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Recurring Rivals

Looking for an article idea to finish this week off with, I went trolling through the suggestion pot. The most recent question caught my eye.

Crushnaut asks: "I would like to work a rival, or reoccurring adversary into the next campaign I run. How do you guys work these into your stories? Do you use the powerful, yet utterly hopeless defiler as seen on TV? Or do you use a truly threatening foe?

What if, to your best efforts, the PCs kill their nemesis before you are ready for that dramatic final show down?

Do you find rivals and reoccurring villains to be an effective way to add that extra something-something to a campaign? "

I’m going to go ahead and answer the last question first. Yes, yes, yes, hell yes. The most memorable games that I’ve ever run have revolved around the recurring villains. I merely have to mention the name "Lealia Bellemar" or play the song "Whatever Lola Wants" to one of my players to get him to shudder and glare at me. Mentioning that I might bring back "The Master" for a session will make most of my players cuss and talk about how there is no way he could be alive as their previous characters burned the body and buried the ashes in various consecrated grounds. This didn’t need done, they just hated him. Recurring villains are a great way to give the party reason behind the myriad adventures that we as Game Masters throw at them.

Since Crushnaut asked how we did villains, I proposed the question to all the other gnomes at the latest Gnome Meeting/Rocket Bike Race/Volleyball Game/Dinner Theatre/Crimp-off. [1] Here are some of the other gnomes answers before I go ranting away.

Kurt  "Telas" Schneider
Make sure they have an obvious exit strategy, and then a second, not-so-obvious strategy.  Because players like to smash GM dreams…
Give them some depth to their character.  One-dimensional villains aren’t as memorable.

Patrick Benson
It isn’t about the actual villain, but the villain’s cause. Give them a
reason to be the antagonist. This way if the PCs bamboozle you and
kill the villain (more like when the PCs bamboozle you) the cause
lives on. You can promote the next villain in line to lead the charge.

Phil Vecchione
Don’t let the PCs get in striking distance of the Villain very often.  Use henchmen, proxies, etc.  Often PC’s are pretty crafty about how to finish off a Villain once they get physically close, so keep them at arms length.  My typical formula is to have an early encounter with the Villain when the PC’s are not in a position to do any serious harm.  Then the Villain goes away, and I move on with other stories. Then the Villain sends some henchmen after the PC’s, reminding them that he is out there.  That often starts to open up what the Villain’s real goal is. 

Also, make your Villain as smart as your PC’s.  In D&D, a powerful Villain already has some protection from the Scry & Burn tactics the players thinking of.  They use henchmen to learn about the PCs; to discover that the Mage loves lightning bolt, so when the Villain encounters them next, you know he has protection from lightning. 

Also I like my Villains to go after things that the players hold dear.  Burn the Druids grove down, kill a few family members, raze that town they like to visit after adventures.  Make it personal, without directly attacking them.  The more personal you make it, the more they will love going after them.

Finally, at some point you have to give them the Villain to kill.  After all that harassing, the players will reach a point where they will have no other goal that they want to pursue more than killing the Villain.  At that point, you must arrange the final battle. 


A Villain is More Than An Enemy, A Villain Has A Plan
This is always rule #1 for me. A villain is something special. They are more than just someone that is an enemy to the group and they are definitely more than just a combat opportunity. Like Patrick mentioned, a villain has a cause.  The villain and his/her/its motivations are key to the entire game. The game where the Big Bad Evil Guy is a megalomaniacal genius trying to take over the world is incredibly different than the game where the BBEG is an entity from outer space looking to destroy the planet for energy.

No matter what game you are playing or what type of villain you are using, make it one of the most detailed things about your game. Know the villains motivations and their methods. Know how they work and what their plan is. This will be essential to recovering from any monkey wrenches the players throw your way. If the villain needs a power source to fuel his death ray, but his henchmen get thwarted stealing it, then the villain will probably go looking for a backup source. Knowing the motivation and the method of the villain will help you stay on track with what you throw against the PCs.

Villains Are People Too
One thing to remember about Villains is that they are people too. They have pasts and histories just like PCs do. They have mundane things in their past and they have a reason for doing the evil things that they are doing. These are all factors you should include with a recurring villain. I always make sure that my main villain, and their lieutenants, are written up as full PCs with backgrounds and histories. Even if those never come up in the game, I like to know who the villain is. I heard an interview with a novelist who said that he filled out job applications for each one of his characters [2]. It helped to flesh out who the character was. While I’ve never done that, it is a great idea.

Villains Need To Be A Good Rival To The PCs
While villains are their own people, they also need to be a good rival for the PCs. If the PCs are fighting Harvey the Evil Hamster of Doom as fantasy heroes, it just doesn’t fit. Imagine the game as a movie and see if your villain would seem silly against the PCs. This doesn’t mean the villain has to be the perfect enemy to the PCs, not by a long shot. Think about the Joker Vs. Batman. By his description, the Joker just seems out of place next to the Dark Knight. However, when you look at the skills and specialties of the two, the rivalry makes sense. In most cases the Joker is portrayed as being as clever as Batman is. Where Batman is cold and logical, the Joker is a seemingly insane ball of energy and randomness. They are both ruthless and have an endless amount of dedication to their goals, but they work with different mediums. The point is that despite their differences they provide a competent match to each other. 

Plan For Your Villains Defeat — But Not Too Soon
One of the questions that Crushnaut asks is about something that can come up very often: What if, to your best efforts, the PCs kill their nemesis before you are ready for that dramatic final show down?

When creating a villain, the moment that most Game Masters think of is their final conflict with the PCs. The place where the PCs defeat the villain and save the world/princess/city/kingdom/etc. If that moment is many many sessions in, then there is a lot of ground in which the PCs could prematurely exterminate the villain. If your villain doesn’t have the stamina to go the distance, it can be a big disappointment.

Phil and Kurt threw out some great answers to this problem. Like Phil said above: "You are going to have to give them a villain to kill." and "Don’t let the PCs get in striking distance of the Villain very often. ". Like Kurt said above: "Make sure they have an obvious exit strategy, and then a second, not-so-obvious strategy".

One thing I do is to stat the villain out so that they are a challenge for the level that I plan for the PCs to face him/her/it at. That way, even if the PCs do get into striking distance, they find themselves severely outclassed. After a vicious fight the villain will usually spare the PCs. This fuels the PCs righteous anger for the final confrontation, right after multiple sessions of side-quests to level grind.

I also tend to give my villains multiple lieutenants which may or may not be faced by the PCs. This lets the PCs get a sense of victory at certain points in the campaign while still saving my major villain for the final conflict. 

Villains Have Been Defined In Many Other Media, Make Use Of What Is Already Available, Then Modify It To Fit Your Game
One final piece of advice from me. Villains of all varieties and demeanors have been detailed in other media. Watch movies for great villain archetypes. Play videogames and see the various ways they portray their Big Bad Evil Guys getting away from the first encounter with the heroes. Read picaroon romances, hardcore sci-fi, comic books, spaghetti western, and any other kind of good guy/bad guy literature you can get your hands on.

Take examples from anyplace you can find them and modify them to fit your game. While the over the top "Starscream Escape [3]" might be too much for your campaign, the concept behind it might find a proper execution with some tweaks. TV Tropes [4] is a great place to start  picking out examples of these kinds of ideas.


So what kind of villains do you usually use in your games? How do you handle the PCs first encounter with them? What are some villains that make you shudder to this day?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Recurring Rivals"

#1 Comment By Burn_Boy On December 18, 2009 @ 3:51 am

This is excellent advice. A recurring villain is one of, if not the, best way to get the players really involved in the story. In my current campaign I have my villain in the background, not doing much, but every now and then, through innocent couriers, a package arrives for my PCs and in it, is the head of someone who’s helped them or given them quarter after an adventure. Seeing all their friends being cut down the PCs are now actively hunting for the villain and I just can’t help but dangle him in front of them, only to make him a mirror image or an impostor. It’s a bit infuriating for them but it makes more nice intense sessions.

#2 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On December 18, 2009 @ 6:38 am

This may be too painfully obvious for words, but the simplest thing to do if the party kills the villain is to slowly reveal that the villain was in fact only a lieutenant, or perhaps an unwitting tool, of an even greater, more fiendish power. Only do this after a suitable delay, of course — you want your players to feel some satisfaction over their success before you reinstate the traditional sinking feeling of doom.

#3 Comment By callin On December 18, 2009 @ 9:37 am

This article turned into an excellent one about villains, but I also like the concept of rivals.

One thing I have done in the past is to set up another group of adventurers as rivals in the traditional sense. While picking up rumors around town ro looking for their next job, the characters keep hearing about the exploits of another adventruing party.
“Are you the ones who killed the red dragon over on Hardpress Hill? No, oh, that’s too bad. I was hoping to hear an awesome story.”
“Did you hear the latest thing the Cold Spear adventuring group did last week?”
“It must have been real dangerous killing the giant tribe, but I heard the Cold Spears killed the Arch-Lich. Now that’s impressive!”

I’ve found the players and characters start to resent the other group, without ever even meeting them. There is alot of tension already built when they do finally meet. Perhaps the rivals are evil, perhaps not. Either way it is easy to build the resentments into a confrontation of epic purportions.

My blog- [5]

#4 Comment By pseudodragon On December 18, 2009 @ 9:41 am

The trick with villains is never to reveal too much too soon. Have the characters investigate to determine who or what is behind seemingly unrelated evil acts to establish a pattern, then have them dig further to uncover the villain’s identity. During this time the villain may become aware of them and begin working behind the scenes to thwart them or just make life more difficult in general. He may use political connections to interfere or send henchmen to discourage the characters. Have the characters get close to him only to have the villain escape in the nick of time to return later, bigger and badder. When the PCs do bring him to ground, make the villain’s death uncertain. “No one could have survived that fall/cave-in/deadly-blast-of-eldritch-might!” “Yeah, but where is the body?” Leave them wondering. It’s amazing how much energy a bit of paranoia can add to a campaign! And, who knows, the villain could return as he was, as a reconstructed version of his ravaged self, as a ghost, or in the form of a successor (vengeful lover/child/lieutenant, another member of the same cult or cause, a possessed innocent, etc.) Use your imagination. The beauty of it is that a truly memorable villain never really goes away. Like the sword of Damocles, he is always in the shadows, ready to strike again without warning, if only in the minds of the PCs.

#5 Comment By drow On December 18, 2009 @ 11:28 am

the best devil is your best friend.

#6 Comment By Zig On December 18, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

An excellent article. Very useful advice I think. Also in the comments above.

In my games I usually have one major story arc going on at a time with a “Big Bad” at the center. Between him/her/it there are always lieutenants that attempt to foil the PCs and, since they are not the major player, the PCs can safely kill the lieutenants progressing the story as well as giving the PCs some satisfaction. In games I have seen (my own and ones run by other GMs) where the antagonist escaping constantly really frustrates the players.

Aside from getting away from the PCs — which, believe me, gets them plenty steamed at the villain — I also have the villains do nasty things to the PCs. Blow up their head quarters, steal something precious from them, frame them for crimes, kill NPCs they are fond of, etc. In my D&D game I have done a lot to make my PCs hate their villains. I’ve had them kill a dear squire and kidnap their favorite NPC. What have others done?

Also, something in regard to villains that I would like some advice on from everyone is how do you deal with a confrontation between the players and a high level lieutenant or even the Big Bad when your players are trigger/bow string happy? In some of these confrontations I try to have the villain do a short monologue in which I can drop some hints for them or even just have the villain expound upon how much he hates the PCs, what he/she/it plans to do to them, etc.

How do you keep the players from jumping straight into combat? One of my players is so bad about it that I had a villain who would place her consciousness into mannequins whenever I wanted her to have words with the PCs. My sword happy Paladin could smote her down and wind up with a ruined mannequin and I got to keep using the villain.

The other way I try to deal with the players going right into combat is to have some handouts made up ahead of time to use as props for the documents the players find when ransacking the villain’s abode. This way I can at least get important information into the PCs’ hands…and also some false information.

Oh, and I love the idea of rivals as well. I haven’t really used that before, but now I think I will have to keep it mind for the future.

#7 Comment By Rafe On December 19, 2009 @ 7:24 am

I think TwoShedsJackson and drow both summed up what I was going to say: Make the players think X is the big baddie… but, in fact, he is only a lieutenant or trusted emissary. On top of that, the helpful but sometimes angry wizard that’s been helping the group (or some equivalent)? … that’s the baddie. This both works on an emotional level for the players, and it also completely forestalls any issues of killing the nemesis ahead of time because they can’t; they have no clue that you have the real villain right in front of them. It’s an Emperor Palpatine/Count Dooku situation.

This also keeps player frustrations to a minimum. There’s nothing more annoying as a player than being faced with the villain… and oh look… another escape. When that’s happened in previous campaigns, I, personally, have just shut off. “I don’t care about the villain anymore, sorry. He’s unreachable. We can’t do anything to affect him, so who cares?”

So if you do use the “here he is! … and now he’s gone” trick, make sure that whatever situation that happens in is still a victory for the group. It can’t be a stalemate. The players still have to feel as though they’ve accomplished something, even if the villain escaped.

#8 Comment By Sarlax On December 20, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

My last campaign had my favorite recurring villain of all time – Yusibosk.

Briefly, the campaign had a number of arcs that dealt with the invasion of the PCs’ world by different forces. First it was illithids and their mind-controlled slaves, then the fiends that humans had summond to beat the illithids, then githyanki who were coming in after the devastation to conquer what was left. Throughout it all, there was Yusibosk.

One PC, Ashir, had lost five years of his pre-PC life to mind flayer enslavement. He had very little memory of those years, with a solitary tentacle scar in his head being his only token of servitude. Well, after a few adventures, the PCs met Yusibosk, the mind flayer scientist who had formerly enthralled Ashir.

Yusibosk was terrifyingly powerful. As a mind flayer, close combat with him always meant risking your actual brain. As a potent psion, he could blast PCs with energy, control their mind, and worst of all, teleport away whenever things weren’t going his way – which he did, *many* times. He always had a way out.

Yusibosk wasn’t just threatening on his own. He also worked with other monsters to always challenge the PCs in a new way. In the battle that led to his first death, the PCs fought him in the air, in a cave inhabited by a lernean pyrohydra and the astral constructs he had summoned. He nearly destroyed the party, until being nearly bisected in the air by the tiefling warrior. *I* thought he was dead for sure!

But then the players themselves gave me a way to bring him back. Such was their hatred for Yusibosk that the PCs weren’t content with simply destroying his body. Oh no. They had to humiliate his memory utterly, and so Ashir requested that the party necromancer Teresia animate Yusibosk’s body into a zombie. The tables had turned, and the Yusibosk corpse was forced into menial labor. Revenge was done!

Until the PCs returned to base one day to find a commoner in their home with his skull smashed open with brute force and Yusibosk nowhere in sight. See, I’d planned to make a villain of the next arc a vampire necromancer (Teresia’s former teacher and lover) with a unique artifact which allowed him to grant intelligence to the undead. Hm! What better candidate for him to test his relic than the newly animated zombie illithid?

With his intelligence restored, Yusibosk was even more terrifying as, ahem, a psionic zombie mind flayer. His strength was greatly improved and being dead made him immune to many effects. He worked with the vampire to destroy the PCs and managed to escape many more times. In one event, he even managed to mind switch the party’s dwarven ally Barker and infiltrated the group for days.

It wasn’t always a loss for the party, though. They’d killed him once (only to make the mistake of animating him), and has small victories along the way after that. Ashir had since gained the ability to change shape into aberrations, and actually took the form of a mind flayer himself and DEVOURED YUSIBOSK’s UNDEAD ILLITHID BRAIN. It didn’t destroy him, but left his necrotic skull an empty husk, and for an illithid, even a dead one, it was the ultimate insult.

In the end, Yusibosk was ultimately destroyed. He’d been a thorn in the party’s side from, oh, level 5 to level 19. Of course, once he was ultimately destroyed, it was then that they learned that his legacy would pollute their world far longer. He had planted hundreds of illithid tadpoles in humanoids across the world to repopulate his race, and worse, numerous *mind seed* duplicates (in the form of humanoids) were wandering about the land.

#9 Comment By Koldhaart On December 21, 2009 @ 8:35 am

Perhaps “dread” isn’t the right word. And yet it fits quite well, just not in a conventional sense.

He wasn’t even truly a villain, but an overzealous student of chivalry. His dastardly deeds no more than distracting the PCs away from more pressing matters, sometimes even catastrophically so. But all he sought was to reclaim his honor from the hands of the “ruffians” who had so embarrassed him in front of his family and betrothed. True, the one of the PCs hadn’t intended to be thrown into his reception hall by the dying throes of a roc, but that hardly lessened the blow of having his wedding day ruined and being charged to repair the rented space for the ceremonies. The penniless adventurers had truly done nothing more than to cause a minor disturbance in both the course of the day and his expansive wealth, but it was that very image he struggled to protect.

And so, it became a fun challenge to invent new ways to have Acotas Verdes inadvertantly stall or harass my players while keeping it engaging and well… fun. He was a challenge, himself, especially when operating with flunkies, and having a paladin in the adventuring party usually ensured his continued good health, considering he never truly wished significant or lasting harm.

However, it was an entirely new venture when said paladin decided to lose his divine backing for the sake of putting a sizable crater in Verdes’ skull. It was fun in and of itself making a side story of atonement and redemption (which was ultimately neglected in favor of a more lenient moral code) and dreaming up revenge plots on the part of the late Acotas’ family.

#10 Comment By Crushnaut On December 22, 2009 @ 7:04 am

Thanks for the article guys! Great advice here. Going to definately work it into my next campaign.

Thanks again!