Some villains hide in the shadows. Others are much less subtle with their presence. Obvious lairs are very, very common in fiction, whether it’s Sauron’s home of Mordor, Power Rangers villain Rita Repulsa having her base on Earth’s moon, or Lex Luthor having a skyscraper with his company’s logo on it. Like the previous post on lairs, we’re going to start with a few of the pros and cons of obvious lairs, and then go into an example of how to use one in your game. But before we do that, there’s a very important question to answer when dealing with an obvious villain lair. Why doesn’t someone just go there and stop them?
A villain with an obvious lair needs strong defenses. Very strong. Sauron has a massive army, powerful lieutenants, and easily defensible terrain. Add in spies everywhere, and a well earned reputation for crushing those that stand against him, and you can see why no one wants to simply walk into Mordor. These defenses don’t need to be physical, however, as Lex Luthor could never stand up to Superman in a fight, his primary defense is Superman’s moral code and his ability to exploit the legal system for his own benefit. In both of these cases, we have an answer to that very important question.
Pros of Obvious Lairs
So why use an obvious lair? The main benefit of using an obvious lair for your villain is that it provides a clear focus to your game. The players and their characters both know what’s going on, and they know where they have to go to stop it, they just have to figure out how. It also helps draw the players into the setting, each time you describe the ominous tower on the horizon or they hear reports of the ever approaching army from the north, they’ll be reminded of what is at stake. Finally, obvious lairs can effectively establish a battle between good and evil in your world, showing the players very tangibly that both sides are working against each other, but neither one has the power to outright destroy the other.
Another big advantage of the obvious lair is it helps set the theme of your game and provides some structure for how the players level up their characters and what sort of allies and items they seek out. If your big villain is a castle-dwelling vampire, the players will know they have to get ready to deal with cramped corridors, bloodsucking, and should probably be extra careful when they venture out after sunset. They’ll also be naturally inclined to seek out radiant weapons, holy water, and other villain-appropriate precautions without you having to be heavy handed in dropping a lot of hints. This means the villain can go at them without holding back, because the players know what they’re getting into.
Cons of Obvious Lairs
There are, of course, downsides of obvious lairs. First, your players might feel insignificant. While this can be turned into a great story (Frodo and Sam being the heroes of The Lord of the Rings, for example), if the party is dealing with a threat of goblin invasion while they’re constantly reminded that the moon is about to crash into the world, they may feel like their actions aren’t meaningful. The second downside is that obvious lairs usually need to be established early on, so that you don’t have a villainous lair suddenly popping up as soon as the heroes have leveled up enough to take it on.
If, on the other hand, you have a low level villain with an obvious lair, it can make your players skeptical, wondering why the powerful factions in the world don’t just deal with it. One explanation is that they have their own high level villains to deal with, and they don’t have time for small scale problems. That’s why new heroes are always cropping up! Another explanation is that they don’t know about it, and have their attention elsewhere in the world. Finally, they might not care about the little villains. They believe they’ve done their duty to the world and can afford to relax and let the younger generation handle things.
One last thing that can happen with an obvious lair is that the players might go charging in before they are ready. This can be good or bad, depending on how it plays out. Ideally, they’ll get their clocks cleaned and have to retreat, learning at least some helpful information in the process. Worst case scenario, one or all of them die without learning anything. If this happens, it’s best if the perimeter guards or first layer of defense deals enough damage to make them realize they shouldn’t press further, but doesn’t wipe them out. That said, if you hit them hard enough in one round to almost knock out the whole party, they should get the message. The important thing here is consistency, don’t make the guards more powerful to turn away the party, let them get an accurate sense of how strong the defenses are. It’s easy to make them stronger without breaking immersion, but it’s much more difficult to justify the defenses getting weaker.
The pros and cons took up most of this post, but I want to give a brief example here to illustrate how to effectively use an obvious lair in your game. Take a massive tower at the heart of a cursed forest, inhabited by a villainous witch (I’ll spare you an awful pun-tastic name for this example). Everyone in the nearby villages knows to stay out of the forest after dark. The party goes in one several occasions, in all of them they manage to leave before it gets dark. Then you start tempting them. A rare ore vein is discovered, and a few enterprising miners need bodyguards while they dig it out. For a cut of the profits, the party agrees to assist. But it takes longer than expected. Soon the sun is setting. The miners want to stay, they want to get rich, what will the players decide?
In this example, the villain hasn’t done anything other than have an obvious lair and already it’s the beginning of a compelling story. The obvious lair is a conversation piece, a source of mystery, and a plot hook all in one.
That wraps up our overview of locations for villainous lairs, the next two posts will be getting into how to fill those lairs with interesting things! First up, we’ll cover minions, and then the next post will get into traps and how best to use them.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team