For today’s article I thought I’d go to the Suggestion Pot well. Crushnaut writes:

  1. I would like to work a rival, or re-occuring 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 truely threatening foe?
  2. What if, to your best efforts, the PCs kill their nemisis before you are ready for that dramatic final show down?
  3. Do you find rivals and reoccuring villains to be an effective way to add that extra something-something to a campaign?

To take the last point first, yes. I definitely find that rivals and recurring villains add extra zest to the game, but only if I can get the players emotionally invested in them. Trust me, sometimes when players act annoyed that Super Anti-Paladin is behind the plot once again, they might really be annoyed. In the real world.

I generally find that recurring villains are tricky to add to a campaign because, unlike a novel or movie, the GM does not have total control over their escapes. The two most common problems are 1) players don’t like loose ends and 2) whenever you leave things to chance the dice may not go your way.

Here are some things I keep in mind when creating recurring villains.

1. Great recurring villains aren’t created, they evolve.

I find it best never to create a villain as a recurring threat; doing so only forces me to artificially protect him in order to keep him around. Worse, the players aren’t emotionally invested in him. If the players’ initial interactions with the villain falls flat, then they won’t want to see him again and might actually resent my keeping him around. On the other hand, if a particularly fun villain manages to slip through the players’ fingers by chance, they’ll relish the opportunity to have at him again in the future.

Remember too that “recurring” insinuates that the players have metaphorically (or literally) crossed swords with the villain. A villain that makes her presence known while remaining in the shadows while her grand scheme unfolds is not a recurring villain, no matter how many sessions it takes. It’s only when the players foil her grand plan (i.e. complete the adventure) or have an opportunity to directly confront her and she escapes does she become a recurring villain.

2. If you want a recurring villain, keep her out of the cross-hairs.

Players resent fudging, especially when it’s so obvious. There are many ways to reveal a villain’s presence without giving the players an opportunity to permanently take her down. She may work behind the scenes of other “big bosses” or communicate to her minions through a hologram.

Some games actually build mechanics into their engines to accommodate recurring villains. Usually this gives something to the players in return, whether the villain spends a “villain point” (as opposed to the players’ “hero points”) or the saving of a villain actually grants the players a hero point. You have to be careful with this, though, as the players may feel that you’ll always save the villain and making his future appearances an annoyance.

3. Have options on hand to deal with a premature defeat.

Okay, you’ve established a recurring villain but just before her final plot the players actually get the jump on her and take her down. What do you do now? First, look at the future plot. Do you really need the recurring villain to get the players invested in the adventure? If the answer is “no” then just create a new villain.

Secondly, if the players did not kill the villain then there’s always an opportunity for the villain to escape. Even better, perhaps an even more ruthless villain is responsible for the next adventure and the players might need the old villain’s help. Or perhaps an apprentice or admirer of the jailed (or even killed) villain tries to take her place. In a pinch, a “right hand man” might take over for a villain that gets felled before the final scene.

In some campaigns, death only means metamorphosis. Perhaps the villain comes back as a lich or vampire. Maybe she’s a spirit that possesses someone else. In superhero or futuristic games, she may have downloaded her brainwaves into an android or clone. Perhaps she’s been resurrected and, in addition to her usual schemes, she now owes something big a favor.

4. Don’t use them often

A recurring villain that shows up every few adventures can be a lot of fun. A recurring villain that shows up every adventure gets tedious and smacks of lazy plotting. Don’t fall into the trap of using the villain too often and only do so when it seems appropriate for the adventure. “This time it’s personal!” adventures tend to turn the villain into a caricature of himself and make him less interesting.

Those are just a few tips I use in my own campaigns. I’ll pitch the question to everyone reading. Do you enjoy using recurring villains? How do you make them fun and effective?