More typically referred to as the BBEV, these are indeed the characters we GMs spend a painful amount of time on, showing them off only at long range and through their machinations impacting the players until near the end. One of the early lessons of being a GM is that you never put your ultimate villain in a position where they can be fought and killed by the PCs until you’re ready for them to die, because otherwise the PCs will do so. So, today, I’m going to talk about them – and what to do when players do step up and end your master-plan character.
BBEVs take a great deal of work for the GM, even in simple game systems, because they need to be worked into the story in a way to make the players want to take them down before they ever see them. Their plans are the ones the characters keep interfering with; their servants are the ones the characters keep defeating. We need to know them better than we know pretty much any other character in our games, so that we can determine both how they’ll act and how they’ll react.
This leads to a problem, because there are going to be times that they should be around for a given situation rather than a lieutenant, and you can’t really pitch the game forward without their presence and personality. If they’re around, however, the players will almost certainly try to kill them – and giving them a foolproof escape plan will just upset the players in most cases. Inevitably, the players will succeed eventually if they have a chance to off the BBEV before the appointed plot moment. So what do you do to handle it?
Have a lieutenant step up. This is the simplest method; just because you cut the serpent’s head off doesn’t mean the game is over. The villain may have a few trusted people who know the full plan and have the will to execute it if the BBEV goes down early. One of these people can step in and throw the character off-kilter, as their way of executing the plans will be different than the original BBEV’s methods. The old BBEV relied on magical constructs; the new one is more diverse and includes summoned creatures and undead in the execution of plans. The old one worked only with those they trusted; the new one courts new allies.
Simulacra. The villain may be using some kind of simulacrum that they can use to essentially have telepresence. This may be a magical copy they project their mind into, a robot with a remote operation, or even a limited clone of their mind that knows only the part of the plan needed for the current situation. This gives the players the satisfaction of being able to take the BBEV down – possibly in a creative way, if they’re doing a telepresence operation – while leaving the actual character out of harm’s way and with a good reason to now know a fair bit about how the PCs operate.
Back from the dead. Many systems have some way that a character can be brought back to some form of life. Magical resurrection, cloning, cybernetic reconstruction, becoming a lich, ghost, or something similar, neural uploads and mind-state backups; anything the players have access to, a well-equipped BBEV should as well. Put their resources to use to bring them back from the dead, with a new-found lust for revenge against those who killed them.
The escape plan. All right, you don’t feel like you have any other option; your villain has an absolutely foolproof escape plan with backup forms set up and ready to go. What you need to do here, then, is to make the players be okay with the escape. Give them significant assets of the villain to destroy or claim for themselves; let them rescue important captives and score a big chunk of popularity and fame with the local populace. Ease the sting of the BBEV escaping flawlessly however you can – and never do this more than once in a campaign.
No, really. Try not to do it at all; and never do it more than once for a given BBEV. It’s cheap, unfair, and your players will get bent out of shape – justifiably – if you put the BBEV in a position for them to deal with them and then snatch it away. It’s one thing to do it in a situation where they know they can’t respond, like meeting their nemesis at a major social gala and having to exchange words instead of blows; it’s another entirely to have them meet them in the docks in the middle of the night and then stop them from striking.
So that’s it for today; hopefully it’ll be of use to fellow GMs out there! Good luck keeping your BBEV alive, people!