Running Recurrent Bad Guys

From Sebastien Boily

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0437

A Brief Word From Johnn

Game Masters Give Yourself a Pat on the Back

March 4th was GM’s Day, a day to reward, celebrate, and thank GMs who work hard to entertain their players and keep the hobby thriving. While it’s become quite the Hallmark holiday, it’s awesome to see awareness of the notion grow every year.

So, as I sit here writing this, I have a mug full of Tim Horton’s coffee, and I am clinking it against my monitor in salute to you for your ongoing gaming. Even if you aren’t GMing a game currently, it’s still wonderful to know so many people are passionate about this great hobby.

Clink. Oh crap. Honey, where are the paper towels?!

Have a game-full week.

Running Recurrent Bad Guys

Just what is a Recurrent Bad Guy? He or she is usually a sentient enemy (or a common beast, but that’ll be harder) the players will face more than twice. Why not just more than once? In my experience, PC hatred for recurring baddies increases with the feeling of failure he represents.

Following are a few tips on adding recurrent bad guys to your campaigns.

Initial Encounters

The first encounter: The first time they see him, the new random bad guy will likely be less compelling to the PCs than the weak goblin that managed to flee the last encounter, even though the bad guy is a chaotic evil necromancer who has slain a hundred children as a sacrifice to his gods.

The second encounter: In their next meeting with the bad guy, the PCs will want to get rid of him for good because at this point he is a nuisance. If they happen to kill him then the case is closed; they failed once but it will never happen again – at least not with this bad guy.

What you want, though, is to have a third encounter. Perhaps the PCs thought the bad guy was dead, or he obviously survived that second encounter. Either way, the PCs will know instinctively that he’ll be back. Both tactics will grant him the title of Recurrent Bad Guy.

Speeding Up Recurrences

There are times when you don’t need a first encounter just to set up the bad guy for his later reappearance.

If your players are already feeling a sense of failure or guilt before they ever meet your bad guy, then your players will face the first encounter from a different perspective.

For example, let’s go back to my necromancer. Maybe one of those children was the friendly town kid who used to say he would join the party once he was grown-up enough to wield a sword. Witnesses say he was one of the first to be slain since he tried to protect the blacksmith’s daughter. Wasn’t he a brave six-year-old?

If that particular bad guy survives the first encounter and plans to come back to take his revenge, then he will probably have already achieved the prized status of recurrent. This means that the first encounter qualified as the second encounter, in terms of the players’ feelings.

If your recurrent-to-be bad guy hasn’t been met yet but has done mischief that involves the PCs, then he might already be a recurring bad guy. Again this means that the first encounter will qualify as the second encounter.

Who Deserves an Encore?

I believe you should not plan for your bad guy to survive the first encounter unless your party feels strongly about him already. If your PCs have no particular feeling for him and they haven’t heard much about him, you probably haven’t designed or introduced him well.

In my experience, sometimes unplanned recurrences can make the best bad guys.

The first time your bad guy survives an encounter with the PCs, it should be for one of these reasons:

  • He fled the encounter and they did not pursue, he was simply faster, or the situation gave him an advantage that made it logical for him to survive.
  • The encounter was roleplayed and he talked himself out of it or they decided to avoid the fight. If your party regrets this later, it’s a good thing.
  • He won. Sometime PCs get their asses kicked; he might have left them for dead or enslaved them, etc.

In any case, the way he gets away should not be too spectacular or incredible because you can’t abuse those tricks. Besides, you will want to keep them for the next encounter, which is where he can have much more impact than the first.

Ways to Escape

There are many ways to make recurrent bad guys pass the “second encounter” gate. Some will require planning prior to encounter.

  • Minions. Have an overwhelming number of minions block the path to your bad guy. When he feels the battle cannot be won the villain leaves. By the time PCs hack and slash their way through the fodder, your villain is long gone.
  • Allies. Use a strong right hand man or bodyguard; the bad guy is usually confident in the chances of his trustworthy minion and leaves the party with him at the very beginning of the fight.

A twist is that he actually begins the fight alongside the bodyguard, but when the battle is about to be lost he leaves him to a certain death. Or, the bodyguard could knowingly give his life and ask his lord to flee – a great way to show your PC the type of control your bad guy has over his minions.

  • The giant eagle trick. Remember Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf flees Sauron’s tower on the back of a giant eagle? You can do the same with your bad guy. Have him use a horse, a dragon, a giant worm or anything else he could have trained as a mount or a means of escape?
  • Spells. The best means of escape will ever be magic. This includes the classics teleport and invisibility, but how about tree walk, shadow jump, portals, or flesh to mud?
  • Slow the PCs down. Your villain might have planned his retreat and brought caltrops, tanglefoot bags, webs, poisonous gas bomb, or the likes to slow down any pursuer. He could also use paralysis, sleep, slow, or frost spells.
  • Get him into jail. If he has done lot of bad things, he will probably have attracted the attention of the guard, the king, the police, the army, etc. They might want him to be jailed or to have a trial. If your PCs are lawful they will have to try to avoid killing him. We all know that a prison in a roleplaying game always means prison break. Soon your bad guy will be on the run again.
  • Surrender. Perhaps he surrenders to avoid being killed. If your PCs are good and/or lawful to a code that forbids killing an enemy that surrenders, they must let him live. If they do not all belong to that code, this may give your guy time to flee by other means.
  • Try to have the PCs flee. It is possible your recurrent bad guy has discovered some ancient artifact or trained a lot in between two encounters, making him a formidable foe. This time the PCs have no choice but to run, and he doesn’t feel like going after them or doesn’t catch them. If your PCs aren’t likely to flee when they feel threatened this can lead to a total party kill, so be careful.

Villainous Deceptions

Bad guys aren’t straightforward, and you don’t have to be, either. Slinging spells and marching in mooks aren’t the only ways villains can live to flee another day.

  • Fudge the dice. The PCs are running behind him, he enters a room and exits through one of two doors. If they investigate or choose a random door, roll the die – and fudge it. Unfortunately, the PCs chose the wrong path, their investigation gave him enough time to hide or to get away, or maybe he just knows the place better and has taken a secret passage.
  • Let him die. Simply do not let him flee; let him die. This doesn’t mean he’ll never be back; your bad guy might have followers that will attempt to resurrect him. Preventing that resurrection might be the next quest for the PCs, or he might show up at a time they do not suspect.

Maybe he regenerates or will be reborn at a particular place like a vampire or a lich. Maybe he’s made out of energy, and they have to do something particular to get rid of him beyond merely dropping him below zero HP.

  • Body dies, spirit remains. Perhaps he can transfer his spirit and/or mind into another body; maybe a stronger body or even one of the PCs’. This will give your guy a new face, maybe new physical stats.

What if the new body is the local lord, a child, or a good friend? Your PCs now have to free the body, not just kill him. Great roleplaying opportunities.

You can have your bad guy transformed into an undead by an even greater evil, or have him make a pact with a devil or demon. Maybe some techno freaks will turn him into a cyber-zombie or cyborg.

  • He was a fake. He might well have been a mirror image or astral projection; killing him only makes it disappear. Maybe he is a clone and the real baddie is out there somewhere.

An interesting twist would be that he actually was a test clone and the really bad guy has somehow witnessed the fight to perfect is knowledge on cloning producing stronger and stronger clones. The PCs must stop him before his army is ready.

Don’t Overdo It

For most PCs, failure isn’t fun! To the PCs, a fleeing bad guy means only half a victory.

This can be worked to your advantage, but if it happens too often it becomes boring. Do not give your PCs that feeling of failure too often.

Having your bad guys survive all the time will sometimes look like you are railroading the PCs. If you ever have a player say out of character, “Well, he wasn’t meant to die at this time,” this should ring an alarm. It might be time to have another bad guy take that one’s place, or change your GMing style.

In between appearances of your recurrent bad guy, have a few side quests or battles against his minions. This way, the PCs will feel that, while they might not yet have won the war, at least they won a few battles. And remember, fighting minions of a recurrent bad guy adds to his status – you can even create a recurrent minion.

To conclude, always keep in mind that a wise enemy will not wait until a is down to few HP. He will retreat before he exhausts all his resources and the tide of the battle goes in the PCs’ favor.

Holidays For You Game

Holiday: The Festival of Rebirth

From John Gallagher

The town of Tanjer-lo is all that now remains of a once- proud city, the capitol of a rich kingdom centuries ago. The kingdom grew soft in its own luxuries, and when wild tribes of prairie nomads united at last under a strong leader, the kingdom found itself under attack from the suddenly strong savages. Caught unprepared and under-fortified, the kingdom fell to the nomads, who carried off the city’s wealth, and burned the capitol to the ground.

The survivors of the invasion, instead of scattering or fleeing, resolved to stay in what remained of their homes and rebuild. And that was the genesis of the Festival of Rebirth. Despite their resolution they had nothing of value and little skill, and they were unable to reclaim the glory of their former city.

Today, the descendants of those survivors live as peasants among the overgrown ruins of the ancient city. And even though many of them live in stone buildings left standing from the war, few of them know anything of the town’s history and the origins of the festival that they still celebrate.

Today, the festival is often called the Day of Birth, or just Birth-Day. According to local folklore, children born on this day will be lucky throughout their lives, and parents often try to conceive children with this festival in mind.

Along with that, Birth-Day is also a traditional time for lovers to become engaged. In fact, an entire schedule of engagement, marriage and (hopeful) birth has been established.

Engagements are announced on Birth-day, and a period of one season (roughly 3 months) is allowed between the engagement and the marriage, during which time a list of engaged couples is posted on the town well.

At the end of the period, the prospective couples are married in one large ceremony in the mostly-intact ruins of the ancient temple of Ang. And is the chief deity of the former kingdom, but is no longer worshipped.

The newly wedded couples then try to conceive a child to be born on the next Birth-Day. Marriages that do not follow this traditional schedule are considered cursed, since they are assumed to be “necessary to conceal shame.” And firstborn children born very far from the Birth-Day celebration are assumed to be bastards.


  • And might not have any worshipers, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone. The town is plagued with storms followed by long periods of drought, unexplained fires, and other weird occurrences as and expresses his displeasure with the use of his temple for this upstart festival.
  • A firstborn “bastard” child asks for help cleaning the stain from his birth, and from his mother’s name.
  • Children born months before or after the festival do suffer from amazingly bad luck, and PCs find that folklore is sometimes based on all-too-real, forgotten facts. Perhaps some unseelie type faeries target these children because their untimely birth offends them in some way.
  • The ceiling of the ancient temple has collapsed, and since the marriage date is in the middle of the rainy season, it must be repaired for the festival to take place. PCs must find stonemasons, builders or reasonable alternatives on a very tight budget and strict time constraints if the ceremony is to occur.
  • Buried beneath the city, perhaps beneath the temple or beneath the ruins of the castle, lies the one treasure the nomads did not make off with, still guarded by numerous traps and unliving creatures, like golems, gargoyles, etc.
  • One year, for the first time in memory, there are no pregnancies in the town as Birth-Day approaches. Alternately, every married (even unmarried?) woman in the town has conceived, even women past child-bearing years. And on the morning of Birth-Day, they all go into labor at the same time. This could be a whole lot more interesting if all the midwives are in labor as well, which leaves PCs in the midst of a medical crisis. But even after they navigate the crisis, the question remains: what caused it?

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Plan Wide Not Deep

From RPG Ike

Planning wide – a simple strategy for mitigating poor improve skills and getting better return on investment for your prep time.

I’m not good at improvising. So, how do I run a game for multiple player types – be they method actors or butt- kickers – without frustrating the rest of the people sharing my table? I plan to the side, rather than deep. It’s efficient, and it works.

Plan Wide, Not Deep

I like to plan detailed, single sessions at a time, and seldom know what will happen sessions from now except in the most general terms. I believe this offers a higher quality game in terms of anything benefiting from more granular attention – especially encounter design, character design, and plot.

Naturally I don’t want to railroad my players, so I offer the illusion of sandbox-choice by creating three or four adventure sites at a time (planning wide). If my campaign were a website, I would only plan about two clicks deep in any given direction, but I’d have 3-4 different directions for the user to explore.

I get my players to tell me between sessions what adventure site appeals the most. During the session we visit that adventure site, and I “age” the other adventure sites appropriately based on PC and NPC actions. Sometimes this means adventure sites need to be repopulated – a step I usually do at the last possible moment to avoid continually having to craft new challenges when the PCs level up.

Rarely, the adventure site “closes” – a rival group already went through it and killed all the monsters, or perhaps the story makes one site more important than all the rest – but I always keep those forgotten sites in my back pocket. It’s easy to come up with hooks on the fly to bring the PCs to your fleshier dungeons.

Site Recycling

You can even recycle adventure sites if necessary, if only the best rooms. Visiting the same locations again can be boring, but sometimes returning to familiar ground for climactic confrontations (or the scenes of climactic confrontations past) can be really enjoyable, and may add layers to combat tactics and roleplaying in familiar surroundings. Plus, you can turn all that familiarity on its head by changing the familiar site, perhaps in drastic ways.

Other Tips for Efficient Planning

  • Be sure to use mixed encounter groups when you populate your dungeons. This makes it easier to swap critters in as your PCs grow without having to revamp the entire encounter group.
  • Plan a generally more challenging game than your PCs’ level. Again, this keeps your crafted encounter groups viable for longer while providing more rewarding battles.
  • If you’re stuck, try starting with a map, which is never wasted effort. Even a collection of 10 by 10 rooms with corridors connecting them can be used in a pinch, and your design will inform the critters living there, the treasure, and the adventure site’s location in your world.

RPG Ike runs (, a blogsite dedicated to creating cool monsters and providing encounter-related advice.

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10 Things to Do Before Starting a New RPG Campaign

From Jonathan Drain

My own D&D campaign recently went bust. It had me thinking about what I could do to get things started on the right foot the next time around.

Get a reliable and committed group of players,

Nothing can be more frustrating than planning a new campaign and having it fizzle out before it even starts because one or more players decide to bail.

A key to preventing player false-starts is to shorten the time frame between when you get their commitment to play and when the game actually starts. If several weeks go by before the first session, you should expect some people to bail.

Players can prevent their own false-starts by not agreeing on a whim to start a new campaign. Player cooperation and commitment to the game are essential for any campaign, and if you bail out before it starts you are doing nothing short of holding up the fun for others.

Get a reliable and committed game master.

Much like getting reliable players – the same holds true for the GM. This may not happen as often, but in my experience it occurs often enough to mention. Some people love the idea of running a game, but when the $%iT hits the fan they might realize how much work running a good game is and decide to bail.

Being a dependable GM trumps being an imaginative, innovative, or cool GM, in my book. The former being a requirement for an ongoing campaign; the latter being something that can come from the player group just as much from the GM. Basically – don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Make known your expectations.

Do you want this to be a one-off adventure? Or a long-lived campaign? Are you going to play your character seriously or with a sizable degree of “salt?” Let the other players at the table know what you are looking for and what your expectations are.

How many hours do you expect each game session to last? How often do you want to gather for gaming? What is your play – style? As long as everyone is open and honest about what they want to get out of the game, then the group as a whole can benefit by trying to meet those needs.

Have everyone agree on a (semi-)regular schedule.

It’s hard for working-professionals to meet more than once a week, or even twice a month. College age or younger players may be able to game more often, but this also taxes the GM tremendously. Whatever the schedule, everyone should agree on at least a tentative schedule before game play starts.

If you want to game for more than 3 hours at a stretch, then try to avoid game sessions that start later than 7 pm. Gaming late into the night can be fun, but consider that some of the players in your group might have day jobs the next day.

Have the GM provide everyone with character creation and setting guidelines.

The GM should email everyone with general guidelines about character creation and the setting. Players can all participate in helping define these guidelines, but ultimately the GM should firmly decide what is and is not permissible for a given campaign.

Is the game going to be the default game system setting or a home brewed world? What races and/or classes are allowed or prohibited? Where can the participatory players find more information about the setting?

Have all your characters made before the first session.

Having character sheets finalized before the first day of gaming is critical. First of all, it smooths out game play so that the dice can start rolling ASAP and there are no hangups. Second, it allows the discussion about the characters to focus on what has been decided a week beforehand instead of what was decided 5 minutes beforehand. Oftentimes, a snap decision about character design might leave players regretting their choices in the long run.

Have an elevator pitch for each character.

It’s important for each player to know something about the other player characters at the start game play. An elevator pitch is a great way to convey this information.

This is basically a 20-30 second pitch (the average length of an elevator ride) about who your character is, what they look like, what stands out about them. Try to have this ready when game play starts; if all the other players do the same then you all will be much better off in the long run.

Have the GM think of and flesh out at least one reoccurring villain.

I’m a huge fan of the villain who narrowly escapes only to rear his or her (or its) ugly head another day. At early levels of game play, these types of villains can bring an important level of depth to a campaign.

Then, after having faced off with them two or three times before, the characters can finally have a big showdown once they are much higher level. The best setups include having two or three reoccurring villains, with showdowns for each at various, progressively higher levels of play.

Decide on and write down all the house rules.

Every campaign eventually has a few house rules. These may be minor rule changes such as “no multi-classing” or “dwarves are the same size as humans.” Or more significant rule changes, such as “there are no classes; it’s all free form” or “wizards as player characters don’t exist in this campaign.”

Whatever they are, it’s important to write them down and make them available to all the players. A simple solution is to use a public wiki service like GoogleWiki or Obsidian Portal to house your house rules. Oh, and if you don’t have any? Then make your campaign your own and make some up! The heart of RPGs is the do-it-yourself approach to gaming.

Remember, the most important rule is the Rule of Cool.

We all want to have fun, right? That’s the whole reason we are into this thing called roleplaying games. So, in an effort to keep up the fun, remember the Rule of Cool and your game will be forever better for it.

ChattyDM has a great spin on the whole topic (as it relates to RPGs) here: