There are people in tabletop gaming, I’ve found, who don’t appreciate recurring themes, characters, or monsters. Chiefly because this cheapens the experience, turning what should be an epic saga that spans several gaming sessions, into a Saturday morning cartoon, where “dead” characters are merely waiting for a convenient time to pop out again and shout “Surprise! Not really dead!”
Fans of comic books know how infuriating and weak of a plot device this is. Why take the time to create a new character if you can drag an old one back from the grave? Sure he was crushed in a building after the nuke went off, defusing the bomb while the poison slowed his heart to a gentle drum-roll. Sure the wounds he sustained practically spelled out “Mortal Death” in blood on the concrete as he dragged his cold, battered body over to the bomb casing to snip the red wire. But here he is, alive and well!
For this reason I’ve concocted a few loose rules to re-introduce or keep characters in your game, whether it’s for comedic effect, dramatic effect, or out of simple laziness.
1) Don’t Bring Back The Brilliant Villain.
Dr. Evilbad might be your favorite villain of all-time, and you might have spent countless hours tooling around on his stats (or his mustache) even going so far as giving him his own character sheet. But your players will be, in all likelihood, more excited to loot his snide, sneering corpse as they are to sit through his next titillating monologue. If you must bring him back, go ahead and use the same stats and abilities, but make your new Dr. Evilbad an obvious copycat. Story-wise, bring in Dr. Badevil, a notorious copycat villain who has a creepy shrine in his bedroom dedicated to his favorite (and very deceased) scoundrel mastermind. This form of reincarnation can also give you more possibilities for character development than the original villain.
2) Recurring Henchmen Deserve a Nod, Not a Spotlight.
During a recent Pathfinder game, we had a pair of throwaway henchmen who were left on a sinking boat in an ocean of poisonous water. Instead of accepting their fate as minor characters, they did what any pair of buddy cops would do. With many, many successful acrobat and climb checks, they leapt from their doomed vessel to climb up the side of a passing skeleton ship, sprinted down its length (more skillchecks) and dove off the stern onto the elven ship that had rammed into the freighter’s backside. They then, miraculously, proceeded to kill off the elven prince aboard, to whom the players had sworn an oath. And all of these D-20 rolls were made in full view.
At the game’s conclusion the table was shocked to learn how generic the henchmen’s stats were, once the pair had been executed for the crime of being goddamn awesome.
As a game moderator it’s tempting to bring this duo back, possibly with a new set of stats to reflect how ridiculous their previous abilities were. But again, we go back to cheapening the players’ experience. If there is no feeling of permanence in a game, the sessions become an endless assembly-line of monsters and same-faced NPC’s waiting for sweet death, to splash the players with EXP and gold like a Gallagher show (look it up, youngsters).
The best this incredible henchy duo will get in my next game is a brief nod, possibly giving them the same physical descriptions as they bore before, this time as bouncers outside a tavern for my older players to chuckle at. And nothing more.
3) Recycle Your Monsters, but Give Them New Context!
No, these aren’t the goblin savages you fought at level 1. These are magic-enhanced fire goblins from the go-fuck-yourself tribe, and they hale from the mountains of “I only have so many miniatures.”
No, these aren’t the same Woad Highlanders you fought last week. They’re mummers, who are enacting a play about Woad Highlanders, and they happen to be wielding real swords, and very much intend to use them on your vitals.
No, this isn’t the same nobleman who hired you for that bank-job two sessions ago. He’s a necromancer who likes the finer things in life. Like silk robes, a nice chianti, and punishing players who break immersion.
4) Big Breasts and Orphans Don’t Equal Godhood
A small, personal peeve of mine is the introduction of a female romantic interest, often a vaguely sexist seductress, who can’t be threatened, harmed, or killed by virtue of what she represents to the game. I’ve seen several GM/DM’s who are guilty of this, who set out a well-endowed pewter figure on the table, and assume every man in the room will either try to seduce her, or fight for her honor.
In a similar vein to this is the innocent child or orphan, who is fireproof by virtue of what he/she represents to the game. Again, like the damsel with huge cans, this NPC can’t be bullied, brow-beaten, or butchered because they serve as a plot device which, if done well, will send the players skipping on to the next line of the quest.
Who would hurt an orphan? What kind of jerk would threaten a damsel? And for christ-sake, just look at her jugs! What kind of sick monster would you have to be–to drop one of these virginal tropes into a lava pit?
The fact that you’re playing a tabletop game, unless it involves the comic book universe, suggests that your players are looking for a good time, which probably involves murder, mayhem, and explosions. Who or what gets exploded at any given moment is entirely up to the whims of one of a handful of players . You’d have to be a monster to stalk and murder a beautiful actress, or maybe the real-life bar wench who lives down the street. But if you’ve just rolled into town after slaughtering a camp full of Orcs (women and children too, we’re assuming) and you’re looking to unwind, what’s one more body added to the big karmic exp sheet in the sky?
5) Use Real-World Consequences
If you want to keep your buxom blonde in the game unmolested, take a chapter from the real world (or sitcoms) by giving her a jealous jock boyfriend (warrior) who haunts the bar, waiting for her to be unfaithful. Give her a rape-whistle. Or the magical equivalent of pepper-spray. Or, if the players get creative with their foul deeds and manage to avoid being caught in the act, put out a midieval version of the Amber-Alert with some town bells and alarms. Gamers, myself included, seem to neglect how tight-knit and paranoid even large communities were.
Don’t want orphan Annie to come to harm after she refuses to give quest information to the barbarian, because he’s being a meanie-head? Make her a part of a church-funded orphanage, whose patron deity is known for smiting the unholy flaming gonads off anyone who touches a ginger hair on her head.
If at any time your players believe they can get away with murder in a civilized society, then you’ve done something wrong to give them this misconception. This, I’ve found, is the key to having recurring NPC’s and henchmen in tabletop games.