I’ve been keeping tabs on the Paizo message boards, where Dungeon editor James Jacobs gives insider advice on how to keep a recurring villain going without getting him killed in combat. Perhaps they don’t meet him personally until later levels, or they have planned a foolproof escape method, or (and this is more frustrating) they are simply not powerful enough to hurt him. Even if he is killed, the players can’t be absolutely certain if they don’t see the body - if they flee, or the villain falls off a cliff, the players can’t know for sure he didn’t survive. These are good ideas from Jacobs, so I’ll overlook his spelling of villain.
An idea of my own is to let the villain be killed, but have it emerge that he left meticulous plans to be carried out in the event of his demise. That way, the villain continues his plans as if he were still alive. Naturally, the players assume that he has somehow survived, only to find that all this time they’ve been fighting the villain’s sheets of paper in the hands of minions. Of course, he might later actually come back as an undead, or turn out to have had a clone handy, or a life insurance policy with true resurrection attached. I wouldn’t like to see the premiums on one of those.
Actually, here’s another idea. Make it so that they can’t kill him - not without repercussions that are even worse than leaving him alive. The villain is also prevented from outright killing the PCs by himself, perhaps for a similar reason, or perhaps by his own code of honour.
Example: The villain is a high-ranking government official. The PCs can’t outright kill him without being executed for treason - unless of course they produce some hard evidence, which the villain is careful to avoid.
Example: Killing the villain would simply make him a martyr to his cause. The players must first find ways to weaken his cause before they eliminate him, or else his supporters will be even more numerous and powerful than when he was alive.
Example: The villain is the only person keeping control of something powerful and dangerous - an undead army, a dragon, or the like. He’s the only one that can keep this thing from breaking loose and wreaking even worse havoc.
Of course, you can only really do this if you give the PCs a way to defeat the villain. If they aren’t the kind of players who enjoy coming up with clever plans to defeat villains, you might want to fall back on having the villain teleport out of battles a lot with witty catchphrases.
One idea I had is a variant on the cliche’ “Evil Twin” scenario. In this idea you have a set of twins who are partners in their criminal plan. One of the siblings is designed to be more Chrismatic then the other and hence is the “Face” of the team. The other sibling remains in the shadows, thusly the heroes only know of one half of this duo.
Now when the Heroes kill off the charismatic villian, the twin will want to take revenge. This can be done in several subtle and enjoyable ways such as sending “haunting notes” to the players or making brief appearances for the players to spot. This can lead to the players believing they’re being haunted by the slain villian. :)
The players (if they’re the sort that like to think) can have fun finding out that the slain villian had a twin and now the search is on to find the missing half that has been hounding the players!
Having an invulnerable villain is quite fun, especially if there is a reason the villain does not slay the PCs outright (even more fun if the PCs don’t know the reason, or believe in a different reason than a real one for some time). Madness is a good excuse.
I ran a paragon half blue dragon balor named Desacretu against my PCs since level 3, and he was the mastermind and the enemy until nearly level 50. They thought they had killed him several times, but even after receiving deific onslaughts he survived. Later they find out he wouldn’t kill them because one of the PCs (a half red-dragon human orphan, his egg was frozen for millenia) was the son of one of his old comrades (a Paladin, whose mount was a Lawful Good red dragon, the PCs father, who later united all dragons for a few millenia, but that is another story).
In another campaign, using the Major Artifact “Shield of Prator” in the DMG as an idea launcher, they have characters playing 7000 years before their former characters in Prator’s campaign to Hell, and Desacretu, completely sane, is their field commander. He follows Prator blindly, but when Prator is slain by Bel, Mammon, and Dispater, he despairs and is driven insane.
One of the characters in that crusade had the Saint template, and was thus immortal and did not die when affected by an imperfect temporal stasis spell, and I allowed his PC to run him again, 9000 years after the crusade. Eventually Desacretu was defeated because he could not strike down someone who so perfectly mirrored Prator; his hope was restored and he died.
That was a bit longer than I intended, sorry.
Another alternate recurring villain idea would be to have a former PC (perhaps all members of his party died, and a new group was decided upon jointly by the players) as an enemy, or an old, too powerful cohort, or maybe the entire campaign is centered around destroying a Church of Hextor or a Drow city.
You don’t need the cliche recurring villain to gain the same feeling of repeated and angrifying thwartation (two new words, I hope you understand their meaning).
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