View Full Version : How do you create a great recurring villain?

2011-08-17, 04:41 PM
I am nearing the end of a year plus long 3.5 dnd game that has seen the party from level 3 to level 27 (and certainly a little higher before we end) over the course of about 40 gaming sessions. It's been a pretty good ride with its ups and downs. But the one thing I wasn't able to do with this game that I had really rather wanted to do, was create a good recurring villain. There have been a few adversaries that they knew about and fought towards over the course of several sessions, but no one that they have fought, defeated/let escape, fought again, discovered was behind another plot, finally vanquished completely. So, for my future dm/gm experiences, I ask you all this: how do you craft a compelling, believable, and interesting recurring villain who will challenge the party at each turn, thwart them without destroying them, can reappear after defeat (and/or come back from the dead believably -- not all villains have to be lichs, right?) and grow in power alongside them?

No need to restrict our discussion to just 3.5 or even dnd. My next game will probably be Shadowrun or something else anyway. But a few thoughts on how mechanics interact with fluff would be valuable as well.

Thank you all for your input!

2011-08-17, 04:53 PM
The fundamental is that they have to be an interesting character. Without that, everything else you do is meaningless, and will simply fail utterly. The players have to like the character enough for them to want to see more of them, and this can be a hard nut to crack, depending on the players. Once you have that, you get to the other parts:

Challenge the party at each turn: In most games, a villain who is relatively static can work for this, with the stakes easy enough to up with both the addition of mooks, and the change in environment that favors the villain. For instance, a flying villain can attack the characters while they are in rolling hills for one fight, on a wide bridge during a rainstorm for a later fight, and later on a slippery mountain pass during a freezing sleet storm.

Thwart the party without destroying them: You want the fights to go either way, where the recurring villain can lose and not thwart the party. That said, this tends to work best in time sensitive situations. If the party is trying to get a message to a military leader to prevent a battle from taking place, the enemy only needs to interfere long enough for the fighting to start, at which point they can leave. If they don't want to kill the PCs, and the players don't want to kill them (though the characters might), this should be relatively easy.

Reappear after defeat: There are a lot of ways to do this. Superior mobility works wonders in any setting, as do disposable henchpeople. In fantasy, various magical creatures which can't be fully killed easily, but merely temporarily disabled (The traditional example is of a ghost or vampire, but I would recommend creating something to fit a setting). Alternately, they can engineer a situation where outright killing them won't work. If, for instance, a nobleman attacks a group of people in his own city, and a crowd shows up killing the nobleman is probably a bad idea. Nobody will believe the people who accuse the noble of instigating the fight.

2011-08-17, 05:02 PM
Each time you fight or encounter him, he needs to have some variation in his powers. Fighting the same guy three or four times gets old.

Say your villain is a pyromancer: if all he ever does is throw fireballs, it's not very interesting. If, however, he throws fireballs in the first encounter, summons fire elementals in the second, creates walls of fire in the third, and does all three at once in the fourth and final, your players have a nice variety of fights culminating in what could be an excellent boss fight.

2011-08-17, 05:07 PM
Forshadowing is your best friend when you're building a recurring villain. You want your players to meet him and meet him early on in their careers. The villain should let the players know not through words but through action how inferior they truly are to their glory.

Actually, the Giant has a real nice guild to building a great villain under gaming ...

2011-08-17, 05:18 PM
Actually, the Giant has a real nice guild to building a great villain under gaming ...

Are you talking about this? (http://www.giantitp.com/articles/rTKEivnsYuZrh94H1Sn.html)

Totally Guy
2011-08-17, 05:28 PM
I had a decent recurring villain back when I was starting out GMing my very first game. This is back when I was much more stupid and did the old "party reacts to stuff" games.

I had a big super obvious villain. Some lich lord manipulating his forces to bring him back and kick some ass. He was the proactive party.

The players would do their best to thwart the evil lich lord. They were the reactive party.

Pugh Djinn and his squad of loser minions was my recurring villain. He had hardly anything to work with. I only ever gave him resources in the form of loose ends generated by the players. When the players generated a loose end he'd find a way to exploit it.

These days I prefer to run reactive villains. The players are now expected to be the proactive party.

2011-08-17, 06:03 PM
Do you want a recurring villain similar to video games (you fight the guy 4+ times), or just a villain that the PCs will hear about / see in action / really get to know before the showdown.

The first scenario is tricky to make believable, and/or not a face full of cliché.
You don't want to give the PCs a situation where they're expected to lose, and inexplicably left to recover. That just sucks.
One option is to have a rival kind of character. One who adventures like the PCs and levels up like them (a rival party would probably fit better given the circumstances)
Let the PCs hear rumours of these characters - so they're aware that the world moves with them and opponents are levelling up as well. This means each fight is believably balanced.

Another problem however is that a straight up fights can easily leave either the enemy or the PCs dead, crippling the recurring theme (or the campaign) unless there's intervention.
If the rivals are a real pain in the side, the PCs will go to all kinds of means to stop them coming back from the dead (corpses in a bag of holding?). And nobody wants to kill the same guy five times anyway.

The solution would be to have 'fights' revolve around a different objective. A race though a dungeon, manoeuvring into the best position/territory, non-lethal city tournaments, for example.
Or have any fights be extremely short by merit of circumstance (2 rounds before the militia intervene, 1 volley of shots as transports pass each other)

All this might just built tension and resentment surrounding your villains, ("Damn i hate those guys for making Geoff look a fool in the city tournament" or "I'm totally gonna stick to them. Geoff2 was a (not)walking pin cushion after that drive by")
All this emotion can be put to rest in the final confrontation, and not drawn out over fights one through to three.

Deciding instead on a villain that is present, but not confronted, the struggle is having the players invest into your recurring character.
In this situation it's the big mob boss. At first you hear rumours, then you begin to see him at a distance (and heavily guarded), later you understand what strings he pulls, and finally you confront him.
This is presumably done for the BBEG anyway, but it could be applied to a side character whose schemes you keep running into a learning more about. For the mob boss example, this guy would play out in the main city/region. Each time the players came back (with some more levels) they'd get closer to him.

2011-08-17, 06:17 PM
These days I prefer to run reactive villains. The players are now expected to be the proactive party.
You should try mixing the styles, it works wonders. Everyone is proactive, when things are going well, and has to react, when things start going poorly, and this can be shifted around by both the failure of the proactive to push their advantage enough, or the success in the reactive who broke the proactive peoples momentum. What this eventually leads to is everyone being some combination of proactive and reactive in different spheres at all times, which seems to fit both reality and stories.

2011-08-17, 10:22 PM
Go standard villany. Recurring BBEG shows up at various points, makes some speech about you being insects not worth his time, drops off a suitable encounter for the heroes to face, then leaves you to fight this latest trap. Eventually your party levels up enough and reaches his stronghold where you finally get to face the big man himself.

Another option is to give your BBEG a way to escape when he is defeated that the players cant stop (yet) He fights, loses, teleports or something, leaving behind treasure/macguffin/bupkiss, and then you run into him again later, only now, "He isnt playing around" and is higher level, has better abilities, etc. Beat him, he flees, rinse and repeat until you get a macguffin that blocks his escape plan and the party finally finishes him off.

2011-08-18, 01:57 AM
you want calling cards. Hes already been there, done his thing, left a calling card. A group of assasins jump the party, and when they fail, they find a letter from the guy, hiring the assasins. things like that. so even when they dont FIGHT him, they are fighting him.

2011-08-18, 04:04 AM
I had the villain be the guy that gave them the quests.

Each time he'd underpay them severely, basically promising them a fortune and then denying them all but a fraction of the promised pay.
After the third time they got mad and decided to attack him, they killed his two guards but he got away.

Oh, and he's a earl so they're screwed.

Ah, best campaign ever. You know you succeeded at DMing when the players attack nobility and become fugitives because of their own mistakes.

Totally Guy
2011-08-18, 04:16 AM
You should try mixing the styles, it works wonders. Everyone is proactive, when things are going well, and has to react, when things start going poorly, and this can be shifted around by both the failure of the proactive to push their advantage enough, or the success in the reactive who broke the proactive peoples momentum. What this eventually leads to is everyone being some combination of proactive and reactive in different spheres at all times, which seems to fit both reality and stories.

I bet you are right. I need to run a campaign again.

More recently I've been in a sea of one shots in light to medium/hefty systems.

I'll be pumped for a campaign when I get my BW Gold.

2011-08-18, 08:02 AM
I'd make him establish a relationship with the party early on, prefferably as questgiver. Let me give you a few examples from adventures we've played in the past year (all of which take place in the same campaign world):

The party was trapped in an alternative world and needed to work with a possible BBEG to escape. He was really good in morally justifying himself (you need to do this stuff or an even bigger evil grows in power).

The party was hired as double agents to work for a vampire against another evil group with the idea they'd eventually turn against him. The vampire was very charming and rewarded them properly, it got to the point where several PCs were more interested in working with him than working against it. It drove one of the other PCs nuts, he wanted to discontinue the party's relationship with the vampire (which I encouraged as DM as I saw he was not happy with the situation) but the others players kept bringing the vampire back in (which I naturally allowed since players are free to do what they want). It got to the point where the PC commited suicide ingame and started ranting at this forum about how I am the worst DM he ever met.

Anyway, the idea in this case is that working against the BBEG does not have to be black and white. If it's debatable what either you should do or not it in the first place it becomes more interesting.

We had a PC in my campaign, a spellthief Goblin that ran a inn, that was left to rot by the rest of the party after he killed a kid. The player that played him later played the father of the kid and came seeking revenge (killing the goblin only for it to be raised). When he later had his turn as DM he made that goblin the BBEG which involved him kidnapping goblins around the globe and bring them to the city to vote him in a position of power (gotta love urban campaign settings). The party (which involved different characters mostly) later started working for him in hopes of getting close enough to take his network down. We also got close to his family which adds another dimension to the thing, this is still on-going but we're definitely gonna bring him down eventually.

Working for the BBEG actually seems a recurring theme in our adventures now I think about it.

2011-08-19, 01:04 PM
Thank you all for your responses.

I think what I find most inspiring is having a bbeg who is using the party in one fashion or another, rather than simply trying to beat them -- an antagonist that the party should not kill for larger in game reasons, rather than simply can't possibly face in combat. I also like the idea of trying to craft legitimate Xanatos gambits into my next game. Do any of you have any experience with this sort of thing?

2011-08-19, 01:07 PM
I would actually say it's important that they not be the only villain, if it's always them then it's not a surprise, yaknow. also make sure they visibly adapt to the party over time. Finally, you need to create a reason for their grudge against the party that pisses the party off.

That's all I got.

2011-08-19, 01:11 PM
1. Great - Take a character attribute and dial it up to 11. Doesn't matter what. It's now a motivation for evil. Enjoy.

2. Recurring - Escape options and contingency plans. Also, disposable minions. Willing to deal, if necessary.

2011-08-19, 02:04 PM
I'll actually disagree with most. I've come up with memorable recurring villains in my games, (my players actually lost to one this week), but I've never tried to do so at the outset. Instead, my recurring villains are normal villains who happen to beat the party.

In my mind, you can only have a recurring villain if the villain wins. And nothing makes the party hate him more than if he keeps beating them. To accomplish this, you have to be a DM who's not afraid of a TPK, and the players have to know when to cut and run.

My current recurring villain has killed 2 PCs in different encounters. Now they hate this guy. Even the good cleric wants his head. If the party catches wind of him, they'll drop another quest to go after him. But when his mooks block the party's path and he flees out the door and bars it behind him, they just have to wait til next time. Because all good recurring villains ALWAYS have an escape plan.