How to Write Rivals into Your D&D 5e Campaigns

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Dungeon Masters often inquire about how to bring a character’s backstory into an adventure. Additionally, they regularly seek advice on world-building and developing robust NPCs. To add realistic depth to a world and to expand players’ interest in non-player characters, Dungeon Masters should consider involving rivals.

Rivals in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

XGtE (pg. 123) introduces the idea of using rivals as potentially non-evil characters who thwart players during downtime. 

“Rivals are NPCs who oppose the characters and make their presence felt whenever the characters are engaging in downtime.”

“Rivals can also include good or neutral folk who are at odds with the characters, whether because they have opposing goals or they simply dislike one another.”

Because players make choices that should have realistic effects on a world, it should come as no surprise that NPCs may think poorly of the adventuring party. In a firefight, did the wizard burn down a breadmaker’s shop, who is now seeking financial restitution through legal means? Is a militia leader suspicious of a party member who rubbed him the wrong way and is now wary of his intentions? Did members of a secret organization get ousted by the party and now seek revenge? 

Perhaps there is a rival adventuring group who may steal jobs from current players, and vice versa. In terms of backstories, does a player have a scorned sibling? Did a player outshine a peer or spurn a love interest? These are all examples of possible rivals a Dungeon Master can include in their world.


How do rivals operate in the mechanic of “downtime?” A rival acts in the background of a campaign, but events leading up to the rival-reveal should never be hidden from players. A Dungeon Master can introduce changes in the world as a result of a rival’s actions to put a plan in motion. 

Perhaps a mysterious figure inquires about the party in taverns they visit—a court summoner hoping to find justice for the breadmaker. It may be that the Colonel the party is working with sends a small group of soldiers to escort them from town to town—to keep an eye on them. Maybe a town is suspicious and cold toward the party—a town run by the thwarted secret organization.

Dungeon Masters, think of three or four events that occur behind the scenes as a result of a rival. Show these events occurring in the world, but do not reveal the intentions of the rival.

XGtE describes a few scenarios where events and actions occur in “downtime” and otherwise:

Scenario 1:

A wererat leader seeks acceptance into and domination of a society. 

Events: Rats fill the streets. Community members demand actions be taken against the rats. 
Action: Goblins raid caravans more frequently, a result of the wererat leader’s direct influence.
Action: Rats destroy warehouse goods, eating through food supplies and materials. Community members blame the city government. Famine is possible.
Action: Assassins are sent after adventurers who interfere.
Event: Dead rats plague the town. Disease is rampant. 
Action: Rumors are spread by the wererat leader that adventurers or rival towns are to blame (omen of a god, trade disputes, etc).

Scenario 2:

A high priest seeks power by becoming leader of the most popular religion. Keeping outside influence such as adventurers away is important in this goal.

Event: A Grand Festival fill the street. Temple patrons offer food, drink, and shelter in the temple.
Action: The high priest appears in the same tavern the players are visiting and proselytes. NPCs convert.
Action: The high priest gives a public address and denounces chaos, blaming adventurers for meddling in their affairs. 
Event: Town members are cold to the adventurers.
Action: The high priest convinces the town to lay heavy taxes on strangers like the adventurers in order to keep the town safe. 

Creating a Rival

Keeping in mind the importance of finding a personal connection with players, whether through gameplay or backstories, XGtE has developed a formula for creating rivals. Consider a rival’s goals, resources, and methods to thwarting players.

Goals + Assets + Plans = Good Rival

Questions to help develop a rival:

  1. What does the rival want in life?
  2. How do player characters prevent rivals from accomplishing their goals?
  3. How can this conflict be resolved?
  4. What ties does the rival have to the players? What is important to players to make them care?
  5. Does the rival have monetary means to hire hooligans to act on his behalf?
  6. Is the rival in a position of power that could have a greater effect on the campaign and player characters?
  7. How might a rival operate to set plans in motion? Directly? Indirectly?
  8. What are some specific events that the rival has influence over that can take place to set her plan in motion?
  9. Are there any contingencies the rival can consider in case of unanticipated events?

More Rival Examples

In addition to XGtE’s table of rival examples (pg. 124), we offer more possible rivals.

  • Beast trainers with competitive breeding and training
  • Druids of different domains
  • Rival churches
  • Competing merchants
  • Rivalry due to morality issues like necromancy, animal rights, etc.
  • Grudges between towns 
  • Rival assassin/mercenary guilds
  • Peer you outshined when you were training in your trade
  • Members of the same clan with the same goal, such as becoming a champion
  • Performers competing to be featured at a harvest festival
  • Artificers contracting with the government to design weapons
  • Rival gangs, spies
  • Deep-seeded race or class disputes
  • Rivals who want to hunt a monster first
  • Wizards of rivaling schools who believe their magic is more pure
  • Clerics who rival based on their gods
  • High priests that make money for healing who dislike healer adventurers
  • Tradesmen with rivaling products (potions, weapons, etc).
  • Friendly rivalry to see who gets the most kills (think Legolas and Gimli)
  • Rivals who both try to be the leader in a situation
  • Romantic rivals, gathering jewels as a dowry
  • Rivals who try to beat each other through their children being better
  • Family rivals, history of feuding between families
  • A weak person trying to rise up to challenge or match a powerful person
  • Rivalry based on vanity and appearing better than another person
  • One person’s father disgraced the other’s father
  • Political rivals
  • Rivalry through eating contests, weight, fitness, jumping, climbing a rock in record time, setting any kind of record
  • Most converts to a religion
  • Who can lie better
  • Who can hold a straight face
  • Who is the better magician/sleight of hand (think The Prestige)
  • Old men trying to train a legendary fighter (think Phil training Hercules)
  • Prison guard feud with an inmate (The Longest Yard, The Shawshank Redemption)
  • Someone amazing constantly showed up by a fool (Forrest Gump)

Do you have any questions about rivals? Comment below and we’ll help you brainstorm!

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