Welcome back; let’s talk skirmishes. Last time we covered some techniques for making fights interesting, and I want to follow that up with specific advice about incorporating a villain into a skirmish, but first, a few more tricks I use in my own games to spice up fights: alternate victory conditions and time limits.
Alternate victory conditions means giving the players a goal besides killing all the monsters. Perhaps they need to get to the heart of the goblin nest and kill the goblin chieftain, and until they do so, they’ll face limitless hordes of slavering green monsters. As soon as the chieftain falls, the entire horde disperses. You might also have them trying to reach an important NPC before an assassin does, or have them racing against the villain’s minions to acquire a powerful magic item. In all of these examples, combat is involved, but the primary goal isn’t to defeat all enemies.
The second trick, time limits, means putting pressure on the players to act. And I mean an in-game limit that restricts the actions their characters can take, not starting a timer at your table and forcing them to roll their dice as quickly as possible. The goal of a time limit is to force your players to make hard choices, because those are the moments they will remember.
Of course, the classic time limit example is the collapsing dungeon, which gives the players a choice between getting out alive or grabbing all the treasure they can. For a more unconventional scenario you can have the players trying to get a ticking time bomb either to its destination (they still need to get out before it detonates) or away from its destination (though they should have the option to disarm it, you don’t want to railroad them into a time limit situation). Finally, many villain’s schemes involve time limits, and while these are often on the scale of days, weeks, or even months, it helps drive the campaign forward if the players know they are on the clock to stop the villain.
Okay, that’s enough techniques. Let’s talk about how to incorporate your villain into an encounter. Since we’re focusing on skirmishes, this isn’t meant to be a final showdown with the villain. That said, it’s very possible your villain will die in a skirmish. If it happens, it happens. If you can’t handle that possibility, don’t include the villain in the encounter. At lower levels, this can mean victory for the players. At higher levels (or against villains with means of immortality like liches or revenants) the villain should have a contingency plan in place. Death is usually not sufficient to stop a truly powerful villain. In either case, think about what happens if the players kill the villain in the skirmish.
Now that you’ve accepted that possibility, we can go into detail about how to incorporate your villain. If your villain is a hellion, they’re likely to take to the field personally. They may still have minions or allies that they work alongside, but the real threat is the villain. The arrival of a hellion on the field should represent a dramatic and severe escalation, and the players should think twice before entering any area where the hellion is active. Given the power of a hellion villain, unless your party is strong enough to take them on head to head, they likely will need to work around the villain.
For a tyrant, they have little reason to take to the front lines, but they might want to oversee something personally. Tyrants are generally more conflict averse, and likely have defensive measures in place and escape routes planned whenever they leave their lair. The tyrant should be in a position to issue commands, provide support, but avoid direct attacks as much as possible. If your players are able to attack the tyrant, the tyrant should already be on their way off the battlefield and toward their lair. We’ll have another post coming up that will detail how to handle villains escaping from fights, and we’ll definitely talk about how to keep it from feeling unfair or forced.
Remember that the villain needs a goal in these situations, a reason for venturing out from their lair, and that reason should take priority over eradicating the players. If, on the other hand, the party is strong enough to threaten the villain, then provoking them is a potentially lethal mistake. The villain should recognize them as a threat and direct the appropriate resources on the battlefield (or beyond, calling reinforcements from their lair) to make sure this threat is dealt with.
In other words, the villain has three general strategies: ignore the party and focus on its goals, attack the party and try to kill them, or retreat from the party and flee the battlefield. A villain might switch between these three depending on how the battle is going, but these are your three main options for integrating a villain into a skirmish with your players.
The next post will go into detail on option three, retreating and escaping from the battle, so we’ll wrap up this one with some final thoughts on ignoring the party and trying to kill them. Ignoring the party is a good way to show off the villain’s power, but it hinges on the villain doing something else. If a dragon is trying to break through the castle roof and it ignores all the archers firing at it, even shrugging off a few ballista hits, that’s a great way to establish just how tough it is. This transitions very well into the villain trying to kill the party, because they should already know how dangerous it is, and so if they do upset that dragon, they should already know it’s time to run.
Integrating a villain into a skirmish isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be a monumental task either. Hopefully the tips here give you some insight and guidance into how to better work your villain into the front lines of your campaign and get them in front of the players in interesting and fun ways.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team