Your Whispering Homunculus—A Short Summary of the Fine Art of the Recurring Villain
“Master, someone just knocked at the door.”
“Sorry, master, I forgot myself. One moment, and I’ll go and see who it is.”
“Who is it, squidling?”
“My lord, it is Arch-Queen Xera, the Dark Princess of Dead-Wood, your nemesis.”
“Then show her in. This time, she shall not escape me.”
Many a memorable campaign has had at least one master villain who appears in more than just a single adventure. The main bad guy who comes back for more adds something to a long-running adventure path. A recurring villain gives your campaign, or a part of your campaign, a focus and a hate figure—someone on which you can hang whatever badness you wish, whether that is a feudal lord who takes land, a twisted warlock, or a serial killer who steals babies.
The problem is how do you pull off the recurrence without it seeming far-fetched, or worse, annoying.
A truly great recurring villain can add another dimension to your adventures: the jilted vampire lover, the childhood memory come back to haunt the adult, the enemy from beyond the grave. There’s a fine line, however, between running a good recurring villain and running a boring one. The villain that is one step ahead once or twice is good, and the dark spidery NPC in the untouchable heart of a black web is cool, but the villain who doffs his proverbial hat and laughs as he escapes for the fifth time just becomes irritating.
Here are a few ideas to use as a springboard to a recurring villain or to give you an option for an enemy that is not so easy to defeat in a single adventure.
The simple trick I’ve found is to give your enemy a good chance of escape, but don’t make it certain, or a key part of your future adventures. Once you decide beforehand that your villain is going to escape, it waters down the effect and leads to a dangerous precedent in your campaign—prejudging any event is a tricky line to cross. Keeping that simple piece of advice in mind, here are some ideas to help bring that villain back.
The Grow with the PCs Lower-Level Villains
With limited powers, pulling an escape is superficially far easier at lower level than at higher ones. A gaseous form potion quickly swallowed can lead to instant escape, while an obscuring mist gives great cover to flee. An invisibility spell always provides a reasonable escape route while a fly spell is also a good way away from an encounter.
If you think a little more out of the box, a jump spell on a city rooftop or narrow valley offers a dramatic escape, while a low-level druid encountered in thick briars can effect escape using woodland stride.
More mechanical means, such as secret doors with locks on the escaping side, trapped escape routes, and even a simple swim by an NPC with a high skill rating over a waterfall, down a swift flowing mill race, or through an underground stream offer other potential escapes. Mechanical and skill means may be more memorable as the PCs actually see the NPC flee, and an understanding of the escape makes it all the more plausible.
Finally don’t be afraid to use monsters as part of the escape route; a character who can balance well might think nothing of fitting his escape room with an owlbear in it and a narrow beam above, while a creature on a short chain soon becomes a menace if, just beyond the creature, is a lever to lengthen the chain for anyone chasing.
Now that your villain has met the PCs and seen their relative strengths, he or she will be better prepared next time.
Using Magic Items
Items such as the cape of the mountebank, ring of feather falling (where the final battle takes place on a mountain or high building), or a carpet of flying all offer plausible escape means that still offer pursuit or attack. You may decide that a villain has a magic portal that allows escape into somewhere not dangerous to him or her but dangerous to the PCs. A salamander with such a door for example could easily exit into a volcano.
The Undead Villain
Roleplaying games offer a second chance to you, with the opportunity for a villain who is so outraged by his or her death that the villain ignores it and becomes undead. Undead villains can be a fantastic way to continue a villain against your players because the very nature of the villain’s death creates an intimacy between foes and makes the anger all the more palpable for those PCs who played a big role in dispatching the enemy the first time. Perhaps this time the creature is back for vengeance?
You can also use followers and cultists to return your enemy if you want to use him or her a second time. Perhaps the ceremony requires certain elements that are brought to the PCs’ attention, and maybe a whole adventure could revolve around such a plot, with the PCs preventing their enemy’s return from death.
We’ll deal with this subject again in the monograph on undead master villains from beyond the grave in Beyond the Realm of Sleep in a future YWH.
Resurrection and the Villain
Think carefully when using a raise dead or resurrection spell—does your villain warrant such an act—is it even possible?
If your campaign uses such spells commonly, then there is no reason the enemy cannot use them too, but have a close look at the costs and requirements of such spells before using them.
If in doubt, avoid this option.
The Group as an Enemy
A slight variation is to have associates of the foe appear from the shadows; is the group really a national-spanning cult that the dead NPC was merely a part of, and does that cult swear the death of those who slay their friends or steal from their bodies?
These cultists could have an identifying mark—perhaps a tattoo or mask or mutilation that shows what they are. Having killed a man wearing a mask shaped like a stylized open-mawed deep-sea angler torn by wire, a second figure wearing an identical mask is seen, whispering to messengers that he has returned to kill the PCs.
The Enemy at Hand
Perhaps the trickiest master villain to pull off is the enemy that walks boldly up to your PCs, states exactly what he or she intends to do, and yet is untouchable. Such a villain can generally exist only in a civilized locale, a place where, like our own world, the laws are tough, or through the use of spells such as prismatic wall.
Your toolbox here is not limited to law and spells, however. Loved ones can be taken and used as hostages, and spells such as dream can be used to send messages. Your main villain could be something incorporeal, and creatures such as a ghost can delivers its threats through innocents makes a great potential master villain for you to use.
Other monsters that have a quick escape, such as vampires and their gaseous form ability, give you another option. With all these villains, though, you need to keep it realistic and stay within the rules. A vampire queen, appearing on a balcony above the PCs in the moonlit streets of a decayed city gives you a chance for her to profess her love for a PC, or threaten one with oblivion. Keep in mind that if such a date occurs every evening, you might that find your players become bored or focus solely on how they are going to trap and kill the vampire queen.
Be wary—if you truly make your players loathe such a villain, any risk may be worth his or her death. Would a holy cleric really carry out a conversation with an evil cultist he hates and do nothing? No.
More Macabre Ways to Return
In one campaign, the cult the PCs were seeking had a dreadful pact that enabled the dead clerics of the cult to immediately rise after death as some revolting creature. Occasionally, such creatures came back with wings and fled the carnage, licked their wounds, and began to plot vengeance. After the cleric died a second time, however, that was that. The tougher the cleric, the tougher the thing it became, giving the PCs the dilemma of what to use their best spells on first—the foe or what their foe would become after death.
Such plots are good to use on occasion to keep your players on their toes, but as ever, keep such plots for the tougher villains you wish to impress upon your players.