Taking inspiration from the media around you is one of the best ways to level-up your D&D game. In this article, we’ll take a look at my favorite villain. David Xanatos from the animated series, Gargoyles.
David Xanatos is a wealthy businessman with a fascination of the fantastic. He’s intelligent and always prepared. Xanatos is thinking ten steps ahead and rarely caught off guard. He plays the long game. Best of all, he’s human. His motivations are believable and you often find yourself wondering if he’s an ally or enemy. Now let’s break these down for use in your D&D game.
Friend or Enemy
When first introduced to David Xanatos, he comes across as friend and benefactor. This NPC gives your party a quest. Not only that, they needs to provide the party with resources. Something needs to take this NPC from acquaintance to benefactor or even friend. They invite the party to their castle, an impressive fortress compared to the lands around it. They give the party free-reign to take from the armory or special order weapons and armor from the smith. All covered, of course. After all, this NPC is wealthy beyond imagining.
Something needs to take this NPC from acquaintance to benefactor or even friend.
Intelligent and Resourceful
David Xanatos is intelligent. He’s resourceful. With his vast wealth, he surrounds himself with valuable resources. Your NPC should do the same. It might be a resourceful assistant (Owen in Gargoyles). Or a library of informative tomes. It’s not enough to have these resources. They must be a student of them. They must use them. Your NPC is knowledgable in all these areas.
David Xanatos is human. He’s flawed. Over the course of Gargoyles, you see him evolve. Love was once seen as a weakness and by the end, he embraces it. The human side of him is what makes him relatable. The motivations behind many of his missions are understandable, if not agreeable. He’s not motivated by pure evil and domination. He’s motivated by knowledge and achievement. Unlike many villains, he’s not vindictive.
Your NPC’s bond(s) can make them relatable. They have a child they’d do anything to protect or save. They are searching for the cure for their sick father. Think long and hard about the motivations behind this NPC. They shouldn’t be shallow or typical. Remember that they’re not evil. If you want to slap an alignment on them, choose chaotic neutral.
This NPC hired the party to seek a treasure from a dangerous dungeon. The treasure itself is meaningless to the NPC. They need time to examine it but allow the party to keep it. The NPC appears to be after the knowledge. In reality, examining this artifact is a piece to a larger puzzle. It will unlock a secret leading them to something much more dangerous. In this way, you create future hooks to bring this NPC back into the story.
This NPC hired the party to confirm nefarious dealings of another noble. The party discovers the dealings and stops said noble. Our NPC’s motivations seem pure. In reality, this creates an opportunity for the NPC to gain power in the region. They join a council in the corrupt noble’s place. This power grab might seem nefarious itself. But our NPC’s ultimate goal is getire enough power to build an aqueduct in the region. He understand the value of clean water. He also understands the value of his own company building it. This example is a facade of relatable motivations hiding understandable motivations. Again, our NPC isn’t evil.
That’s a ten thousand foot view of David Xanatos and how he can inspire an NPC in your Dungeons & Dragons game. He’s a unique and fun villain and he’s my personal favorite. You can stop here and use these ideas with ease. Or you can proceed to the next bit for a difficult but rich experience with this villain.
The Xanatos Gambit
David Xanatos’s plans are so well designed that even when he loses, he wins. The “always-win” nature of his plans is so iconic that a trope called “Xanatos Gambits” exists. According to tvtropes.org, “A Xanatos Gambit is a plan for which all foreseeable outcomes benefit the creator — including ones that superficially appear to be failure.” Their site has a great flowchart example of this.
As a Dungeon Master, this is incredibly difficult to pull off. It requires you to try and plan for every possible outcome based on how players respond to events. We all know how that turns out. The worst-case scenario is that you have to take the outcome of player events and then come up with a rational explanation for how this benefits the NPC. Do this too often or do it wrong and players feel cheated. Rightly so.
The players find out or figure out that the enemy still benefited despite the party’s victory. “Yeah, even though you won the battle, he still achieved his goal because…Xanatos Gambit,” is not good enough. There needs to be a legitimate and believable chain of events as a direct response to the player actions.
The players do not find out or figure out that the enemy still benefited despite the party’s victory. In this outcome, show them, don’t tell them. Players figuring out that their “victory” still benefited the NPC can be a fun moment for everyone. As long as it’s believable. Either give more hints in the world around them or have the NPC return in such a way that it’s obvious.
The players figure out the Xanatos Gambit structure. This is rare but we’ve learned to never underestimate players. In this outcome, you’ve pulled off something special. Not only is the Xanatos Gambit working but the players are aware of it. And they have to plan against an enemy that can’t lose. They understand the enemy will benefit regardless. But they choose how the enemy will benefit by deciding their course of action. If you ever achieve this, please reach out and let me know. Because I’ll need to bow down to you and your group for reaching a level of D&D many only dream of.
And that wraps up David Xanatos. As mentioned, he’s my favorite villain of all time. He’s interesting on so many levels. Go forth and use him to create amazing NPCs and stories.