Often, in most forms of entertainment, there’s a tendency to take one opponent and set them up as the Big Bad for an arc, only to escalate things. As you take out what you thought was your foe, it turns out they were subordinates to a bigger menace, leaving you with a new foe. It continues until the campaign culmination, with a battle against something that would have trounced everyone at the beginning of the story. Rarely, however, the Big Bad is known from the start, and it brings about a different kind of game. Today, I’m going to compare the two.
Escalation is something that can very easily be handled poorly. The first release of Rise of the Runelords had this problem, because each of the six books of it had very little to connect the Big Bad of each one to the next. Some did better than others – using a NPC from one set to lead up as the boss of the next, or having the boss from one explicitly reference the next one – but it was poorly connected and poorly telegraphed. This was fixed in the anniversary edition, with work being done to better connect each big bad to the next. Notes, letters from one to another, references in journals and research, they all slowly pointed toward the final boss of the entire campaign. It works a great deal better, and the anniversary edition serves as a good example of how to link this kind of escalation together.
In book format, the Mistborn novels of Brandon Sanderson are an excellent example of this; over the course of the Final Empire trilogy, each book wraps up one set of troubles neatly while paving the way for the next. It goes from the dangers of the Steel Inquisitors to the unspeakable might of the Lord Ruler, while foreshadowing important details of the final book; then more hints of the final book are dropped in the second book, with the struggles to keep a new kingdom safe from those who want to conquer it; and then in the final book it tidily wraps everything up in the final pages, taking all of those widely dropped hints and packaging it up for a solid conclusion. (Even if it also lays the seeds for numerous other things in Sanderson’s multi-series Cosmere setting.)
Singular opponents sometimes aren’t known as such at the beginning of a story, but there’s never any other big bad leading up to them. By the time you encounter one of the more powerful minions, you know perfectly well who the villain is. The Wrath of the Righteous AP from Paizo is a good example of this – you know you’re going to need to deal with the rulers of the Worldwound, and possibly the demon lord involved in the creation of it, from the moment you sit down to make your character. You may be fighting your way through other powerful opponents before that point, but the end villain is a known quantity before you fight any of them, and each victory is visibly a step of dismantling the final opponent’s power and setting things up for your triumph over them.
The Raksura novels by Margaret Wells contain a good example of this; while the books are often completely distanced from the threat of the creatures known as the Fell, they always come back up as a definite threat to everyone and everything. The first novel, where they’re mentioned from the first chapter as a dangerous thing, culminates with a battle involving numerous Raksura in a pitched battle against a flight of Fell. At no point do you get the sense that some greater threat is lurking behind the Fell save for their own twisted machinations and desire to conquer and consume.
So then, which to choose? As a GM, there are advantage and perils to either route. The escalation route, done properly, can allow distinct victories and celebration as the players overcome the foe directly ahead of them; taking care of the current architect of their woes can provide a great deal of satisfaction and closure. On the other hand, if handled poorly, or if you do it too many times even if you’re doing it well, your players will start to feel as if they’re never going to reach an actual ending point. While escalation can, if done right, can leave your players with the sense of a truly impressive Hero’s Journey, having gone from fighting off a local warlord to standing off a demon lord, it’s not an easy thing to pull off.
On the other hand, a singular menace provides your players with a goal from the get-go. This can be advantageous, if your players understand that this is, in fact, their ultimate foe from the beginning, so that they don’t try to go after him too quickly. It allows you to let them take the initiative early on, as their foe has no reason to see them a threat, letting them try to build momentum against it. It can unfortunately also lead to analysis paralysis and a strong measure of fear as the players realize how powerful their foe is, leaving them chasing after tiny advantages and minimal schemes for success as long as you let them, even as their foe moves along in its plans without them there to do anything about it. Dealing with this situation can take a lot of careful balancing by a GM, trying to tempt the players into action without them suspecting a trap and running away. Unlike the escalating foes, players here will often over-estimate either their own power or that of their enemies.
Ultimately, it comes down to the kind of game you and your group are likely to enjoy; escalating foes allow for the simplest and most familiar method of play, while singular foes work best for self-motivating groups looking forward to interfering with their enemy and willing to take risks to pull things off.