I am running a campaign where my players have a set arch-enemy. A person dedicated to the same goal as the players, but does everything in his power to stop the PCs getting to it first. He would even go as far as to destroy what they all seek, if he can not have it.

This style of two party play makes for interesting development of all the characters involved, and makes the players feel important when a person are devoting huge amounts of time just to stop them. The downside to this scenario is that I feel as if the players have gotten comfortable with the fact that they know who is their adversary and what to expect from them.

The other side of the coin would be to scrap the idea of an arch-enemy and make the players combat the environment and whatever might be inhabiting it. Instead of a mad doctor cackling with glee at their every mistake, just make the players feel as if they are climbing the world around them. Varied sized obstacles on the way made to slow them down, and make the game about the players.

I am currently cooking up an arch-enemy for my players to encounter for the first time. Should I just keep them facing off against an ever changing world, or will that just make them tired and quell the sense off achievement you get from finally defeating the Big-Baddie?


closed as primarily opinion-based by BESW, GMJoe, gomad, doppelgreener, Wibbs Jul 31 '14 at 9:55

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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe I'm missing something, but is there a reason why you can't just have both? \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Jul 31 '14 at 8:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lohoris No, a composite method is the best, but I am wondering if one is more stimulating than the other. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Wigert Jul 31 '14 at 8:59

Use both, but I would suggest not using an individual villain as more a group of people (who may or may not be led by a villain - the players shouldn't know that for most of the campaign).

The Villain

The Villain, group or individual, is the main antagonist of the group and the encounter them more often than other obstacles. She plots against the group and tries to keep up to date of their actions / plans to foil them. Its important that you (but not your players) know why she does so. Is it just that she opposes everyone who tries to get what she wants? Then maybe meeting allies (enemy of your enemy) would be something thats useful to defeat the villain, but then your "allies" want the same thing you do, so maybe your group will make them enemies of their own.

The character and motivations behind the Villain (especially if its a group) are very important to this. They wouldn't hassle just with anybody who happens to have campfired once upon a time before the entrance to their hideout, but would go after people who tell others that there is something of importance there.

When the group is coming closer to their target the amount of screentime of the villain should increase.

As Dargor correctly pointed out in the comments:

"the fact that they know who is their adversary and what to expect from them" can be nullified if the antagonist team also "take levels", whether this is achieved by recruiting, getting new tools, new magic or allies...

The Environment

While the group ventures through the land to achieve their goal they will meet a lot of scenery to interact with. Collapsed bridges, Guards, Muggers - whatever. They may or may not have to do with the villain. Most of the time the players won't know. You can increase the suspense if you make them notice that the bridge collapse actually had to do with the villain and thus make them paranoid. But that depends on your sadism level.

By using both you can have the players have their regular small reward for overcoming small to medium obstacles through the Environment. But the ultimate goal is still in front of them and keeps them working.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would just add that "the fact that they know who is their adversary and what to expect from them" can be nullified if the antagonist team also "take levels", whether this is achieved by recruiting, getting new tools, new magic or allies... \$\endgroup\$ – Dargor Jul 31 '14 at 9:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dargor Very true. I included it in the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 31 '14 at 9:27

I don't know your group, so I can't say whether an archenemy or a variety of environmental stuff will work better. But what I can give you, is a couple of tricks to make an archenemy more interesting.

Subordinate Triad

If I have an NPC that is going to be an ongoing problem, I like to set up a "Subordinate Triad". You know how Captain Kirk had Spock and Bones as his two advisors, to set up different views on anything? Give that to your archenemy.

Each subordinate has a different approach to things. The archenemy sometimes lets one of the lieutenants take charge, sometimes the other. Sometimes combines their plans, sometimes ignores both of them. The lieutenants might have a brutal rivalry. They might become desperate and act out of line in either their own personal interests, or what they imagine is the archenemy's best interest. They might sabotage each other's plans intentionally, or accidentally screw up.

It makes things more unpredictable because you're not sure which character is going to be in charge, and their methodology might be very different. It also sets up a longer term problem - if you take out the archenemy, maybe one of the subordinates will turn out to be a worse villain to deal with - more extreme, more committed, more capable.


So the players know the villain's methods and attitude, right? What is the villain doing to escalate? He or she is surely getting desperate, going to more and more extreme measures. What lines will he or she cross to get there? What alliances will be made? What deals will be cut? Who might get sacrificed along the way?


Why is the villain doing this? Why is it important for them to succeed, and not the heroes? Is there a good, or fairly understandable reason? Will the players realize maybe they SHOULD let the villain win instead?

It opens up some interesting questions and gives you more than a 2 dimensional villain who simply cackles and causes problems.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for they maybe should let the villain win. I'm going to use that in my next campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 31 '14 at 8:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I remember watching some anime as a kid, when you come to find out the henchman villain who had been fighting the heroes the whole time was actually trying to get the MacGuffin to stop his entire race of people from being killed in a genocide. It was a point where I was like, "Uh, guys, you should let him get it, his need is actually greater than yours..." \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 Jul 31 '14 at 15:33

Combine the best out of both worlds!

Make the world a static hurdle with a fixed strength, while their enemy can be an ever changing foe.

For example: The groups goal is a magic artifact in a hidden jungle cave. They have to get a map with the location, where they fight against the henchmen of the arch enemy. When they have the map they need to cross the jungle full of dangers. They know the jungle is dangerous, but have a fixed goal, once they fought their way through and are at the secret cave, they have beaten the jungle and ur won't follow them.

But the antagonist has followed them with a tracking spell and attacks them at the cave, if they defeat his best man he will flee and hide. So the group advances intro the cave fighting their way through various traps and riddles. They get the treasure they were looking for, but also various other magical power ups, so they feel it matters that they were there first.

When they get out the cave, their arch enemy waits for them with another challenge, maybe he has conjured a mighty demon to kill them, or a charming master thief to steal it from them, or a whole townsfolk from a nearby settlement, whom he persuaded that the group is a troop of evil witchers whom must be stopped, so the group has to persuade them in a social battle...

I would always switch between the two! But keep rewarding your players for every challenge, so they don't feel what they do is on vain


I would like to suggest just turn it up a notch. How about on top of the rival you have in place start adding a defending organization.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That usually decreases PC screentime, I wouldn't do that. \$\endgroup\$ – Angelo Fuchs Jul 31 '14 at 8:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ This should be a comment, not an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Wigert Jul 31 '14 at 10:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an answer - it's certainly not requesting improvement or clarification, which is about the only thing comments are for. (Concerns about quality or etc aside.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 31 '14 at 10:10

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