Over at Unofficial Games: Murder gets boring, Zzarchov writes:
This one deals with the problem of wholesale slaughter of your enemies. In this particular post I’ll deal with murdering opposing villains, the big villain or at least the stalwart dark lieutenant. Many GM’s are frustrated that they cannot have a recurring villain because PC’s will not stop until they murder them. Its like a party of Terminators.
This is a mechanically based flaw. You either get the same XP for killing, or its the only way you get killing added to the fact that dead villains can’t trouble you later.
I disagree. In my experience, this is a story-based flaw, not a mechanical one. Players will make sure that villains, particularly major villains, are truly most completely dead even in games where there’s full XP for defeating a villain without killing him, and even in games where there is no character advancement at all. What players are really interested in is that dead villains can’t trouble you later; tweaking the XP awards so that they have a reason to “farm” the villain for XP isn’t likely to work, particularly on any players that take the distinction between in-character and out-of-character motivation at all seriously.
GMs compound this situation by “teaching” the players that if they show any mercy towards villains the villain will return again later and only be stopped once something dear to the PCs has been destroyed (The Joker Syndrome) . If you want a recurring villain, you have to think harder about what’s in it for the players and the PCs. Some possible answers:
- Recurring villains and the PCs showing mercy to villains (and vice-versa) is part of the genre, and the players and GM agree that they’re playing according to genre. E.g., a standard “four-color” superhero game. For this to work, it’s likely the GM and the players should agree in advance that they aren’t going to try and push the envelope: once the Joker starts murdering scores of people every time he escapes from Arkham, it takes a special kind of player to still be satisfied with merely capturing and turning him over to the authorities that run the revolving-door asylum. The Joker may steal or threaten mass destruction, but Batman has to be able to avert it in the nick of time.
- The villains are “frenemies“: they don’t (yet) threaten the PCs with the loss of something that they find unacceptable, while sometimes providing the PCs with help or something they value. Perhaps they’re rivals, but not yet outright enemies.
- Villains often reform if shown mercy. This is a staple of certain genres, and can answer the need for recurring characters, though not necessarily recurring antagonists. Again, the GM has to stick to the genre and make almost all the conversions sincere or risk teaching the players that they’ll regret sticking to the genre conventions themselves.
- The setting has antagonists, but few real villains. Mature players are generally reluctant to murder well-meaning NPCs, even if they’re dangerously misguided and frequently in the way; immature players probably don’t appreciate any effort put into not rewarding them for slaughtering anyone who gets in the way.
- Along similar lines, mature players are usually reluctant to escalate. If the villain’s plans always involve theft but not murder, the PCs won’t (usually) respond with lethal force. If the villain keeps trying to kill the players, why exactly should they be reluctant to respond in kind? Just because it would be convenient for the GM?
- The setting is fraught with consequences for murdering villains. If the PCs are members of a Homicide Unit in a modern police force, killing criminals out-of-hand is likely to result in Internal Affairs investigations, suspension, or even jail. It’s not a genre convention, it’s the law. The problem with this is that if the players perceive the GM is exploiting this to frustrate them and undermine their success, they can lose their desire to play that setting. The course of action dictated by the setting needs to feel like a victory to the players. E.g. despite complaints about revolving-door justice and certain kinds of criminals being hard to keep incarcerated due to their clever lawyers, the modern justice system is quite successful at keeping serial-killers off the streets if they can be captured in the first place. If the GM starts using the “Joker always gets out” convention on the killers the PCs arrest while still holding them to realistic standards on the consequences of vigilante justice, that’s just asking for trouble.
- The recurring villain is out of reach of the PCs, literally or figuratively. You can prevent the PCs from killing the villain if you can prevent them from engaging the villain in combat. Perhaps the villain is a mastermind who operates from the shadows, never directly. Or maybe the villain is just a supernatural creature that can only be harmed by the Dread McGuffin of Uberness (to avoid TPK after TPK you probably need to make the villain have limited ability to affect the PCs in turn, or have its body/host be defeatable but final victory be elusive). This risks turning the entire campaign into a quest to get the villain, but that may be what you’re looking for.
In any event, as the GM what you should be thinking about is why do you want a recurring villain in the first place? What do the players and PCs get out of it? If the answer is just a bonus to XP if they play it right, you probably need to do some more thinking. Recurring villains work best when the stakes aren’t life-or-death, and when you can keep the players from feeling “I…have had…enough…of you!” Recurring characters are a lot easer than recurring villains in most genres, and I think you can generally get a lot more mileage out of former enemies, now rivals or allies (but are they really trustworthy? dun-dun-DUN) than having the villains all “Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn’t matter where you go… or how far you fly, I will hunt you down… and the last thing you see will be my blade.” unless you want the PCs to go emulating Mal Reynolds.