So your players have met the villain, dealt with a scheme or two, and lived to tell the tale. You’re all set to start dropping hints about what the villain is doing next, but suddenly your players tell you they want to follow up on one character’s personal sidequest to reclaim their mother’s sword from a hobgoblin fortress. How do you make sure they still remember the villain when they’re done? The simplest technique is to present consequences for them ignoring the villain. I’m going to be writing this under the assumption your villain is the primary antagonist in your campaign, secondary villains will likely either be defeated in a single adventure, or can be forgotten and return later as a surprise for the players.
When your players take a break from the main story arc, you need to ask yourself one very important question - How much pressure are they under to get back to it? If the villain is conjuring a meteor to destroy an entire nation and the heroes run off to gather boar hides for the forest druid who twisted his ankle, they shouldn’t be surprised when the villain succeeds at their plan. If, on the other hand, you have a villain who is robbing travelers on several highways at once, perhaps the worst that happens is the villain manages to steal a potent magical item, becoming much more difficult to take down. The important thing is that the villain’s schemes continue to move forward, even when the party is elsewhere.
The more pressure they are under, the more direct you should be with your reminders. If the world is at stake and your players start debating about which sidequest they should take on, you can tell them that doing so will take up precious time, and they don’t have much of that left before it’s too late. If you want to keep it in-character, you can have their main point of contact (whatever NPC they spend most of their time with) ask them what they’re going to about the villain’s plan. Get the world involved, as the villain’s schemes grow in scope, major characters should get involved. If the villain is a necromancer, then the King or Queen sending an army at the villain might just bolster their army and make everything worse. The world keeps turning, and because this is a game and your players are the stars, it should almost always go badly, requiring their characters to step in and fix things.
If, on the other hand, the players aren’t under a lot of pressure, it’s okay to let the villain go unopposed for a time. How long exactly will depend the villain’s style and what kind of game you’re running. With a very direct villain who prefers to conquer and destroy, the gaps between their schemes will be quite clear, but a villain who moves in the shadows and acts behind the scenes may have several ongoing schemes the players and their characters aren’t aware of, making the gaps less obvious. If your campaign is an open world or sandbox, your players will probably want to feel free to explore for a while between encounters with the villain. If your game hinges around a strong main plotline, however, your players won’t necessarily expect a break to tackle personal sidequests unless you explicitly give them one, which is the next technique I’m going to recommend.
If your players like sidequests, you can build breaks into your story to give them a chance to explore them without feeling like they’re getting off track, or without being exposed to the horrible consequences of ignoring the villain. Perhaps they need a powerful weapon to defeat the villain, and after they’ve recovered all of its shattered pieces, the master blacksmith needs a week to reforge the blade. Or perhaps after they thwart one of the villain’s schemes, the NPCs they interact with believe the threat to be dealt with, and tell the players to rest and recover. If the players are motivated to do so, they might continue pursuing the villain, but it’ll be their choice, not something they feel forced to do. Giving them a break like this provides some time to lick their wounds, recover from the arduous quest, and either spend some downtime doing as they please, or take on a personal sidequest or two.
As another option, you can tweak whatever sidequest they choose to include elements of the villain’s schemes, tying everything back to the central plot, but doing so can severely strain credibility, and it can feel like you’re pushing your plot in the players’ faces. It will make your world feel more alive if things keep happening even when the players aren’t around. If a town is under siege and the party decides to keep walking and ignore it, it should be conquered when they head back the other way. If you establish from the beginning that situations don’t just sit around waiting for heroes to resolve them, your players won’t be caught by surprise when the villain’s plans succeed while the party was busy doing other things.
Tomorrow’s post will go into detail on what makes a memorable villain, and how to keep your players interested in the plot. You want them to drive the chase toward defeating the villain, not the DM.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming