Mar 27

GM’s Toolbox by Caleb G. Recurring Villains part 1

When planning a campaign, it is important to consider both the ultimate goal and how to get your players to that point.  Every DnD adventure is different, but we can identify certain themes that repeat themselves.  Usually games revolve around getting to a specific location, finding a specific item, or killing a specific person or monster.  What makes each game unique and exciting is the path your players take to get to that end goal.  As a GM, it is your goal to make this journey interesting and keep your players moving along to their final destination.  One of the ways to accomplish this is to give your players a recurring enemy to encounter as the adventure plays out.  There are, of course, a few different ways to utilize an enemy like this.


One of the easiest ways to involve a recurring enemy in your campaign is to make this enemy the final boss, if we use a video game term.  It could be a monster guarding the treasure your PCs are questing for or maybe the evil warlord who has taken over a kingdom.  There are infinite possibilities for who or what this boss is, but at its core, this enemy is something your players are going to eventually fight.  As a recurring enemy, this boss should show up early in your campaign.  Maybe it starts with rumors in the local tavern from a traveling bard.  Maybe you have a nobleman or priest that acts as an advisor for your PCs and he passes on a mission that causes them to cross paths with the “big bad guy” or at least encounter some evidence of his power and influence.  Whatever the situation, this enemy needs to be established as someone that your PCs have no chance of surviving combat with.  If we continue the video game comparison, you’d want this to play out as a cut scene.


If I may make a quick tangential point, this brings up an interesting thought on your style of running your game.  Some GMs are very exact and others are more fluid.  Let’s say your low level PCs just met the incredibly powerful monster that will soon be revealed to be the recurring enemy and final combat encounter of your campaign.  You have a monologue written for the monster to recite and a few scripted events that you want to play out.  This is all to set up the rest of the campaign and create the framework for your story.  Now let’s say that one of your players decides he wants to do something extremely rash and, oh, I don’t know, throw a fireball right at the monster’s face. (And yes, I speak from experience.) In this moment, you as GM have a split-second decision to make.  You could let this happen and play out according to the rules…in which case your players would most likely be killed.  You could just tell your player he’s not allowed to take that action and continue with your planned story.  Or you could involve that action in your tale and make your story that much more exciting.  In this example, you don’t want the fight to happen because you don’t want your players to be slaughtered.  So maybe the fireball just fizzles for an unexplained reason.  Maybe a summoned spirit appears from no-where and absorbs the blast.  Maybe the boss just lets the fireball glance off his armor and laughs maniacally at your players.  The point of this tangent is that you as GM are in control of the game.  Nothing happens without your consent.  But the style you use to enforce this power has a huge impact on the game and how much fun your players have.


Anyway, back to the recurring big bad guy.  After you establish who or what he is and why your PCs are going to be fighting him, you need to pull him out of the story for a little while.  Build some mystery and suspense.  Maybe as the PCs travel they start hearing crazy rumors about what the bad guy has done or what he’s capable of.  Maybe as they travel, the PCs encounter the results of the bad guy’s work and witness his destructive powers.  This depends, of course, on the type of villain you’ve created.  Is he a warlord taking over a country or a deceptive nobleman manipulating governments and churches? Remember, in this case of a recurring enemy, the PCs are adventuring with the end goal of defeating this villain.  So in game terms, they’re leveling up for that approaching boss fight.  As GM, you want to keep your players motivated to further this end goal.  Keep the villain a major factor in your plot lines and story arcs, but keep it subtle.  You don’t need to have the villain taunting the PCs in every town and making an appearance in every battle.  This type of recurring enemy needs to have his influence evident across the entire game world.


Eventually, your PCs will have a final epic showdown with this villain.  This is what your players have been itching for since the first game session.  This needs to be a fight that is worthy of all the hype you’ve building for this recurring villain.  There will probably be a nasty dungeon or castle to fight through with all kinds of traps and monsters to encounter.  The actual fight with the villain will probably have an entire gaming session devoted to it.  I have been part of plenty of combat encounters that involved lots of planning and preparation only to be over in a few rounds.  While this is a great testament to the skills of your players, it doesn’t always make for a satisfying end to this recurring enemy that the PCs have been dealing with for the entire campaign.  In other articles, I’ll discuss ways to make an epic encounter not only last long enough to be satisfying, but be an actual challenge to your players.


Another recurring enemy to make use of in your game is one that your players actually fight with as the game progresses.  In this scenario, the bad guy represents a smaller goal for your PCs to overcome on their larger adventure.  Maybe they take on a bounty posted by local law enforcement.  Maybe they cross paths with a gang of thugs and earn the wrath of the regional boss.  Again, there are endless possibilities of how to define and create this type of recurring enemy.  At its core, though, this enemy needs to be more powerful than your players, but only slightly.  I usually build an enemy of this type 3 to 5 levels higher than my PCs.  Of course, this depends on the requirements of your story.  If this enemy is someone you plan for your players to fight once after the completion of a small story arc, you need to build him at a level that will be a challenge for where your PCs will be when they encounter him.  On the other hand, if he is an enemy that your PCs will fight over multiple encounters leading up the final battle, he needs to be leveling up along with your PCs.


So when it comes to recurring enemies, there are really three basic kinds to use in your campaign.  You’ve got one that is slightly higher level than your PCs for them to fight over a few encounters, a “mini boss” for your PCs to fight after a small story arc, and a “final boss” for your PCs to fight at the end of the campaign.  Using enemies like this gives a sense of continuity to your plot lines.  Instead of just random encounter after random encounter, your players have a familiar face to see on the battle field.  They have someone to pit themselves against, which gives a good framework for their tactics and strategies. And it gives you as GM an easy to use foundation for your plots and story arcs.  And on top of all that, it’s just plain fun to include something like this in your campaign.


Tune in next time for some ideas and suggestions on exactly how to bring this recurring enemy to life.


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  1. Excellent article! I’m currently in the stages of preparing a one-off that could open to something more, and your tips give some great ideas on how to employ NPCs to drive the action.Looking forward to note articles!

    • Jonathon on August 10, 2013 at 1:52 am
    • Reply

    A lot of good information here depending upon which way you wish to move.


    Keeping your players moving along to their final destination is more for a premade adventure where there is a beginning, middle and end. At a home campaign, though it might be a headache for the DM, is to let the players do what they want to do. If this includes them saying, “Nah, let the bad guy go.” Then so be it. But the consequences might be there as the bad guy comes after the players when they least expect it.

    If the players do continue to pursue the bad guy and corner him and you want the bad guy to escape, the all mighty “Box Text” stops all and players all know of this and most are fine with this knowing that now is not the time to attack. If the DM does not mind the players attacking, then break the box text into three sections and look to the players to see if they wish to let the bad guy continue talking or nuke the bad guy with a fireball.

    Do not screw with the players and have them cast a fireball and have it fizzle out; that is just lame and they just lost that spell and could have used it later to kill the bad guy. Players are not stupid in seeing this. If you do it once and possibly twice, then the wind will be let out of their sail to even go after the bad guy.

    Do remember that final bosses do not have to be at the end. A Living Greyhawk module (3 encounters) that my daughter and I wrote, but never got published, had the bad girl as the first fight (hardest), second fight (easiest), third fight (medium). Most LG modules are setup with the fights from easiest to hardest. With switching them around as such, the players might think that if the first encounter was this hard, how hard is the third encounter going to be? This module was a same day; the players could rest to get their hps back, but the spell casters could not get their spells back.

    As for “…GM are in control of the game. Nothing happens without your consent.”

    I think that the GM is more there to help guide the game, not control it; let alone giving their consent for the players to do something. Once again; when the players get a whiff of this, the wind will be let out of their sails.

    My wind got let out when I started playing LG and thought that my PC could change the world.



    • Caleb on August 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm
    • Reply

    One of the best parts of any RPG, but most specifically DnD, Jonathon, is that there is plenty of room for every possible style for every possible player and GM. A structured story has as much room to grow and develop as a “sandbox style” game.

    In most of my campaigns, I start out with a set story. I create a beginning, middle, and end in order to establish the world and let the players get a feeling for their PCs. This set story may last simply for a few encounters or it may take a few gaming sessions to get through. As I mentioned before, I write most of my campaigns from the standpoint of writing the story like a piece of fiction first. Usually, I have a short plot idea that I want to see played out. When I convert it to a game, I add in teases and openings for the story to develop. Once I take the players through my story, I open up the world to their input. And quite a few times, my story has drastically changed mid-game in reaction to something unexpected from my players.

    You are quite right in pointing out that a GM should not be there to simply exercise absolute control. When I say that there is nothing that happens without a GM’s consent, I simply mean that the GM does have the “trump card” that needs to be played, at times. I love a game where the players have input into what happens and they can create the story along with the GM. I can remember a few sessions off the top of my head where the players and GM sat down first to lay out the adventure, then the GM took charge when it came time to running the actual encounters.

    But it is important to remember, especially for new GMs, that they do have to “play god” once in a while. Players have been known slide off the rails. I think we’ve all been part of a game where something disastrous happened. Sometimes, the GM has to exercise a heavy hand and pull the players into shape around the plot or the next thread of the story.

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