I've started to stat up a few major villains for my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, the guys that the PCs will face when they reach the finale of the heroic tier portion of the campaign. While thinking things over, I had a flash of insight.
Back in the day, I read a novel called A Gathering of Heroes written by Marion Zimmer Bradley's brother, Edwin. While I'm sure most of you have never read or even heard of it, the book had a big influence on my attitude toward D&D. Namely, I loved how EZB depicted his villains. I can still vividly remember how each of the main, evil guys fought and frustrated the heroes.
My favorite bad guy from the novel is Svaran the Black, a warrior of middling skill who also happens to fit perfectly into an impenetrable suit of armor that the bad guys steal from the dwarves (it's a very typical fantasy setting, though overlaid with elements of Celtic myth that I find appealing). Svaran's armor allows him to fight recklessly and relentlessly.
When the protagonist, Istvan, finally defeats Svaran, our villain suffers a moment of pathetic recognition when he understands Istvan's gambit and realizes that he's about to die. The mighty Svaran, slayer of heroes, general of the armies of evil, squeals like a baby and begs for mercy. IIRC, he even pleads, "I'm not supposed to die. I'm invincible," or something to that effect.
EZB was a good enough writer that he pulls off the scene, using the main villain's only line of dialog to evoke both a sense of pity and sweet revenge. Sure, Svaran killed several heroes during the novel, but in the end he's just a coward hiding in a suit of impenetrable armor. Istvan notes several times during his battles against him that Svaran is a middling warrior who would've been an anonymous toady to evil if he hadn't been the only guy who could fit into the armor.
As a reader, Svaran's death both illustrates some interesting depth for the character while also providing a satisfying victory.
I've been thinking of doing something similar for my NPCs in 4e. Sure, they'll have the typical spells and tricks to make them daunting enemies, but I'd also like to insert a few powers that are a mechanical expression of the NPC's personality and role in the campaign, built along with quotes or other material to go along with the attack.
To use Svaran as an example:
* Svaran can make a basic melee attack as an opportunity action, but he must allow the target to make a basic melee attack against him as a free action. He fights recklessly, relying on his armor to deflect blows. Each time he does this, I roleplay him a bit, describing his arrogance and overwhelming confidence, how he completely ignores attacks as they clang against his armor.
* When he's bloodied, that ability goes away, but instead he now gets a new attack he can use to strike anyone who hit him in melee the round before. He fights with increasing desperation, growing more cautious but desperately attempting to make each attack count.
* When he's down to his last few hit points, he misses his next turn and utters the line above.
The idea is that as the PCs tangle with him, his personality and role in the story inform how he fights in a direct, obvious way. A few other ideas:
* The PCs face a vampire and his succubus lover. If a PC harms the succubus, the vampire gets a huge attack and damage bonus against him on his next turn.
* A psychopathic dwarf assassin fights with a disturbing lack of emotion. If he hits a PC, that PC suffers penalties on attacks against him. When the dwarf is bloodied, he snaps into a psychotic fury. He can attack only the PC who bloodied him, and gains some temporary hit points to let him shrug off the inevitable opportunity attacks as he rushes at his victim.
* Two NPCs are hated rivals. If they can catch each other in area attacks, along with at least two PCs, they do so.
I like the idea of these "scripts" because they make a fight different. Sometimes, the tactically smart play for an NPC is boring and flavorless. If every NPC fights as well as the DM can run them, you lose a lot of what makes an NPC unique. Ideally, the players think of the fight in terms of the NPC's personality ("That dwarf was crazy! He ran across a pool of acid to get to Baldar.") rather than in terms of powers ("That dwarf had a nasty sneak attack abililty.")