I am writing up a campaign for D&D4e that I will be playing in a couple of months and, though I do not have the storyline 100% all thought out, I know the general tone I am going for already, and that is "comic book-esque". That is, in comic books, Batman always manages to stop The Joker, Two-Face, The Riddler, The Penguin and Mr. Freeze, throws them in jail and then some other recurring villain breaks out and so forth. I would like to implement a recurring rogues gallery of villains like that, though hopefully less campy.

There is only one problem, though - killing evil people and things is not frowned upon in most fantasy. If you're attacked by dire wolves or owlbears in the forest, you kill them. If orcs are raiding a village, you kill them. If a necromancer builds an undead army to attack the human capital, or if the hobgoblin king tries to conquer the Dwarven city, how do I prevent my characters from killing them without making the killing of enemies super taboo in this world?

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    \$\begingroup\$ A Related question \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 13 '17 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I see this as too broad because we don't know enough about the recurring villain in question. Answers describing how to keep a cunning mastermind who works through proxies alive will necessarily be wildly different from answers about how to keep a barbarian warlord who personally leads his horde alive, which in turn will be wildly different from answers about how to keep an obsessively prepared necromancer "alive". \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Apr 17 '17 at 18:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage I see your point. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 17 '17 at 22:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't actually think answers to this for a 4e game would be the same for all other RPGs — I think 4e offers specific possibilities that harmonise with its rules that otherwise would not be useful solutions. After all, it's a question of implementation — that's inherently system-sensitive. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 18 '17 at 1:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm tagging this D&D 4e because it's a question about developing for that system. "Answers might also be relevant to other stuff" isn't what tags are for describing, and that answers might be relevant to particular other game systems is already frequently true and shouldn't subvert properly tagging for what the system is about. It remains the case that D&D 4e has particular philosophies and mechanics around plots, villainy, death, etc that are specific to the system. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 19 '17 at 11:41

20 Answers 20


Ultimately, the reason your players kill your villains is because they know, deep down, that it's the right thing to do.

Now, I don't mean it's the moral thing to do. I mean it's the pragmatic thing to do. The players (if not the characters) have read enough stories and seen enough movies to know that if they have the bad guy in their power and they don't take the opportunity to kill him - not lock him up, not let him go with a warning - kill him and then burn the body - that he'll come back to threaten them again later. And he'll probably have an extra arm or be an initiate of an assassin order or something the second time round.

Basically, according to storytelling conventions, not killing your enemies usually leads to future trouble. Thus there's an inherent (out-of-character) incentive to do so. You'll need to accept this incentive exists and give your players reasons to not kill your villains despite it. Effectively, you need to put something on the other side of the scales, something that either incentivises not killing your villains or disincentivises killing them.

What can you use as disincentives? It can be a different thing each time. Sometimes, it will be a combination of things. Here are a few, but it's far from an exhaustive list.

It's inherently difficult: Hey, some people are hard to kill. Liches have a phylactery that needs to be destroyed. Rakshasa just pop back up somewhere else in the world after you kill them. Trolls need fire or acid to be disposed of. And don't even get me started on vampires. This doesn't mean the players can't kill them - you should make sure your players know beforehand that the bad guy is a lich and liches regenerate, but does mean it'll take time, effort, and resources that they might not have or might not be willing to spend. The choice here is simply "is this guy really worth it?"

They don't want to die: What if the villain just gives up on this particular plan? I mean, it's not the most glorious decision, but a villain who runs away is a villain who lives until the next time they meet the heroes and they make a point of blocking the escape route. Note that making a villain run away not be an ass-pull means somehow establishing that the villain is more concerned about their overall success (or at least their survival) than the success of their current scheme. The choice here is also "is this guy really worth it", but it's worse, because the players aren't just talking about defeating the villain, they're talking about hunting down and killing him even after they've thwarted his plan entirely, just to be sure that he doesn't theoretically come up with a new one at some point.

They're worth keeping alive: Maybe the villain has information that could help the players. Maybe there's a monetary reward for their capture, or they were specifically tasked to capture this notorious criminal rather than kill them. Villains who are capable of planning for failure will prepare things to bargain for their lives - items they can trade that can't be gotten if they're killed, offers to assist the heroes achieve other goals. The choice here is "is it actually worth missing out on a shiny or useful thing in order to ensure we never meet this guy again?"

It's the right thing to do: Never underestimate the power of actual morality. Players are smart, rational, conscience-less operators but many characters are supposedly Good People who might feel bad about killing (well, about killing people with names). A villain who formally surrenders before the PCs even get to stabbing him, drops to his knees and begs for mercy, swears on his honour never to do it again, and sobs as he tells them he only did it because he was a fool who let power get to his head is a villain who even the Chaotic Neutrals might just refrain from summarily executing them. Or at least they might drag them back to face justice instead (and then they might, say, escape from prison). The disincentive here is that players will have to explicitly Do A Mean Thing in order to kill them; the choice is "am I willing to act like a villain (or at least a jerk) in the name of ensuring we never meet them again?"

It'll cost you innocent lives: Some can tell when heroes have shown up to wreck their plans and react accordingly. The smart ones come up with a backup plan for when they start losing. A good example of this is the classic "hero's choice": catch the villain, or save the hostages? In fiction, nine times out of ten the hero saves the hostage. In RPGs, nine times out of ten the players try to split the difference and do both - but hey, at least the villain might have a fighting chance of getting away if half the party is busy rescuing the hostages. Or rescuing that nearby peasant village from the monster the villain just told them he dispatched. Or whatever.

It'll cost you social standing: Murder, looting aside, is a costly business. It's usually illegal - even if the person you're killing is really bad, in a civilised society killing someone usually draws trouble down on you (justifying why you did it to the authorities, proving he was actually really bad, etc). Let alone killing the Grand Vizier in the middle of the court or the Drow Ambassador at a diplomatic conference. Yes, even though they were using the cover of legitimacy to further their evil schemes! The choice here is "am I willing to be a pariah and possibly make an enemy of a bunch of misguided Good People just to ensure we never see this guy again?"

It'll cost you your victory: The villain is the leader of a fanatic religious movement. Killing him will just turn him into a martyr and empower his followers - you need to expose him as a hypocrite. The villain is the leader of a barbarian horde. Kill him and one of the others will just take his place, but defeat him in battle and he will respect your strength and leave to seek easier conquests. The villain is a twisted madman who kills without mercy, but he was once a mighty hero and turning him back to the side of good would be the true victory. The choice here is the starkest one: "am I willing to fail at my overall objective just to ensure we don't have to meet this guy again". Use it sparingly.

And ultimately, remember that no matter what you're doing, you're still giving your players a choice. The players will (eventually) probably succeed at whatever they put their minds to. That's what player characters do. If they step past whatever disincentives you give them and kill the bad guy regardless, there's not much you can do but let him die. Maybe he tries to run, maybe they have to hunt down and break his life-giving artifact, maybe it destroys the fragile peace between the Dwarves and the Merfolk, but they'll do it in the end.

Then let them deal with the consequences.

(And maybe bring him back six games later as an undead monster, bent on revenge. You can get away with that sort of thing once or twice, just don't make a habit of it.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Last sentence is key to this not becoming an annoyance. +1 as 'recurring villain' can be overdone ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 13 '17 at 17:51

In D&D, they can just die and come back

In the context of magical fantasy adventure like D&D, it's useful to separate these two questions: "How can I keep this character alive after a direct confrontation?" and "How can I keep this character involved in the story?"

A typical D&D campaign's setting has all these things and more:

  1. Resurrection magic
  2. Many kinds of undead
  3. A supernatural afterlife
  4. Gods and demon princes
  5. Various magical constructs and simulacra

So nothing stops a dead villain from popping back up later anyway, perhaps even with a bit of a power upgrade like "now I'm a ghost" or "I've been given this awesome evil sword by the dark cult that returned me to life."

Now, you're probably thinking "I don't want to play a game where every bad guy progresses from Normie Mode, to Ghost Mode, to Demon Mode, to Demon Ghost Mode, to Demon Demigod Double-Ghost Mode." And that's fair. But, get this: a typical D&D game also has illusions, teleportation magic, &c. — lots of ways for bad guys to get away, many of which only require a single round's worth of actions. There are a lot of "breakpoints" in the spell system where an enemy with just slightly superior magic to the PCs' will be able to use some escape method they can't easily follow.

But, because you can bring back your recurring villains after death, you can play these escape methods fairly — with real thought paid to actions and resource costs — instead of just narrating a slapdash deus-ex-machina "ohhhhhh, he teleported!" right as the protagonists deliver the killing blow.

Sometimes, the villains will escape. Sometimes, they won't, but may cheat death. And some of them might stay dead. Variety!

Cycles of loss and change

There's a risk here, which is that death might come to feel cheap, but that's a risk you're already taking when you play a game with rather plentiful resurrection magic (as D&D tends to have, in order to mitigate PC death at higher levels). And you can mitigate it by emphasizing how returning villains mostly don't just bounce back happy and whole: load them up with scars and grudges, and make a big deal out of their new personality if they've undergone a monstrous transformation (like becoming undead). Play up how tangling with the protagonists the first time around hurt them and changed them, so the players can see that a villain returning from the dead doesn't negate their earlier victories or their impact on the world.

Also, while the "recurring villain" framing kinda assumes major antagonists, there's space to reincorporate other characters — possibly it's actually simpler, since they're easily overlooked. For example,

  • The apprentice who escapes the falling tower comes back toadying for another evil wizard. Most likely, he's an absolute pushover for the protagonists in any kind of fight, but he's got some cool things to say to them!
  • The bloody battles that marked the climax of the last season turns into a new problem as the dead from both sides return as a ghost army. Finding a way to put them to rest lets you explore the emotional loose ends from that previous arc.
  • The necromancer who's hunting for the same artifacts that you are rides around on the (now zombified) owlbear that almost killed you five levels ago. You get to test the tactics they learned in the last encounter and reuse your favorite miniature.

The key thing here is that reincorporating any element, especially an antagonist, shouldn't be a narrative punishment — it's an opportunity to bring in someone or something with history and demonstrate how the PCs have affected the characters they've crossed paths with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ also known as "Surprise lich" \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Apr 13 '17 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm reading a book series right now by B.V. Larson called the Undying Mercenaries. In it, they have resurection technology. One villain keeps being brought back because he's a schemer. After being executed, the good guys find out that he's the only guy who know's how to stop another bad guy from destroying the Earth. Or they find out he's the guy who hid the MacGuffin. So they bring him back. Again. At which point, he starts scheming. Again. Its a good one because the players are the one who will bring him back. They might even have to go through a lot of work to rez the bad guy. Irony. \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Apr 13 '17 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is probably worth noting that if villains are too easy resurrected players may loose the feeling of accomplishment. What is the use of killing an enemy if he returns in full power a moment later? \$\endgroup\$ – Ols Apr 13 '17 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that this is a right answer, but it only applies to "important" enemies. It will work on the necromancer or the hobgoblin king, but probably not for random orc raids or semi-intelligent creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Apr 13 '17 at 17:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ols or they will try to find ways to prevent resurrection, like permanent destroyal of body, limiting their return to true resurrection or wish. Or permanent imprisonment, like burrying inside a cave tied up with a ring of sustenance. Using a magic jar/soul bind/imprisonment. Turning them into undead. And so on. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowKras Apr 13 '17 at 17:47

Incentivize Capture over Kill

As GM, you can incentivize player choices by making a reward for capturing the villain (be it XP, advancement, story rewards, in-game items, in-game renown, in-game monetary, etc) substantially greater than for killing the villain.

This approach is the inverse of punishment for killing versus capture by the authorities in your campaign setting. You can work this both ways by making clear (in-game):

  • what a reward is for capture
  • the risk/danger/punishment/taboo related to killing others (to include the villain).

This approach (be it reward only, or the dual mode) allows you to play through a victory story arc -- the PC's capture the villain, incarceration of the villain ensues -- and then the villain eventually escapes to try his evil again. (Maybe a minion or a demon or NPC sets the villain free). This can happen "on screen" or "off screen" depending on how much you want to allow an action or error or other choice by the PC's to influence the villain regaining freedom.

A lovely example of this is in the Silmarillion (JRR Tolkien; it's also mentioned in the RoTK appendices) where the Numenoreans captured Sauron after defeating him during the Second Age, but he eventually got away and had to be defeated again (with the added twist of successfully corrupting those who captured him).

A lesser example is the capture of Gollum (off screen in Lord of the Rings) and his eventual escape from the elves who were holding him prisoner, so that the Baggins family, et all, had to deal with him again.

There are other examples in literature, movies, comics, and TV shows.

An incentive to capture versus kill: the key piece to completing a puzzle

The villain either knows critical information that someone (be it the party or an important NPC/institution) needs, or has a specific "thing" about them -- genetic material, access to another plane, access to another culture / nation / star system -- that makes killing the villain a risk to the subsequent campaign success.


  1. If we kill her, we'll never know the last eight words of the ritual of opening the gate
  2. If we kill him, we can't use his aura to neutralize the magic field around the artifact.
  3. If we kill him, nobody else knows the password.


As a player, in a Chivalry and Sorcery campaign (3 decades+ ago), we captured the same NPC villain (a necromancer) on multiple occasions, only to have to deal with him again after a few other adventures had passed. Our GM did a great job of weaving this all into the story arc. We were living in a very lawful / law and order duchy(something like the White Cloaks from Jordan's Wheel of Time series) during the campaign. (Heh, my character got incarcerated for a bar fight ...). Had we killed him, we'd be the next fugitives. We finally found the corrupt courtier who was setting him free ...

I find this approach to the problem better than a couple of the more commonly seen alternatives.

Those darned deities

In a setting where deities/gods are involved, the gods can send a character back, if they so choose to exercise their divine will. For example (using LoTR again), from the point of view of Sauron, those meddling Valar (or rather, Eru the One) sent Gandalf back to Middle Earth after the Balrog fought him, to the death, fair and square!


Cloning is used in a variety of campaign settings and fiction, in Fantasy games, and in Sci Fi. In original D&D, the clone spell, while very expensive, was a means for any creature -- PC or NPC -- to get a second chance after a death (with some planning before hand). Our original party in that version of the D&D game (1975-6) both had a chance to use it to preserve our best warrior (only he could use that artifact sword), and to see it revive an evil wizard after we'd looted his tower. (We didn't find the clone pool/lab until the second time we fought him). It was fair, as it wasn't a deus ex machine, but it was a bit of a pain having to fight him again.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your post goes over what the concept of "Incentivising Capture over Kill" means. But it doesn't give much practical advice as to what kind of incentives the GM can/should give. Killing gives a clear and strong incentive. "I will never have to deal with the evil guy again." What can the GM do that is more powerful than that, without also disrupting balance? \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Apr 13 '17 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah. That's the obvious one that pops to mind. Another one is that the bad guy knows some needed information. But, if you had some more inventive ideas, that'd make for a really great answer, IMO. \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Apr 13 '17 at 16:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, IIRC it wasn't the valar that sent Gandalf back, it was Eru Ilúvatar himself (notably not a valar). \$\endgroup\$ – Delioth Apr 13 '17 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast This has some good references from our buddies at Movies & TV, and some more opinions from Science Fiction & Fantasy: 1 2 \$\endgroup\$ – Delioth Apr 13 '17 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Delioth Good one, Rand's answer is solid. Folded it in. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 13 '17 at 19:08

Superheroes don't kill because of their moral code

You use Batman as your example in your question, so let's look at why Batman doesn't kill:

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Also Superman:

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The reason that these heroes don't kill people is not because of any external motivators--it's because they have a very strong moral code against killing in any situation.

Without this overriding moral code, killing the villain makes a lot of sense. You can impose all the external motivators that you want, but if the villain is heinous enough, even the most good-aligned, RP-dedicated hero will begin to think, "I am willing to accept any punishment or break any norm, as long as [villain] is dealt with for good". Depending on the severity of the norm or the punishment, you might be able to deter killing minor villains, but the calculation will always swing toward killing as the stakes increase.

Your players need to agree to such a moral code

I'm challenging your premise that you can implement this no-kill policy from the GM side. Your players need to buy into this idea as well. They could be members of a particular religious order or law enforcement organization, or they could just have tragic origin stories like Batman. However you accomplish this, the characters must make a positive, principled stand against killing, or else the calculation will always trend toward murder.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your last paragraph raises a very good point. I think the DM's problem is that his players don't. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 13 '17 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I totally have a right to kill, Superman can shut his filthy mouth. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Apr 13 '17 at 22:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk: He was talking about you, don't worry (cue: there's an extraneous T). \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Apr 14 '17 at 9:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Completely pacifist parties can be problematic in games like DnD. You can kill 20 nameless bandits but you can't kill their leader because he is the one with a name and backstory? \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Apr 16 '17 at 14:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp, they don't have to be pacifist to take them down. Batman takes down countless mooks all the time, but he doesn't necessarily kill any of them. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Apr 17 '17 at 0:28

There is only one problem, though - killing evil people and things is not frowned upon in most fantasy.

This is the problem and the solution.

Simply make it so killing people is a crime, regardless of their alignment or political decisions. Create laws that forbid people from killing others within the city/kingdom jurisdiction, and those that do so are to be judged as criminals akin to caravan robbers and similar.

This answer (under Legal Punishment) talks about how the authors of the Emerald Spire Superdungeon introduces a town where simply killing bandits makes you no different from other bandits, punishing players who goes against this law.

In the Fort Invitable (the adventure's quest hub), banditry in all forms are punished with death, and that includes bringing the head of bandits when you had no warrant for their lives, so players have to be careful when accepting revenge-type quests. Even with a warrant, the characters have to agree to turn over 30% of the confiscated goods to the local law enforcers.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So what do I do for villains that don't reside within the good kingdom's borders - for instance, the evil king of the kingdom next door or the bandit who, though murdering would technically be illegal, patrols highways in the wilderness not claimed by any currently existing sovereign state? \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Dacre Apr 13 '17 at 15:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tom: unless you want to reconstruct the next door kingdom entirely (which might be an interesting exercise, but is not usually within the party's power), you will have to justify your actions to somebody, whether it is the mob of cheering peasants or the second cousin of the last king but two. And you would be amazed how many people have a legal claim to that patch of wilderness, now that the bandits have been suppressed. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Lymington Apr 14 '17 at 9:18

Many good points already came up, but I have seen as a player an other one which seems missing.

In one of the PC's background, his girlfriend went completely crazy and murdered his whole family. This mad girlfriend was obviously working on the side of the BBEG, but the PC's goal was not to kill her: it was to heal her so they could be happy again. We didn't knew if it was an illness, a curse, or if she had been evil all along, or if healing her was even possible, but it was enough to make the character take the risk of letting her alive.

You can let the possibility than the villain is not a completely evil guy but someone acting unwillingly, and make his redemption important enough for at least one of the PCs so that killing him becomes a failure.


If you can't have killing someone be a moral problem, make it a political or legal issue.

For example, the "vilain" may be an important personality of the country or a neighbor country/kingdom, so they can't kill him without starting a war.

If the oponent always manage to leave no evidences of his schemes and no minions captured alive, he can't be killed or arrested with nothing to prove his guilt.


One way to keep your recurring villain alive is to have them operate from a distance. You kill a bunch of orcs raiding a village, and you find they're all wearing/carrying a particular symbol. Hmmm, say the PCs. Then, a few weeks later, you kill an assassin who was (apparently) trying to take down a good noble -- and he's got the same symbol on him. A couple more appearances, and the PCs will be looking for that symbol, and then trying to take villains alive so they can answer questions about it. A little further down the road, and they'll be trying to trace down the person to whom it belongs...

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't want a villain with unthwartable plans or a giant network like that with a mysterious villain. I want the PCs to completely decimate the demon army that was summoned, break the summoning circle and then have a good ol' book-burning to make sure that those demons are never summoned again and then allow the villain (not the main villain of the campaign) to come back three adventures later with yet another plan to take over the world or get revenge or something. \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Dacre Apr 13 '17 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ unthwartable plans is not the same as an unthwartable villain, this villain could be the evil boy scout - always prepared. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Apr 13 '17 at 17:10

You could have a villain who is viewed by the public as a positive community figure. For example, the villain can be a noble who has very high rank and stature, and might be a diplomat in several countries. Outwardly, he would appear to be a kind, charming lord who treats his subjects with dignity and grace; unbeknownst to the masses, however, he might conduct terrible experiments or run a despicable human trafficking ring or something similarly sinister. Because of the villain's high standing, actually getting close to him could be difficult. On the off chance the party does manage to get close, he will surely have bodyguards to protect him. An assassination might be more effective, but it's also likely that such a high-class citizen would also have magical protection from such attempts (especially if he's paranoid about being found out). The party might not even realize he's a villain at first, but after a number of adventure they begin to see some connections... but how to prove with certainty that this noble is behind it all?

Here's another idea that's a little counterintuitive: Make a villain that the players will want to keep around because he's entertaining. This idea doesn't work that well with the "main" villain of the story, but for a side-nemesis it's great. I ran a campaign several years ago where the villain was a bit inept - he would set elaborate traps for the PCs, but then get caught in them himself (think Wile E Coyote). It was great comic relief. After a while, once the PCs were accustomed to his minor antics, I had him start doing things that were a little more dastardly, such as stealing one of the Grand MacGuffin Artifacts from a temple right before the party arrived. They tracked him down and took it back, but didn't kill him because they considered him to be "harmless in the long run", basically nothing more than a nuisance. Because the party convinced themselves that he was not all that dangerous, he would show up over and over.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm looking for what you did with your second example — supported it with your own experiences. You'll notice that there are a bunch of other answers here that are “well here's my untested idea, I will add it to the pile”, which is something that we avoid here because of the subjective nature of the site's topic. If you could support the first idea with experience (yours or someone else's), that would improve it. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 14 '17 at 20:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I see. I unfortunately don't have personal or second-hand experience for that idea. Should I just remove it? \$\endgroup\$ – Mage Xy Apr 14 '17 at 20:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ That said I removed the comment — I was going to sift the whole page and add notices for each answer that didn't contain support, but aborted halfway through because doing that is actually a huge drain on mod judgement facility and, finding I was tapping out due to decision fatigue, I couldn't justify doing only some of the answers! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 14 '17 at 20:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say leave it for now, but if sometime you find an example elsewhere of the technique being used, that would be excellent supporting documentation that it is an effective technique. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 14 '17 at 20:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds good. Thank you for your clarification! \$\endgroup\$ – Mage Xy Apr 14 '17 at 20:26

Some creatures are inherently able to come back from the dead. For example, vampires turn to mist and float back to their coffin when killed. Liches die and then reform at the site of their phylactery; you can't destroy them for good unless you find and destroy the phylactery. Some cosmologies rule that demons (or the demonblooded?) can't be killed permanently while they're on the Material Plane; if you kill them, they just reappear in their home plane. And there's always the possibility of fighting individual members of a collection of clones.

Your other option is that maybe some villains have contracts that allow them to be raised from the dead: if they die, the Supervillains Organization will bring them back. (In Adventurers' League, player characters have something similar: if they get killed, their faction will sometimes pay for a resurrection.) The "organization" might be some sort of demon or evil god which gives them this boon in exchange for service, or it might be a conventional mortal cleric.

(Note that a conventional mortal cleric would need to deal with the requirements of the raise dead ritual: to cast it you need "a piece of the corpse" of the character that died. Does this ritual require chopping off a finger in advance so that the cleric can raise you? Or does the cleric have to send minions to go fetch the dead character's body back?)


In the medieval fantasy worlds, "ye olde gaol" is not as popular as one might think. Historically jail wasn't a pleasure cruise and in many cases death was a release from the misery. Bob the drunk might get a day or to in the stocks or jail but Alice the axe murderer probably won't have time to use the privy before she loses her head. IMHO fantasy villains try really, really hard not to get caught in the first place - let alone get trapped in a fight. If I'm the necromancer Norbert that raises an undead army, I'm heading for the hills the second things go poorly for me. Sure you might track me down, but on my home turf, you can bet your plate mail that I've got suitable suprises set up. Remember that master villains like Joker, Kingpin in this genre, are all about the getaway. RA Salvatore's Crimson Shadow series is a pretty good exploration of that theme (consider the Shadow is a villain in the beginning).


One thought would be to put the villian behind-the-curtains.

They aren't fighting the big bad villain, they're fighting his henchman. Maybe he's looking on from safety. Maybe he's not. Maybe the villain takes matters in his own hands in the final showdown (finally allowing the players to remove him/her).

A villain with resources can cause a lot of... villainy... without ever putting themselves in harms way.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer. Only in 1960's Batman do super-villains try to punch Batman. Even his butler Alfred was a fisticuffs champion back in his day. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis Apr 15 '17 at 15:12

Since you have roughly the reverse of the Batman situation, have him survive the same way Batman does: Extreme preparation (and seemingly unlimited funds).

You know the spells available to your characters...so give him access to enough escape spells/scrolls to counter everything they have. Make sure he makes his exit before they can seriously start to grapple with him. In an emergency (eg: he takes a big critical hit and dies), have him resurrected by prearrangement with the priests at the Church of Perpetual Villany, LLC.

Make sure he has a counter or two for your group's attack spells and skills too. Silencing the mage and/or levitating the tank, etc. This would have the added benefit of frustrating the heck out of your group, and getting them seriously cheesed off at him after a few iterations.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I would also add in the idea that this villain also holds the key/is fighting something much, much worse so after the PCs kill him - they get to bring him back! \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Apr 13 '17 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JimB - Forcing them to do the resurrecting once would be particularly amusing. However, you'd need to take care that they don't desecrate the corpse in some way to thwart resurrection. After the 2nd or 3rd unwanted resurrection, some of your more devious/ticked off group members might start to think along those lines. \$\endgroup\$ – T.E.D. Apr 13 '17 at 17:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @T-E-D certainly - in which case even worse villain is the consequence. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Apr 13 '17 at 18:26

There are two kinds of villains - dumb ones, and not dumb ones. The dumb ones are the mask-wearing bank robbers and the purse snatching d00d on a skateboard.

The smart ones are pulling all the strings. They are the bosses. They did not get were they are by getting punched in the head a lot. They are not on the street shaking down a drug addict for $1.53.

Your stock villains have names and professions like Dr Doom (Scientist), Mr Freeze (Scientist), Poison Ivy (Botanist), Joker + Riddler (both cerebral), Lex Luthor (Scientist), Doc Ock (Scientist), etc

These are not dummies. They are in fact at the top of their game and would likely be Nobel Prize winners if they didn't like to kill people so much.

With all that said: Your super villains won't die because the characters will have to go to great pains to catch them. They will not try use their Turbo Umberalla to hurt Superman. These baddies will simply run once their fortress/laboratory/greenhouse is penetrated. They won't look back. But would they leave all their treasure behind? You bet they will. They can get more. And they have stashed start-up capital anyway because... they are smart.

"Looks like the Flying Night Mouse made it to greenhouse #12. Trusted Minions, send the plant monsters to attack. Then meet me at greenhouse #14 in exactly 7 minutes. We can make use of an escape tunnel I didn't trust you enough to tell you about."

If they want to catch the villain, they're going to have to dedicate time to research and think, not just bust down the door. "Curious, we have the credit card transactions for one of Poison Plant Girl's trusted minions. She bought 4 kayaks recently. She has never showed interest in boating before. Why would she buy 4 kayaks?" Maybe with some Flying Night Mouse-like detective work, and maybe with research, they'll find an old sewer, abandoned subway line, or underground river running underneath Poison Plant Girl's complex, close to greenhouses #13 and #14. Perhaps Fish Prince can hang out downstream and actually do something instead of get crunchy in the air.

(As an aside, have super heroes kill as SOP is very odd and genre-breaking. What would they do if a known heroic and honorable set of super heroes was sent to bring them in? I'd probably start adding a Mayor, assemblyman, council member, etc who is fanatic about removing the town's vigilantes. If this person gets too much power, he can start investigating secret identities and seeing arrest warrants issued. This is your way of letting them know what murder is still murder even if the victim deserves it.

I could a see come-to-Jesus meeting in a smoking bar. Councilman Sam Justin Washington is sitting in a booth with Flying Night Mouse and Sunburned Chest Boy.

Sam: Now, make no mistake, everyone in ThisVille is glad we don't have to deal with Doctor Random Nuke's radiation gun. And we're really glad that Biological Bob isn't killing entire boroughs.

FNM: Yes, those were some really awful examples of scum and villainy.

Sam: This ain't Mos Eisley, you know? So tell you what, boys. Everything that happened before today, it is all forgiven. I'll do what I can to make it go away. But going forward, I won't be able to turn a blind eye on vigilantism. You hero types, you're gonna have to decide that kind of hero you're gonna be. And if you choose wrong, I'm going to have to do the right thing.

SCB: But but but look at all the good we have done!

Sam: Good? I'm not sure. But I told you. We citizens appreciate it, and I don't lose much sleep over what happened before today. Tomorrow, however, is a new day. I'll be watching, boyos. Catch you later. Sam pounds down the rest of his Zima, stands up, and leaves without looking back.

Sam (to bartender, pointing over his left shoulder with his thumb): They'll pay.


  • \$\begingroup\$ The smart ones probably don't leave all their treasure behind. Some, but they probably have anticipated an attack, and have enough delays and detours and alarms that they have time to take their best stuff with them. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Apr 16 '17 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dronz Indeed. Acquiring Poison Plant Girl's field notes detailing what she's been observing and working on for years would be quite a coup. Capturing her season's crop of poisonous Brussels sprout seedlings would be possible however. And criminals probably keep a cache of cash, some drugs, and a small arsenal for their petty minions. It makes great news copy but the heroes know the score. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis Apr 16 '17 at 18:18

One way of doing this, since you said they are part of a guild/band of villains would be to have your main villain, but have dopplegangers or changelings in his employ. When you're ready for the main villain to actually die, you present the party with the real deal.




First, use shades of grey morality to make your villain sympathetic to the players. Second, the characters must remain in control of their own morality lest they become monsters themselves. And finally, the story theme could be the redemption on the villain, thus keeping them alive is essential.

The black and white morality needs to go…

Black and white moral codes promote the easy choice, shades of grey promote moral conflicts thus interesting villains.

The easy choice is to kill the Sith Lord with calm and paused anger as he's too dangerous to hold! It's to machine gun the Schutzstaffel soldiers in their sleep. Kill as many huruk-hai as possible for a bet. Simple and easy, no⸮

Grey codes are more interesting from a story point of view.

Is Jeanne de Clisson a monster that needs killing? Yes! She's a pirate, a whore, a murderer who kills all she encounters. She must be stopped at all costs! Or is she a wronged woman that dishes out wrathful and just vengeance on evil men?

Robin Hood is a criminal who steals, murders, and cause social unrest. He should be captured and hanged! Or maybe, he too has been wronged and he does the just things in an unjust world.

So, you "villain" need not be killed, just stopped. Your characters (and to a great extend the players) need to know why the villain is vilified. What drove them to do what they do? What caused them to cross those moral lines? This works even better if the villain has similar views to the characters. The "good guys" could be like Philip VI or King John and your character work for them.

Clearly this moral shading is what prompt some to justify (or excuse) terrorism whether from ETA to Daesh1 via the IRA. Nonetheless, none of them see themselves as evil: quit the contrary. This is not what I advocate here at all. You need two (or more) conflicting view points, with good and bad in them, to build your antagonists.

When there are no more monsters to kill, you will still be there…

Nietzsche quote

So, the characters are killing all the evil people. Killing and killing and killing and killing till all they can see is blood, dead faces crying for justice, and slowly but surely what they see in mirrors are monsters.

Post traumatic stress is not something that just happens to XX/XXI century soldiers. It happened in the past (shell shock) and certainly fantasy characters should be able to develop this. Unknown Armies has some fantastic rules that you can adapt for this: the more hardened to something you are, then more alien you appear.

After a while, everyone around the characters will react to the fact that these men are killers. They are not fun to be around with, they are murder machines. Street fighters are not pleasant people most folks like to be around.

If you know this is where your character is heading, you might consider not killing too many folks to protect yourself from becoming one of those monsters.

As a side note, this is why Batman does not kill then Joker. They both know that when Batman kills him, the Joker wins. Batman becomes as much of a monster as the Joker.

As a final note, this is why the western hero always leaves the town after his cleans the bad guys: there is no room for a killer in a new peaceful world.

Redemption trope!

Dead villains cannot be redeemed. It is a trope, one I actually really like, and thus needs to be done carefully and with thought. It might involve getting player buy-in but it could be a fantastic tale.

How can the villain be redeemed if they die? … They cannot thus then players must keep them alive and find themselves reasons why the characters would not kill them.

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The Hitokiri Battosai is an fine example of such a villain who becomes the hero of a new tale.

1: To be fair, Daesh is as close to pure Evil as you can get in real life.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the genre and game mechanics demand a little black and white morality code. Additionally you didn't answer the question about how to keep the villians returning \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Apr 16 '17 at 11:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JimB Ah, I see. This should be tagged D&D and not system agnostic \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Apr 17 '17 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ it is now, I'm not sure if it always was. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim B Apr 17 '17 at 21:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ It was not but the highest upvoted answers and your comment points to it being so. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Apr 18 '17 at 8:34

Just as another possibility, I personally like the idea of a villain which perhaps you can defeat, but can't very easily kill outright; like Sauron in LOTR, or wizards (specifically, melting them) in Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, if anyone's familiar with that series. Defeating him/her in battle would be a significant setback to the villain, but they'd ultimately return once they put themselves back together or got their power back. Mainly this avoids the trope of "yes you killed and dismembered Dr. Evil last week, but now he's back and looking great!" or the other trope of "And for the 45th week in a row, Dr. Evil has escaped to scheme another day!".

It puts a constant that the players can count on in their plans, which I believe would be useful if you want the players to fight the same villain many times. When Dr. Evil shows up again, it turns "How many times do we have to kill this guy?" or "How does he keep escaping right before we kill him?" (which I'd find annoying) into "Well we know if we defeat/banish/melt him he won't be able to return for 2-3 weeks, so lets fight him now before we go on this short side quest, so hopefully we won't have to deal with him or his machinations until we get back."

You can still surprise the characters by having the villain take longer or shorter than expected to return, but in general this route gives a little more choice/control (or at least the feeling of it) to the players.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The question is, "Why did Dr Evil escape so many times in a row?" Is it because the players kicked the front door down, and he calmed walked out the back, to his helicopter pad? \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis Apr 15 '17 at 15:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was referring to situations where he magically escapes simply because the gm wants to use him again later, no matter how well or poorly the players plan and perform their attack. \$\endgroup\$ – HammerN'Songs Apr 16 '17 at 18:39

Take into account characters' motivation

PCs already have their reasons to confront the villain. Give them reasons not to kill him/her. If they are greedy, give bounty for alive criminals, not for dead ones. If they have strong moral principles, declare that killing itself is a crime. If they follow authorities, let NPC ask them to bring a captive for interrogation, and so on.

Give the villain an escape mechanism

Some creatures already have ones. For instance, a Vampire has the Misty Escape feature:

Misty Escape. When it drops to 0 hit points outside its resting place, the vampire transforms into a cloud of mist...

(Monster Manual, page 297)

As a DM feel free invent your own unique feature - in a magic fantasy world such magical powers shouldn't surprise anyone. You can describe that a magic-bearing creature just "disappears". That's how a ghost-like creature described in the Lost Mine of Phandelver (minor spoilers):

If the characters are rude, disrespectful or threatening, Agatha scowls and disappears.


When you develop the characters of the recurring villains, set them up with special spells that will be triggered by their deaths. Make these spells do things that are intensely annoying to parties of adventurers. For example, destroying their arms, armor, spell books, and bags of holding.

Find a way to advertise that these characters are "protected" by these spells. Perhaps a guy in a tavern could tell a story about a naked party of adventurers that came through. The previous party of adventurers lost everything just after they killed an accursed villain with a weird birthmark (or other marker) that started glowing (or otherwise seemed even weirder) just before he died. (Also, a successful "detect curses" should detect something strange about these "protected" characters.)

So the party will have a choice: Let the important villain slither away, or try to escape the dungeon naked.

The first time, the party will probably choose to do it the hard way. You can probably imagine a scenario: The party escapes the dungeon by the skin of their teeth. Instead of taking "valuable" drops like gold, they scuffle with each other over scraps of clothing. They then stop in a forest to fashion some laughably make-do clothing, to avoid being arrested in town for public indecency.


You may need lawful good players who obey all the rules, acting more of a small police force squad and send villains to towns/cities to be prosecuted instead of being judge, jury, and executioners. If they act that way they can be persecuted themselves, as they are acting out vigilantism. OR You could have the villain have divine/unholy patron who resurrects the antagonist shortly after the party has taking him out.


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