Fiction is full of examples of heroes stopping the villain at the last minute, narrowly averting disaster. Probably because most people wouldn’t want to sit through an entire movie or read a whole book just for the hero to lose in the end. In tabletop RPGs you can do things a little differently, and we’ll be talking about a few different worst case scenarios stemming from a villainous victory.
So, the villain’s doomsday scheme succeeds and it’s the end of the world. The party blew it and they lost everything. Game over. Or is it? The story isn’t over, but your game is likely to take a pretty significant shift in tone. If the villain conquers the world, your players may have to become leaders of the resistance instead of beloved heroes. If the world is destroyed, perhaps your game relocates to the outer planes and the party must negotiate with the deities of the realm to rebuild their home. In addition to being an ending, this represents an opportunity for a new beginning.
You might use this opportunity to let the players create new characters, but you can just as easily keep the current group. If you’ve been wanting to play a higher level group and most of your games end early on, you could do a time jump and let your players gain a few levels during a montage. You can ask them to make some major decisions about what they do during the montage, such as where they establish their resistance or how they survive the end of the world, but if you do this, you should keep it abstract rather than forcing them to play through each scenario in exhausting detail.
Alternately, you can avoid the time skip entirely and just keep the game going. The players may feel lost if you do this, but some of that can be very compelling, it’s only natural to be lost after their plans fall apart. Give them some clues to act on, but also don’t feel like you have to hold their hand. Let them flounder for a little while, and ask them what they want to do. Get information from them. That will help you build the next act of your story. If they want to build up a resistance and go for the slow and steady victory, awesome. If they want to strike back at the villain immediately, also awesome. Both are cool and interesting directions to take the story.
Finally, even death doesn’t have to be the end. I played in a campaign that ended with a total party kill, then resumed several real life years later with our characters waking up in a tomb dedicated to them, mysteriously brought back to life. You can tweak the rules and have the heroes unwillingly brought returned to life, or bring them back as undead. Revenants are a great option for undead player characters. Perhaps the villain wants to parade them around as zombie puppets, and pride once again comes before a fall.
So, perhaps the story of the world isn’t over, but the story of the current party may be. If your players have been sticking with these characters for a long time, they may be ready for a change, and you might be ready for a break too. This can be a great time to switch Dungeon Masters and let someone else take the reins of the game. You might use this opportunity to change settings (perhaps the villain’s apocalyptic scheme turns the world into something akin to the Dark Sun campaign setting, or maybe the players take to the stars and have a Spelljammer adventure) or even switch to another game system entirely.
If you’re reading this article and nodding your head, thinking about how cool this would be in your game, let’s address the elephant in the room: should you ever force the players to lose? Tabletop roleplaying games aren’t just about the Dungeon Master’s story, they are a collaborative effort. I’m always a strong proponent of being direct with your players, and you should tell them that there is a very real chance the villain might win. Reassure them that it won’t be the end of the game, you’ll keep playing even if the villain wins, and that it’s not a certainty. Heroes may yet triumph! Then you can stack the deck in the villain’s favor and the players won’t feel cheated if they fail. And if they win, they’ll feel really good because they beat the odds! Win-win situation. Of course, if you really want to tell the story of what happens if the villain wins, consider telling them, “Congratulations, you won! The world is safe. Would you like to explore an alternate timeline where the villain won?” Again, I like being direct with my players.
Lastly, as a general piece of advice, if you want to tell a post-apocalyptic story, start your story in the post-apocalypse. If you want to run a game in a world where the villain has won, start there. Your players will be much more on board if you start the campaign there, and if you’re playing 5th Edition, you can use character backgrounds to figure out someone’s role before the villain won. Were they a soldier in the army? A priest, trying to stay neutral? A criminal, trying to survive? Perhaps they even worked for the villain, believing in their cause until recently. Lots of potential here for building a story around a compelling villain!
Most villains in Tyrants & Hellions will include a few simple plot hooks you can use if the villain happens to win, but the villains are designed with the assumption the players will eventually beat them. After all, most people don’t play tabletop roleplaying games so they can get defeated! They play to be heroes.
This concludes our look at schemes, next we’ll get into lairs! Building cool places for your villain to relax and plot. We’ll also take a look at minions, when and how to use them to full effect!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team