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I am currently running a campaign which is still in its early stages, and I plan to introduce a recurring villain. However, if the villain is always the main "big bad" behind every session and he gets away, it might be frustrating to the players.

So besides having each session to be focused on the recurring villain, what other ways can I have the PCs cross swords, butt heads and trade snarky insults at the villain without an outright fight (because if a fight breaks out, the characters are likely to lose), but not something that makes the player feels useless?

Some negative examples:

  • Kidnap the PCs and have the villain give a gloating speech while the PCs are tied up
  • Appears before the PCs while somehow invincible
  • While flanked by bodyguards who are too high level for the PCs (perhaps the first meeting - gets old and de-powering if it is always such).

Some examples of what I am looking for:

  • The villain calls the PC (but alas, it's fantasy, no callings. Maybe holograms?)
  • Appears at a distance where the PCs can't reach
  • Responsible for the plan but wasn't the one executing it
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The very last point of your post is a very good answer. –  OpaCitiZen Jul 23 '13 at 9:22
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Take a look at this question for some additional useful material and ideas: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/27362/… –  Rob Jul 23 '13 at 9:40
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@JonathanHobbs It's wrong if the players are not challenged, but truly frustrated, meaning they lose interest in the plot instead of gaining it. –  Flamma Jul 23 '13 at 10:16
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Challenging means that despite it being tough, there's a moment where your effort has a payoff - you defeat the bad guy. Frustrating is, you don't have a chance, and whatever you do just get beaten down. –  Extrakun Jul 23 '13 at 10:54
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The big bad can be out of reach. Perhaps instead of taunting the PCs directly they just find evidence of him in many encounters. An assassin they fight off. Papers with orders found in the lair they just cleared out. The last words of the spy dying from poison he just took. Etc. –  Zan Lynx Jul 23 '13 at 18:08

19 Answers 19

up vote 23 down vote accepted

You need to give the players a sense of achievement and progress in their battle with the "big bad" or they will become frustrated, keys to this I've found for villains are:

  • Contact Keep contact with the big bad minimal (it'll only go wrong anyway) have them act through minions and seconds like any good overlord should. Any direct social interactions should be very carefully managed as players will do insane things to try and take them out that have no baring on their own survival.
  • Make them feel clever Give the players a chance to outsmart the BB; something where they work out what the BB is doing before their plans can get fully realised, not always last minute stuff - as that gets very cliche.
  • Active not reactive Minions are two a penny; any decent BB has a backstory and people/places/resources that they've known and trusted for years. Let the players find out about them and go out and do something that hurts the BB (freeing a dragon, killing an evil ally, etc) that isn't part of the BB's plans.
  • Progress There will be setbacks, but try and keep them minimal; if the players feel they are never getting anywhere in dealing with the BB then they will get frustrated and give up or do something crazy.

Ideal BB's I've found are the heads of large organisations; such as Kingdoms, Temples, Crime Syndicates. The latter is especially good as you can have a single encounter with the BB as usually noone actually knows who this guy is who sent them on one of their first missions, they they get a delicious "oh no, it was them!" moment later on.
Large organisations are also good because the players have something tangeable to work against, if it's a single bad entity then they can't do anything except against one guy. If it's a crime syndicate organisation then each time they uncover a higher and more important secret cell of workers they get more information, one step closer to the BB and they can feel that they are doing something

Making them hate the BB

Players have loathed enemies I've had for them. Ways I found to trigger this - don't overuse or you'll end up frustrating them and annoying them!

  • Cheat them. Players can be remarkably trusting, an early meet the the villain where he gets them to do something that is a setup (attacking a convoy of "stolen goods" so the evil guy can use the distraction) When they find out later that they were lied to they'll really not like this.
  • Kidnapping and Killing friends. allies. You don't always want to hurt players directly (it's victimization) but if the BB needs their good friend the magic shop owner to make him a MegaFlange of Doom - kidnap him!
  • Despicable acts. Heinous crimes - but make sure they have a reason. If the BB destroys an orphanage maybe it's because he really needed a load of child zombies, mindless evil is hard to relate to.

Don't: Steal stuff - especially magical items that the party has, depowering a player will only nark them off. If you -do- want to steal something from the player make it a personal item (heirloom, painting, etc) that doesn't affect their stats/skills and make sure they can get it back.

Because in the end, the BB is there to make the players feel good about what they're doing and drive them to an inevitable showdown - it just needs to take time.

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Is it possible to get the PCs to "hate" a villain behind the curtain? For instance, compare the big bad in FF7 and FF8. In the former, he appears from time to time - but it could be frustrating that he always owns you when you do. FF8 features the Big Bad who pulls strings behind the curtain, but only appeared at the last part of the game for about an hour. Is it possible for the PCs to 'feel' anything towards such a villain, and if so, how? –  Extrakun Jul 24 '13 at 5:11
    
Added some suggestions –  Rob Jul 24 '13 at 6:37
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@Extrakun The villain Kefka in FFVI is actually a pretty good case study. For much of the game, he is seen to orchestrate every significant act of villainy that takes place, even if he has no direct contact with or personal knowledge of the player characters. –  GMJoe Jul 24 '13 at 7:02

There are several methods that come to mind:

  • The Spider's Web
  • Run Away Badguy
  • Sacrificial Minions
  • Protected by Politics
  • Clank-Clank-I'm-A-Tank
  • Trapmaster

Come to think of it, all of these are used by various Barsoomian villains.

The Spider's Web

The bad guy doesn't do his own dirty work. He coerces, cajoles, controls, and/or hires people to do it for him. This is especially useful if he's head of some organization with a livery or a common symbol, as players will connect the symbol or livery after a few mentions.

He might even be friendly to the PC's in person, and offer them help, and then have the help be sacrificed as his minions "underestimate" the PC's (in other words, a "balanced" encounter...).

Run Away Badguy

Not all badguys are willing to stick around and gloat until killed. Some will even have escape routes pre-set. The Runner Badguy will disengage, using special abilities and prepared escape routes with triggerable methods of delaying pursuit.

A personal favorite method of mine is a mirror of teleportation, inside a maze of mirrors, remembering the effects of darkness. Sure, you see him disappear... but there's more than one mirror, and they're one way.

If the badguy is in the city, he goes round a corner into a crowd and polymorphs... suddenly, no badguy, just a bunch of normal people. (And if they kill everyone, they will find they're considered the badguys later.)

Or, rather than Polymorph, he Dimension Doors into a doorless room. Possibly one beneath the streets.

Sacraficial Minions

This badguy type has minions galore when encountered. And they are psychotic, and love him very much. He need not run - he walks away, escorted by minions, while even more minions tackle the Players. This is, in D&D 3e/4e terms, time for a decidedly unballanced encounter with a bunch of mooks, but a considerable number of non-mooks. Aim for major threat, and let them escape if they choose, but not in the same direction. All the advice for how he gets away is the same as the Run Away Badguy, but players have to get through the minions to find out.

Protected By Politics

Make certain they know that the bad guy is a big somebody, and has powerful friends... like the Wizard's Guild's high council, and the local baron, and will be avenged. He can be hit, just not without major consequences... Consequences like being run out of town by the next shift of town watch and a half dozen spell casters. Better, this kind loves to gloat. And usually arranges to have witnesses to his potential demise. Eventually, he will get caught red handed... but that's often at the efforts of players (or protagonists) to reveal him to other trusted members of the court.

Protected by the Church

A special subset is clergy of the local dominant religion/cult. Pre-modern cultures are real keen on avenging dead clergy, and in fantasy worlds, the deities themselves might take exception. Especially if his hidey hole is the local cathedral.

The Spider Protected by Politics

This is the ultimate version of it. Not only does he have the Noble's ear, he's got his own organization, and doesn't do anything himself. And will praise the PC's for killing his minions...

Prince of Persia (the movie) is an excellent example of just such a villain at work.

Clank-Clank-I'm-A-Tank

The guy who's just too tough to take on. And too lazy and egotistical to bother killing the PC's. The problem with this guy is that, in a typical D&D game, if you stat it, they will kill it.

Usually, the pure tank just leaves them for dead; in D&D, that doesn't work so well, due to the "Fine until 0 HP, dying below that." So he usually combines with some other archetype, as well.

Trapmaster

The Trapmaster simply has a zillion traps to trigger when attacked. And he leaves PC's in one, and assumes they're going to die. He's really not all that bright, but he's mechanically inclined.

Worse, many Tanks are also Trapmaster types. He beats on you, gets you to follow, and triggers the trap while you chase him. Then, he wanders off, assuming you're dead. Classic example is from the Le Guin novel, The Tombs of Atuan.

Combinations.

Many badguys combine two or more. Loads of fun to be had.

Cardinal Richelieu, in Dumas' The Three Musketeers, is a Spider protected by Politics, Runs Away a lot, thanks to his Sacrificial Minions.

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+1, just for quoting Les Trois Mousquetaires's brilliantly evil and yet likeable villain. The rest of the post is awesome as well... –  Sardathrion Jul 24 '13 at 10:53
    
+1 Some excellent ideas here! –  Rob Jul 24 '13 at 11:28

Here's a twist option:

Make the villain indispensable (for most of the campaign) for the PCs.

Have the villain be of the same strength as the PCs, or even weaker (way weaker), but give it/him/her one single trait or ability that makes it/him/her crucial for their ultimate quest.

Examples:

Go Moorcockian (respect to the master): Give your PCs an intelligent armor that houses a spirit/demon/angel/etc, and make it clear from the beginning that this armor is the sole thing that may protect the chosen in the Ultimate Boss fight/scene/challenge against the dragon/volcano/meteorite etc. Problem is, the armor can talk. Problem is, it can even move about on its own when the moon is full. And it is strong.

Autonomous armor not your cup of tea? Go the familiar way. It's just a talking cat/crow/sprite that a PC wizard summoned. It even gives her extra powers. Problem is, it doesn't always agree with its master. And it's not exactly kind-hearted. Further problem is, the PCs know that it's a banished/exiled demon prince, imprisoned in this form, from which it will be released only when this form dies. That will be a bad day for everyone in the world, so the PCs better level up before they put an end to their companion... twice in a row. (Oh, you'd like to imprison it, go adventuring for twenty years, come back at LV20 and get over with it? Problem is, it's your special familiar, and it will die if you get too far from it.)

Third option: It's in the family. Hey, Luke, I've heard Vader is

your father,

wouldn't want to walk in your shoes, man. I mean, I'm sure there's some good left in him, even though he killed and maimed half the galaxy. You'll try and save him, won't you? :)

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This one post I find excellent AND innovative. +1 –  kravaros Aug 20 '13 at 19:26

Don’t force a reoccurring villain. Let any reoccurring villain happen naturally. Given that...

  • Most villains will have contingency plans
  • Most villains won’t be eager to fight to-the-death
  • In my experience, most PCs usually won’t kill enemies who surrender (although that particular mileage has varied for me ^_^)

...it will typically happen. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That’s OK. Better to let things play out naturally than to try to force something unnatural. As a player, that is what frustrates me.

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"most PCs usually won’t kill enemies who surrender" This would add some flavor... Makes me think of the movie Tombstone, where the weaselly guy keeps picking a fight and surrendering. Over and over. His friends and comrades die one after another, and even though he's weak he survives time and again because he always runs, hides or surrenders. Throw that against "good", and you have an enemy that constantly irritates you yet always seems to survive for another day. –  WernerCD Jul 24 '13 at 14:15

I have successfully used a bad guy who could possess others' bodies (dead ones in this case, but anything fun would do), and who would be set back if that body was destroyed when it was up to its plans.

That allowed him to trade the odd insult, get "destroyed" (a success for the PCs), but come back stronger and with a bone to pick with the PCs on the next encounter.

The ultimate PC goal in this case is finding out how to despatch their nemesis permanently.

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See also: This film –  Rob Jul 23 '13 at 11:15
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I've also used something sort of similar in Call of Cthulhu where Serpent People had a body mask (a la V) that made them all look like this English Butler, Jenkins. They were elated when they finally killed him, then they ran into half a dozen of them ;) –  Rob Jul 24 '13 at 11:26

I'll stick to the third option.

The villain must be some sort of Puppet Master, controlling many important people and factions. So, in many adventures unseemly unrelated, he appears as the ultimate cause of the problem.

I'd mix it with adventures and problems not caused by the villain, to avoid the trope becoming cheap. When players are forgetting about him, it's the time to return.

One important question: is he a known face or an invisible foe? The two options can make good stories.

If he is known, it is possible that the characters met him before knowing he was bad. He may be charming, and look perfectly innocent until characters discover his plans.

If characters have not still proved his villainy, he can still appear as a loved community member. He can encounter the characters in a social event, because they can do no harm against him.

Once his evilness is proven, he will have to dissappear. But many powerful people will owe him favours, so he will continue "appearing" without actually being there. Of course, in a modern setting he can contact the characters via phone or internet.

If you miss a physical contact, it may happen if one day the characters are defeated (and with "if" I don't mean "force the characters to be defeated", that would be unfair), and taken prisoners. But you will need to give this bad guy a reason to keeping them alive (an exchange: information or some artifact for their lives?).

What is important is that some day the players will have the opportunity to defeat him. If they feel that this task is impossible, as the bad guy has script immunity, the players will be tired and lose their enthusiasm. Don't worry, other evil beings will take his place.

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Give the players a reason not to kill him outright. Perhaps he possesses an important bit of information (or is thought to) and it would die with him, were he to be killed.

He could also be encountered in a place where killing is frowned upon; perhaps at the dinner gathering of an important ruler, a gathering of nobles or tournament, etc. Think of James Bond movies and how James often speaks to the villain in a civilized context well before they cross swords. Perhaps the villain's guilt is not assured, so the PCs need to gather more info and determine his guilt -- which could lead to barbed conversations but not outright violence.

And at the end of the day, don't push it. The best recurring campaign villains occur organically.

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You can always introduce the villain as an ally. Then through treachery or deceit they betray your party at some point and flee into the night (or force your party to flee.)

Then you have introduced them and added in a plot reason for your party to want to defeat them. You can then have your party try to track the down again based on clues they left when they were with your party, culminating in defeating them.

For example: The villain could hire the party on a quest,providing them with a talisman, that is required to defeat the spirit guarding the tomb. But, in an unexpected twist it turns out that the talisman is required to summon the spirit trapped in the tomb, and your party unwittingly release it. While your party battle the spirit, the villain steals something from the now unlocked tomb and makes his escape. Your party find some clues in the wreckage and proceed to track him down to another tomb where he has hired some adventurers to assist him in reclaiming an artefact. You cannot attack him while he has a party of adventurers assisting him, but when they open the tomb and you and the party have to gang up on defeating the summoned spirit while the villain makes his escape again.

Now you gain another clue and track him down to his evil lair where you put a stop to his shenanigans once and for all!

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You could introduce some sort of magic item that emulates modern tech - for example, a pair of 'blank' books. When one person writes something in one of books, it appears on the pages of the other, allowing two-way communication, trading insults, sending maps, etc. This could get very interesting since you are never 100% certain who is writing on the other side, or very rude since other 'written based' spells like sepia snake, explosive runes, ect. could also be used through the books, possibly even minor illusion based spells (i.e. your hologram comm that you mentioned) You would also have to know to 'check the book' unless it has the equivalent of a ringtone or the like (also pretty funny if the party is trying to sneak up on someone and the villain is texting them). The books wouldn't necessarily need to be in 'pairs' either - maybe each one has a 'code' (i.e. a phone number) that lets it comm with another specific book. Maybe the villain's organization makes use of several of these books and the PCs acquire one of them not fully understanding how it works, what it does and who is on the other end of the line.

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Are we talking about the Palantir here? –  Sardathrion Jul 23 '13 at 9:43
    
Could be, or something like a pair of books that is 'quantum entangled' (in two places at once, even though its really 'the same book') –  TysoThePirate Jul 23 '13 at 9:46

There are many such examples in literature and drama. Mostly, because the author controls both parties, a face-to-face confrontation allows for witty dialogue and banter. However, if you force it on players, they will nearly always be frustrated unless they have bought-in the drama play instead of "I hit it with my axe". So, either get player buy-in or have a shadowy figure those presence and influence are felt. Finding out his identity may take the players months if not years of in-game time. Once they have a name, it might takes them even longer to understand all the ramification of the bad guy's organisation.

Keyser Söze and Sauron are classic example of recurring bad guys whose presence and influence is felt rather than seen. Burn notice has a similar set up with the organisation that burned Michael Westen and in the latter series has the head of said organisation turn up.

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If you like the idea of the group having a combat encounter with the big bad that they win, without compromising him as a villain, consider:

  • a body double, clone, robot or doppelganger (depending on the system used)
  • give your big bad a round of Legacy Immortality à la "Dread Pirate Roberts"
  • have the face of the big bad the group has met before actually be the second in command be and the real puppet master be someone else, they may or may not have encountered already, to find and defeat before something bad happens.

I'd suggest zero foreshadowing and doing this late in the campaign and making it as tough as you would the final encounter. This gives the group a feeling that the challenge is really against the big bad and the initial satisfaction of "winning" and shock when you reveal.

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Be careful though; there can be a serious negative reaction to "But that was just a Doombot!" –  Yamikuronue Jul 23 '13 at 13:55

Look into it in terms of organization. Feudal society had the king at the top, Nobility owing allegiance to the king, village lords owing allegiance to the Nobility, and the peasants owing allegiance to the village lords.

Mafia families are similar. According to Wikipedia, you have the Boss, the Underboss, Caporegime, Soldiers, Associates. Each owing allegiance to the level above. So let's assume your players are in a certain district of a city. They start dealing with the Associates of the BigBaddie crime family, thinking the person pulling the strings and giving out orders is Don BigBaddie himself. Nope, it's a Soldier named Lackey. The players may even need to investigate several Soldiers to get a Caporegime. They may need to dig more to find the link from Caporegime to Underboss and finally more digging to Boss. Each step, the players will think they are going into a meeting with Don BigBaddie, only to find there's another layer they need to get through. I would only caution not to put too many layers between the street thugs and the Boss, because if they are investigating who they think is the big-boss only to find that it's yet ANOTHER layer of abstraction can get annoying.

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Have the villain be initially unfightable; stick him in a vehicle (such as a red dragon for a steed, which I did in one of mine) that makes it absolutely ludicrious for your heroes to fight. Or a very powerful, corrupt lord. Or the villain could easily just be a group, such as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Or, in a fantasy world, give the villain something unique; make him a superhero (or villain)! You could always go the Final Fantasy route, where the 'main villain' is not really the largest threat, and may even be controlled by the main threat (think Saren from Mass Effect 1, or Sin from Final Fantasy X). Plenty of ways to make a reoccuring villain where he doesn't get boring. Perhaps he's always at that ten levels higher than your heroes until they find something that thrwarts his powers. Or be extra mean and take a page from the Matrix; have a villain that is disembodied, and can possess a variety of persons, a la Agent Smith (or Abbadon from the movie Fallen). A creative villian is a powerhouse in his/her/its own right. They don't necessarily need to be physically strong (Professor Moriarty was intelligent and devious) or even complete (Darth Vader).

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Make them require him to achieve the task so that disposing of him (or attempting too) would prevent progress.

Have him appear in dreams.

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There have been a good number of effective methods for direct villain communication and contact but you have quite rightly been concerned about frustrating your players.

I once ran a campaign in a similar fashion and I have found that the biggest frustration the reoccurring villain caused to the players wasn't necessarily the inability to kill him but the feeling their actions had little affect in the long term. After all if the villains seems to benefit from the plan despite the loss of a bandit gang or minor setback (especially if the villain rubs it in repeatedly) they will quickly lose motivation to roleplay or think of ideas due to the feeling that the plot is railroaded and their actions have little effect.

When I encountered this growing in my own group so during the next adventure I had them find several personal communications between the Big Bad and his (now deceased) lieutenant which showed that while he had benefited from several of the parties actions it was more damage control than a victory and he was increasingly losing his cool, finding the party as frustrating as they found him. It was a great motivation boost for the group to the point the next time the Big Bad tried to taunt the party the bard started reading the notes back to him imitating his voice.

So I guess my advice after all this is:

  • Allow the party victories and to feel like their actions are having an effect.
  • Ensure the villain has flaws or a moment of failure, if he is a boaster give the party a moment to take the words out of his mouth, if he is a near invincible tank let the party give him a wound no matter how minor, if he is the master planner have everything crumble around him except his escape plan.
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For a relevant fantasy trope - the party completes an adventure in which they find a magic item connected to the villain that is needed to destroy him - this can be customized to the campaign but one example might be that he can reform his body after being killed unless this item is used to capture and destroy his spirit before he does so.

So, the party pretty much has to carry the thing around all the time - but the villain can use it to communicate with the party.

Note that players are clever, and may try to stuff in a bag or try other means of preventing this, so you would need plausible reasons this won't work, perhaps he can summon it back to him if it isn't in someone's immediate possession.

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hehe what a nice question!! Well, I'd need more details about the gameplay itself, but I'm assuming fighting is involved. You might actually have the villain killed LOTS of times, but depending on the level of humor in the game, he is cured by a surgeon that happens to pass by/ is about to die on the vortex of a time machine experiment which takes him back to a time when he would avoid that one fight/ is taken by currents to an island where pygmies restore his soul by voodoo/ is dropped in a fight from an altitude there's no way he can survive, but as (his) luck would have it, a blimp landed just there below him... you name it. A scene could show why he didn't die, and he might even prepare himself against the weapon that killed him on that encounter, which would encourage the player to come up with something else next time they meet. Please, don't kill him in the end, just trap the bastard in a continuum where he stays forever since he gave us so much trouble, and also, have the pygmies wear bones in their hairs and lips :)

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Just a few ideas I've used in the past (or had done to me).

The villain attacks through projected imagines. The villain has a contingency to get away. The villain is a Moriarty type who is constantly facilitating other foes; this led to a wonderful instance where the PCs found a sending journal used by the Big Bad and one of his cohorts. It not only allowed them to get some insight into past communications between villains, but the Big Bad has had a running dialogue for months now with the PCs, mocking them, trying to get them to question their own motivations, and writing thoughtful invective that has sown dissent in the ranks.

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A lot of villains are the exact opposite of the heroes' strengths. Superman was physically invincible, but Lex Luthor was politically invincible. Superman couldn't simply punch him to death.

Batman's strength was his wealth and his ability to estimate what people would do. The Batman Gambit was named after him. His archenemy was the Joker, someone so insane that even Batman couldn't understand why he was doing anything. The Joker was not a common criminal who does anything for wealth - he could not be bought out and only wanted to see the world burn.

Your archvillain should be someone who takes advantage of the heroes' weaknesses. Maybe he's the king and doesn't like to see an up and coming adventurer group threaten his power. Maybe he's a merchant with ties to criminals and law enforcement. Maybe he's physically more powerful, but doesn't destroy the party because the villain has bigger goals. Make the villain more of a big bully than a manic murderer.

Let the villain be beatable and show some sense of achievement. The party could form an alliance with a rebellious lord or one of the evil king's sons, which weakens the king's influence on them. Maybe the PCs could wipe out a smuggling operation funded by the merchant - it wouldn't harm the merchant notable, but would really piss him off and provide satisfaction to the villain. The physically stronger villain could lose to the party and then take on a Super Shredder return twist, or simply surrender to the heroes later on as they become more powerful.

These villains should be relatively annoying so that they can build into a end that was as satisfying as the Avenger movie's Loki vs Hulk battle.

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