The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

A Different Kind of Returning Villain

One of the challenges of any ongoing campaign for Dungeons and Dragons is how to build up an emotional response in the players to major villains. This is harder than perhaps it should be in part because of the highly lethal nature of combat in D&D – there is an expectation that fights will end with one side dead, and any other result tends to feel forced or awkward. This limits the number of times that the villain and heroes can clash, thus limiting how much the players care about the villain.

Today I would like to suggest a special kind of villain, one that could confront the PCs time and again, lose and yet never lose. Cast your minds back to the movie The Matrix. The Agents in The Matrix didn’t seem to have their own bodies, they just seized the bodies of others. Kill the body they were in and the only thing that happened to them was that they were forced into a new body.

Never send a human to do a machine's job.

The idea of a villain inhabiting the body of another is nothing new to fantasy – its been around as long as the genre – so nothing would be out of place in having this happen. All you would need to apply this is to make up a villain who jumped from body to body as needed. Suddenly the players could win the day, but not the war, as many times as need be.

I think the best way something like this would play out would be the same way the audience learned about agents in The Matrix. At first the villain would seem uber powerful – virtually unstoppable (like every other BBEG does when first introduced). There could be a couple of encounters where he defeats the PCs (using some of the other techniques for non-lethal ends to combat) as they progress up the levels. Finally they are ready to confront him and in a pitched battle win the day, or did they; either as he dies or immediately thereafter there is a hint that something is wrong.

In time the players learn that the villain still lives, setting the stage for a series of battles where the players win, but never manage to stop the villain from gaining a new body. Finally, through much hardship, they discover the way to kill him for real, and take this knowledge to an epic finale.

Over the course of the campaign the players might fight the villain half a dozen, or more times; but once they come to understand the nature of his powers their existence would be more of an in game frustration than a meta-game one (beware causing meta-game frustration). If done right emotions would be running high and the conclusion would be supremely satisfying.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


December 9, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , ,


  1. That’s a very clever idea. Wouldn’t want to overuse it, but I like it a lot!

    Comment by Jack Colby | December 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Interesting. My campaign already has a group of villains exactly like this in place, based on The Denarians from Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files novels. They’re spirits tied to magic items. If you kill them, the spirit remains in the item and possesses the next person who touches the item. Those items are very dangerous, as touching one can be akin to instant player death. I’m already planning to have my players learn about how this works by having a henchman (who they love) collect the item as treasure following an upcoming battle.

    Comment by Greg | December 9, 2010 | Reply

  3. That’s a cool idea (and so obvious). It also solves the problem of the villains escape. Usual returning villains have to escape the battles with the players and that never succeeds as we all know. Having some kind of “possessing spirit” opens whole new worlds. It may either be hidden if not possessing or you can’t attack it (probably incl. that it can’t attack the pcs also). And you can adjust the CR by choosing which creatures it possesses. Really cool, flexible and open concept. Love it.

    Comment by TheClone | December 10, 2010 | Reply

  4. Thank Jim Butcher for the idea. I absolutely love The Dresden Files.

    Comment by Greg | December 10, 2010 | Reply

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