I was DMing my cousins a long time ago in a game and I did the very typical plot-hook of an “Adventurer Challenge”. Orcs had been ravaging this town that they came across and so the Mayor tried to call upon all heroes to stop the bandits. There was some cash reward offered to the person who brought back the head of the orc leader. Obviously, I was getting my inspiration from every Gygax-inspired module that I had bought, but hey it was the mid-90s and a much simpler time.
But to make a twist on this, I introduce the PCs to a few extra groups trying to do the same thing. A few groups were pretty run of the mill, you know three to five characters with a mixture of classes and races. But one group was actually a party of one. One snobby character who did not really bother to talk to the PCs or anyone else.
As the PCs got close to the orc lair, they found one of the parties all killed with arrows in their back. They then got to the orc lair at the same time as another party. The two ended up finding the leader at about the same time and had to bargain (in mid-combat) that whoever struck the winning kill got to keep the head. This of course lead to an entertaining battle sequence where the PCs were trying to inflict light damage at first, hoping that the NPCs would soften them up for a few rounds before the party got the death kill.
The two parties were laughing over their battle, and giving well wishes as they returning to town (with the head firmly in control of my cousins), when disaster struck. Arrows began flying all over the place, full of sleep poison. It fell the members of the other party very quickly, and then slowly wore down my PCs enough. As the last one passed out they saw that solitary human, Torjaran, take the head of the orc chieftain.
As the PCs returned to town, this man was celebrated as a hero with parties going on in his honour, for he had stopped the orc threat all by himself, surely he must be a brave soul.
Several adventures later, I had the PCs run into him on an underwater adventure in a sunken ship (full of stale air). As the PCs were ready to kill him, a horde of Sea Trolls began crashing on the outside of the ship. Torjaran pulled out a magical sphere that he said would transport all of them back to the surface, so long as they allowed him to split the treasure in half (one for him, one for them). Seeing little choice, they grabbed what they could and beamed out. (By the way, I made up that magic sphere, I said that there were two matching spheres, and with the right command word it would teleport the two together, but it needed the power of at least two people to work it…really a magical item build for this ethical and character driven dilemma – which brings me to an important aside, never be afraid to stretch the rules or limits of a concept in exchange for a good story, that’s what you’ll remember the most).
Now, sadly the summer (and therefore the game) ended before I could complete the final installment on The Rival Trilogy of adventures. I was going to have him get promoted eventually the the King’s High Court, earning that position by slaying the vicious Green Dragon that had long tormented the countryside. After some investigation, the PCs would find that he had in fact aligned himself with the dragon, and was helping it raid a nearby kingdom instead. The Green Scale shield that Torjaran carried was in fact the scale of a Lizardman, but nobody knew any different. The King would obviously cast Torjaran from his court. Disgraced, he would seek vengeance on the PCs and they would of course defeat him in a very climactic battle.
While of course the PCs are exceptional people in the fantasy world, by no means should they be unique. Obviously there must be some other characters out there who posses a similar talent and thirst for adventure. Obviously not all of them would be as morally virtuous as your characters (hopefully) are. A rival villain only really works if he is several levels higher than the PCs (so that he can defeat them single-handedly at first), and he needs to win. Obviously he can’t win forever, but a few victories over the PCs can go a long way towards establishing motivation.
Remember, characters are used to getting what they want all the time, it’s fun to make them wait for it sometimes. So when you are finally ready to let go of The Rival as a villain, the victory will feel so much better. And after that rival is dead, you can always create another one. Or have him come back from the dead to seek vengeance…but that may be taking it a bit too far.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Torjaran, next time I’ll introduce you to Lorakin, a Different Kind of Intelligent Sword. Trust me, you’ll like this one…
Until next time,