Wisdom from the Masters: Maintaining Villainy
This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty on 17th July 2019.
Mikey: Oh thank goodness. Given the topic I thought the Killer DM was going to be here again. She always seems to show up when I come out of the cave.
Ostron: How bad was this fight? Does this mean you put the hat away for good?
Ryu: What? No! We patched things up days ago. This time she’s just sitting out from contempt. How did she put it?
Killer DM: If other DMs don’t know how to keep their best characters alive that’s not my problem. They should just call me in to help.
Ostron: I’ve been halfway tempted.
Mikey: You can’t be serious.
Ostron: No, really. Half the time it seems like when I introduce a villain in a campaign, they end up dead before they’ve finished their name, never mind trying any sort of villain monologue.
Mikey: Well, that comes down to how you approach it then.
As we discussed last time, it can be a challenge to build up an interesting villain your characters will feel a real need to confront and defeat. However, what can be more of a challenge is keeping the villain alive long enough to have that happen.
Most fictional stories feature one or more situations where the villain confronts the heroes and then leaves to continue tormenting them, postponing a final confrontation until later.
The problem is that in those stories, the villain has usually either ensured they can’t be attacked directly or the hero or heroes are powerless to do anything when they reveal themselves. That is actually a situation that’s very hard to reproduce in D&D.
Many times in the stories the heroes don’t do anything because the villain is in a public place or a dangerous position where attacking them will get the hero arrested or killed. But some players won’t see those as obstacles; either they’ll just rationalize it after the fact, claiming their character had a “chaotic good” moment and disregarded the consequences, or they won’t even bother justifying it in-game and just say they’ll roll a new character; who cares if the last one is serving life for murder 1?
Fully incapacitating the characters in a believable way is a whole other issue, since it often means you have to account for a Barbarian’s strength, a Rogue’s dexterousness and stealth, a bard’s ability to charm or seduce basically everyone in earshot, and then whatever crazy options the party’s magic user has to hand despite being deprived of staffs, wands, scrolls, holy symbols from every major religion, components, and their familiar being banished.
The end result is something a DM once wrote as a cautionary rule: If you stat it, they can kill it.
Now that’s not literally true, but generally speaking, putting a creature with a stat block on the table and expecting them to get out alive is a gamble. Movie methods for escape are not guaranteed to work; delaying the heroes with a bunch of minions only works if they don’t have a monk that can outrun your villain, teleporting away depends on no one having a counterspell ready, and we already covered how hard it is to set up a James Bond-style doom trap that will actually be effective. Sure you can fudge rolls that you need to, but if the Wizard tries to counterspell your teleport and you force them to roll and they come up with a 20, what’s your response? The villain is able to cast 15th level spells?
Fortunately there are some practical answers to these issues and as with the last segment, it goes back to monster design. The most obvious solution is to just not have the villain show up at all until them dying is acceptable. This is easier when you have a mastermind-style villain that is only referenced second-hand, but even juggernaut characters can stay in the background for a while, possibly by staying constantly on the move or being hidden for long periods of time. The monster from the movie Alien is a good example of the latter approach; the monster itself could easily overpower the other characters but it remained out of sight a lot, with the characters often only discovering its victims or the damage it had wrought.
But having the villain show up while the characters are unable to do anything is a good way to increase tension, so you may not want to give that up. If you’re concerned that the characters might decide to murder the villain even if they’re standing next to the ruling monarch during a peace accord, a good option is to just make the villain a much higher CR than the characters can deal with. Sure the characters might get in a few hits but the villain is likely to get in at least one turn, possibly more if they’re legendary. Most creatures will be able to use those to retreat or otherwise incapacitate the characters.
Make sure to review your options for that, however. Even high CR creatures can be stymied by lower level heroes due to spells like hold person. Also, when a high CR creature retaliates it’s going to hurt, and you probably don’t want to kill all the characters. Make sure there’s some way to halt the fight, and don’t be afraid to toss the rules of fair play out the window. If you need to teleport, KO the wizard or the cleric. If you’re running, any monks in the area are to be targeted with extreme prejudice. If a legitimate legal authority shows up but the characters don’t stop, educate them on how effective 5 simultaneous attacks are at reducing their HP total. Remember; any melee attack can result in a knockout rather than death if it needs to.
However, before it comes to that, you should give some sort of indication that a confrontation will go badly. A note slipped to a character giving some insight about how powerful they are, or an NPC commenting on how much of a disaster a fight would be, are possible ways to stop the fight before it starts. This is mostly necessary with masterminds; most juggernauts start out way beyond the characters’ level by default, and it should be obvious to most characters that if they try to attack an angry Storm Giant at level 3, their chances are not good.
If all else fails, just make the villain immortal. Liches, Demons, Devils, and certain other supernatural creatures have mechanics where they can be eliminated on the battlefield but plausibly reappear later. Demons and Devils discorporate to the hells or the abyss and can be re-summoned, fey spirits and elementals can end up back in their own plane and return, and the liches have their infamous phylacteries. Even if they aren’t supernatural creatures, resurrection magic can return mundane opponents to life, though in most cases you have to either make sure the villain’s body is salvageable, or come up with some unique explanation for why they can be resurrected without following the rules. That latter scenario may also be an excuse to increase the villain’s power each time.
Related to the immortal angle, *possession* presents a dilemma for the characters because direct attacks don’t really solve the problem. For example, if I tried to attack the Killer DM directly, it would just hurt Ryu.
The possession angle also helps deal with the “damn the consequences” players, because killing the host just means the enemy moves on to their next victim, so recklessly attacking when proper preparations aren’t made literally does more harm than good. This was a major plot point in Season 2 of Stranger Things, and the Netflix series Altered Carbon, though they had technological methods of “possession” rather than magical ones.
A side advantage with the immortal or possessive villains is they basically come with their own campaign, or part of their own campaign. Used to great effect in Curse of Strahd, a series of steps have to be taken before attacking the villain is a realistic option for the characters, so at least part of the adventure can focus on making that happen.
Hopefully with some of the ideas here, you’ll be able to amp up the tension and show your villain off to the players without them immediately dying in a cloud of magic and arrows.
Mikey: Ow! Ow! Why am I being hit?
Ryu: Attacking KayDee? Seriously!? Wait until she hears about this.
Mikey: Yes, I definitely am going to stick around for that. Bye!
Ryu: He just ran into the scrying pool room. Does he think I won’t follow him?
Oston: I think he’s banking on the hope that you’re still not angry enough at him to actually let the Killer DM go near the scrying pool and respond to listeners.
Ryu: Grrrrr. Fine, but he’s pushing it.