I hates it... The assumption of the BBEG

This may just be a personal shibboleth, but every time I see questions in forums and theories on blogs about a “Big Bad Evil Guy”, it frustrates, saddens and vaguely infuriates me. The idea that what every campaign needs to work is some kind of reoccurring villian who always escapes is just frustratingly pointless and seems to provide endless encouragement or justification for GM misbehaviour.

I’m not even opposed in principle to reoccurring arch-antagonists, but treating every campaign like an 80’s kids cartoon designed to sell action figures and so requiring some kind of Skeletor who is constantly thwarted until a finale feels stultifying, restrictive and an excuse for antagonistic GMing.

Thank you for listening to my rant.


I don’t recall seeing this until after video games started entrenching the idea of minion,minion,puzzle,minion,boss fight. Well we saw it (say, Tomb of Horrors), but it wasn’t formalized as a desirable pattern. It just happened sometimes when that was the story.

So, if we’re seeing too much minion,puzzle,boss patterns, maybe folks would benefit from a few alternative patterns. Ideally that can be expressed so easily!


I hadn’t realized it was part of the 5-room dungeon thing, thought it went back adventure paths more generally. I do have some sympathy for adventure path style design in tactical combat games, but indeed it also seems very much a CRPG import.


I’m also assuming that this comes from such intersection of video game influence and “monster of the week”-style media (e.g. many superhero movies).

I agree that it’s pretty unfortunate for most RPG play, although sometimes it can be fun to have some kind of “Big Bad”; after all, there is a strong tradition of the “Dark Lord” in archetypal fantasy (including, say, Star Wars).

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Sure one can create a setting with a generally antagonistic faction (or one with goals that are very likely to conflict with the players’) but the thinking that turns this faction or it’s leader into a “Big Bad” - its efforts behind every setback is so restrictive. What happens if your players decide they don’t want to fight the Dark Lord and instead want to work to help conquer the universe - they’d rather be scheming lieutenants of a power on the rise then underdog defenders of the weak? Within the Big Bad concept it seems like there’s an implied narrative structure and implied style of play.


Oh, yes. Very much so! I agree that the concept of the “Big Bad” imposes all kinds of constraints on the kind of game we’re playing and the kind of story we’re telling. All kinds. And, in many cases, entirely unnecessary.

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What sorts of opposition do you prefer to use? Do your games work on the assumption that the characters can eventually “triumph” in some way?

I tend to build regional sandboxes with several factions in rough equipose. I don’t assume players will do anything particular - triumph or fail, but do expect that they will find factions to ally with, oppose or whose schemes they will stumble upon. I just don’t know which factions those will be.


What this thread really needs are a bunch of small, manageable replies that foreshadow and culminate in one really lengthy and antagonistic reply.


I only recently came across the acronym. I’m used to nemesis or recurring villain and they’re tropes of pulp and superhero genres which also tends to be games where heroes are expected to not be killing, so it’s relevant to have recurring villains.

The issue isn’t reoccurring villains, it’s the assumption and design that a specific villain will reoccur and the level of illusionism and railroading that then typically go into making that villain escape from player efforts to stop them.

As a matter of genre emulation I can certainly see how it would work out (Say if you were emulating 80’s Saturday Morning Cartoon Fantasy - playing a Master of the Universe or GI Joe system with specific mechanics related to foiling Cobra Commander/Skeletor) but as a general principle it’s something that grates immensely. It grates not because a rivalry between PCs and an NPC forms, or because some foe returns after escape - but because the way it tends to be discussed is as an inevitability to force on the game.

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@Gus.L it is likely that I am both following different forums and blogs than you and am not as sensitive to the topic, because the concept of BBEG does not occupy a noteworthy portion of TRPG discussion in my experience. But I am unambiguously convinced that you are not a fan! Or at least, not a fan of specific implementations of the idea.

Given that, as noted repeatedly above, the concept of a re-occurring antagonist is is prevalent-unto-nigh-ubiquity in stories of all genres, it seems uncharitable to narrowly associate it with children’s cartoons. Would it be fair for me to assume that your passion is coloring your rhetoric?

In your examples, you seem to equate BBEG with railroading–you specifically seem to consider “plot armor” as a defining characteristic of BBEG. Is this based on personal experience?

Good news: I am not preparing an enterprise that attempts to change your mind on the matter! But I am surprised to see that someone would be saddened and infuriated by that sort of play, so I am trying to learn why you find it so distressing (as opposed to, say, it being a style of play that is simply not entertaining for you.)


I think it works the other way around:
If one is looking for a recipe which works everytime, he could take BBEG and he has something to build upon. It is a relative easy understandable format. It is like the template for Columbo with Peter Falk: Easy to consume, easy to understand, only little deviation from the principle, worked for 69 episodes. What more do you want?

Of course not everybody is a Columbo fan.

If somebody is new to the hobby or is looking for a last minute idea, why not use the BBEG pattern?

OTOH having more player agency is something which is a bit more demanding on the players as well as on the GM.

Of course, if you are into Columbo True detectives might not be what you are looking for.


Interesting topic. In nearly 40 years of playing RPG’s I’ve never run across this. I’ve seen, and used, reoccurring characters, had organizations with powerful leaders, and had a bid bad behind a specific scheme, but I’ve never seen a single nemesis being used as the ultimate foil across an entire campaign ala Skeletor. Of course I’ve seen this as the primary model in video games but do many people employ this to tabletop campaigns?

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Something I learned from the intro adventure in Feng Shui 1ED is that you can have a BBEG, but you only meet its henchmen. So it doesn’t matter what you do with one of it’s arms, the head will always remain. A lot of roleplaying games expands on this and create entities that will affect the worlds in a (for the characters) negative way. Mutant Chronicles got its five apostles that affects the opposition in each adventure, or (an example for better suited for this forum) the fronts in Apocalypse World could be said to be the heads of each type of henchmen.

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It’s a popular enough topic of discussion in Contemporary Traditional (5E D&D, PF) spaces, and seems especially popular among the fans and followers of streaming actual play, which makes sense given the performative nature and strongly GM narrative focus of that medium. Likewise I’d say that several of the WotC module tomes have embraced the idea.


I agree that in many D&D and co type spaces, the BBEG trope is super common and taken for granted. I also think that it’s good to get away from.

That said, I also agree with @gartsalrisa – I think you’re underselling how common this trope is in media, and to go further, I think it’s important to understand why. Before that, I’ll just say that I use BBEG fairly loosely, I mean it can be someone as conniving and all encompassing as Skeletor, But I think you know the evil grand vizier who is scheming to bring the kingdoms to war etc etc counts, even if they’re not quite as powerful. Just to get on the same page.

I think BBEGs were common before video games. Sauron, for example. And TV shows like Buffy and whatnot. I think they exist because they make it easy to motivate epic fantasy plots. Have you ever tried to run a game of courtly intrigue? It’s hard! Really hard! But knowing there’s this one being sort of playing chess behind the scenes simplifies a lot. Plus, it has an implied structure that is quite straightforward and fits well with traditional expectations of epic fantasy, as well as tradition leveling systems (which again existed before video games). With a BBEG, you get the drama of an unbeatable enemy – who eventually, through leveling and scheming and experience, you bring down. This is super satisfying to groups that want an epic fantasy campaign, because the investment in the foe as such is emergent from the gameplay itself. You have someone to focus your frustrations on, then eventually take down.

Compare that to what someone above said – various factions, then see where people go. This is a good approach to and is probably what I’d choose if I were running a DND type game these days. That said, when power and allegeniances and all that are diffuse, it’s going to take more work to get people to be invested in this side vs that said. It’s easy to want to take down the evil lich king. But it takes more work to get them to identify with faction 1 of 15, with the various shared of grey involved. Not hard or anything, it’s just a different kind of game with much less obvious pacing.

TLDR: BBEGs provide a classic, approachable type of drama that lends itself well to traditional epic fantasy arcs. I agree we can and should get away from that, but by understanding it’s strengths we can make sure we are still creating interesting stories that players will readily relate to!


I think why it’s so prevalent in the d20 fantasy spaces is those games have no formalized relationship mechanics. When the GM is thinking about campaign design, they don’t have any mechanical input from the players on what kinds of characters they want to interact with, and based on DnD’s more adversarial GM vs. player nature I think it’s somewhat expected that the first character the GM thinks of is going to be the ultimate adversary, and like you said, many of the published modules embrace this design.Also for games like DnD, where the GM is controlling many more characterless NPCs (in the form of mooks and minions) I think it might also be a draw for the GM to want one or two “big” characters that they operate, and an arch-villain gives that character a lot more agency in the world than a friendly cleric or guildmaster does, as the latter only exist to move the players’ story forward

This is kind of an aside, but I’ve been thinking recently about how there is a deep wealth of research on how language effects how we think. That is to say, the way in which we are able to express ourselves also shapes the ways in which we respond and analyze feedback. I think we can apply this thinking to roleplaying games in that if we read the options a text gives to the players to interact with the world, we can trace how it consciously and subconsciously influences how the players respond to and want to act on the world.

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I’d say expanding the design choices of post 1990’s WotC and later edition D&D (and PF) to cover all of D20 and then arguing that a mechanical solution cribbed from a very different tradition of play is required is both overstating the issue and creates it’s own problems.

If the problem with BBEG narrative in contemporary-trad games is that they stifle player choice and show contempt for player goals (which is my problem with them - not BBEG as aesthetic choice) by writing a narrative and then bending all actions toward it, the source of that narrative means little. It is perhaps marginally less irksome if you had a say in how the adventure path is written and if the final boss is a beholder, dragon goddess or liche, but it’s not saving the game from being a repetitive linear series of combats and maybe skill tests.

With the exception of the Hickmans, classic campaigns and adventures rarely include an explicit BBEG character, and they certainly don’t expect conflict with it to occur in a predictable manner. You might kill B2’s Evil Priest in your first session, but maybe the minotaur or the Bugbear slavers are the real important leaders of the Caves of Chaos? Even classic campaigns that include evil masterminds (Lloth in the G & D series comes to mind) don’t structure encounters with these powers in a novelistic or filmic way. D20 and a lack of session 0 aren’t the issue. Nor are BBEGs an unintended consequence of d20 mechanics.

I’d argue BBEGs are an artifact of: 1. “Adventure Path” design. 2. Increasingly complex mechanics 3. Conscious design choices to emulate videogame narrativism/genre 4. Streamed actual play: its time constraints, need for consistent actual and serialization.

BBEGs are purely a design choice, a useful enough one maybe if your combat mechanics and character building to optimize for them are the major source of fun in your game, the locus of play, and both the complexity of encounter creation and amount of play time devoted to tactical combat require design that more quickly from combat encounter/scene to combat encounter/scene. Otherwise, outside a tactical combat or warfare context (maybe a narrativist genre-emulation one) they are a problem.

As an aside, the first thing I can think of using the BBEG is the Hickmans “Ravenloft”, and its worth noting that it represents an effort to shift genre from fantasy adventure to (camp?) horror, as well as showcasing thier growing interest in genre emulation/narrativism over simulationism/exploration play.


I recently finished this episode (from 2018) about villains, BBEGs and adversaries. I found it quite insightful. Interestingly, I watch currently the 3rd season of Gomorrha - a series about neapolitanian mafiosi. So this came at the right moment. One question the podcast rose is what a setting without a villain looks like. And one possible answer is: like Gomorrha.

What I find fascinating from a mechanical point of view: there are no clear protagonists; at least not in a traditional sense. After watching three seasons - the fourth is on my list - there are persons with more screentime, so from that they must be something like the protagonists. To give you an impression: you start watching and are presented some persons with very deep detail and the relation to others and think: “oh, this is the story of these guys”. The very next moment, they are shot. “Oh. But then it’s about… No. Dead too”.
And the same goes for the antagonists. There is no clear evil adversary: In the end they are all evil - nobody is safe. It’s the mafia. Everybodies influence is limited by the gunshot.

It’s literally AWs “looking through crosshairs” on screen.

And it’s not the way George RR Martin does it. It’s not this long buildup of relationship between audience and character. There is always a kind of distance between audience and characters. One does not identify with the characters but somehow still relate to them. There is no Toni Soprano.

I am sorry if this actually sounds like a review for the series :smile:

But I wanted to share the podcast episode on “how to have no BBEG” and have interesting sessions and a good example of story writing for screenplay which shows that this could really work well.