Apr 03

GM’s Toolbox by Caleb G. Recurring Villains part 2

Ok, so you’ve decided to work a recurring enemy into your campaign.  You’ve crated a great story to bring your players into contact with the enemy and you’ve prepared the combat encounters and dungeons for the future battles.  But, with the endless resources and options available to you for character creation, where exactly do you start to create this villain?  As we discussed in the last article, there are 3 basic categories for recurring enemies.  Let’s take a look at each one and discuss some ways to approach how best to create it for your game.  Now of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pre-made monsters and enemies for you to use in your campaign.  By all means, if you find something that fits your needs in a book or supplement, use it.  But sometimes, it’s just more fun to create something from scratch.


Let’s start with an enemy that you intend for your players to engage in combat with over multiple encounters.  This type of recurring enemy should be about 3 to 5 levels above your PCs.  When it comes to selecting a class and race, of course the specifics of your story should play the biggest factor in your choice.  You need to balance what type of class fits your plot against what type of class would be a good challenge for your players.  A cleric might be perfect for your story, but he would crumple against a party of strong fighters.  If you really need an enemy to be a certain class but are worried about his staying power in combat, consider elevating him to “mini boss” status, the next type of recurring enemy, and using some of his minions for more frequent combat encounters.


In later articles, I’m going to discuss more options and ideas on how to draw out a fight and make combat more interesting, which will play directly into this concept of recurring enemies.  For now, let’s focus on the thought process that should go into building this type of enemy.  Unless you are the type of GM that is actively trying to kill your players’ characters, you should be thinking about how to make a fight difficult and challenging, but ultimately survivable.


For a quick moment, we need to discuss meta-gaming.  This mostly applies to players applying their knowledge of the game rules to the decision that their characters make for better or worse.  As a GM, however, a certain amount of meta-gaming is necessary at times.  In the context of building a recurring enemy, you need to factor in your knowledge of your PCs’ gear and abilities to make sure that the enemy hits that sweet spot between being a push over and being impossible to kill.  For example, if you know your Sorcerer favors acid spells, you may want to give your recurring enemy a slight bit of acid reduction so that the fight won’t be over in a few rounds.  But making him immune to acid would effectively remove one of your players from being effective in combat.  And of course, your decision need to make sense in the context of the story.  A recurring enemy who has never met your PCs before shouldn’t be carrying around armor and items specifically designed to counter act the tactics of your players.  But after a few close fights with your PCs, it would make perfect sense for a recurring enemy to pick up items and spells that are intended for a certain member of the PC party.  The bottom line is use your knowledge of your players’ characters fairly.


Back to the recurring enemy.  This type of enemy is probably a solo encounter.  He may have a few minions or guard monsters, but in the context of this type of recurring enemy, he doesn’t need an army to back him up.  The easiest example to demonstrate this a small-time thug that your players encounter as they are setting out on their journey.  They may encounter some of the thug’s minions attempting to rob a caravan of priests or trying to running a protection racket on poor innocent farmers.  The PCs make short work of the minions, but the boss thug makes an appearance and levels a hefty threat against the PCs. Maybe there’s a quick combat encounter to demonstrate that the thug is tough, but he makes his escape to gather more of his minions.  As the adventure continues, maybe the thug sends hit squads against the PCs to surprise them, or maybe the PCs encounter more examples of the thug’s villainy and decide to hunt him down.  Eventually, there will be a combat showdown.


In the initial encounter, don’t let the thug crush your PCs. You want to demonstrate that he’s a tough opponent, but you don’t want to make them scared to go after him.  If you build the thug at 3 to 5 levels higher that your PCs, he could easily kill them with a lucky roll.  Don’t be afraid to flub any attack rolls he makes, or aways calculate minimum damage for the blows he does land.  This type of recurring enemy needs to taunt your players and provide a short-term goal to hunt him down.  In the example of this thug, maybe he just has Fighter levels, or perhaps a few Rogue levels as well.  In combat, he should demonstrate his skill, but not all of his tricks.  Keep his better feats and class abilities reserved for another encounter.  Give him reasonable armor and weapons.  Sure, he probably has nice magic items, but he may have them locked away until he absolutely needs them.  Maybe as the PCs learn more about the enemy from local villagers or bards, they hear about a mystical magic sword he frequently carries.  This gives them an idea of what to prepare for in future encounters as well as builds suspense and excitement.


The PCs will meet this enemy a few times before the ultimate show down, and you should reveal more about the enemy as time goes on.  Show off a few more combat feats or nasty tactical surprises the enemy has prepared.  Slowly reduce the number of minions or other combat distractions and increase the “screen time” the enemy has.  You want the enemy to escape every time until the final encounter.  Maybe he has a Dimension Door spell or a magic item he relies on to escape.  Maybe he summons a surge of minions or monsters to mask his get away.  Maybe he beats the PCs down until they can’t effectively fight then just strolls away laughing.  Whatever you decide to use, make sure it makes sense in the context of the story and for the character you are developing.  Don’t get to a point where the PCs are about to defeat the enemy before you are ready for that to happen and then have to pull out a Dues Ex Machina to explain how the enemy gets away.  Of course, a surprise twist like that would make for a great story.  If you’ve built up this enemy for a few sessions, then the PCs crush him in combat, they will question the reason this happened.  Maybe this was just one of the thug’s minions dressed as him to provide a distraction, or maybe there was another more powerful enemy in charge of the thug.


This leads right into the next type of recurring enemy, the “mini boss”, as he is most easily described.  This enemy may be 10 levels higher than your PCs when they first learn about him.  Maybe he is revealed to be the true villain after some interesting twists and turns in your plot.  Maybe he is a warlord that is sweeping across the land and the PCs are determined to stop him.  Maybe he is a fabled monster or dragon that has been terrorizing the country for years.  The type of recurrence this enemy has is more in legend and story than in actual appearance in the game.  Whatever the specifics of the plot, this recurring enemy needs to be at the end of a quest for your players.  He may make an appearance to make the story more exciting, but because his level is so much higher than your PCs, he needs to avoid combat.  Now you may recall one of my other articles about my cleric Conor’s encounter with a recurring enemy like this.  And that is a perfect example of what can happen when the unpredictable happens.  As GM, you need to be ready for anything.  This type of recurring enemy needs to prove that he will require some solid tactical preparation and some serious leveling up before initiative is rolled.


When you are building this type of enemy, don’t be afraid to give him some serious power.  He wouldn’t have gotten to where he is in terms of the game without having some powerful items and abilities at his disposal.  If your story is such that he may be keeping tabs on your PCs, give him a few traps or items specially prepared for your players.  A good enemy does his research and isn’t against playing dirty.  Give him a ring of spies and informants that can relay details about the PCs’ actions and tactics.  This also gives your players a great option to either destroy the ring of spies, or maybe feed them misinformation.


The actual encounter with this recurring enemy is clearly going to be a tough fight.  An enemy like this has a large force of minions and monsters at his disposal, as well as a fortress to fight through to get to him.  Your PCs will have leveled up quite a bit by this point, but this combat still needs to be deadly and threatening.  When you are creating this enemy, do so with this final encounter in mind.  Plan for offensive and defensive powers from a mix of items and class abilities.  Don’t be afraid to build danger into the location of the fight as well.  An enemy like this will have planned for attacks on his home turf and will have all kinds of traps waiting for anyone coming to attack him.  As the encounter plays out, don’t pull your punches.  This enemy got to where he is by being ruthless and deadly.  Tactically, he will probably focus on healers and support characters, trying to kill or incapacitate them, then work on the strongest opponents.  Over the course of the adventures leading up to this fight, your PCs would’ve heard stories about the enemy’s combat power.  Drop hints about his special attacks or weapons he favors.  Then, support those stories by demonstrating them in combat.  This will be a rewarding bit of flavor for your players.


Overall, the fight with a recurring enemy like this should represent a major accomplishment for  your players.  Defeating this foe is monumental.  But what next? That takes us to the third type of recurring enemy, the “final boss”, so to speak.


There is a fine line between these last two types of recurring enemies.  In most long running campaigns, you will probably have several “mini bosses”.  You’ll establish powerful enemies that the PCs need to defeat or obtain something from to reach to end goal.  Or if your campaign is more mission based, you will have several options of different enemies for your PCs to track down.  When it comes to an ultimate recurring enemy, you really need to establish him from the very start of your campaign.  This foe needs to represent the absolute end game goal for your PCs to find and fight.  In 4E, WotC introduced the concept of a final epic level quest to end the career of the PCs.  While your players might not want to retire their characters after this fight, that scope and scale of this enemy is what you need to keep in mind.  This enemy needs to be a threat to the entire world. Maybe he’s a rogue god set out to destroy everything.  Maybe he’s a wizard trying to open a portal to an unknown plane and summon forth an unspeakable horror.  Maybe the enemy is actually a group or guild that is trying to control world governments.   With a recurring enemy like this, you need to clearly establish how massively powerful he is from the very beginning of your story.  Tell tales of the enemy’s power and exploits in taverns.  Have NPCs cower at his name or speak only in hushed tones about his deeds.  Your PCs need to know without doubt how dangerous this foe is and how much they need to do to prepare for their eventual encounter.


As I said before, when building this enemy, build him with the end combat in mind.  Pull out all the stops here.  If this is the final combat your players might face, make every moment of it as amazing and deadly as possible.  If the enemy is smart and tactical, come up with a unique plan to use against each of your PCs. If he his an all-powerful enemy, max out all of his abilities for the most possible damage.  If he is the kind that surrounds himself with powerful minions and monsters, build a location for the final combat that will highlight the overwhelming nature of his army.  If we are thinking in video game terms, this final boss needs to make everything the PCs have done worthwhile.


Recurring enemies make your game more fun.  While I broke down a few different ways to address this concept, a recurring enemy at its core represents a goal for your PCs to overcome.  Whether you present the enemy as something your PCs need to level up in order to face or if its a persistent foe that levels up along with the PCs, it gives your players a path to follow through your story.  You could wrap up all of my examples into one character or character concept.  For example, a recurring enemy that levels along with the PCs could eventually becomes the final boss of your entire campaign.  Or the massive final boss that your PCs start out at level 1 knowing they will eventually face can send out his minions and lieutenants to harass your PC over the course of their entire adventure.  Whatever specific version of a recurring enemy you decide to use, it is a great way to make your game more exciting.



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