Q&A

How Can I Make a Recurring RPG Villain Work?

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I’ve been thinking of running a TTRPG campaign where the PCs are being accidentally dragged through many alternate worlds by the Big Bad. This allows for an episodic structure where they can foil a different plan in a different world each adventure, but also means the villain needs to successfully escape each time.

In my experience, even minor villains escaping from the PCs more than once or twice can easily be irritating; I could easily see the Big Bad always slipping away being infuriating. Do you have any advice on how to make the repeated escape of recurring villains more enjoyable, or at least palatable?

-GreatWyrmGold

Hey GreatWyrmGold, thanks for writing in!

I really like your concept as a way of adding new settings each session. That’s a great way to spice up the campaign with a fresh injection of novelty each week.

You’re also right, though, that the villain escaping each week will get frustrating fast, especially since the villain is the one pulling them between dimensions. The players are likely to feel like they’re being led about on a leash they can’t escape. At the same time, a villain whom they defeat or chase off every session is going to lose their threat value fast. At that point, the PCs won’t care much about beating the villain and will take little joy in their victory when it finally comes.

While it’s possible you could mitigate this through clever sleight of hand, my instinct is to try flipping the script: instead of the villain pulling the PCs through multiple dimensions, is it possible for the PCs to be pursuing the villain through multiple dimensions?

If you go this route, the villain could have the ability to open portals, while the PCs have the ability to reopen the villain’s portals when they find one. This way, each session could feature the PCs showing up, dealing with whatever the villain did in this dimension, then finding the villain’s portal and giving chase.

The villain wouldn’t even have to be present most of the time. Instead, the PCs would have to solve whatever problem the villain created. Perhaps in one dimension, the villain unleashed a horde of demons, while in another they installed a brutal dictator to serve their own purposes. After dealing with the local problem, the PCs can hunt down the villain.

In this scenario, the PCs have agency in their quest, which will make them far more willing to play ball with you. The key would be making sure the PCs had a reason to chase the villain across multiple worlds. You can always just put a huge bounty on the villain’s head, but since this is the central premise of your campaign, it helps to be double sure.

One option is to simply ask every player what their character’s reason is. Maybe the villain killed one PC’s family, and maybe another PC wants the villain’s spellbook. Alternatively, you could run a few starter sessions before the dimension-hopping starts and use them to gauge what each PC cares about. If one PC is all about making money, then a cash reward will do fine. If another has a strong sense of justice, you can describe how the villain burned down an orphanage full of puppies!

Hope that helps you with your campaign, and good luck!

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    One method many GM’s seem to forget:

    Involve the players. Tell the players beforehand that the recurring villain will escape, that they’ll still get XP, that the villain won’t be captured or killed until the very last session

    If the players balk about that before play, then they certainly wouldn’t have accepted it in play

    You may also go more lighthearted. Instead of the Big Bad torturing and killing, he’s stealing from lemonade stands. This also requires proper PC mindset, so again clue them in ahead of time

    • Cay Reet

      You could also have the Big Bad steal seemingly unimportant stuff they need for their BIG PLAN.

      And, yes, with such a plan, it would be a good idea to talk it over with the players beforehand.

  2. Quin

    How about instead of getting away, the villian can be defeated or at least their schemes overcome in some dimensions? They could even be killed on occasion. The multiverse setup allows for alternate versions of the same villian all working towards a single purpose.
    This would allow the PCs to win sometimes and lose sometimes, keeping the element of uncertainty alive. It also allows you to switch up the villain’s capabilities and power level for added novelty and keeping their threat alive.
    You would need to provide an extra reason to hop worlds from time to time but you could use some kind of map, special senses/sensors to detect “infected” worlds or guide characters to do it, when necessary.

  3. ~Lcnthrp

    If the villain can be killed multiple times, I think it’s necessary to show them worse off after each defeat. You can still escalate the threat, but you must indicate how things would have been worse had the PCs not intervened. Otherwise the players may be frustrated with futility of it all. That would be no different to the villain repeatedly escaping.

    • They return wielding the Staff of Monstroso de’Mon, but mental trauma and/or missing body parts make them less adept at using it.
    • They still infiltrate the Eternity Patrol, but must use a less competent proxy while they seek a new body to inhabit.
    • They died trying to kidnap the Keymaster, so their other bodies must improvise another plan to open the Gate of Heaven. One that PCs can interfere with.

    • Quin

      Probably true. You could also limit the number of alternates.
      The first time they are killed you can bait your players that they’ve won forever. Then an alternate turns up/is behind a new scheme. Then the PCs learn about the nefarious dodecahedron of evil, the beast with seventeen faces or The Three Nines.
      None of that stops an un-killed villain alternate showing up missing limbs/powers/emotional balance after their last showdown with the PCs.

  4. Dave L

    A villain organization could work. Defeat this particular group, but there’s always another

    Just keep in mind some players might want to face the head baddies immediately

  5. Kenneth Mackay

    In Jodi Taylor’s ‘Chronicles of St Mary’s’ series, the major villain is defeated several times, and eventually killed, but as he has access to time travel, this doesn’t stop earlier versions of him popping up to cause trouble…!

  6. GeniusLemur

    How about if the villain is actually weakened by the encounters, so the players are actually making progress? The villain’s magic staff is shattered, so next time he can’t sic skeletons on you. You killed the villain’s field commander, so he has to organize, train, and command his footsoldiers himself from now on (which also means he doesn’t have as much time to study magic). You the villain’s amulet and hid it, so he has to put his plans on hold until he can recover it. And so on. And there are dynamics you can use to counterbalance the villain’s weakening, such as having him get more and more ruthless and less and less concerned about collateral damage and his advantages disappear, so he remains someone who needs to be stopped.

  7. EC Spurlock

    What if it’s not the main villain pulling them through dimensions, but instead his minions? Not unlike Thanos using Loki, Ronan etc. to locate and retrieve the Infinity Stones for him. The players can have the satisfaction of defeating/killing the perp in this dimension, only to face another stronger, smarter minion in the next. This would work similar to leveling up in a video game, making each task more challenging and each villain harder to defeat until finally reaching the Ultimate Big Bad.

  8. Gwen

    In the Star Wars DnD game I’m currently a part of, we have a reoccurring big bad, who actually has quite a bit of interaction with the players. There’s a bit of frustration with him, not because we keep fighting him and he escapes, but because we can’t fight him. He intruded on each character’s minds, blackmailing them with the loved ones he discovered in their thoughts.
    So he’s free to pop up and talk whenever he has new orders or speak in our minds with his telepathy, but it doesn’t lower his fear factor or make us dislike him any less. And since he hasn’t revealed his true purpose, or made us do anything horribly morally reprehensible (we’ve been taking down drug rings and the like), there’s still an air of mystery.
    So I guess this is all to say that you don’t necessarily have to see this as a problem depending on the villain.

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