend in the road, or one grappling with war, disease, cataclysm, or any number of environmental threats.

You’ve created consequences to match the dark, now strike a spark in the night and show them the possibilities of fantasy. Someone, somewhere, has a light.

However dire a consequence, consider adding hope in near equal measure and accessibility as a counterbalance. For example, if 3 errors in a challenge or arc would lead to the loss of a valuable magic item, 3 good deeds bring another into the characters’ lives. Or, for a less mechanical hypothetical, if a character is turned into a vampire, thus doomed to an eternity grieving the loss of the sun’s warmth, perhaps they gain an advantage over or an comradery with the rising horde of bloodsuckers.

Alchemists Supplies Grim Hollow

Artist: Ona Kristensen

Keep a page in your GM notebook, virtual or otherwise, dedicated to how the scales of consequence and possibility are weighted at any given moment and employ a system to prevent either dark or fantasy from overwhelming the other entirely. This system may be mechanical (3 consequences, then look for ways to balance it out) or narrative (each session should end in balance). However you choose to stack your scales and dispense your justice, remember that someone, somewhere, has a light.

Whether or not the party finds it and sets their word aflame with a new dawn of possibility is, mostly, up to them.

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Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire offers over 400 new monsters, tailor-made for a dark fantasy campaign.