Gaming Stories: Rise and Fall of the Red Mage

Recurring villains are one of those storytelling elements that just seems next to impossible to translate into a role-playing game. A villain needs to make the players want to hate him, but he also needs to survive contact with the group. It’s easy to do one, but not both; if the players really hate a villain, they’ll often go all out to defeat him, plot be damned. There are only a handful of ways to keep a villain in live in that case: keep him behind a glass wall, illusory projection, or similar device to bestow plot armor, make him powerful enough to take the whole group on and win (in which case you run the risk of the players not knowing when to retreat), or use cheap GM fiat tricks to guarantee his survival…in which case you’re taking the “game” out of “role-playing game.”

I’ve been on both sides of the table on the matter. As a GM, I’ve watched guys I expected to be major villains gunned down, stabbed, or tossed out of windows. As a player, I’ve gone on murderous rampages to take down bad guys, sometimes sacrificing my own characters and sometimes ignoring the positive aspects of a villain’s personality because of my seething hatred of them. (In particular, my friend Nick once ran a game with a very good samurai villain who was not actually a bad guy but rather honor-bound into serving the big villain. He eventually tried joining the group, but I was so sick of getting my ass kicked by him at that point that I was quite hostile in the role-playing interaction, much to the detriment of the game.)

I’ve played RPGs for about twenty years, but I’ve only had a handful of really good villains. One of them is a decade old now and still going strong, much to my delight and the anguish of the players. Hailing from various Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder games, his name is Derrezen, but he is best known in my games as the Red Mage. This is a look at how he got introduced, what worked for him and what didn’t on his rise to villainy, and why he became a character my players loved to hate.

Remnant of a Lost Plot

I have a nasty habit of planning out my games into epic levels when very few of them ever get there. Originally a great wyrm red dragon, Derrezen was supposed to be the end boss of my first campaign in college. The theme of the campaign was supposed to be something of a cross between Dragonball Z and Beowulf (which I now realize is such a ridiculous statement that it belongs in tabletop RPG land): a constant escalation in power in which evil mostly threatened the land in their response to the actions of good. It was a sort of reverse on the typical reactive hero thing. Several of the PCs had backstories that cast them in the role of avengers. Off the top of my head, there was a fighter who had been deposed from his realm by a corrupt ruler, an evil monk who sought to kill the paladin who had murdered his father, an elf whose town had been decimated in a war against humans, and another human fighter who had lost her home and family to orcs. Each had a reason to pursue revenge, and as they got their revenge, a new evil (or good, in case of the monk) would respond out of a desire for revenge of their own, similar to the way that Beowulf had to face Grendel’s mother as a repercussion of his killing her baby. Ultimately, Derrezen, the dragon-god and slayer of deities who had been in a stasis for millennia, would be awakened by these events, making for a climactic final battle.

There were two problems with this campaign model. First, the players never hit 20th level or above, where they would have been able to challenge Derrezen. Second and more importantly, no one cared about my stupid plot. It was good on paper, but it was one of those cases where, as a GM, I thought things out as a story and not as a game. Some of the PCs didn’t pursue revenge. One of them deliberately avoided following the storyline I set up. The group got split. The evil lord that one player wanted to take on got killed off-screen, which only left that player feeling robbed. Derrezen wound up getting released as an epilogue to the collapsed campaign, and most players didn’t even understand or care why. In my head, this all made sense, but I hadn’t adequately shown it at the table. As a villain, Derrezen was a failure at this point

Lesson learned: RPGs don’t get the benefit of analysis by literature students. If you want a theme in a game, make it explicit or the players won’t even know it’s there.

Off-Screen Threat

I went away for Christmas break and came back intent of continuing my D&D campaign in some way. The campaign got a time jump of 15 years, which allowed an orphaned girl from the original game to return as a 19-year old PC with a laser gun (I was pretty heavily leaning on a mix of sci-fi and fantasy for the setting at the time).

Fifteen years had passed with a pissed off red dragon flying around. He wasn’t going to just sleep on his hoard for that time, so I decided that he had destroyed several northern kingdoms in the interim. To deal with him, the realm of Blackwood had a pair of high-level mages and a fleet of airships, but even then they could only fight him to a draw. Derrezen was still out there, usable as a big threat later in the game, but this time he wasn’t a major priority for me.

Villain-wise, this short campaign actually was one of my more successful games. One of the one-off NPCs from the previous game had been unexpectedly allowed to live and gained a ton of character development, so he returned as an ally instead of an enemy. Another thread from the last game was that the evil monk had an older brother who had been killed and brought back as a bodak, who now sought to be united with his brother in undeath. Said monk had a great scene where he willingly got killed by the bodak’s death gaze in order to keep the rest of the group from being harmed. (It’s worth noting that the sacrifice was actually totally in keeping with the PC’s lawful evil alignment, and that Josh, the player who ran that character, did one of the best jobs I’ve seen of having an evil PC who could work with a group and still be heroic.) The game did include more of the evil-wanting-revenge thing I had going previously, but I was more explicit about it, with one of the villain’s loved ones getting killed by the PCs early on. The villain was also a shadowdancer, and I learned early on that they can be great bad guys, with their ability to pop up right behind the PCs at any given moment and their mobility abilities allowing for quick escapes. The rest of the game was largely driven by draws from the deck of many things, which is a great adventure design tool if you can get the PCs to take a chance and draw from it.

Derrezen himself remained in the background, basically playing the role of Iuz from Greyhawk, Manshoon from The Forgotten Realms, or the Dragon of Tyr from Dark Sun: a villain that could threaten the world, but was barely held in check by other powerful NPCs and wasn’t really on the PCs’ radar until they leveled up a lot.

Basically, the second time around I learned not to plan things out so far and kept the epic-level monster off-screen as a possible foe in the far future, not as someone the PCs were destined to face from day one.

Death of the Dragon

Derrezen wound up actually fighting the PCs only once, and even then only a single PC was involved. Jumping the timeline forward a bit more, Derrezen cast a spell of sickness over the childless queen of the last human realm of Blackwood, using subtlety to cause chaos that would destabilize the realm and let him destroy the kingdom while it was weakened. Two heroes, an NPC and a PC, had to sneak into the dragon’s lair, steal a powerful artifact from his hoard, and return it to the mages who could heal the queen. Naturally, this resulted in a fight with the dragon, in which the big accomplishment was just surviving long enough to escape. And then once the heroes succeeded and the queen got healed, I finally got to trot out my Beowulf references by having Derrezen take the kiddie gloves off and just rampage through Blackwood, seeking to make the bastards who dared steal from him pay.

Stopping the unstoppable dragon probably would have been a heck of a campaign, but I was out of college and not gaming much then, so it sort of petered out. The actual rampage got translated over to Shadowslayers, which became my first published novel. Without game mechanics around, I could do what I wanted with the villain, meaning that there could be multiple encounters with both him and the heroes going all-out and me as the writer knowing that neither would die until it was plot-appropriate. In the end, Derrezen finally bit the dust, and I intended that to be the end of him in my campaign.

Lesson learned: if you’re going to treat an RPG campaign like a novel, you might just as well write a novel.

The Red Mage

RPGOne of the more common comments I received about Shadowslayers is that it allows for prequels but not sequels. That makes sense, as I intended to not only write a fun story, but also mentally wrap up my old fantasy setting so I could do something else in RPGs. The novel resulted in the deaths of several main NPCs, including my old PC and the big bad of the setting. But writing the novel got me thinking about the game again, and I suddenly found more time to game. Cue another time-jump and the introduction of the Red Mage, who finally allowed Derrezen to be an effective RPG villain.

Off-screen, Derrezen clawed his way back to life but found himself trapped in a lesser, human form. He then set about trying to find ways to restore his full power. Oddly, he became a focus in my game even though he wasn’t part of the main plot; he had his own machinations that would occasionally intersect with the PCs, but he was really mostly doing stuff off-screen.

As the Red Mage, Derrezen now had a few things going for himself. First, as a human, the PCs could finally look him in the eyes and not have him towering hundreds of feet above them. I think having a human-sized villain makes the NPC more relatable. Second, since the game started with the PCs at 2nd level and the Red Mage was 20th level, I didn’t have to worry about the PCs killing him, even if they got lucky. As to the Red Mage himself, he didn’t care about the PCs and was happy to sick his minions on them instead, allowing him to keep on with his own plot.

Derrezen also had an air of mystery about him now. He was known only as the Red Mage, and didn’t want people associating him with his draconic identity, since he thought that would weaken him in peoples’ eyes. Even a high-level wizard pales in comparison to a great wyrm, and when he returned to his true form, he wanted no one to associate the dragon-god with the pale-skinned weakling that had once walked the world. So, for about half the campaign, he was only known as the Red Mage. His exact motivations and goals were a mystery, but as the PCs traveled the globe, they saw evidence of his passing, either through fearful locals whispering about his deeds or through ruins they entered that had already been pillaged by him and his followers.

The big thing that helped Derrezen in this incarnation was that he had true motivations now. As a dragon, he had basically been around to smash things on a big scale. As a human, he became more driven. Yes, he was really just looking for ultimate power to help him take over the world, but the process allowed me to show his world view a little bit. He saw the world as his birthright, and believed that his death had taken that away from him. Moreover, he was now afraid. A lucky shot with a sword, a nasty fall, or even the slow march of time could finally do him in. This fear caused him to care about little else but his quest for immortality; while he clashed with the PCs a few times here and there, he only started taking action against them when they became real nuisances to his plots, at which point he did start to fight back personally. At one point he left the PCs paralyzed and helpless near a rampaging golem. At another point when the group ambushed him in his lair, he turned them to stone, leaving them effectively dead until an NPC revived them. The fact that he had motivations of his own put him in a place where he was something more than an obstacle for the PCs, so as a GM I could now have him respond accordingly when the heroes did something. As the red dragon, he had just been another monster for the group to fight, albeit a big one. Now he was active on his own. He was effectively having his own adventures off-screen, so when he crossed paths with the PCs, they were as much a monster for him to defeat as vice-versa.

The Best-Laid Plans

The game I introduced the Red Mage in was originally supposed to be a beer and pretzels game. In this way, I quite accidentally sidestepped my major problem from the first time I introduced Derrezen, in that I didn’t have an endgame thought out from the beginning. The campaign happened organically as a result, with the Red Mage popping up here and there but sometimes being gone for months of game time. As the game turned into something more serious, we eventually reached an ending, and the Red Mage’s big plan was revealed.

I admit that I shamelessly ripped off ideas of other creators in this case. Borrowing from Gygax himself, the Red Mage gathered up several slumbering demigods, placed them in a magic device, and began siphoning off their energies, empowering himself. For those familiar with the Greyhawk setting, it’s not unlike the way Zagyg Yragerne rose to godhood. The presence of this plot, which had unfolded over several years of game time, demonstrated another important part of the villain: despite a few setbacks here and there caused by the PCs, he was succeeding in his plans. Once again, the PCs intervened and stopped his machinations, but the actual battle between the Red Mage and his foes got stopped by the demigods awakening from their prisons. The resulting battle blasted the Red Mage into another dimension while the PCs had to stop the gods from rampaging through the world a la the Forgotten Realms‘ Time of Troubles.

In the end, the world got saved, the PCs got to become gods themselves, and the Red Mage even got what he wanted…sort of. He was given an offer to become a god and regain his own power, but only on the condition that he never return to the Prime Material Plane. He wound up turning the offer down, because he saw this world, not another one, as his birthright, and vowed to become the dragon-god again his own way.

Derrezen Must Die

All good things must come to an end, and I wasn’t about to leave Derrezen out there forever without giving the PCs a chance to finally put him down. Pathfinder‘s Mythic Adventures rulebook gave me an avenue to tell the dragon-god’s final(?) story. In another new campaign, the Red Mage regained his original power after over a century and a half of trying and began laying waste to the world. Having lost this way before, he sought an additional edge, trying to draw strength from the crystallized heart of his original body.

The PCs tried to stop him, but the battle went the way so many fights with the Red Mage had gone in the past: he beat them down, even killing one of the group. To keep him from becoming even more powerful, the remaining heroes detonated the heart. In doing so, they became imbued with a portion of the dragon’s essence, granting them mythic power.

Finally in high levels for the first time since I had started running 3rd edition D&D and its offspring, the game got wild. Part of an ocean drained when Derrezen ripped a hole in reality to give an entire city as a gift to a goddess, the PCs jumped forward in time to witness a Days of Future Past-style world where they had failed to stop Derrezen and their friends were permanently altered, and much more. Ultimately, the group fought Derrezen in his lair.

Given the poor balance of the mythic ruleset, I ran the final fight not by using a single stat block for Derrezen but rather by setting certain checkpoints where the battlefield shifted based on certain goals the PCs accomplished during the fight. This made the final battle feel kind of like the end boss of a video game, but it also ensured that the villain who had been around for almost 20 years wouldn’t die like a chump due to a poor roll.

Ultimately, my wife delivered the killing blow with a mythic disintegrate that destroyed Derrezen utterly. That didn’t end his threat, though; the PCs were still imbued with his power. Part of me hoped that one of them would try to keep the power and become corrupted, turning into the villain of the next campaign. However, the group all went down like heroes, sacrificing themselves and ensuring that Derrezen’s spirit would be gone for good.

A Post-Red Mage World

Derrezen died for the last(?) time three years ago. When I jumped the campaign setting forward again and adapted it to Pathfinder 2nd edition, I told myself that I wouldn’t bring him back, no matter what. The temptation is there, but PCs from different campaigns fought him from 2000 to 2018. He had a great run.

Moreover, a whole group of PCs died to make sure he wouldn’t come back. If I were to bring him back in the future, it feels like it would cheapen the deaths of those PCs. (Unless, of course, I opted to bring the sacrificed heroes back as well…hmmm…)

Goodness knows I’ve been tempted. The introductory adventure paths for both D&D 5th edition and Pathfinder 2nd edition had the heroes trying to stop the resurrection of a Dragon-God.

So far, though, I’ve chosen to let well enough alone. That said, I can never bring myself to say that he’s definitely, finally, 100% gone. Even one of my players expressed a desire to see him back someday. I just hope that when I do finally give into temptation, I do so in a way that doesn’t cheapen the sacrifices made by PCs over the course of four separate campaigns.

Lessons Learned

So I’ve had a lot of success and some failures running Derrezen as a major villain. What lessons can be applied to RPG villains in general?

  • Coming up with a very good theme for an RPG campaign is useless unless it is made explicit to the players and they’re on board with it. Good stories do not necessarily make good games.
  • Planning out an epic-level enemy at the start of a game is a waste of time unless you have a good reason to believe that the campaign will really last that long.
  • There’s a difference between a villain and an end boss. Derrezen the dragon-god is an end boss. The Red Mage was a villain because he was front and center early on and built up an adversarial relationship with the PCs. There’s nothing wrong with an end boss, but a villain can add much more flavor to a game.
  • An end boss can be an effective campaign villain, however. When Derrezen was off-screen and wrecking kingdoms, he fleshed out the setting. He wasn’t a major adversary for the PCs, but he did help make my campaign setting different from other generic fantasy worlds.
  • There’s something to be said for humanoid villains. They’re more identifiable as a person rather than a monster. The players feared Derrezen, but they hated the Red Mage.
  • A good villain needs to be strong enough to survive contact with the PCs but not so powerful that he easily obliterates them. The Red Mage didn’t need to be 20th level from the start, and it’s only because he didn’t make killing the PCs a priority that they survived their initial encounters with him.
  • Escape routes for recurring villains are great. Spellcasters with dimension door or other teleportation magic work nicely. Shadowdancers are also great in this regard. But the escape route should be something that can be countered later by the PCs, lest it become frustrating and redundant when multiple encounters end the same way.
  • Probably more important than anything else, I learned that a good villain needs to have motivations of his own, and needs to act toward meeting his goals. Furthermore, he needs to succeed sometimes. He doesn’t necessarily have to beat the PCs in order to succeed, but he should always be making some progress toward that ultimate goal. A well-planned gambit can allow a good villain to fail in his main plot but still achieve a secondary goal, allowing him to gain some small victory. A villain who never wins is a toothless foe.

While I’ve had a few other successful villains over time, none have matched the years of gameplay and multiple campaigns the Red Mage has spawned. He serves as an excellent series of lessons learned and one of the best long-form story arcs I’ve ever pulled off. Whether he’s gone for good or comes back down the road, the experience of this villain, both his highs and lows, has been very valuable.

Images: Wizards of the Coast, Paizo Inc, Bioware

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