image My latest game is a short miniseries campaign with a mix of new and old players. I planned it short to prevent GM burnout and to be able to interview new potential players. At the beginning of the game I asked for elements the players wanted to see in the game. Recurring enemies was a big one, but I had only planned this game out for 5 or 6 sessions. The players knew this but were pretty stoked for facing down some recurring villains. Being a big fan of enabling player fun, I decided I had to make use of this in some way, but with only a few sessions it would be hard. So what to do? One idea always strikes me about recurring enemies, and that is that they have weight and emphasis, feeling more on level with the characters than schmuck enemies (even mechanically tough ones) who just die after one combat. Since standard tactics for recurring enemies (keeping them out of the crosshairs, having them evolve, pulling off escapes) would be hard to make work effectively in a short game, I decided to give the enemies I would use some weight with one simple technique:

I gave the enemies reputations and names, increasing their status in the world and making them feel more worthy to the players.

I knew I couldn’t get away with throwing the same guy at the party every time and having him escape, so I made sure that the enemies I did send their way felt like a big deal. I made sure everyone had a name (or title) and that they had a reputation of some sort within the world. I also gave them thematic elements that made them stand out from other elements of the same type.

The Blackhawk Goblin Mercenaries
The game started with an almost immediate fight (protecting a plot hook NPC from some goblins) but instead of just using some regular schmuck goblins, I made them the Blackhawk Mercenaries, a group of for hire, “dirty job”, mean S.O.B.s who were known to the players with military or combat experience (after the players observed the goblin’s single black pauldrons with etched hawks heads and made a few knowledge rolls). They dealt with the 9 goblins they encountered fairly easily, but were left with the sense that there are more of the Blackhawks out there.

The Blackhawks were a thematic element that increased the immersion for that scene, but they also setup a bigger meaning for the encounter. Even though the fight was fairly easy,  the players had a lot of fun and the goblins were differentiated from run of the mill goblins because of their name and the reputation that I worked into the fight. Adding the “uniform” unified the idea of the Goblins and kept them from just being recurring schlock.

The Enemy
Alongside the Blackhawk goblins, I worked in another enemy. This one is only known as “The Enemy” and is some force working against the plotgiver NPC in a race for an artifact. The Enemy isn’t the real name of the person or entity, but it is what the plotgiver NPC calls him and it is what the players currently know him as. The Enemy’s motives are unknown, but his actions can be seen and he has hired the Blackhawk’s as his agents. Documents found on the Blackhawks have given the PC’s clues about The Enemy, but they don’t know too much yet. Keeping The Enemy out of the crosshairs but making his presence known, and revealing his methods and reputation through other means, evolves him before the final confrontation. Giving him an ominous name, seen through the lens of another NPC, and keeping him a little mysterious increases his allure and importance as the BBEG. Without these elements for players to focus on however, the feel and story of the struggle is diminished. Even a recurring enemy without meaning or substance is just a recurring mechanical challenge. The thing that makes the recurring enemy important is the fact that he can stand on the same level as the PCs.

Works For Non-recurring Enemies Too
Yup. Names and Reputations are great when used on non-recurring enemies and elements as well. The Blackhawk goblins could have been a throwaway and never come up again. With the name and title, they still provide the same trophy and sense of accomplishment. Defeating a minotaur is one thing, defeating “Cavorus, the bloody, sacker of Athiera” is entirely different, even if both have the same stats. Boarding an airship to travel across the continent is mundane but getting on the Silent Treader, the airship that broke the blockade around Machera is awesome.

The Great Thing About Names and Reputations, They Aren’t Hard To Implement
Names and Reputations are not hard to implement either. You need to come up with them, which only takes a few sentences of prep work that can be done at the table. You need to make them stick out, which means making them evident to PCs in some way. Finally, you will probably benefit in some instances by making the reputations relevant to other NPCs in the world.

It holds true for almost any element, giving it some importance in the world will give it importance to the players, but enemies with importance in the world have a lot more importance to the players. Taking them down is an achievement and accomplishment, worth much more than the experience or the loot. It is like the trophy on the wall. It is a story the characters can tell at a bar later. It is the players sense of accomplishment boosted.

So what do you think? Do you use enemies with names and reputations, even if you think of it in another way? How do you let the players know that these enemies have the names and reputations?


13 replies
  1. Knight of Roses
    Knight of Roses says:

    Very true. Also such details help to expand your campaign setting.

    In my experience players will often be happy to tie their back-story into such details. “Oh, yeah, the Blackhawk Goblins! My old unit got into a scrap with them outside of Gar, their officer, Getrick One-Eye, swore revenge on us for killing his nephew.

  2. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    In the campaign that I am planning for the spring semester I have a couple things that are similar.

    One is Orcs, they are 10 ft tall with acid blood and swords as big as an elf (no humans here). The reply from my players was “We can’t fight them” which another countered with “There better be one at some point, you can’t put something that big and scary in and not let us fight one”.

    I’m also using a cult as the BBEG’s henchmen. He’s a Demon Prince from another plane and the cult is trying to bring him to the material plane. Pretty soon the cult will have significant impact on the players.

    I’d love to see one of my players give his or her character a big burn scar from the acid blood from a previous victory over an orc. I think the names alone are worth it, when the players start to use that info you have the makings of a great game.

  3. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Knight of Roses – You are definitely right about players being willing to tie in backstories when the enemies have some depth and meaning. One of the member’s of the group began taking the Blackhawk Goblin’s pauldrons and collecting them as trophies.

    @Razjah – Do you differentiate the orcs and cult by giving them specific names? Like “The Graaznar Orcs” or “The Cult of Zimbergas”?

  4. E-l337
    E-l337 says:

    That was something I’ve tried to do in my latest game: Every NPC has a name of some sort. Sure, there’s still the occasional mindless horde of zombies, and carnivorous plants. But in a post-apoc world, usually when they encounter ‘banditos’ (a group of no-nonsense thieves and brigands), the name “Dirk” usually comes up. They aren’t *just* any band of thieves and brigands, they’re working for one of the most fearsome ones known.

    Or there’s the Patriarch. That was a fun enemy that still terrifies my players to this day (despite them having shoved him out of a space station airlock and then sending him skyrocketing planetside).

    Or there’s any number of random NPCs I’ve introduced to them. Even when they’re at the bars or restaurants, people with names come up all over the place. Historians, doctors with drinking problems, or even gas station attendants whose names reference certain online quest-type games like Ruby Quest, I do my hardest to make sure everyone is memorable in some way or another. Names and titles are great additions, because it helps that NPC stand out just that much more from the background.

    Sometimes, the enemies are laughably easy to rout despite the incredible badassery they are supposed to represent. The organization dedicated to destroying all mutant life that exists? Easily decimated by the PCs. And yet, even those guys are still mentioned quite a lot by the players. Why? Because they have an identity.

    Nobody remembers the badass kobold barbarian that was pitted against the party. They come a dime a dozen. But give him a name, and a purpose in life (to defend his village from their tyranny), then you’ve got something worth remembering.

  5. Martin Ralya
    Martin Ralya says:

    This is immediately useful to me in my current campaign, and I’m already seeing how I missed a chance to lay this groundwork earlier on. Still, I won’t miss it going forwards — thanks, John!

  6. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    @John Arcadian
    The orcs have different tribes which use very different tactics, so when they come across them, yes. However, I don’t think any PCs will speak orc and the orcs really don’t know common (a pidgin- the idea from a previous Gnome Stew article).

    The cultists are a part of the Cult of Dalaxemmu. Dalaxemmu is a demon prince and wants to leave his realm and conquer this one. The cultists are helping him get to this plane and will help serve him. Dalaxemmu shouldn’t show up until late in the game, the cultists will be a major obstacle for the PCs.

  7. Squeejee
    Squeejee says:

    Quite awesome – I’ve found that establishing reputations for certain enemies can even persist across campaigns, making for more memorable encounters. For example, with my group, I at one point established that Kobolds are deadly flank attackers who only enter battle when there is an intricate matrix of traps lain across the battlefield and only fight with brutally effective phalanx tactics – now, whenever my players see even a single Kobold of any flavor, they are put on their toes, and feel accomplished for killing the little buggers, turning even a run-of-the-mill threat into a form of deadly foreshadowing. Similarly, my Orcs are known for having deadly melee builds and dangerous bull rush / group AoO tactics.

    At our last session, I built up a human enemy in a similar fashion simply by giving him light armor and a rapier. The group was so paranoid of the sneak attack damage this guy was most likely capable of that their tactics for taking out his boss were built almost completely around neutralizing him – this lead to one of the most satisfying kills I’ve seen in D&D, where our TWF Ranger – via clever RP and brutal exploitation of the surprise round / readied action rules + improved initiative – slew the rogue and his boss while the rest of the party was fleeing from a pair of recurring “Kobold Brothers” that were proving the value of using the right teamwork feats.

  8. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    Blackhawk mercenaries… Love it. I love goblins in general, but yes. As you point out, it’s really easy to jot down some details rather than trying to rework the stats (though I once made a gang of goblin fighter/rogues with spiked chains, i.e. reach weapons, tumble, and sneak attack… they were fun).

    I guess this could get slightly repetitive, though, if not used carefully. If you start making every throwaway band ALSO a legend in their own right it feels a bit less legendary. Sometimes a thief is just a thief.

    “Boarding an airship to travel across the continent is mundane…”
    I love how jaded we get. “Sigh. Ogres.”

    My goblin experiences mean I totally get your joy. Designing your own monster tactics, apart from the “hit the pcs until one of us runs out of hp” is quite rewarding. I assume you’ve heard of Tucker’s Kobolds?

  9. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    I like the idea of inserting the backstory.

    But the surprise takeaway for me is the “group as nemesis”. No matter how many you kill, there will be more. Awesome.

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