Last night was another remarkable World of Alidor session, featuring the slaying of no less than two dragons, one of which was also a lich. Gruul the Archer shot a foe so hard it knocked over the giant pine tree behind the guy. Dix the Warmage was lighting off fireballs like there was no tomorrow. And Kane Bloodtiger slid down icy slopes all John Woo style, firing his bow along the way. Andrew, the new guy, eased concerns about letting a lawful monk join the party by having his guy booze it up before the fight. And he doesn't even have levels in Drunken Master yet.
But I am going to be a selfish jerk and give myself the Badass Moment of the Night Award. Osric the Slayer was busting some fools with his flail when the dracolich popped up on the scene. On my next initiative I handed my flail to one of my opponents, deadpanned "Play time's over kids. Time for daddy to go to work." and charged the dracolich while drawing my greatsword. I am still patting myself on the back for that move. It's soooooo reeks of 80's action movie machismo.
Telling y'all how awesome I am is only one of the reasons I am writing this post today. I really want to talk about this great new method for making memorable villains I swiped from Jon, the Alidor DM. Well, maybe I didn't swipe this method. I inferred it from playing his game. He might not be consciously using 3 Step Villains, but they are one of the things that makes his game rock on toast.
It's a simple technique. Start with a basic type of critter that could be seen in your campaign, one of those archetypal encounters that people have been using since the stone age. Here's the examples from Jon's game: Orc, Merchant, and Halfling. Now modify these basic encounters with a word or phrase that is not normally associated with the basic encounter. Don't be afraid to go far afield in this step. You want something that can be justified in some way but on the surface it can make no damn sense. This should give you something like Metrosexual Orcs, Hextor-Worshipping Merchant, and Cannibal Halfings. Now do that again, making sure the new modification has nothing to do with the original word or the first modification. Now you're sitting pretty on Soulblade Metrosexual Orcs, a Hextor-Worshipping Merchant Grandma, and last night's encounter, the Cannibal Halfling Dracolich-Minions.
Now I'll bust out three examples of my own. We'll start with Ogres, a Wizard, and Elves. Let's make the Ogres into Ogrish Minstrels, the Wizard becomes a Wizardly Sports Fan (he follows chariot races or knightly tournaments or whatever), and the Elves become Elf Slavers. Now for the last step we transform the Ogrish Minstrels into Ogrish Minstrel Kidnappers, the Wizardly Sports Fan becomes a Wizardly Sports Fan Usurper, and the Elf Slavers become Undead Elf Slavers.
Brainstorming that out took maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Now some of your results will look like nonsensical garbage. Don't throw those out; they might very well be your best ideas. The key to making them work is to build a plausible explanation for how the three disparate elements fit together. Let's take the roughest of my examples, the Ogrish Minstrel Kidnappers, and try to flesh it out. How did these ogres learn their minstrel skills? Perhaps they come from a hidden realm where the ogres are civilized. Encountering these guys could be a good hook for a later adventure where the PCs try to find their homeland. How can they be successful kidnappers when ogres aren't exactly trusted in most communities? Two solutions spring to mind. These ogres might have some sort of magic that allows them to appear human. But a more intriguing solution would be that the ogres are visiting the lands of other monsters such as regular ogres or orcs or hill giants. The kidnapping victims are monsters themselves. How cool would that be! And why are these ogre minstrels kidnapping orc children or whatever? That's the easiest question of all: they're selling the little green tots to the Undead Elf Slavers, of course!