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Protecting your Villain

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As a DM, it is very easy to get attached to your Villain. They are the antagonist for the party, and have been pulling strings for a while to make life miserable for your players... And then combat starts, and they go down within the first few rounds of the battle. This sucks.

It is not uncommon for a party to focus entirely on the key villain and ignore anything else in the encounter.This has been a huge problem for me until I read an article from Sly Flourish on How to Protect Your Elite Villains. I'm not going to go into comments on what can be found in this article, if you want to know then I am confidant you are more than capable of clicking the link and reading it yourself. In fact, go do that now before you go on reading any more. No, really, It's fine. I can wait.

Are you done yet? Good. There are some really good ideas in there, and I wholeheartedly support trying any of them. In this entry, I'd like to expand upon the article, and offer a few more ideas to make your villain a bit harder to kill.

Bond of Shared Pain
One idea I had after reading the Sly Flourish article was to link the villain to someone else. The villain takes half damage from attacks they receive, and the other half is transfered to someone else. There are 3 ways you can go with this:
  • Link to an Ally - If your villain links himself to an ally of his, preferably one with a lot of HP, then this doesn't really stop the party from dealing heavy damage, but it does shift a good sized chunk of damage to a less important foe, and buys your villain a little more time on the battlefield.
  • Link to a PC - This can work especially well in that there is a realistic chance they may kill their own party mate before killing the villain. In this case, it is sporting to not have enemies attacking the linked PC, perhaps drop a few hints that the link may go two ways if you want to see if you can get the party to attack their own allies. There should be some countermeasures to this the party could take. For example, all of the linked damage taken is of a specific type, and someone can help the linked member resist that damage type. Perhaps offer a way for the PCs to break this link (At the price of a magical backlash from the broken link attacking the linked PC).
  • Link to an innocent - Linking the villain to an innocent can be very interesting. Lets say your heroes are dispatched to rescue a princess from some evil jerk. When they finally confront the villain, give them no clues about the link until they strike the villain. At this point, have the kidnapped Princess (Who should be close enough for them to see) scream out in pain, and grasp her bleeding wound in the same place where the villain was struck. It may become very clear very quickly that killing the villain may kill the princess.

In all cases, a couple checks could reveal the nature of the spell. Healing doesn't transfer the same way damage does, so the party could heal the victim of the link without healing the enemy, this should be rather easy to discover. Healing would be the fastest way to buy more time as they try and kill the villain without killing the link. Skill checks are a good way to overcome it as well. You could determine a DC for a Heal check, for example, to reduce the damage the linked victim will take. you could also do the same with Arcana or Religion checks to weaken and eventually break the spell. I like the idea of allowing PCs to use a minor action for such checks, but think it best if you limit them to one per turn. If the party seems at a loss for what to do when they discover that someone else is hurting, ask for knowledge checks, and throw them a couple clues.

I personally love the idea of making an innocent take damage whenever the villain is struck because the party is faced with a choice: Beat the villain the easy way, but kill an innocent... Or do it the hard way to save the life of an NPC.

The Bodyguard
There is a pretty good template in the 4e Dungeon Masters Guide, and it can be applied when you really need some extra protection for your villain. It's not that hard to take the same idea and apply it to pretty much any other game, too.

If you really want to have some fun, replace the marking ability with a power that triggers whenever the villain is attacked. Now if the party attacks the villain, they are met with several more attacks coming back at them in response, encouraging them to take out the bodyguards first. If you really want to be nasty, make the bodyguards a set of archers who sit on a higher level, and can only be hit by ranged attacks. They make their own attacks on their initiative, and unleash another volley whenever their boss is attacked. The general idea is to have more attacks coming at the PCs if they attack the main villain before taking out his bodyguards first.

Defensive Abilities
It's not hard to come up with some fitting defense-like powers. In reaction to a spell being cast at him which would otherwise hit him, your villain wizard throws up his hand and gains a +4 bonus to AC and Reflex until the end of his next turn from a magical shield he can create. In the players handbook, this is an encounter power for Wizards, but PCs also get many more powers than your standard villain has to pick. So you're safe to make it a recharge power. Roll a d6 at the start of every one of the villain's turns. If you get, say, a 5 or higher (or a 4 if you're really nasty), his shield recharges. You can adapt any defensive powers your players might be making excellent use of into something that can be a nightmare for them to try and take down. For example, Wizard's Escape (Found in Arcane Power for 4e) is a level 6 utility spell for wizards, which can be cast once per encounter. As an interrupt to a melee attack that would otherwise hit them, they teleport away 5 squares, and are therefore not struck by the attack. You can set things up where your evil wizard can use this to keep ducking behind his allies, and finding a safer place in the battle. His escape power starts to loose effect as he runs out of enemies to duck behind, and by the end, it is fairly easy to get to him again.

If your villain can't cast spells, you can adapt powers like this in a similar way. Maybe your dark knight gains the AC bonus from a parry maneuver, or the assassin can shift his way through the battlefield without provoking opportunity attacks in order to evade an attack. Once you have the basic mechanic down for "This is a way to protect my villain", it becomes a matter of flavor to justify how they get that mechanical bonus.

Mounted Defense
It never hurts to give your villain a good mount. Especially if you give him the ability to force PCs to attack the mount rather than him. This means players have to take out the villain's mount before they can even touch him. This could take pretty much any form you like, it could be an Orc riding into battle on a Dire Boar, and he rears up the Boar to make it absorb the attacks (And better yet, let the Boar attack adjacent enemies on it's way back down when it does this),

The 3 Stage Fight
As a frequent player of video games, I understand that a any big boss fight worth its salt should be broken into 3 very distinct and different parts. A mad inventor appearing in a three stage mech battle fits this bill. The mad inventor mech fight is something I was toying with the other day, but I'm having trouble applying the same mechanics to differ rent situations. Have him first appear in this giant mech, which is one of his inventions. When that has been reduced to 0 HP, a smaller mech crawls out, with fresh hit points. Give it different attacks, different stats, and make it faster, so it is like an entirely different enemy. Once that has been destroyed, the villain hits the eject button before his mech explodes (Remember to make this an attack), and the PCs finally get to throw down against the villain. You can call in reinforcements every time the battle leads to another stage, too.

So, there you go. A couple more ways to keep your big bad villain in the fight long enough to make him noteworthy.

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Updated 04-07-2010 at 02:28 AM by Teksura

Evil Plots


  1. Actana's Avatar
    I personally like my villains to be untouchable. You just can't attack them, or at least you don't get the chance to. They might not be very tough in battle, but hell if you'll get past all those schemes and contingency plans. The BBEG might have a dupe, somehow who seems to be behind it, and when he's dead the players will rejoice, only to notice that he wasn't the last threat.

    Having the villain some high ranking member of society works wonders too. Sure, he's weak, but if you attack him the whole kingdom will be after you. After all, who would doubt the advisor of the king? They're evil only in stories. When his evilness is compromised, he retreats. When they players get to him, his fortress is huge, but he himself is weak. Hell, he might even commit suicide before the players get to him.

    Or, as they say, the best defense is a good offense. That doesn't work well in D&D without serious rethinking.
  2. Aerthos's Avatar
    I'm similar to Actana in this regard. Most of my BBEGs (which I actually don't even use that often in my campaigns because my arcs typically are rather large) are intelligent enough to have a pretty good grasp of what the players are capable of and plan accordingly, as well as a couple contingency plans.

    In most cases, I would also say to either stagger the appearance of your villain (separate encounters close together or a # of rounds after fighting some tough troops) or create some kind of circumstance that severely hampers the PCs' odds (though not impossible). As a general rule I would say that if your players are encountering your BBEG with a full selection of spells, HP, etc. then either they found a creative way of circumventing obstacles (in which cases kudos for having players that smart!) or you're not thinking enough like an evil mastermind.
  3. Teksura's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Aerthos
    As a general rule I would say that if your players are encountering your BBEG with a full selection of spells, HP, etc. then either they found a creative way of circumventing obstacles (in which cases kudos for having players that smart!) or you're not thinking enough like an evil mastermind.
    In 4e, it is actually pretty easy for a party to save their best daily powers for the final bad guy. In a level 9 group, everyone has 3 such attack powers, and every member of the party is bound to reserve one of the three for such an occasion if they think they will face the big bad evil guy that day. Even if you throw difficult and draining encounters at hem, and rig things to try and make them spend all of their daily powers, you won't be able to make the entire party use everything. Lets assume that you're really good at making tough encounters, and your party gets in the habit of 1 member using 1 daily attack power each encounter. With 4 party members, that is 12 difficult encounters they would have to burn through before you've exhausted their resources. I would expect a party to take an extended rest long before that point just to recharge their healing surges.

    Naturally, the solution in this case is to have them find something which will allow them to recover spent healing surges along the way. The payers see it as a great bonus for them, and get something sweet in the deal so they can keep going longer... And burn more of their daily attack powers.

    Long story short: 4e players are notoriously good at saving at least 1 big gun for later. It takes one hell of a long haul in order to burn out the guys who like to hang onto their best stuff for the last fight.

    That said, I mostly write on 4e because that is what I DM, and what I play with my friends (Regrettably, the 3.5 game I play recently fell through). I had hoped that, to some degree, this one could apply to other games as well, but I haven't had the experience with them to really say for sure if it would even apply. I probably shouldn't have tried to claim this might apply to anything but my area of expertise.
    Updated 05-02-2010 at 06:58 PM by Teksura
  4. Lowthor's Avatar
    Another way might be to try to wear their surges down in such a way that they need to burn their dailies in order to survive.

    I have just had an idea for a BBEG actually. A non-physical entity that acts like a template and jumps to another host when its current one dies. That way killing it simply puts it in the body of another henchman.

    I should look to make it really.
  5. WhiskeyFur's Avatar
    I'm of the idea that villains shouldn't be given unique powers to defend with at all. If you make it available to them, then it's only fair to present it to the players as an option as well, maybe as a potential reward for beating him... Otherwise it could lead to the idea that you just want to protect your pet NPC. That's a breeding ground for bad blood.

    I know as a player, that if I was to go against someone who had a non-standard power that was created on the spot to protect him, I would almost certainly be asking the DM how he learned it, and if I can pick it up too. If he says no way, then while I might not say it, I am going to be a touch disappointed in the DM and start to wonder if he didn't deliberately stack the deck. I've been burned one too many times that way. If it is available, then that's fine! I might not pick it up but at least I know it's available.

    Basically, if you do take the approach of a new power or what nots... do it VERY sparingly, and make sure that power is available (and soon) to the players... or else, plan to rebuild some of that trust that this stunt will cost you. Is the health of that NPC worth annoying your players with a fairly powerful talent that they can't have?
  6. Teksura's Avatar
    The idea you're of just vetoed at least 90% of the monster manual. Enemies having unique powers is more common than enemies using the same powers the PCs have. Heck, the entire recharge mechanic is specifically given only to NPCs. Now, if a PC wanted to make a big deal about learning a terrible, forbidden ritual and making use of it, I'm not going to be one to stop them from taking a sharp turn down Evil Street.
  7. thisisaspace's Avatar
    First of all of the idea of a meatshield decoy to make the players think is their target and therefore burn their resources, you could go one step further and have your real villain hiding in the shadows, casting weak to moderate spells as your meatshield attack, and make it seem like the meatshield's attacks create those effects.

    There are a lot of stuff even in 3.5 that the players don't usually have access to and that monsters do, and that's a system where you get normal NPC's such as shopkeepers possible to be as powerful as you are. Pounce isn't available in core (and even noncore you still have to jump through hoops to get it), and neither is not having a Constitution score and therefore immune to Fort saves.
    What WhiskeyFur is more troubled with, if I may assume, I would have to guess is that the DM seems to make up stuff on the spot because his supervillain has a fatal flaw and got its ass kicked in 2 seconds flat. Perhaps what would be fair though, is allow the players the opportunity to research the villain's ability, especially if the villains have spies of their own.
  8. sexyfunkymonkie's Avatar
    I don't understand what is wrong with the DM making something up on the spot to make a combat situation more interesting...shouldn't the goal of the DM be to make the game interesting? You would actually be angry that a DM tried to challenge you rather than letting you walk through and unenthusiastically slaughter the villain and his underlings? I guess I don't see where you are coming from on this one...
  9. thisisaspace's Avatar
    I think it would be hard to draw the line. If your players was able to handle your supervillain with their bread and butter regular tactics, then by all means shake things up a bit by giving your villain an ace in his sleeve, but are you really going to foil your player's "bright idea" of grappling your villain by suddenly saying he had a ring of freedom of movement just because you weren't expecting your players would go that route?
  10. sexyfunkymonkie's Avatar
    Oh, I see where you are coming from now, my apologies. I definitely don't think it is a good idea to do something simply to limit your players. I was simply thinking along the lines of revealing an unexpected power to disrupt the usual meat-grinder effect that can sometimes appear. I feel that the DM should work to provide players with more options, or make them think more strategically, never punish them for coming up with creative ideas. I think we agree and I simply didn't realize it.