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Suggestion Pot: Recurring Adversary

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?

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Suggestion Pot: Recurring Adversary"

#1 Comment By unwinder On April 19, 2010 @ 3:03 am

I think that recurring enemies are a vital part of developing the legend of your players’ characters. If your players want their characters to be memorable, and even iconic (and every player type does), an iconic adversary goes a long way toward making it happen.

Ideally, you should put so much care into crafting a rival who clashes perfectly with everything the PCs stand for, that they’d be downright disappointed if he was actually gone for good. I mean, no Batman fan in the world wants to see the Joker actually die.

As I mentioned in my own modest little article ( [1]) I think that the perfect formula for recurring villains is exemplified by Doctor Who, and the titular Doctor’s rivalry with the Daleks. Let the players completely, unquestionably thrash the villain, and let them do whatever they like to make sure he stays dead. Then, at the most delicious possible moment, bring him back anyway.

The suggestion about throwing new villains at the players, and seeing which ones stick is great. Make a lot of villains for your players to defeat. But don’t just keep the ones who manage to get away in a believable way and discard the rest. Pay attention to which enemies resonate with the players the most, and then bring them back. No matter what. Even if they’re deader than dead at the end of the adventure, bring them back. Wait until the time is right, of course, but bring them back no matter what.

Your players may get annoyed from time to time. I’m sure Batman gets annoyed whenever one of his classic enemies breaks out of Arkham Asylum, but imagine how much more boring Gotham would be if the villains didn’t last any longer than their first defeat at the hands of the Dark Knight.

#2 Comment By Lugh On April 19, 2010 @ 5:42 am

One very important tip to using a recurring villain effectively is to allow the players to still feel as though they win. Have a central “big bad” with a rotating cast of expendable lieutenants (it worked well for Blofeld). Have the point of contention between the big bad and the PCs be only one facet of the big bad’s plan and/or resources (e.g., the PCs are superheroes protecting Center City, the big bad is a global corporate conglomerate, the PCs can always beat the big bad at home but don’t have enough of an away game to wipe them out on their turf). If you’re really up to some complex plotting, have the big bad’s fortunes gradually fall, and have their plans become more and more desperate. The PCs will be able to see that they are winning both the short game and the long game, even if they aren’t able to put a decisive end to the villain just yet. (Look at Buffy vs. Spike, at least before season 6.) A desperate villain is also more willing to lash out at the heroes in ways that cause them direct pain, even if it isn’t profitable.

#3 Comment By DrummingDM On April 19, 2010 @ 5:58 am

I was lucky enough for my players to create a recurring villain for me in my last campaign. An NPC I intended to be a minor villain, maybe to annoy them for a handful of sessions, really drew their interest. They decided to foil his schemes on their own, and really actively *hated* the guy. So…I decided that he’d escape the PCs attempt to stop his plans and make their lives miserable from afar. It worked great, and I think the catharsis of killing the guy as the BBEG of the entire campaign was awesome. It really ended up taking the campaign the in a direction I had not intended for it to go, but it felt far more organic that way.

So, I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that recurring villains are awesome, and don’t try to force a villain – make a villain annoying enough, and if the PCs want an arch-nemesis, they’ll create one, and loathe him/her all the more for it.

#4 Comment By callin On April 19, 2010 @ 8:58 am

By way of my personal example, I have Sid. Sid is the twin brother of one of the player characters; the bad version.
Initial “contact” consisted of the players being mistaken for the twin, who had usurped his good name in a nearby town. Players were also chasing a saboteur who was weakening the town for an invading army the players were there to warn people about.
The players had frequent run-ins with people thinking he was the twin. In effect this was “encountering” the villain.
Eventually they met the twin and he proposed they join his attempt to help the invading army. They declined and he gained full villain status when they attacked him. I used a GM trick and had him teleport away. The players knew I was allowing him to escape, but they were ok with it this first time. I will not use this trick again. I reinforced his ability to teleport later as they invaded his hideout and it was populated with humanoids who could also teleport (he was not there). It reinforced his ability to teleport without making it look less like a GM trick.
Since then they have been travelling in the same direction, as he and they are both going toward the same city. At the next village they met his handiwork when the leader of the village was killed in the night. While they had no direct confrontation they “had an encounter with him”.
Thereafter they rescued some villagers from a local evil mage only to discover that Sid was trying to hire the mage for his own purposes.
Basically from this point on they will not meet Sid face-to-face until I am ready to allow him to be killed off, but they will continue to see his handiwork.

My Blog- [2]

#5 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On April 19, 2010 @ 9:00 am

Lugh said: “One very important tip to using a recurring villain effectively is to allow the players to still feel as though they win.”

A great example of this is Adelai Niska from Firefly. Even though they would surely have run into him again had the series continued, the last encounter the crew of the Serenity had with him must have been a tremendous blow.

#6 Comment By evil On April 19, 2010 @ 10:07 am

One of my favorite ways to make a recurring villain stay alive and fresh through long campaigns is to pit them in a parallel standing to the heroes. For instance, my PCs are tracking a man to bring to justice in a local town. On his trail also are the Black Brothers, who are trying to kill the criminal. This way the PCs aren’t directly attempting to kill or stop the Black Brothers, but are constantly being hounded by a villain (or villains) who use different methods of getting the job done.

The villain team idea is another way to go about it. Sure, Superman defeated Lex Luthor, but the rest of the Legion of Doom is still out there. They might even break Luthor out of jail for a future plotline.

#7 Comment By Bevin Flannery On April 19, 2010 @ 10:43 am

unwinder: “Pay attention to which enemies resonate with the players the most, and then bring them back. No matter what. Even if they’re deader than dead at the end of the adventure, bring them back. Wait until the time is right, of course, but bring them back no matter what.”

Speaking only for myself as a player, I respectfully disagree with this idea. Nothing would frustrate me more, and really sour me on the game, than to realize that no matter what the players do — no matter how carefully they plan, no matter how thoroughly they go about destroying the villain — it will make absolutely zero difference in the end.

This might work for some groups, or for some types of stories (ones where the players have signed up for the comic book/soap opera convention of “the bad guy is never REALLY down and out).

I have no problem with the GM making it challenging to take out the bad guy, such that s/he narrowly escapes before the PCs finally figure out how to take him/her out, or keeps the heroes at a distance and instead loses minions. But the “bring ’em back NO MATTER WHAT” just doesn’t work for me as a player. It would thoroughly piss me off.

#8 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On April 19, 2010 @ 10:55 am

Variations: (framed as villains but would work for rivals too)

Rumors float about that the villain has returned, but they are false. It might be an old rumor (made obsolete when the heroes destroyed the villain), or deliberate disinformation, or an imposter, or a case of mistaken identity.

Alternatively, the villain is returned but:

is so far reduced in power as to be a husk of his/her/its former self (Saruman in Hobbiton), or

has no memory of previous events, or

is reformed (like a certain character in Heroes), or

is forced to “behave” by a more powerful being (Q in some episodes of Star Trek TNG)

#9 Comment By Don Mappin On April 19, 2010 @ 11:30 am

I’ve been trying this in my current game with mixed results. First, I use the term “adversary” to mean actively working against the PCs. Mine is more of a “foil”; their actions impact the PCs but rarely are they working against them (directly).

It started off well but my players tend to treat all NPCs in my games like shit. It’s horribly frustrating. With one recurring foil — which was requested by one player in particular — it’s turned into outright lack of interest in interacting with them. Sure, it’s entirely in character but it adds nothing to the game and cuts off my work to make a compelling story at the knees. There’s a general lack of interest at the table to peer into the motivation of the characters they meet.

So I’m at the point of dropping the (requested) foil or turning them into an outright adversary. If the players are going to treat them as such then I might as well have the NPCs push back and stand up for themselves.

So be aware that this concept isn’t necessarily suited for all groups.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On April 19, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

Depending on your world, you can let the NPC die, but still reuse them. That gives them a taste of victory, and keeps the NPC off of the suspect list for a while after.

Some ideas are cloning in a sci-fi universe, soul transfer in fantasy or horror, and weird powers in a supers universe. In many of those cases, the villain may not even realize that he has been cloned, or his soul is forfeit…

#11 Comment By Alnakar On April 19, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

In response to unwinder, I have to agree with Bevin. Further, if you remove the consequences of players’ actions, it’s not really a role-playing game anymore. If everybody at the table has bought into the idea that what you’re playing is a storytelling game (and that it’s clearly you that’s telling the story), then that’s fine, but otherwise you have to let enemies stay dead sometimes.

In response to the column in general, I think that overarching villains are a great idea. I’ve always had trouble implementing them with my group of players, partially because they really dislike it when the enemy gets away, but also because I find it hard to keep it from being heavy-handed (see above). I’ll definitely have to take a close look at this article for potential in my game.

#12 Comment By scruffylad On April 20, 2010 @ 12:22 am

A recurring villain can be a lot of fun, giving your players something to focus on, getting them more involved than with the sometimes yawn-inducing weekly baddie.

But it’s not always easy to “make” a recurring villain who’s worth it. I’d agree that sometimes you can just make potential recurring villains, and hope the players latch on to one. (Otherwise, they’re just repeat annoyances.)

Generally, I figure I can explain their survival by thinking ahead. Make the bad guy smart, make the bad guy plan ahead, have contingencies, etc. (I don’t know about everybody else, but I don’t always flesh out my regular bad guys to that level. Maybe plan out a few things, but not that much ahead.)

Any time you bring a bad guy back to life, you need to be careful. If the characters are running around getting raised every other adventure, they can’t really expect death to be cheap for them, but dear for the NPCs. Still, there’s something unsatisfying about killing the same bad guy over and over and over. Maybe one interesting raise/recurrence, tops. But over and over is just dull. At some point, it might be better to have a lieutenant take over, turn it into an organization that’s the bad guy. Or an ideology. Or whatever. Maybe people carrying on the struggle in the name of the bad guy.

Or, just throw a few more into the mix, and see which one rises to the top, to become the new recurring villain. 🙂

#13 Comment By unwinder On April 21, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

I disagree with everyone who disagrees with me. Having a favorite villain return despite ridiculous odds does not mean that the players don’t have any control. You can foil the villain without killing him forever, and he definitely shouldn’t come back until his current plan is completely destroyed.

But if I’m going to come into a new storyline, and there’s a new evil plan, and I’ve got a choice between taking a chance on a new villain who I have no history with, and seeing a favorite old villain come up, I’d rather see a familiar face. Even if it means I didn’t kill him all the way before.

Also, most players seem to believe that they can and should solve every problem by killing somebody. I don’t want to belittle or negate my players’ accomplishments, but I do try to send a message that killing stuff isn’t typically the ideal solution.

#14 Comment By Nateal Falk On April 22, 2010 @ 12:12 am

I’d like to agree with point number 2, here. ^.^

In one of my two current Star Wars Saga Edition games, we were facing a recurring villain who called herself “Lady Fury.” I won’t bog this comment down with the details, but basically, our campaign is in an Alternate History setting, the deviating point being that Obi Wan Kenobi didn’t make it to Luke in time, and he ended up being killed by the sandpeople. Somewhere along the line, Leia Skywalker turned to the dark side and became Lady Fury.

The recurring villain started in the beginning of the campaign, but we never really met her. She sent many different people to us, and each one would inform us that “Lady Fury wanted to meet with us.” Each time, our party would somehow manage to destroy whatever was trying to take us off the path we were following.

The final showdown with Leia was actually pretty terrifying. The fact that approximately every other session we were hearing about Lady Fury made the final encounter a lot more exciting and sent the adrenaline running. However, knowing my party, if Lady Fury had been presented to us before the plot was ready, we would have obliterated her. (We took on and desecrated a CL 7 when we were a party of lvl 3.) So our GM was smart to send mooks and messengers until the plot was ready for us to meet and defeat the real Lady.

Recurring Adversaries can be a great addition to your campaign, but don’t overuse them. If we’d been hearing about Lady Fury EVERY SINGLE SESSION (as opposed to the nice balance our GM hit with every other/every third), we probably would have gone out of our way to find and kill her. ^.^

#15 Comment By Nojo On April 23, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

After an adventure is over, I like to scan the survivor NPCs for possible reuse later. As allies, rivals, or enemies.

I’m just concluding (1 more session to go) a long running Dark Heresy game. A Dark Eldar corsair Captain had torn up the party bad in an early adventure, and he got away. I kept bringing him back. I had him hire assassins to kill player characters as well as showing up from time to time.

Think small world, even if you have a Galaxy to explore. The PCs keep running into the same folk, because these people are movers and shakers and have reasons to show up again.

Even if you use published adventures, see if you can’t swap in survivors from previous games for NPCs in the current one. My players love to meet them again, it gives them a connection to the game world.