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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?

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10 Answers 10

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That depends on what you mean by villain

If you meant the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy - the main Villain of the Campaign), I will start with some frame challenging:

You don't.

A BBEG that is going to be defeated by level 1 characters is probably underwhelming. That's an animated armor or bugbear level of threat. Anything your players can beat with just their lvl 1 features and spells probably isn't going to be a Villain level of enemy.

So, just make usual encounters. If you don't know how, it's explained on p. 81 of DMG or p. 56 of the free DM's Basic Rules PDF. From my experience the difficulties are easier than what they say - deadly usually means having to spend some resources (class features and spell slots), but unless your players are unlucky, deadly shouldn't be actually deadly.

Let them get some levels. By level 3 to 5 they might be able to defeat something that actually could be called a BBEG.

However, you present the campaign villain early on

In the comments, goodguy5 suggested to introduce the Villain without combat. He gave two examples that you can read below, but I'll use the one from an official adventure - Strahd von Zarovich from CoS.

He is introduced almost as soon as the adventure starts, but he is only supposed to be fought by level 10+. He shows up in person some times, either to scare adventurers or to play them (or without them being the reason he shows up). If they engage combat against Strahd, he will charm them, make them fight each other and might try to turn one into a vampire, but he will not just kill them, because that would be unfun for him.

If you mean just a boss, not the big one

You can get some monsters, as the Bugbear mentioned, and give them some lore. If you can afford it, Lost Mines of Phandelver does exactly that and might teach you some things (the Starter Set is amazing for that).

Make the Animated Armor a guardian or a cursed soul. Make the Dryad corrupted by the destruction of a forest. Anyway, take CR 1 (at max CR 2) monsters and give them a background, a motivation, a story. That should be enough for 1st lvl.

If you want to create a new monster, p. 273 from DMG explains how to do it and calculate the CR in order to keep it balanced.

TL;DR:

The DMG gives clear guidelines as to what is a balanced encounter to any party size and levels. You probably shouldn't have a BBEG that is defeatable by 1st level characters, but a "Boss" can be made taking usual CR1 monsters and giving them lore.

Quick note about similar-to-PC villains

AFAIK, there is no guideline to what CR a PC would be (they use CR = PC when needed, but this is just gross, if a CR1 monster is supposed to be a decent encounter against FOUR level 1 PCs, there is no way a level 1 PC is equivalent to a CR 1 monster). Without experience, you probably shouldn't try to make a PC-like villain, as it is easy to make it overpowered or underpowered.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 23 '18 at 17:36
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Do I make a villian like I make regular D&D characters?

You do not, creating monsters is a totally different subset of rules that can be found in the DMG page 273. I've tried digging around in the SRD, and the rules for making monsters aren't there, so you'll really have to buy or borrow the DMG if you want to make monsters from scratch.

All your questions can be answered by reading the DMG, particularly the following:

  • Creating a Monster (page 273)
  • Creating a Combat Encounter (page 81) for gauging roughly how difficult a group or an individual creature is against your PCs.

Without a DMG, there's not much you can do about creating a creature from scratch.

Fortunately, there are several available creatures online that you can use. Just take a look at these NPC-villainables from the SRD, and choose one that is of Challenge Rating 1.

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Some villians are monsters, others are pregenerated NPCs, and others are playable races with class levels. The last category can absolutely be created according to the book. \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Apr 23 '18 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BobTheAverage so do they use point buy? 4d6? Do they get maximum HP at level 1? What level is a CR1 equivalent?- They aren't the same. Take a look at the NPCs in the SRD I linked, they list Priest and Druid as CR2, but the priest is "5th-level" and the Druid is "4th-level". Take note also that despite being 5th-level, the Priest only has a proficiency of +2, not +3 as PCs of that level are. That drives my point- NPCs don't follow the same rules. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Apr 25 '18 at 6:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ The DM can choose what stats they get. The CR of a villian with class levels is calculated the same way the CR of any other monster is calculated, using the table on page 274 of the DMG, and adjusting as needed for special abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – BobTheAverage Apr 25 '18 at 14:35
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In addition to the more technical answers, I'd point out that a villain doesn't have to be physically impressive. An enemy can be dangerous without a sword or spell (say, by poisoning a city's water supply). They can be tough to defeat without being physically imposing (say, by hiding in the sewers, protected by clever traps).

This is also an opportunity to create a nemesis at the point of origin. So he's not a "boss" yet. Maybe he is easily defeated, or his final trap/golem is the boss fight. The point is, he gets away, and you can bring him back in a future adventure, once he and the party have leveled enough to have anything resembling a boss fight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure enough. A level one with a high Charisma and solid connections in government can be more dangerous than a mid-level Devil, and much harder to kill without facing serious consequences. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael W. Apr 23 '18 at 17:02
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Ideally, a creature with a CR (challenge rating) of 1, should be handleable by 4 characters of first level. Thus would be challenging for 3.

The simplest method, would be to find a CR1 creature in a Monster Manual that is close to what you want class wise. Then, you can reskin it as the Villain you want.

For example:
In Volo's Guide there is a Kobold Scale Sorcerer (CR1) that could be used as a template for a 3rd level Mage.

Some useful online tools:

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A lot of up-votes for the links... Great answer \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau Apr 23 '18 at 15:32
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Two answers.

You don't need an anthropomorphic villain

Not all threats worthy of adventurers are creatures. In fact, some of the more believable low-level setups pit the PC's against an object, or a system.

  • Maybe their village is threatened by swelling ancient magic underneath the mountain, which will cause landslides unless The MacGuffin is brought to the altar in the bed of the mountain.
  • Maybe a wildfire is raging across the woods, and will surely engulf the town unless the PC's are able to get the rare local reagents required for a long-forgotten ritual that protects the town from such dangers.
  • A new, natural, disease is ravaging its way through the countryside. The only way to save your town is to step into a ghoul-filled ghost-town of plague victims, acquire samples for a vaccine, and bring them back to the town healer who can innoculate the townspeople against the creeping threat of sickness.

Your villain can be defeated sideways

Perhaps the villain is a CR10 villain - much too strong for a party of newbies. This is, in fact, why he's the villain - nobody in the land is strong enough to oppose him. No city guardsmen, no street thugs, not even the most experienced huntsmen can stand up to him (maybe some have tried, and you can make it clear they failed spectacularly). This is the One-Punch Man of your part of the world.

But HP and AC are meaningless in the face of most ways a person might die. Such as;

  • He lives underneath a dam that can be collapsed, or on a mountaintop that can have an avalanche.
  • He's particularly allergic to a certain special kind of poison, and the adventurers go on a quest to get/make the poison, then infiltrate the villain's castle and slip it into his wine one night.
  • Even more simply, anyone can be killed by drowning - maybe the PC's job is as simple as destroying his ship mid-voyage across a sea, and leaving him to the sharks.
  • Maybe the PC's just need to find a magic device that sucks the air out of a sealed room, then lure the villain into it, activate the device, and watch him asphyxiate.
  • (for evil parties) Perhaps he has a secret and deep passion for another person, and he can't live without her. Orchestrating her sudden and unexpected "suicide", along with a note suggesting he join her in oblivion, could lead to the villain offing himself. You could substitute "suicide" for "kidnapped and set up as bait for a trap" if you want something less, uh, unapologetically evil.

There are lots of ways to kill villains stronger than you - and depending on your group, this could be an excellent way to introduce your players to non-mechanics-based thinking.

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A useful way of thinking about it (that brings together much of what was said by others, but frames it differently) is that you don't need a CR 1 villain, so much as you need a villain of any level that creates a CR 1 problem the players need to deal with.

The best villain IMHO is one that is out of reach of the players for awhile, but for whatever reason has schemes they can dismantle that points them towards another of the villain's schemes. After gaining levels doing that a couple of times, the villain will begin to notice them, which should fill them with a nice sense of dread. By the time they reach the appropriate level and finally face off against the villain, they'll feel like they've really earned it.

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Not sure if this warrants my own post, but just bringing together what others have said...

There are two aspects to the original posters question:

  • Should they make up their own villain or stick with the books?
  • How, as a DM, do they go about creating a dangerous tense encounter without going too far and killing the characters?

For the first question it is as daze413 and ravery pointed out:

It is much simpler to stick with the books rather than creating your own monster which can be difficult to balance, though the DM's guide does have guidelines on this. Having said that, it isn't too difficult to 're-skin' an existing monster into something that seems entirely different to what's in the book (change the appearance, change a 'fire' attack into an 'acid' attack and so on, and you can easily change, say, a fire elemental into an acid blob monster!).

For the second question:

The DM's guide (page 81) has guidelines for a combat encounter as daze413 also points out. I would add that the Wizards Unearthed Arcana site also posted up an alternate way of calculating combat encounters (which I consider to be much simpler). Find this here.

Also, as Furiant points out, there is more to creating a memorable dangerous villain than just combat. There are plenty of ways a villain can be present, gloating about his goals while the PCs battle his minions (while occasionally lashing out with a spell or whatever to show exactly how dangerous he is). Such a villain will, of course, flee before the PCs get to him. (But also be prepared for your PCs to show surprising resourcefulness and defeat your 'undefeatable' villain! Always be prepared to change your carefully laid-out plots!).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Link to the UA combat encounter calculator? \$\endgroup\$ – Timbo Apr 23 '18 at 22:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Added the link. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Apr 24 '18 at 9:01
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You could make a low-attack, high health villain that uses an escape skill when they get low on health, and then reappears later in the campaign as a higher level character. The "high health" could come from the Wizard class's "Shield" spell and related defensive spells, and the low attack could come from the Wizard class's 1d4 attack damage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site, please take a few moments to take our tour. You have some great ideas, but do you have any suggestions for how to implement such an NPC? A typical wizard would have spells (including cantrips) to deal more than 1d4 damage, for example. If you want to add something, feel free to edit your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 23 '18 at 20:25
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As other have stated; for level 1, you don't have a villain. Or more to the point, you don't have A villain.

Specifically, at level 1, the characters are just getting their bearing in the world. The chance of TPK is great with one role of the dice.

A true villain should give the air of "everything built up to this". How much build up are you going to have at level 1? Is the baker that sells cursed cakes to certain customers as revenge a "villain", or just a "bad guy"?

Instead you want to build a series of hurdles the players will go through. I gave an example in this question about bounty boards. The characters will do something simple that leads to deeper and deeper intrigue until they can find the mastermind that set everything in motion; the doppelganger that is morphed to be a king, or a devil that created a lawful religious order whose annual rites (and being performed soon) are actually a ritual to open a gateway to Hell.

Things always starts off small, but with the victory over the minor the characters have the skills and confidence to go after something worse.

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Let the players create the villain.

Present them with the usual set of encounters: bandits, orcs, goblins whatever. Make sure someone, anyone survives; have them swear undying revenge against the player characters.

A few sessions later, let them discover that the last set of challenges were actually set up by someone. They investigate and find out that "that guy" from the first session was actually behind it. At this time "that guy" is fully aware that the PCs will murder them in actual combat, so he instantly flees only stopping to taunt from somewhere safe.

Maybe a few more proxy murder attempts, then the villain makes some sort of desperate measure: demon pact, mass-murder-to-make-zombies, drinks a potion of vampirism; something to graduate from annoyance to villain. All he wants is to kill the PCs, if the rest of the world bites it as well, that's fine.

Keeping someone alive isn't that hard, it can be anyone. Maybe one of the goblins only plays dead, or one of the orcs is out hunting. One of the bandit captives were romantically involved with one of the bandits; it takes a special kind of PC to murder the just-freed girl who cries over one of the bandit corpses.

The important part here is that the players notice the survivor:

As the characters leave the goblin ambush, they hear something, look back and notice a shape rising, they notice the near mortal wound and missing hand; and he runs away. (Later the scars provide recognition.)

When they plunder the orc encampment, they notice an orc returning to it. Everyone stares at each other for a minute, until the orc breaks and runs. Someone comments on how unusual it is for orcs to have blue eyes.

Try to roleplay everyone, some characters stick, you find them fun and the story flows from there. Just keep your eyes open for potential stories.

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