As you might know, a lot of Roleplaying games involve facing off against antagonists. Bad folks who are the source of the party’s troubles – whether directly trying to kill the PCs, or indirectly by trying to… flood the continent or something.
The real problem is, they don’t get a lot of screen time. They occasionally get some build up as the party encounters their servants, but most of the time, when they show up – the party surrounds them and kills them in a few short rounds, not learning who they are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. No matter how good their backup plan is.
So, how do you make villians come back for a second round? And more importantly, how do you do so without feeling like you’re screwing the party over with a deux-ex-machina?
Don’t Go Alone
One major flaw with many villain encounters is that when it’s time to face off against the PCs, they do so one-on-one. Except that the party’s “one” is actually four to six competent adventurers. So unless the villain is so powerful that their every attack threatens the survival of a party member, that six-to-one disadvantage means they’re going down fast.
It’s important, if not critical, for villains that you intend on being recurring to have an entourage. Preferably of at least two competent bodyguards, if not three or four. Maybe a pet.At bare minimum some sort of summon monster spell in their back pocket.
And these guards shouldn’t be pushovers, either, they’ve got to be a real threat to the party to keep the attention off their boss for long enough for him to escape when combat goes south. They should be a distinctly real threat to the PCs, and interesting to boot. After all, what good antagonist keeps generic soldiers as bodyguards, of the same sort who the party has been cutting down in two rounds for half an adventure now?
Not full-fledged villains on their own, these bodyguards should nonetheless be interesting characters. Yet it’s not just enough for them to be “a moderately powerful wizard” or “a capable fighter”. They should have distinct looks and visible fighting styles, as these bodyguards are around only for this fight. The oiled wrestler who shouts with every attack might use the same statistics as the 5th level monk from the NPC Codex, but he’s going to stand out a lot more than “an unarmed man”. A slender man whose face is cloaked in shadows, and whose fingertips glow as he casts spells might just be 9th level evoker – but damned if he isn’t more memorable than “the wizard”.
Not only does being a hair more detailed help these characters stand out from their rank-and-file counterparts, it also has a side effect of taking some of the attention away from the fellow they’re guarding. When the buff wrestler leaps into the fray screaming and grabbing the rogue, the party is looking at him – not the sleazy merchant they’ve been chasing down as he ducks into a secret door. By sheer virtue of the bodyguard having a distinct description the party isn’t focusing on chasing after (and thus killing immediately) their real target, letting them come back a second time. And that second time, even if it’s only a few encounters later, is going to be much higher stakes – and much more interesting as a result.