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I have a cool villain I really like. I mean, I love that character. I would squeal with excitement if my players could meet him, figure him out, confront him and foil his plans and maybe even kill him.

But I don't know how to pull it off.

The villain in question is constructed on a completely different scope than the PCs. They are a reasonably competent bunch of beginner adventurers and he is a polypresent, nigh-immortal, mind-controlling entity of nightmare and giggles. I would like the characters to grow to tackle him, but I'd like them to meet him and confront him before - possibly taking down one of his schemes.

How do I introduce a larger-than-game-scope villain and have players confront him without falling into Failure Is The Only Option or even worse Yank The Dog's Chain trope? (TVTropes, beware!) I don't want the players to feel powerless against him, but at the same time I want them to start building up to someday be able to meet him on a level ground.

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    \$\begingroup\$ related rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/584/… \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Mar 25 '15 at 13:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is the ultimate confrontation a physical or a metaphysical one? Are the PCs expected to eventually become demi-gods and have the proverbial clash of the titans with him or are you looking for a more philosophical conflict a la Picard and Q meeting first in "Encounter at Farpoint" and again at the end of the series in "All Good Things..." \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Mar 25 '15 at 14:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Phil That's how he came to be and the prime reason I love him as a villain. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Mar 25 '15 at 14:19
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Initially expect the group to mitigate his schemes rather than foil them.

If they aren't actually preventing the big bad from getting what he wants, then he doesn't have to stop them getting what they want. So they can pull innocent bystanders out of the way of whatever terrible stuff he's up to, or they can be threatened by side-effects or after-effects of his schemes rather than the main event. Maybe they can actively work to give him what he wants in a way that's different from what he planned, and would have been more effort for him, but that avoids destroying their city or whatnot. Dealing with this stuff will be a victory, even though he's still out there causing trouble. Maybe they inconvenience him a little, but not so much that they're more effort to tolerate than to destroy. As ego-damaging as it may sound, their best defence is that he doesn't care what they do.

The campaign builds to the point where they can start to confront the trouble at its source. The time where they're obviously becoming powerful enough to thwart him but aren't there yet, is crucial, since that's when he has means and strong motive to take them out. They'll have to find a good reason for him not to, which might be "sudden power-up", "politics", "hiding", "joining his side", "joining his enemies" or whatever else suits your setup.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "they can be threatened by side-effects or after-effects of his schemes". Thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Mar 26 '15 at 9:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, I think this is the natural and perfect way to do things. In my current campaign, I had the party run into the major villain performing a ritual, and then had the villain casually ignore their attempts to stop the ritual. The party was forced to leave when the villain's minions showed up, but achieved a minor victory versus one of the villain's lieutenants while escaping. The villain didn't know who they were before this encounter, but became aware of them due to the minor victory. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Mar 27 '15 at 4:18
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Little Hints Here and There

Drop little hints here and there. Make it obvious there is more to their adventures than the guys they kill. Thus, your players get to thinking "there is something behind this as well." The important thing here is that there are little hints here and there.

Expose something too big, your players will go Leeroy Jenkins on your villain. It will not be fun, except with the passage of some time, and it is not what you want. These hints ought to point to the villain, but not be actionable for the players! So remember; little hints which expose a deeper plot, but the players cannot act upon these hints until you deem them ready.

Let's go into some general examples of "hint dropping" on this scale:

  • Players kill another, lesser villain. They find a note on the body directing the villain to do something evil somewhere else. The letter isn't signed, but the players can investigate those actions or effect at that somewhere else. This can become yanking the dog's chain if presented improperly.
  • Lesser Villain does something that makes no sense, given their history and personality. The players need to conclude that there was mind control directing those actions. Who mind-controlled this villain? Your super-villain did. Can the players figure out who did this? Not until you expose the super-villain.
  • Villains, whom the PCs vanquish, all worship at a shrine to an unknown deity. No one (even the clerics) know who this deity is. The trick here is that the deity is not actually a god, but some super-villain they mistake as one. The players can piece this together over repeated adventures.

Note that these hints do not rob the characters of the joys of overcoming the lesser villains. They set things right in that situation, and they get their reward for that adventure. You cannot rob them of their rewards with these hints because that is Yanking the Dog's Chain.

Ultimately, you are setting yourself up for the "Failure is the Only Option" trope by pairing your lower level characters against the higher-level super-villain. You can mitigate that by giving them a sense of accomplishments after every adventure. The inexplicable loose end given by the "little hints" will be the only indication that they did not truly win. Also, their actions do harm the villain's aims, but not enough for him/her to directly act against them. (Or, alternatively, something is preventing the villain from acting against the heroes.) See Professor Moriarty for a good example of this.

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At first the villain's intermediary agents, and then later the villain himself, hire the players to perform missions for him. They're in a position to get to know the villain while they're on his side, and to foil whichever of his schemes they're tasked with once they have their Heel Realization.

♪ You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand. ♫

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You could always have the players acquire something of the villain's. This could either be by chance after defeating one of his henchmen, or they simply find a powerful artifact that he is after.

This causes the villain to come and seek out the party and attack, or he lures them into a trap.

Then the goal is to defend against the villain for a sufficient amount of time as they try to get away.

This could be whilst preparing a boat/airship/portal for escape, which the villain can't follow through.

The players will then count this as a victory, as they have successfully escaped with their lives (with or without the artifact), but at that point they will be unable to defeat the overpowered villain.

There is then the obvious animosity developed between the two parties, and the assurance that they will meet again in the future.

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There are quite a few ways to spin this, depending on how you want to play the NPC over the story arc.

Give them a taste

In on of their initial adventures, throw in a little vignette with the BBG (Big Bad Guy) to where they get shown his awesomeness, and maybe sting them a little to foster the "Oh yeah, we're gonna come for you one day" feeling among the party. If you want to sweeten it, show them some great loot that the BBG was there to get.

Send a message

BBG's have ego's. (It says so in all the books). They just can't resist monologuing and sending warnings. Towards the end of a crawl, or during the hero's triumphant return to their city, have the BBG show up and wreak a little havoc, or intercept them in a quiet place and have the party be tagged to deliver a warning to the king/mayor/whoever that is in charge.

Plant rumors

Plant a rumor of great treasure, or in one of the adventures stick in a tattered history book that confirms the legend of an awesome evil just out there waiting. If you combine this with a prophecy about "the coming darkness" or similar, it will give them impetus to eventually take on the BBG.

Win some, lose some

Once you've introduced the BBG, have them pop up at odd times, either just before they get a key piece of the puzzle, or just after. If the BBG is always foiling them, it gets discouraging, but if they win a few or foil a few plans along the way, then they will be encouraged to do more and try harder to take them out.

As an example, in the world I recently created, part of the most current history is that one of the great adventurers has gone missing. Towards the end of the first crawl, I plan on having a greater lich be just about to depart with the unconscious body of the hero. Witty banter and repartee will follow, with the lich tagging the party with a Geas/Quest (Pathfinder) to deliver a warning message to the ruling council.

Remember, the party wants to have a greater goal, and be part of something grand. Give them any reason, and they will take it and run with it.

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Let the Player's choose the villain

The main point here is that the game is about the PCs, not the NPCs. Sure you love your villain and want your players to hate him/her/it but that is putting the cart before the horse. The hate must come from the players, it doesn't come just because the villain is hateful.

I won't bang on about it becuase it is explained perfectly here, instead I will explain my technique.

When I start a campaign, I have no idea who the master villain is; I don't need to because they player's will choose the master villain for me.

The way to make this work is to remember the golden rule: "He who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day" - only PCs fight to the death - NPCs like living. My player's know that most fights will end when one side runs away - not when one side is dead. They also know that most encounters are a trifle on the hard side - if they push for a fight to the finish it will be a very hard fight and it may be their finish.

In the overwhelming majority of cases they will never see any of those who fled ever again but I now have a large pool of NPCs that the players have already met and had conflict with. They can now meet again, perhaps in circumstances where the option of lethal force is not available - in the market, at the prince's reception - conflict without violence. Perhaps the guy disrupts the PCs plans, steals their treasure or sends hirelings to ambush them. Perhaps they fight again and they kill the NPC - big deal, I have heaps more of these - but perhaps they get away again ... and again.

Now you have a super-villain that the players despise. He is now a nemesis that they created.

Its like a magician's trick but I don't care what card you choose because they are all super-villains in waiting.

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Have the PCs interact with him via his henchmen. Think of the original Star Wars trilogy. The 'party' repeatedly run into imperials and even encounter Darth Vader once or twice but they don't meet the emperor unril the very end of the last film.

Construct your plot the same way. Drop hints to your villains plan. Give the players opportunities to foil small elements of his master plan whilst keeping the overall threat present and increasing. In these encounters have the PCs meet and talk to minor henchmen and minions who talk about how obscenely powerful and unstoppable their master is and how the PCs don't stand a chance.

Perhaps create a Darth Vader analog or two who are on the parties power level or slightly above and can be the big bads most trusted servants. They can become recurring threats who the party have to struggle to beat and perhaps sometimes defeat the PCs and leave them wanting revenge. A recurring character who killed their friend last time they met in the name of his unseen dark master will give the PCs a reason to hunt down your big bad and foil his plans once and for all.

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Stop treating your game like a movie. Don't define an NPC's purpose. Just introduce the NPC like you would any other character: give him or her a short back story, some motivation and perhaps a remarkable feature. Let the players decide who is and is not important. And if they make the wrong decision (because the bartender really isn't a retired adventurer), let them be wrong. Just play the NPC as you think appropriate. In other words, provide a setting for your game and leave the story to the players.

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