As a gamemaster, it's one thing to create a villain from a narrative point of view, but it's an entirely different thing for that villain to actually provide a mechanical challenge for the players.
Sometimes you put a bunch of effort into creating an antagonist, fleshing out their backstory and orchestrating meaningful encounters with the players to build up their reputation, only to have it all come crashing down the moment that combat begins.
It can be somewhat anti-climactic.
The villain in this story is not an example of that, as they were definitely a meaningful threat.
If you're planning on playing through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage and want to go in blind, this blog post spoils some stuff on one of the deeper levels.
You have been warned.
Everyone is dead.
Everyone except me.
I don't know where he sent us, but no matter where I look, the land is strange and twisted. Unnatural angles vie for dominance. The colours in the sky bleed into my memories, like they've always been there.
But I know they haven't.
They swarmed us not long after we arrived. Things with too many faces, flailing limbs studded with teeth, eyes blinking across mottled skin.
We didn't know each other, but we fought like lifelong comrades in arms. Backs pressed together, hacking at the wave of flesh that surged over us, screaming and wailing with the voices of our friends and family.
It's quiet now. Nothing moves. Not even me.
But the howling and gibbering still echoes in my mind.
Then, a ripple of power and he's standing there, a deranged twinkle in his eyes, great grey beard almost reaching the ground.
"Well" he says, matter-of-factly. "I guess the job is yours Muiral."
I look dumbly back at him.
"Congratulations! I just know this is the start of a long and fruitful relationship".
He smiles a madman's smile.
He travels constantly, shifting from place to place like the movement across vast distances is nothing.
And he takes me with him.
I've seen things you wouldn't believe. A vast ocean stretching from horizon to horizon, gargantuan shadows barely visible in its depths. A cathedral of bone built upon a great plain of ash. An old woman who made us tea in a ramshackle cottage , while ghostly skulls floated in the darkness outside.
He doesn't need me.
I doubt he ever did.
But still I follow, protecting him, fighting off the threats that he barely even acknowledges.
The longer I stay with him the more I can see.
Like the threads that he pulls on to weave his great works. Pure unadulterated power, interlaced with reality, connecting everything to everything else.
They slip away from me when I try to touch them, dancing just outside of my reach, but I know it's just a matter of time.
He confides in me sometimes, sharing his great plans with me as we walk through the halls of the shifting labyrinth that responds to every errant thought.
Sometimes, in the quiet, I hear his words echo in my mind. Snippets of conversations that I don't remember having, of secrets too great for my mind to contain.
Sometimes it's not his voice that I hear.
The fool has taken me as an apprentice.
I've already learned so much without his help, I don't need his lessons to propel me further. To surpass him.
But for now, I'll play along with his newest game.
He has suggested that we forge a weapon to mark the occasion. A magical blade.
It is a fine idea.
I have no doubt I could craft it myself, but I would be stupid to pass up the chance to leverage his undeniable power and skill.
But I must be careful.
He is duplicitous and fickle and is no doubt looking for opportunities to control and manipulate me.
But he doesn't know that I have a plan.
The blade will be more than just an implement of war. I will make it to cloak my thoughts. To keep his voice out of my head.
And maybe to dull the others as well.
I have stolen so many secrets from this doddering old idiot that thinks himself master. I doubt he even realises.
I found the great work he was hiding from me. The one he intends to drive back the dark-skinned elves that surge forth from the caverns below. The one that will make him an army.
There is a majesty in what he has done, an enchantment to turn man into predator. The speed and brutality of a scorpion, with immunity to their poisons and unbounded movement. A perfect counter to a race of spider-worshipping freaks.
The enchantment is complex, there is no doubt about that, but I understand it completely. The weaves are primarily Transmutation, with subtle threads of Abjuration interlaced throughout for protection.
There are other elements, but they are obviously unimportant to the whole. Unfinished thoughts and disconnected threads that he has forgotten in his senility.
I excise them from the spell, leaving nothing but what is necessary. Improving it beyond his wildest dreams.
I prepare the ritual in secret, stealing the reagents and supplies that I need from his vast vaults.
Using one of the many loci of power in this place, I begin, weaving the strands of magic together to birth this great work into reality.
My great work.
As the spell completes and the threads of magic envelop me, I see my mistake.
He is not the fool I thought he was.
I hear his laughter echo in my mind as pain wracks my body, twisting and shifting it into something else.
There is purity in my new form. A clarity of thought I have never before experienced. Everything is much simpler now.
I stalk the halls of their fortress, the chitinous plates protecting me from their weapons and the blood coursing through my veins inoculating me against their foul poisons. I move freely, unhindered by their spells, striking from wherever is most advantageous.
The gift that the master has given me is truly great indeed.
For weeks I prey on them freely, driving them from their stronghold, ripping apart their leaders and raising them to serve me in undeath.
Eventually the tattered remnants of their army flee back to the dark caverns below.
I wander the barren halls, listening to the lamentations of the spirits that now haunt the place.
The master has given me a task and I obey.
When they return, I will hunt them anew.
Sometimes others come.
It doesn't matter, all are prey.
All are slaughtered.
New dark ones come to reclaim what was once theirs.
A great house.
I hunt again.
It is harder than I remember.
The spirits mourn for their lost kin.
The sound soothes me.
Then, I hear others.
Not dark ones.
A half-orc. An armoured woman. A rabbit-man. A human that reeks of magic.
I lie in wait.
The half-orc moves ahead.
I separate him from his friends with a wall of arcane energy.
I toy with him. Dismember a leg. Watch him bleed.
The others break through the wall.
They distract me and he manages to climb up my monstrous form.
I skewer him through the chest with my stinger, and the life fades from his body.
He takes an eye from me in return.
The others panic and run, and I pursue, slower than I once would have.
I am unconcerned.
They will return for their friend.
And his corpse will welcome them back with decaying arms.
I feel the trap spring.
They have returned.
I must hurry, the undead abomination I created from their friend will only keep them occupied for so long.
As I get closer, I feel it fall, the necrotic energy animating it dissipating back into the weave. I know it has served its purpose. They are weakened. Perhaps some are dead.
The light bends and shifts around me, obscuring me from sight. I weave a simple spell to summon a fog to obscure me further, then push the doors open.
As the fog billows into the room, I see them.
I recognize only the rabbit-man. He is accompanied by a faerie, a tattooed elf, a rangy looking human man and a large muscular woman. She is dead already, so there are only four.
They are all prey.
I cut off their escape with a magical barrier and then move into position.
Electricity courses through my hands and arcs across the room, briefly connecting the rabbit-man to the human. They spasm and jerk but remain standing, trying in vain to escape.
The elf is on me before I realise, striking my carapace with his fists. They are as hard as steel and the fog dissipates as my concentration breaks.
I am too exposed here.
I retreat into the corridors beyond as they pursue me.
I took them for cowards.
I have misjudged.
We play cat and mouse, but they are cagey.
The faerie can sense me somehow, even when the light passes cleanly through me, and they are on me again.
I try to flee, but the elf strikes me as I rush past, and I stumble.
I am dull.
The elf pushes his advantage and I fall.
As my vision darkens I am swept up in a powerful surge of arcane energy and pulled into the blade we crafted so long ago.
A final gift from my master.
I do not know where I am.
I cannot see.
I cannot hear.
I can barely feel.
Then, warmth. The touch of skin. Warm blood pulsing through veins.
I reach out and communicate the only desire I have left.
In comparison to some of the other antagonists that I've run, the players did not have a series of extended encounters with the mutated scorpion-man known as Muiral.
That meant that I didn't really get a chance to evolve him, his motivations and his reactions over time.
Still, I think he was threatening, without being overpowered.
As an ambush predator, he was capable of subjecting the players to a huge amount of bodily damage in a very short period of time, as shown clearly when he killed a powerful and sturdy player character on his very first encounter (sorry Jack!).
I particularly enjoyed how he then used the corpse of that player character as bait, knowing that the rest of the adventurers wouldn't leave his remains behind. Very much in character for an ambush predator.
Of course, it didn't quite work out of him, but that's okay.
From a story point of view, poor old Muiral was manipulated, mistreated, misshapen and then cast away, like oh so many of the mad mage's tools.
Then his soul got stuck in his sword.
Which the players sold for money.