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I have a major villain that the players killed a long time ago* in a previous campaign. Is it too clichéd to bringing her back? Is there anything I should avoid if I do so? Is it just lazy?

I am unsure if my players will cringe or be excited by the prospect. I would usually ask them but I doubt I can do that this time without ruining the surprise. I can introduce a new villain but to have impact, I will need to spend time building up their ethos in the minds of the players.

My campaign is science fiction but sufficiently advanced that dead doesn't always have to mean dead. It would be a not-simple-process to bring her back.

Why I want to bring her back

Because I miss playing her! She is fabulously callous and brutal with her own warped internal logic. I think her modus operandi would fit the campaign perfectly. Also, if I am honest, it's easier to bring her back than design, seed and introduce a new one.

[*] Many years real time and in campaign terms.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by BESW, Dakeyras, okeefe, Phil, C. Ross Jul 26 at 1:13

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Well, why do you want to bring this villain back? That's the important part. –  Thomas Jacobs Jul 25 at 8:52
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Are the players sure shes dead? (Did they found her body?) –  Angelo Neuschitzer Jul 25 at 11:09
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Which game are you playing? Specifically, do you allow player characters to be resurrected? It's an important factor. –  Flamma Jul 25 at 12:21
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More important than how or why, I think the question you need to answer is: Who. Who would invest that much time and energy into bringing her back from the dead? And, honestly, if it was that good a character, you could make a whole campaign out of trying to stop that resurrection. –  Zibbobz Jul 25 at 14:03
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All of the existing answers seem to assume that the new campaign shares the setting and continuity of the old campaign, whereas you specifically mention that the villain is from an old campaign. Could you clarify exactly how much connection between campaigns there are? All of the talk about players not having an effect on their campaign world may be completely irrelevant depending on this. –  Sandalfoot Jul 25 at 18:41

10 Answers 10

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Execution is Key

This is a cliche because a lot of stories do it. A lot of stories do it because done well, it can add something to the story. Done poorly, it just becomes silly and makes the players feel like they don't really have any impact on what's going on.

So, think carefully about what you intend to use her for before bringing her back. Don't do it just because you like her, do it because it's leading somewhere.

How?

How you do this depends on your game and world. Some games (like D&D 3.5) make this pretty easy. True Resurrection can bring back almost anyone, going back incredibly long time spans. All someone needs is a way to identify the soul they want to bring back, and the resources to cast it. If they have access to the body, it's cheaper to do so.

Other games don't have this kind of spell, and how you do it in that game in a way that makes sense will require more thought.

What I'd avoid is something like "she was so evil that she just wouldn't stay dead" or things like that. Those get old really fast. It sounds like you've already figured this part out, so that's good.

Why?

Why is someone spending the resources to bring her back? Maybe it's a new bad guy? That new bad guy wants a henchman and thinks she's powerful enough to be worth bringing back? Or maybe he wants to work in the shadows and brings back another villain to create some chaos and distract the heroes of the world from what he's doing? Maybe a cult worships her as a God for what she did in life?

Once you answer the Why? on an in game level, the rest of it will fall into place fairly easily. If you can't answer Why? on an in game level, you shouldn't do it. Doing things that make no sense in game because you wanted to out of game is alright in certain cases, but can ruin a story for the players if it destroys the consistency.

Personal Experience

I played in a couple of games that did this. One was based on Slayers, and it wasn't very serious. So we had a bad guy who we killed a few times, and the evil overlord kept bringing him back. As it wasn't a serious campaign, he became kind of the joke villain and it was pretty fun. But in serious moments, he didn't tend to be used, as he couldn't be taken seriously by the fourth time.

In another game, there was a henchman who constantly caused us problems and tripped up our plans. We finally got him. The big bad decided to bring him back because he'd caused us so many problems that he'd proven his usefulness to the cause, even if we did get to him once. That guy we did take seriously, because he was such a pain in the neck. One resurrection didn't bother us, as the game world had resurrection as a thing (we'd used it too). But the second time we got to him, we took precautions to make it harder to bring him back again, and his second death was the final one.

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So to avoid the "Kenny-effect", make sure that you somehow limit the occurrence of resurrections? –  Marcus Wigert Jul 25 at 11:05
    
@MarcusWigert Assuming you don't want the "Kenny-effect", yes. Sometimes the players will do that for you, as we did in the game I mentioned. You may have to do it yourself, depending on the situation. But death and resurrection quickly lose their impact if overused. If they kill this NPC a second time, I wouldn't bring her back again. –  Tridus Jul 25 at 11:12
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@MarcusWigert Depending on the feel of the campaign. The Kenny-effect can work wonders. We had a CP2020 campaign where a CEO was continuously cloned. We had a session where one of the chars (a psycho) waltzed into his boardroom and shot him in the face. In full knowledge that he would be returning - just for the satisfaction of having done it (he'd screwed us over). To this day, that character is brought up in conversation (and we don't play any more) –  Obsidian Phoenix Jul 25 at 14:25
    
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+1 for "If you can't answer Why? on an in game level, you shouldn't do it." –  heathenJesus Jul 25 at 15:55

First and foremost, I'll assume that your game world does not have either cyberbrains, or re-sleeving or download your brain into machines. Otherwise, clearly you have conquered death and "killing" is not a crash with some data lose. With that in mind...

Yes, it is a terrible idea! You cannot (should not?) relive the past.

She was a great villain with a great story's start, middle, and end. She had her part to play, and it was an awesome part. She's gone now. The End. So, bringing her back would, in part or wholly, invalidate some of that epic story. It might well tarnish those memories. This is what comic books do all the time: No matter who dies (Superman? Jean Grey?), they will be back in a few months' time. All that it does is kill death. It makes death irrelevant, something else to shrug just like bad weather.

In addition, your players might well see her for the GM's pet NPC. That is a really annoying trope. No matter what the character do, the NPC will be back more powerful than ever in the next adventure. So, why bother at all?

I get that you want to relive the wonderful adventures you and your players with said NPC. But it generally does not work. It mostly turns into a pale imitation of the real thing. Let her rest in peace.

Some sequels do work...

What if she was not the bad guy again? What if you could change her role in the world?

What if the characters were to find a clone of her: same skills, same basic nature, but a blank nurture. What do the characters do? Maybe she's the one that needs protecting against some other villain? This lets the character bound with her new self, maybe a romantic liaison, maybe they become friends, or she save their lives? Here you have an interesting theme of nature vs nurture. You have added something to the character but let's face it, she is no longer the one that they met before.

Now, maybe the character come to the slow and painful realisation that the true villain manipulated the first clone (!?) to turn her into evil. It's up to the character to turn her from where her nature pushes her to. Who is that evil villain? Will they even hear its name? Will they even met them?... Think Sauron in the Lord Of The Rings: omnipresent all the time, does not have a line of dialogue!

Look at successful sequels in both literature and film industry: The best ones are the ones that do something different, not do the same thing again.

Finally, isn't the root of the problem more about not having time to come up with a new villain?...

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You might do it if you (your own words) "spend some time building up" the reasons how she managed to came back to life: some distant unsure clue that the character investigate upon, at first without realising what happened, then disbelieving knowing she's dead, finally realising she really came back and wondering how and why.

I.e. you may do it, but it won't save you any time you would have to spend anyway to introduce a new villain: do what you prefer, but consider this is no shortcut as you thought it might have been.

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This is highly dependent on the "How?". It's often cringe-worthy if it's a Deus Ex Machina type deal, but it can be very good if it is setup in advance.

Maybe there are rumors about a cult trying to reincarnate their god, or rumors about dreadful medical experiments. These are mixed with some conspiracy-theorists making unfounded claims, or people claimed to have been brought back to life. Your PCs get a ton of conflicting information, rumors, unverifiable witness-reports, deceptions within deceptions.

When the reincarnated person makes their entrance, it should have impact. It should have your PCs go "Holy crap!" in a good way because now all of a sudden it all makes sense, all the rumors, all the truths hidden within lies. They aren't blindsided - it was all there in front of them, if they would've made sense of it and found out what was truth and what not.

Arguably, easier said than done.

An example - Spoiler about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice:

Stoneheart

Of course, some Characters should just stay dead. Characters are pawns in a game, there to play a role and to be discarded when done. Characters overstaying their welcome is annoying.

Spoiler about Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth:

Tom Builder. When he was killed by the bad guy's horse in the middle of the book, I realized that he had done his part and wouldn't have anything more to contribute to the story. It massively improved Jack's story arc, more so than if Tom would still be around as a mentor or otherwise.

Also, a more interesting question: Who brought back your villain? Is your villain now just serving a bigger, hidden power? Are there other reincarnated ex-villains that your PCs killed? Is this all part of a bigger threat?

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I would avoid bringing her back. Some players might become unhappy that their efforts to put her down in the first place have been rendered useless and foster a sense of pointlessness to their actions.

Some players may also think that you're running of original ideas. I always find that to keep games fresh and interesting you need to keep adding a certain amount of new material. Enemies, locations, npc's, spells/equipment... but that means that once an element has run it's course it should be allowed to slip by the wayside. If this NPC had an epic death with a lot of work from the players put into it then let her rest in peace, but use it! Have her favored lieutenant come back for revenge or another villain who has been quietly consolidating her old holdings as his/her own. If you want to use her again then use her as a plot hook rather than a character, what were the consequences of her death for the players and the game world.

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It all depends on the world.

Revolving doors world

If your players expect their characters can be resurrected if killed, if your world indeed have revolving door of the afterlife, then yes, Big Bad Evil Guy can do it, too. If she was not a total idiot, she probably placed some safeguards to make sure that, if killed, she will not stay dead.

If party was actively looking for such "bring back mechanisms" and you told them there are none, leave your villain dead. But if party knows getting back on earth is not really an issue, and simply ignored that fact, then by all means, she should come back.

I would let her do that, once. Would probably leave her weaker, easier to kill. We don't wanna rob players from feeling victorious, we just want a story twist and reminder "you can do it, so can they". After first time, they will make sure she will stay dead. Let them. If fighting her is futile, why would they bother?

Low magic or dead is dead world

If your PCs cant get back from afterlife, they shouldn't be haunted by BBEG that can, unless it's some kind of vampire / mummy / troll, well, something that is known to regenerate and reappear. But then, once they kill her with a known way of killing, she should stay dead.

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Bringing back old villains - or really, anything - is a really great mechanism, you just need to be careful about how you do it - the key is foreshadowing. In non-rp writing circles, there's an explicitly stated concept called "Conservation of Background Detail." It works just the same in RP planning as it does there. If a detail isn't important (or a red herring,) don't make a big deal out of it - so, never make a new character when an old character's reuse would work just as well, since you've already made a big deal of the original. Not only does it feel more natural to the writer, it also reduces the number of things the reader (player) needs to remember.

Major bring-backs are most effective if it's months or years after the idea/characters last appearance - enough people won't instantly realize what's going on, but not enough that they'll have totally forgotten the character. I'd say you should start by building her up as a 'new' villain with hints that the new might not be... so new... and save the reveal for when they encounter her face-to-face (or face-to-AI sensory array. This is sci-fi, after all.) Having her have some sort of advantage over the PCs (maybe she knows their fighting style?) the first encounter would be best, so that they can get back together and re-plan their mode of attack after they find out.

I personally would save her for the campaign right before The End, or the last campaign itself. It's the sort of plotline that makes for a really epic plot twist and a really amazing end to a long-running game, enough so that it might be worth saving a while longer if you're planning on running the very same game for years to come. If you do decide to run with it even though it won't be the last, don't resurrect a character again without player intervention. Ex. If the players fail to save an important authority figure from assassination, one of them could have the bright idea that they can use the same process that got used on this villain to bring them back to life, but you can't deus ex machina the life back into them unless a player suggests it; Throwing rampant hints that another bad guy might have been resurrected would be allowed, but actually doing it a second time would not etc.

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Perhaps you could test the waters by creating a story line where the party finds out that she did take steps to be revived -- some kind of soulstone or something? Then decide as it plays out whether this inspires them to make sure she stays dead or not.

In the final battle, perhaps her heir-apparent could emerge. Different, but obviously somewhat similar because they were mentored by her.

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Is it too clichéd to bringing her back?

I don’t believe being cliché is a reason not to do something in a game. (Risus, for example, is a game built on clichés!)

Is there anything I should avoid if I do so?

You should avoid invalidating the player characters’ actions. Bringing a dead villain back to life typically does that.

Of course, “should avoid” means that it can be done, but it should be done carefully and infrequently. You want it to make sense within context. Moreso than usual since this is an unusual situation. Ideally, you’d already planned for it before the villain died. (Which helps keep you honest.) Having the resurrected villain suffer some serious consequence as a result of the death-ressurection trauma also helps make it less of an invalidation of the PCs’ actions.

I would usually ask them but I doubt I can do that this time without ruining the surprise.

When running an RPG, it is always better to spoil a surprise than to chance being seen as unfair.

Because I miss playing her!

This is, in my opinion, not a reason to bring back a villain. When running an RPG, you have to learn to accept that things you create may be missed or destroyed. Bringing back things that were destroyed (and the flipside—going out-of-your-way to ensure the PCs find/encounter something) makes many players feel like there’s no point in being a player. It diminishes the players’ role in the game.

Also, if I am honest, it's easier to bring her back than design, seed and introduce a new one.

This is also, in my opinion, not a reason to bring back a villain. Just use a cliché to quickly create a new villain. This is one of the reasons I don’t think clichés in games are bad.

I think both of these reasons are red flags that this might be a bad idea.

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Making her the BBEG again is probably a bad idea. Others have already stated how tired the cliche is. It is also very, very bad for the players' sense of agency.

But what if she's not the BBEG anymore? People do not come back from the dead on their own (sometimes they rise as undead on their own, but that's different). If she's back from the dead, then someone brought her back, and this person probably wants something from her. In exploring this new question, you may well have a new BBEG. Sauron had a master, and Grendel had a mother; nothing prevents your old BBEG from having a benefactor.

Obviously, this is more work of the sort you'd hoped to avoid. On the other hand, you can use this to pre-fill some of the big questions in BBEG design, so the work will still be somewhat easier. As an added bonus, you've already got your BBEG's slightly smaller minion.

So, then: who resurrected her? What does he want? Why does he think that resurrecting the old BBEG is worth all the trouble? Does he think it will help him get what he wants? Is he right? What are the chances that she might try to escape or betray him? What safeguards has he put in place against that possibility? Does he even need safeguards?

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