When running adventures, especially in published/licensed universes, it can be tempting to add familiar adversaries as we often feel our players would appreciate it. After all, who wouldn’t want to face down Daleks or Sontarans in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, engage in a firefight with stormtroopers while avoiding a Sith Lord in Star Wars: The Edge of the Empire, or face down a beholder in Dungeons & Dragons?
While using familiar elements is a quick way to immerse your players in the setting and make them feel as though they are part of that particular universe, the big problem with using them is that there’s no suspense.
While turning a corner and being confronted by a Dalek makes for a fun and surprising development, chances are your players already know its strengths and weaknesses. They aren’t going to trust a word the Dalek says as they aim for the eye stalk and hope for the best. If they meet a beholder, at least one person at the table will be able to count off the abilities of each eye. If they meet a squad of stormtroopers – well, they’ll stand there confidently and shoot, since the armor provides little protection and everyone but Ben Kenobi knows that stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn (kidding aside the various iterations of Star Wars RPGs tend to favor the Kenobi interpretation).
Original adversaries don’t have that problem. Like the first meeting between the Doctor and the Daleks, the Enterprise crew and the Borg, or Frodo and the Black Rider, the characters don’t know what to expect when you present them with an original adversary. Can they be reasoned with, will conventional weapons hurt them, and are we sufficiently protected are all questions that the characters struggle with when meeting an adversary for the first time. Heck, learning how to deal with unknown adversaries was the norm in Dungeons & Dragons (until players started thumbing through Monster Manuals!).
Still, when you’re running a game with a particular set of tropes original adversaries often don’t have the same punch as well-known ones. One trick I’ve developed over the years is to incorporate the tropes into adventures that feature new adversaries. Here are a few examples:
The characters come across the broken remains of a known adversary. Daleks are terrifying, but what’s even more terrifying is that there’s something out there that laid waste to them. Is this new adversary doing the universe a favor by destroying Daleks or is it something even more evil?
A known adversary comes to the characters for help. The characters are aboard a starship in an unknown region of the galaxy when a Borg cube appears. As the crew prepares for the worst, the ship is hailed. The Comm Officer can scarcely believe it when she realizes that the Borg are asking for assistance. What could frighten the Borg? And how far can the characters trust their new allies?
A new adversary is a reskinned version of a known adversary. The Cybermen were once human, but replaced their bodies with cybernetics to survive the rigors of space as their planet hurtled through it. What if another adversary also had to adapt to difficult conditions, but used bio-chemical adaptations instead? What would such an adversary look like and what humanity did it lose in the process?
The new adversary is a distinct breed of a known adversary. This is a time-honored tradition in D&D, where many monsters are simply alterations of other monsters. The gas spore and neo-otyugh are fun examples from the original Monster Manual, being variants of the beholder and otyugh, respectively.
The new adversary is a bait-and-switch of a known adversary. The characters are flying through the Unknown Regions of the galaxy when they find a colony policed by Clone Troopers. The Clone Trooper Captain wishes to speak with them, removers her helmet to reveal that she is Rodian. Apparently a lot has happened in the last 20 years and the Clone Trooper armor has been passed on.
These are a few of the methods I use to introduce new adversaries while keeping “echoes” of known adversaries. How about you? When using an established setting do you find yourself dipping into the “familiar” well too often? How well do your players respond to new material? Have any of your original adversaries achieved the same status as known adversaries? What methods do you use to keep your campaigns both fresh and familiar?