"So, where have you been?" asked Samantha.
"Well, you know, Mikko had to go get the word on the street and stuff," Michael replied. "I headed down to the Maule to go see Janos."
"You mean that guy who tried to pick your pocket back when we were first level? Umm, Michael, isn't he just a little below us now? What can some two-bit cutpurse do for us these days? Come on -- you're tenth level, for cryin' out loud. Aren't there are some higher-ups in the underworld you can get information from?"
"Hey, Janos was just a guy down on his luck," Michael shot back. "He reminds Mikko of where he came from, and I wanna try to do good by the kid. Besides, he never forgot that I didn't rat him out to the guard. That kinda bond can't be bought in a store! Besides, smarty-pants, the fact that he is a nobody means that I can trust him to give me the straight scoop. He's not gonna try to sell me down the river or tell me what he thinks I wanna hear. He keeps his ear to the ground and gives me the down-low when I'm in town, which is might handy in a city full of backstabbers!"
"All right, fine," Samantha relented. "I guess he's harmless, and could even be useful once in a while. At least he's not as annoying as that obnoxious merchant who screwed us out of our reward money after we rescued his caravan and then got us in trouble with the wizard guild on top of it! He's gettin' his comeuppance one of these days, so swears Arphaxad the Mighty!"
WORDS TO THE WISE
Different types of recurring characters
Background NPCs vs. in-play NPCs. Emphasize relationships made during play over those invented for background, but if possible work to meld the two. Perhaps a childhood sweetheart becomes an adult love interest during play.
Mentors and informants. Recurring NPCs may help the PCs periodically (or whenever they are in a certain locale). Conversely, they may ask for help, or the PCs may volunteer it because of their friendship. These types of characters offer good ways to drop adventure hooks, personalized to connect with the party.
Recurring villains, Type 1. PCs might know these baddies before realizing they're villains, or maybe can't legally touch them even while knowing they're corrupt. They play politics and they play dirty.
Recurring villains, Type 2. If political power or manipulation won't help, recurring villains must have abilities that let them escape to fight another day.
Your reputation precedes you. If you plant the seeds, characters can "recur" before the party ever meets them. Drop hints and rumors throughout the campaign -- when the PCs and character finally meet, your players will have a point of reference and will feel as if they've known their new acquaintance for years.
In any story, some characters just stick with you more than others. Every time Samantha sees the twin-star ensign of House Keldren or the smug master merchant himself, the steam starts to rise under her collar. Whenever the party is in the city of Gath, Michael is on the lookout for Mikko's buddy Janos to get the "word on the street." Why? Because in the campaign, these characters have kept coming up, for good or for ill. Whether they are helpful NPCs or recurring villains who just keep turning up like a bad penny, repeated contact with particular individuals gives you a chance to develop a fondness for them -- or for them to really get on your last nerve! Either way, recurring characters offer potential for enhancing the game -- provided the DM uses them effectively.
Relatives, family friends, and even love interests are one type of recurring character, though they may be background figures rather than people the characters get to know during their careers. If Janos was just some thief Mikko used to know or if the halflings of Arphaxad's village had been cheated by the unscrupulous Marsham Keldren, it's not the same as a relationship that develops during play. Of course a character could be both someone from their past and someone they've encountered during play, which is a good example of a DM acknowledging the work put into creating a character background and giving it tangible life in the campaign.
Another way to work recurring characters into the campaign is to personalize the "functional NPCs" of the campaign: the people in town who perform services for hire or are sources of information. In some ways D&D has moved away from dependence on specific NPCs. In AD&D, PCs would need training for level advancement, new proficiencies, new spells, creating magic items, and so on; such training required a trainer who knew what you wanted to know. Finding the right teacher could provide an adventure in itself; the search could prove quite a chore but could also lead to making interesting and personal connections with individuals or organizations who held the desired knowledge. In D&D now, everything is abstractly assumed to be available (sometimes depending on city size and wealth limit). This assumption is a whole lot more convenient for players and their characters, but it sacrifices something in texture and detail.
It need not. You can still develop the personality and role of NPCs who are likely to be mentors and potential allies for your PCs. Jarkko, the clerk Rashean hired to establish his music school, may prove so useful in his knowledge and contacts around the city that he becomes an ally who grounds them and helps manage their affairs there. Yelena, the ranger from Melantha's hometown, may still take an interest in her doings and look her up every so often to share some fresh pheasant and to see how her old protegé is doing.
Recurring characters are ideal for weaving into plot points in a way that personalizes them to the players. Sometimes they can pass along tips to the characters (adventure hooks, rumors or stories they have heard relevant to what the PCs are doing, warnings that someone is looking for them). Yelena could send a letter to Melantha describing some local crisis and asking the now-prominent PCs to visit and try to help. It could be a set-up by someone using Yelena's bona fide relationship with Melantha to lure her and the others into a trap, but don't overuse that trick. Do it too often and the players will stop trusting anyone, figuring it all leads to betrayal sooner or later. In general, friendly recurring characters will remain that way; it should be unusual when an ally betrays them (even unwittingly).
Of course, the favorite of all recurring characters is the recurring villain. Employing one is much harder to do in D&D than in books or movies, because most confrontations in D&D lead to combat, and most combat in D&D leads to the bad guys ending up dead. It's hard (though not impossible) to have a recurring villain if the PCs kill him or her or it! Often villains are able to escape the PCs because the PCs never find out they are directly involved, but if the DM alone knows that certain villains keep cropping up, the effect is wasted. Of course, the villain could capture the PCs and then, comic-book-style, regale them with the entire backstory of his rivalry with them, revealing how he's been behind everything the whole time. And then it's on to the Impossibly Slow Moving and Easily Escapable Death Trap . . . and D&D turns into Austin Powers.
So, how do you use recurring villains in a way that works? One way is to introduce the PCs to the character, letting them get to know him, without revealing his villainy until later. Another is to use a villain with political power, able to manipulate the formal justice system to go free even if the PCs catch her or implicate her for some crime (of course, they would not get personally involved). Such villains are immensely frustrating because the party knows the villain is dirty but can't make anything stick. In addition, they can orchestrate legal and economic difficulties for characters using their connections, allies, and minions. Only with long effort and a lucky break can the party bust up their operations or take them down permanently.
This kind of villain, of course, works best in a campaign with a lot of urban activity. Out in the wilderness or the dungeon, the scheming merchant or political mandarin gets a sword stuck through his head, so what kind of recurring villains can you use out in the wilds? The villain must have escape abilities to get away when the going gets tough. Vampires are notorious for this, but anything that can fly, teleport, turn gaseous or ethereal, or do something similar can work. Once Mikko, Arphaxad, Rashean, and Melantha have wiped the floor with Truax the Sorcerer's goons, he's not going to hang around. He'll shout out a curse and dimension door away to his waiting hippogriff on the far side of the dungeon, then plot his revenge.
One of the best is simply one or more rival NPCs or NPC parties. They may or may not actually be evil villains in the true sense, but they might very much be rivals to the PCs, competing for adventuring "jobs" or perhaps trying to claim-jump them on a dungeon they've been working on, like the rivalry between Indiana Jones and his associates vs. Belloq and the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Rashean hears that his musical rival, Nurith Xenical, and her adventuring cronies, the Scarlet Juggernaut, have a week's head start on him getting to the Lost Tomb of Martek, the players feel the frustration of getting beat to the punch. You can almost hear David saying, "The Scarlet Juggernaut? Grrr, I hate those guys! They're always acing us out of some chance for fame and fortune."
One thing to remember, whatever kind of recurring character you're thinking about, is that a character doesn't have to be "on-screen" to be present in the campaign. A lot of what you as a DM need to do to make recurring characters fun and engaging is to drop hints, rumors, and bits of news about what's going on in the world besides what the party is doing. Then, when they meet in person, there is recognition: "Aha! These are the guys we keep hearing about!" And they may turn up again and again, sometimes a friend like Janos right where they are expected, sometimes creeps like Marsham Keldren's hired hit squad right when you least expect them, but creating that sense of familiarity and relationship makes recurring characters memorable.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.