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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