Recurring villains are fun inclusions to any Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Villains represent the anti-hero, the antagonist, the players’ nemesis who are always out to ruin the other's day. They are the Joker to your party of Batmen. They are the Loki to your army of Thors. Are you seeing a trend here? In D&D there are often four or five superheroes, and only one villain.
Can you imagine what would happen if a team of five Batmen took on the Joker? Can you even envisage how quickly five Thors could take down Loki in a combat encounter? Dungeons and Dragons sure has some dangerous and diabolical villains, but they are often horribly outnumbered by the heroic characters. Naturally, it's not uncommon for a villain to be absolutely destroyed in a head-on encounter with the players. Unless you stat-pad them to the moon and back... But where's the fun in that?
Let's make villains a challenging threat for the players without only buffing their stats, but first let's start with a quick look at some of the problems that typical recurring villains in RPGs can have:
1) The villains are often easy to overpower in a head-on encounter against the entire party.
2) Often the villains will die in the same encounter where they first meet the party. Sometimes, the villains will survive the first meeting with the party (no combat) but will die in the first combat that they face the party.
3) DMs often have all these hopes and dreams about what the villain will do in the campaign over a long time period; if the players take him out of the fray early, then it throws a huge spanner in the works.
4) Villains who are built to survive that first combat encounter, are often made far too powerful for the players to defeat. More on this later.
5) Villains who spend most the campaign hidden behind curtains and sheltered to avoid interaction and encounters with the characters are often not renown enough to the characters for the players to truly hate them, or even remember them.
This isn't a very good setup for having dramatic, recurring villains. We are missing some huge key points that comics, movies, TV shows, games, etc. use to make those recurring villains successful antagonists.
As a dungeon master, you should instill in your players the understanding that a mission failure doesn't mean "you lose at D&D." Losing to a villain should be a chip on your shoulder that drives your character to be better next time. However, this isn't really something that can be said just once at the table and have the players understand and follow those values.
Most D&D players have played hack-and-slash games or other open world RPG video games like Skyrim, Baldur's Gate, Diablo, and Torchlight. In those kind of games, winning combat is usually the only option. I mean, retreat is sometimes an option in some games but things like surrendering, getting mugged, or getting imprisoned aren't as present in those games. Many players have similar preconceptions about D&D as they do about video games, and that is where this kind of thinking derives from.
Anyway, I could write a whole article about "losing a fight doesn't mean you lose the game", but this is the villain article. In summary: If your players are aware that there are other alternatives to "winning" and "death", you will find a lot of the recurring villain plots are able to work much more often and to greater effect.
These are some solutions that I have found to make villains more effective at terrorising the world, being hated by your players, and still staying alive long enough to make a difference. Per the theme of these entries, we will not be stat-padding the villains either.
1) Have the Players on the Clock
If the players are on a time limit, standing toe-to-toe with the villain is not the primary goal of the encounter. Maybe they have to stop a portal from opening, interrupt a ritual, steal an artifact before the dungeon collapses, or perhaps there are hostages in the next room about to be executed. If the players focus on killing the villain, they may very well fail their main objective. This will hurt their reputation in town, especially if it was townsfolk that were the executed hostages. Mechanically, they’ll also be missing out on mission XP and other boons.
Sometimes it's not even the villain themself that must be stopped, but their scheme that’s already in place. The Joker might waltz right up to Batman and tell him that he has 15 minutes to save innocent people or they will die. Usually the Joker does this in a way where the Batman can do it in about 14 minutes, so that it's a tight and exciting finish for the sociopath to enjoy. If Batman simply spent a minute or two beating the Joker to death, he would likely miss out on saving those innocent people.
2) Include Non-Combat Encounters
If you haven't used a vignette in your campaign, I’d definitely recommend look at researching what they are and how they can be used effectively in RPGs. I use them a fair bit now, usually once every three to five sessions, and with good success.
Other good encounters that are non-combat with a villain might be at a public event like the king's feast or a jousting tournament. This stuff really works well if you're doing a political intrigue kind of campaign as opposed to a door kicking one, but it works either way. Basically you will need ways for your players to interact with the villain knowing who he is without combat being an option. If you can do this, the villain gets more screen time, and the players harbour more hatred!
3) Give the Players a Reason to Keep the Villain Alive
This could be something as simple as moral codes/quandaries, to something like a direct order from the mage guild to bring back the rogue wizard alive! What if this wizard was the only person who could stop another BBEG? Perhaps only this villain knows how to stop the apocalypse that's already begun.
There are also many of other factors that you can pull into play here too. The moral code, for example: Batman doesn't kill gratuitously as it's against his moral code. This also has the amazing side effect of permanently recurring villains. Sure, they can get thrown in a prison or locked in an asylum, but one day they will come out to play again. Usually the circumstances of this escape are very cool and dramatic too! These unique story moments can really make players enjoy a recurring villain, as they think “Ahhh no, he’s at it again!”. Be sure not to overuse this though; if every villain the party spares from execution escapes, and returns to evil again in the future, the PCs will likely revert to murderhobo mode.
Note that in the essence of steps we can take to prolong a villain's lifespan, this is one of the softer ones. It's more something to include as a guideline and always to have as an option for the players. Maybe they'll overlook this in their rage. Don't give the villain plot armour just because he's needed later. Let the players know this, and then have them make their own actions from there.
4) Mix it up with some variety!
If all of your villains are recurring, your players will be pulling their hair out, and feeling like they never really accomplish or complete anything. While it's great that the Batman always beats the joker but never rids of him for good, it can get frustrating for your players if they can never actually finish off a villain. It's more about closure as opposed to anything else.
I put this in the list because if you have a mix of recurring and non-recurring villains, the recurring ones are more likely to be left alive. My rule of thumb for my villain variety is that I split my villains into roughly 3 even piles.
Pile 1 - Recurring Villains: The ones this article focuses on
Pile 2 - Big notable villains: Powerful or renowned villains who your players have heard of/known/met but are probably only meant to have one encounter with them.
Pile 3 - Episodic Villains: Villains who are introduced and dealt with in the same session, or in the subsequent session. A good example of this guy is the players travel to a new town, which is being manipulated by some sort of gang lead by an episodic villain. This gives the characters a mini break from the end of the world storyline and let's them help out the little folk to get a small task started and finished in one night. Feels good!
5) A Supernatural Means of Recurring
Very cliche, but also very effective. However, make sure that you do not overuse this. It's fine to have multiple villains with this trait, but make sure that they don't all coexist in the same story arc, as it's incredibly frustrating for players. Easy versions of this include using undead creatures as villains or using a living villain who turns undead upon his demise. You could even have recurring villains that are all just clones of a single great wizard, or twin wizards who give off the illusion that it's just the same guy who's back again.
Make sure that there's a way for the PCs to stop this villain from coming back; even if this path involves going to a dungeon or area they wouldn't otherwise go to (hello, nonlinear plot hook!), and even if this path is half a dozen sessions away. Obvious examples are destroying a lich's phylactery, driving a stake through a vampire in his own coffin, etc.
You could even get more creative, for example:
Kruul the Eternal is a demon who keeps coming back again and again to torment the party. In order to get rid of him forever, the party must do the following:
Recurring villains are one of the pillars that lay the foundation for a truly memorable campaign. Just follow these tips above, and you can ensure that these villains are etched into your player's memories for a long time to come!
Peter is an avid dungeon master, role-player, and story teller. When he's not running homebrew campaigns, he is creating new worlds, or he is reading and writing fantasy stories, forever immersing himself in the gaping black-hole known as the fantasy genre.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.