So your villain likes to keep things close to their chest, hide when the going gets tough, and generally avoid attention? Sounds like they need a secret lair! While some villains like the spotlight, many of them prefer to remain unnoticed until it’s too late. Ignorance of a villain is definitely not bliss. This post will be split into two parts, the first focusing on the pros and cons of secret lairs, and the second part going into an example of a secret lair used in a game.
First, the pros. Secret lairs are cool. What I mean by that is they can spark curiosity in your players and get them talking back and forth at the table about where the villain could possibly be hiding. They can encourage the players to get invested in your setting and interact with your world as they try to find clues and get whatever information they can to track down the source of all their troubles. You should use a secret lair for a villain who isn’t always ready for a direct confrontation. Spellcasters and other villains who have limited use abilities fall into that category, as they need safety and security to recover their spells.
Another pro of a secret lair is that it can become un-secret in a very dramatic reveal. Once the villain has accomplished enough schemes and gained enough power, they can reveal themselves. This is a very cool moment, especially if it happens as the players are en route to the final showdown, and they see a previously hidden lair rise up from beneath the earth as a massive tower. Finally, secret lairs answer the question “Why doesn’t someone go do something about this villain?” In a fantasy world with powerful NPCs who are stronger than the party, there’s always the question of why they don’t just handle these issues. With a secret lair, they might not know where to go!
Now let’s look at the cons of a secret lair. It can be anticlimactic. If the players finally track down the secret lair, break in, and defeat the villain with no further complications, it can be disappointing for them. You want to make sure the lair itself is interesting and fun to explore. This usually means adding extra defenses, giving the players a very tangible reward for finding the lair (treasure, power, information, etc.), or dealing some kind of blow to the villain’s schemes. Sometimes all three of those are appropriate.
Another con of secret lairs is that they can be boring and frustrating if you’re too ambiguous and secretive about where they are. If the players don’t have any leads to investigate and don’t know where to start, they can feel like they’re waiting for you to tell them where to go. Some players don’t mind that, but those that prefer more agency and control over their games might get restless.
You can avoid this by relying on the rule of threes. As a general guideline, the players should need to acquire three things to find the secret lair. This can be its location, a key, and the knowledge that they key works only during a full moon, as an example, but any three things will do. Each of these three things should have three clues about how to acquire it, meaning the players have three opportunities to learn about each one. This will make it harder for them to miss them completely, and also let them confirm the information before acting on it by getting it from multiple sources.
Is the rule of threes an absolute that you must always follow? No, of course not. It’s a starting point. Many of the villains in Tyrants & Hellions break this rule to make them unpredictable and interesting, but it’s where I always start when designing clues the players must find. Tweak it, change it, mess with it, and make it your own.
For our example secret lair, we’ll take a Tyrant villain, who we will name Mister E. Vile, and give him the goal of conquering the capital city so he can become its new ruler. Mr. Vile is a frail human man, and depends on his seemingly limitless army of golems to carry out his schemes. These golems are produced in a series of lairs scattered around the continent, which are linked by teleportation circles. Mr. Vile keeps his own personal lair separate from these, and there are no teleportation circles connecting to his true lair.
The party is faced with a series of difficult tasks. First, they must locate the lairs producing the golems (or try to find the villain’s true lair and take him out first), then they have to find a way inside. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that golem soldiers can’t be interrogated, but they might be vulnerable to tracking via mundane or magical means. Ideally, a secret lair presents the players with an open situation and lots of ways to deal with it. As discussed earlier, however, you have to be careful not to be too mysterious or your players will just feel lost and frustrated.
Each secret lair they find and destroy strikes a blow against the villain, but also draws his attention. This allows for an excellent escalation as the villain realizes the party is actively working against him and steps up his plans and targets them individually. He might send his golems to wipe out their hometown, a place of little strategic value, just because it will upset them. He might go into hiding and stop his attacks for weeks or months, trying to throw them off the scent. As I’ve said many times before, every outcome should further the story.
So that’s secret lairs in a nutshell! Tomorrow we’ll go into obvious lairs, the ones you just can’t miss.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team