Hellions! Let’s discuss the second primary archetype of villain you’ll see in Tyrants & Hellions, the ones that can take on a whole party single-handedly and win. Such villains generally operate alone or in small groups, and lack the resources or inclination to create grand plans and schemes. They’re often a challenge to establish, because you can run into a situation where the villain could easily kill the heroes, and all your players know it, but for some reason, the villain decides to let them live. We’ve seen this trope a thousand times in other stories, and it stretches the credibility of the story. In future weeks we’ll talk about introducing villains and how to deal with exactly that situation, but for now, let’s get into some examples of Hellions!
A personal favorite of mine, though not strictly in the realm of fantasy, is Darth Vader, from Star Wars. Highlighted in a scene in the movie Rogue One, Darth Vader at his best is intimidating and unstoppable. A Hellion should feel this way. They should spark fear in the players at the thought of a confrontation, and if the party immediately plans their retreat when the Hellion arrives, everything is going well. With Darth Vader, the fact that he only walks, you never see him run, gives him an aura of infinite patience and complete confidence. Another excellent Hellion villain is the Chandrian from the Kingkiller Chronicles. They are a group, rather than an individual, but merely speaking their names aloud is enough to attract their attention, and this is what causes the main character’s family to be murdered, kicking off the events of the books. This makes even trying to learn about them a dangerous task.
Like in the last post, let’s take these examples and turn them into lessons for good villains in a tabletop RPG. First, it’s very difficult to have a good encounter with a Hellion out of the blue. The players generally need to know ahead of time of this very powerful foe, because most of the time, when they encounter an enemy in a tabletop RPG, it’s because it’s an encounter for them to fight and win. Unless you’re running the kind of game where the expectation is that the world is dangerous and not all battles can be won, retreat may not cross their minds until it’s too late. You might need a trusted NPC ally to tell them upfront to run if they see the Hellion, because it will kill them if they don’t. Then it’s on them if they choose to fight, and they can’t be upset that they were blindsided by an overly challenging fight. We'll revist this topic in greater detail in an upcoming post.
So you’ve established your unstoppable Hellion. How do the players win? In most cases, a Hellion is defeated by making some kind of preparation, then confronting them in a final showdown. Let’s go through some examples. First, Smaug from The Hobbit is defeated through knowledge of a gap in the crusted gold and treasure that protects his vulnerable belly and a very good shot with a Black Arrow. In your game, this setup should lead to a very tense moment with one member of the party making an attack with the Black Arrow and hoping for a good roll. If they hit, success! The party can enjoy a well earned victory. If they miss, however, they may have to retreat, recover the arrow (which the villain in question might catch and hide in a well guarded vault), or come up with a new plan altogether. Every possible outcome should further the story.
Second, let’s look at a villain defeated with a roleplaying moment, when Luke Skywalker convinces Darth Vader to return to the light side, betraying his former master, Emperor Palpatine, and casting the true villain down (literally). This scene works because of the personal connection between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (spoilers: they’re father and son), and if you have characters in your game with detailed backstories, you can draw on them to influence your villains. You might not want to go with making them direct family relatives, but if one of your players has a personal connection with the villain, a non-combat resolution can be very satisfying. It’s also important to note that in this example, Luke defeats Darth Vader in a duel, then the roleplaying scene happens, providing both a final battle and a good storytelling moment. If you use this kind of setup in your game, come up with a plan for what you’ll do if the players just run past the foe you’re hoping they fight and attack the master. In this case, if Luke ran past Darth Vader and attacked the Emperor, he would’ve likely gotten a blast of lightning to the face and had to deal with two opponents at once. You don’t need to be that harsh on your players, but you should have something planned.
Finally, a third example is winning a fight through superior preparation. In The Return of the King, Aragorn is able to call on the oaths of the Dead Men of Dunharrow, summoning a legion of ghostly soldiers to rout the opposing army. Like in the last example, the army of the dead is drawn from Aragorn’s backstory: he’s the heir to the Kingdom of Gondor, and the ghosts swore an oath to an old king which they must honor. Your players will love this kind of backstory hook. For another example of this kind of victory that doesn’t require a backstory connection, look to the myth of the Medusa. The Greek hero Perseus gains powerful items from the gods, most critically a mirrored shield, which allows him to look at the reflection of Medusa rather than directly at her, nullifying her most dangerous ability.
Hopefully these examples are inspiring, and give you some guidance on how to create some intimidating, badass Hellions for your players to face off against. Tomorrow’s post will cover what I’m tentatively calling Archvillains, the villains that are both Tyrants and Hellions.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team