Several years ago I wrote an article called Long-Distance Villainy, which talked about a GMing technique I used for villains from time to time. I would like to discuss it here again because I am thinking of doing it again soon and I believe it is a great way to bring fresh perspective to your campaign villains.
Basically, long-distance villainy means you outsource the management of your villain in a campaign to a player who is not actually part of the play group (often someone you gamed with in the past but who has moved and can no longer participate in your local campaigns). I started using this technique back before the internet, and it required a little more effort to conduct through the phone (and in some cases by mail). Now with email, forums and instance messages, doing a long-distance villain is much easier.
First you need to have an actual villain, or allow the person playing the villain (will just call that individual PPV for short) to create one. Much of this depends on how villainy emerges in your games. Some people deliberately create villains they know the party will face, others have a more 'survival of the fittest' approach. Whatever the case, you ask someone to be the PPV and you either give that person the character details about the villain or you give the person some basic instructions and they make the villain for you. After that you give the person resources, tell them how they fit into the campaign and confer with them after every session to see what their next move is.
This works best when you have a villain operating in the background who is at odds with the party for some reason. However it can work with any type of villain or approach provided the PPV understands his role may be undercut in cases where the villain's place in the campaign is less assured. So here is an example of what might occur.
You have a party who discovers the lost city of Sarr and takes an object called the Sarrian book from its underground catacombs. The Sarrian Book is an ancient scroll containing forgotten and powerful magic. Unbeknownst to them an evil mastermind, named Ariston has also been questing for this very book and wants to use it to subjugate the city of Donyra and control rival spell-casters in the area.
Between sessions you contact your old gaming buddy Phil, who lives in another state, and ask him to play Ariston remotely. He wouldn't participate in any of the sessions, except perhaps one where the party actually confronts Ariston. In that case you talk about the possibility of using an online video chat platform to have him make an appearance in the game when it is required. Otherwise all he has to do is manage the resources (mainly money and henchmen) you assign to Ariston, as well as make decisions and plan his actions.
It is this latter part that makes this technique work as a breath of fresh air for the GM. It introduces an opponent who is trying to win and devising cunning schemes to outwit the party. Because this seriously raises the stakes, I suggest you inform the players that they will likely be facing a difficult opponent who is trying to kill them and not pulling any punches, at some point during the campaign (it is also probably a good idea to mention that this character will be played by another player remotely).
Once you have established that Phil is all set to play Ariston, you continue the campaign. After each session you confer with Phil, and you keep track of where his minions are, what he is planning, you tell him what information he has gained through various sources (how accurate his knowledge is may depend on a variety of factors). He then says what he intends to do, how he will use various minions and what measures he will take against the party.
So for his first action, he takes his most trusted henchmen and sends them to the PC's birth cities to find out information about them. During this time, the PC's make their way to Tungat Oasis and agree to help the Qeshar, the tribe who control the city, to find a sacred relic believed to be in a ruin deep in Emerald Valley. After the session you speak with Phil and decide he learns about the PC's going to Tungat Oasis because they passed through Donyra on their way. You also tell Phil what his henchmen learned at the PC's birth cities, including that the player character Beor has a nephew in Donyra. Phil decides to use a spell called Tearing the Veil to learn where the PCs are ultimately heading. In it he has visions of the road to Emerald Valley. Phil then tells you he wants his henchmen Bal-Shillek to come to Donyra and kidnap Beor's Nephew. He also sends Aedra to Tungat Oasis to bribe the Qeshar and turn them against the PCs (asking that they take them prisoner for him). Finally he sends Hasur to follow the PCs when they arrive in Emerald Valley. He has 20 soldiers, but decides to keep those nearby for his own protection until he knows more about the PCs plans.
This can go on for many sessions, and it may be some time before things come to a head (with either the party confronting Ariston or Ariston striking at the party). I suggest keeping a tracking sheet of the villain's finances, henchmen, information sources, holdings, etc. You also will want there to be space on the tracking sheet to note Phil's orders each week. To the right is a quick example I threw together of what this might look like. But you can use any method that works for you. Personally I like to have several pages like this and use a new one each session, giving me a clear record of past and present information.
What I like about long-distance villainy is it provides the players with a challenge that thinks differently than I do, and that shakes things up considerably. It also adds an element of the unknown for the GM, where he has less control over a crucial setting element, but it is still outside the control of the PCs themselves, which maintains a sense of the setting being a real and external thing.
I do not recommend this be used every campaign. I only resort to it once in a while, usually when I just need a change of pace or want to raise the stakes in a game. Internet really makes this easy to do. You can even bring the PPV into play using Skype, google + or any other format that supports video conferencing.