Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reoccurring Villains - Do You Use Them?

(can you tell I'm trying to get ideas for use in my current campaign? ;)

So, do you use reoccurring villains in your campaigns?

I used to in the way back days, but I found they either died to early or I had to pull off that mysterious "He weren't quite dead it seems" bullshit to bring them back. Neither was satisfying.

Now, I know you can keep the Big Bad Evil Dude offscreen for the longest, and just allow the PCs to interact with henchmen, "Left Hands" and "Number Twos (Who does Number Two work for! heh) but that seems like it will play out after a while.

So, do you use reoccurring villains? If so, how do you make them work? If not, why not?


  1. Avatars or aspects of the villain ("you've defeated the spiritual manifestations of the crystal that housed a portion of my power, but my soul/animated corpse/whatever is in a more dangerous dungeon in a more remote part of the world!", e.g.); also villains that bargain or flee before death (with attendant sacrifices from henchmen, Left Hands and Number Twos)

  2. I love recurring villains. I feel that they are the quickest, easiest way to give a campaign coherence. If you get the players to really hate on that one villain, and you manage to keep that villain off stage while they are hating, you have a winner.

  3. Absolutely. I've done it a couple of ways. You can do it as an organization/kingdom/religion/family or as an individual. One GM played a short rift of theme music when the big enemy appeared. He'd play it and not say anything and it became a visceral reaction. Great stuff.

  4. Back in the 1990s I ran the West End Games version of the Star Wars RPG for years and always had the same problem, but I could get away with comic-book logic like "no body? maybe he's not REALLY dead..."

    For a sort of pseudo-medieval fanatsy, I kind of like the idea of a vilain being politically well-connected and respected by the public - almost nobody realizes he IS a villain.

    The 3 Musketers could never have just walked up to the Cardinal and skewered him. (Well, they could try. If they succeeded, even their allies would have to turn on them for political reasons to keep the rabble appeased.)

    Likewise, you better have some HARD PROOF if you present the King with the head of his traitorous uncle or whatever...

  5. This is a magic-filled game, unless they make sure the body is disposed of quite thoroughly, it's always possible for your villain's allies or boss to bring him back. I only remember being in one game where we took the time to do that (for a group of extremely annoying recurring enemies.)

  6. I don't use individual villains (my players tend to be very good at hunting them down), rather I like to use the villainous organization. This way, I can always justify the big picture machinations of a villain without having to start from scratch every time my players get ahold of my last villain. Especially when the organization has a particular symbol, heraldry or other identifying item, the reaction from players is just as satisfying as if it were that one uber-villain that keeps getting away. It also allows the players a sense that they are actually hurting the organization and accomplishing something, rather than being frustrated that the uber-villain keeps getting away.

  7. Absolutely I do. I usually try to frame the big bad in non-combat situations first, then lead into the villain's threatening nature over time. I like to surround him with distinct "name level" henchmen the players can be expected to take out...though if the henchmen survive, they can become more distinct themselves. When it comes time to confront the mastermind, assuming it even comes to combat, I may have an "out" secured for the villain but should the dice fall such that the players defeat him, I let it work out accordingly...the key to the big villain is that the players enjoy the accomplishment, and if I've presented the villain to them in the right light, his defeat at the end will be that much more satisfying. If I decide to bring him back later, its usually with a twist...be it a cult resurrection, his progeny or spouse seeking revenge, or something weirder, like a mad henchman taking up the mantle of his fallen master, or a demon lord of the Abyss capturing his corrupt soul to use him in further diabolical schemes.

  8. Vale the Black Sun Adept survived his first tangle with the PCs when he attempted to murder Arya the renegade Red Wizard. He turned up again last Monday with a bunch of Zhents for a rematch in the ruins of Zelbross, only for her to melt him with a fireball, end of Raiders of the Lost Ark style.
    Basically, if a villain survives their first battle with the PCs they may well show up again, but I never give them plot protection. Sometimes I have major offscreen villains, let Graz'zt in my high school campaign; but if they show up onscreen they may get killed.

  9. Having recurring villains is easy. Place multiple powerful, evil NPCs with overlapping influences and competing agendas, and let the players decide who they'll deal with, who they'll fight, who they'll avoid, who they don't want to risk pissing off, etc. The recurring villains are the ones who survive and get encountered repeatedly. If you set them up like radio serial villains, to duke it out with the heroes each episode before escaping in their secret moon launcher, of course they're going to get knocked off.

  10. Political approach: Make the villain someone who sholudn't be outright killed, as it could cause significant turmoil if killed (he's the king, with no heir, in a setting similar to GoT's Westeros, so it generates a strong political vacuum; he's the Great Master of the Assassin's Clan, so the aspiring assasins will start a race of impressive political murders to claim the title; while the Nigromagus Ipssissimus is a cunning bastard, he _does_ keeps the city from relentless legions of undead, so he must live for people to prosper). The characters (if good-aligned) will have to seek _other_ methods to deal with your villain, mainly to reduce his influence or inhibit his capability to do villain-stuff. This creates a more challenging obstacle to overcome.

    Arcane approach: Make the villain the representative of an archetype. If you kill the Scion of Wickedness, the God of Evil, if faced with having his representative killed, will just choose another person, possively in a more privileged position, and its a lot better to know who your enemies are than being in the dark with them at large. If they are smart, the characters will have to deal with very convoluted ways to dispose that guy permanently. If not, the villain will appear again, in a different guise.

    Divine approach: The same as the political approach, but the character is actually a cornerstone of creation. The Incarnation of Law might be the most atrocious dick ever, but you can't afford to kill it, even if you had the tools to do it, and leave the world lawless.

    Now, all of these don't matter if your players are the kind of people inclined to destroy settings, but if that's the case, you'll need to be very crafty to make a recurrent villain that's a fair rival.

  11. I agree with John. I put a fair number of different potential villains in my games and then let the game unfold as it will -- that tends to create the better villains as they become villains because of their interactions with the PCs, not because I decided it in advance. Of course, once they enter "major villain" status, you might need to tweak them a bit to make them remain a threat, but I always try to do so in the context of the game. Also, keep them dynamic, not static, they should be doing stuff off camera.

    So, for example, in my current megadungeon game, the party ran afoul of a Derro outpost. Thinking they were pushovers, the party tried to clear them out, and failed. The party moved on to other areas and simply ignored the Derro after that. But the Derro retaliated rather than remain static, spying on the party as they explored other areas, calling for reinforcements, etc. When they found the camp site the party was repeatedly using in a predictable manner, they moved in while the party was away and ambushed them in their own camp while they were the weakest from fighting elsewhere (many a PC bought it that day, and now the party knows to better vary their routine and assume nothing is safe - they also really, really hate the Derro!)

  12. I'm pretty much n line with Tori Bergquist above. Introduce the villain in a non-combat situation where they have to interact with him several times, then let them encounter him in a smart combat situation where you've pre-plotted the point and means of escape. If they get lucky they kill him then and get full marks, otherwise he becomes a day old fish taco to the party, returning at the worst possible times. My favorite started out as an annoying apprentice to a wizard. A few levels later he showed up on the back of a green dragon, messed up the party until the dragon missed a save and then took off before the survivors could make their displeasure known.

  13. When I use them, I make sure they've got a few bodies they to put between them and the PCs, as well as a few escape routes (a fleet horse nearby, a potion of invisibility or gaseous form, a tunnel with a sturdy door they can bar behind them, etc.). Of course, sometimes, the players get the villain anyways, sometimes they even catch them alive! In that case, I don't asspull and ruin their victory. If they kill the villain and take appropriate measures to stymie resurrection/reincarnation, then the villain's number two or partner continues the schemes and machinations. If they catch them alive, then they have to deal with a prisoner who will be trying to escape and minions who will be trying to rescue their leader. It's for this reason that I take an 80s cartoon approach to creating a villain, in that they'll all have a retinue of distinct lackeys that are characters in their own right.

  14. Sometimes I try to create a recurrent villain, and sometimes one creates himself. For example:

    Jarvan Margrave, of the Enteronean Margraves, had a half-ogre henchman who nabbed a couple of peasant children with intent to grill. Our Heroes traced the children through the tunnels beneath the town, and faced the henchman, Og Onygson, in his lair... in the basement of Margrave's tower.

    Jarvan investigated the noise from below, and finding uninvited adventurers skewering his henchman, proceeded to cast his best offensive spells on them. But Our Heroes, being, well, heroes, defeated him most utterly. When the city watch came to see what all the commotion was, they told their story straight, and due to their excellent reputation, they were not immediately arrested.

    They left shortly thereafter for a dungeon adventure in the nearby wilderness, and while they were gone, Margrave's family had him raised. He immediately swore out a warrant against the adventurers, and as they neglected to turn themselves in, they were convicted in absentia and sentenced to death.

    Needless to say, as they slipped from town to town, hiding in the houses of secret supporters, the adventurers developed a bit of resentment toward him.

    Weirdly, they ended up saving his life, as he was one of the petrified guests of the Iron Duke. The Duke, grateful for the rescue, pardoned the adventurers. Count Margrave, Jarvan's uncle, was his vassal, so there was nothing at all Jarvan could do about it.

    They left the country for a while, and while they were gone, Jarvan contrived to become King of the land. So now there is once again a price on their heads in that kingdom...


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