Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Recurring Villain

In my experience, on either side of the screen, nothing creates instant and passionate motivation in the players like a recurring villain. Sure, there is desire to save the world, gain stature, kill things and take there stuff, and all that. Add revenge to the mix and you have a winning combination. Recurring villains eat at the adventure party like nothing else. Even while they are off on other exciting adventures they always make comments like, "When we are done this, we have to go back and get that guy." Too many recurring villains waters down their impact. Not enough and the connection players have to the world is weak. I have some personal unofficial rules about recurring villains that I use to some success. They must have something memorable and unique about them. This helps the players have a strong emotional impression of the villain. The player characters must pose some level of threat to the villain. Villains must be played consistently for verisimilitude. Smart villains make smart plans. Dumb villains make dumb mistakes. Smart villains will use others to do their dirty work whenever possible. Villains should be focused on their own agenda until such time as the player characters become a problem and their agenda. If players alter the villains environment, have the villain react to that change. For example if the players reduce the villains resource pool, then the villain is limited to the new lower resource pool. No matter what the story line or how much time I put into building a villain, villains can be defeated if the players are clever. Conversely, villains can get away if players are less than clever. I do not care for predetermination. I think that is transparent to the players and demoralizing. In my campaign I have some villains that are planned for recurring purposes, some villains that are candidates if the players do not defeat them in their first encounter with them, and some villains that have been created spontaneously because of an unexpected unsuccessful encounter on the part of the player characters that was just too good to pass up. Depending on the villain and the circumstances, I may have the villain increase in levels as the party does. If the villain is active and successful they can grow just like the player characters can. Other villains are more stagnant and the players can grow to become powerful enough to challenge them. Then there is the mysterious villain.... players at first are not sure who, what or why. Oh, the endless possibilities! How do you use villains?


  1. I love using villains. One of my parties currently has two different villains--(1) the first villain pops up from time, usually sending henchmen, as the party unwittingly took something from her of great value and (2) an underhanded squire who is running a slaving operation right under his Duke's nose without anyone in authority noticing. One of the characters was kidnapped and is now bent on revenge.

    I think you are spot on in your analysis of villains. They grow as the characters grow and also have to be used just the right amount.

    Nice post!

  2. Ah, the accidental enemy - perfect! Was that planned or did the players blunder into that? I love it when players make my job easier and create their own villains.

    I cannot say enough good things (in my D&D game) about revenge. That and characters hate to be captured (and lose their stuff). Sometimes I think they fear that more than death. Some of my favorite challenges on either side of the screen.

  3. In the first case, the party went into a small underground dungeon--the remains of a small ruined keep. The entrance had been recently excavated and there was a group of shadow goblins there, led by two drow (brother and sister). The drow were trying to find a way back home. The party went in to clean out the shadow goblins, discovered the drow (killing the brother) and stealing two keys (of the four keys needed) to enter a lower level (the players only suspect this). So they have a female drow sending hired help after them at inconvenient times.

    In the second case, one of the player missed a session and I had to come up with a reason why he would show up underground at the next session. The characters were in an underground jermlaine lair. So I just made the jermlaines the middlemen in the local slave trade. In this case, the well-placed squire has no idea that player character is free and looking for him (at least not yet). They also just found out that the squire's brother might have one of the keys they need.

    So the circumstances are very different, but I think the key to a good long-term villain is that he or she is out of reach and often acts through intermediaries or other means. Maybe not always, but much of the time.

    Revenge has been working well both as motivation and as a creative conflict creator between characters. It creates a lot more conversation and negotiation between the PCs.

    Thanks again for the post!


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