Revolving Door Villains

"That will be 25,000 gp worth of diamonds, please."
"That will be 25,000 gp in diamonds, please."

There’s a running joke that in high-magic fantasy games, death is naught but a revolving door and the party cleric is the doorman.   I haven’t played much 4e myself, but I’ve heard many of the epic-level abilities start out “Once per day, when you die…”   If there’s a bigger way to hang the “death doesn’t matter” out for everyone to see, I haven’t found it yet.

What about villains, though?   Unless everyone is playing a pulp-style adventure, having the villain inexplicably escape every time he’s encountered can seem contrived and simple GM-fiat, but can the revolving door be used as a plot device to present the players with a unique challenge?

In our previous campaign, I introduced a group of villains who were for all intents and purposes immortal, able to re-form their bodies if they were physically destroyed.   While this could easily become ‘cheezey’ or unfair, the rationale fit with the background of the game in this case.   This changed the nature of the characters’ interactions with the villains (who had no fear of death) and had some interesting effects on the story.

  • The players were able to directly confront their enemies face-to-face from the start, they didn’t have to crawl through layers of an organization to get to them.   Their enemy was quickly personified for them and they were able to attach their animosity to a single small group of entities instead of successive levels of middle management.
  • Because the enemies couldn’t re-form instantly, the characters were able to hinder their enemies through direct interaction.   The characters could vanquish a foe, costing them valuable time and possibly resources in the process, but the foe could come back for revenge eventually.
  • I didn’t have to worry about making the enemies miraculously escape, since in effect they couldn’t be destroyed permanently.   No bodies hidden from view as they fall or magic just-in-time teleportations – if they died they died.

There’s definitely a danger in this sort of thing of the whole setup being too heavy handed. If it’s not explained sufficiently or just hand-waved, then revolving door villains can be just as frustrating to your players as the miraculous escapees.   But if you can create a plausible explanation that fits in your game world and doesn’t break immersion, it can by an interesting plot device to exploit.

A gamemaster should watch his players’ reactions and shouldn’t let this go on too long – at some point the players should obtain the ability to defeat their opponents permanently, otherwise the game will get quickly become repetitive and predictable.   When the enemies realize the characters have obtained a way around their insurance policy, they’ll suddenly have to approach them in a new way, as they have to learn how to think like mortals again.   Maybe some will defect to the characters’ side, or others will start to seek non-direct means of interacting with the party.   No matter how things change, the gamemaster has the opportunity to take the relationships that the players have built with their enemies and twist it in interesting ways.