We’ve covered introducing villains, defining their personalities, designing their schemes, and building their lairs. Now it’s time to talk about what happens when it comes to blows. How to take an encounter with your villain and make it memorable and fun, while also making sure it advances the story no matter what happens. In Tyrants & Hellions, conflicts with villain are broadly split into two categories: skirmishes and showdowns. The first two posts in this series will focus on skirmishes, and the next two will cover showdowns. Then we’ll finish up with a post about how to handle villains escaping from a battle that goes poorly for them.
Skirmishes. The goal here is not to get caught up in terminology and create a whole mess of new rules for what qualifies as a skirmish. Instead, the goal is to create some simple guidelines that will help and inspire you to create better conflicts with the villains in your game. To that end, I’ll tell you what I mean when I say skirmish, and then we’ll dive into a bunch of practical examples and some techniques you can apply in your own game.
A skirmish may or may not involve the villain in question, and the stakes are generally confined to whatever scheme the villain is currently running. If the players are victorious, they stop the scheme. If the villain is victorious, the scheme succeeds. Larger schemes may have multiple skirmishes involved, and there may be opportunities to come back from a loss for either side. Simple, right? Let’s get into some examples.
Perhaps the most straightforward skirmish involves a villain’s minions (whether that’s a powerful lieutenant or an armed force) advancing on something, with the party trying to stop them. This can play out as defending a city, protecting a powerful item, or guarding an important NPC. The villain may even be directly targeting the players, forcing them to defend themselves. These are basic frameworks of the skirmish, and there are two general techniques to make it interesting.
First, the battle itself. There are a few simple things I’ve learned over the years that help make encounters challenging, fun, and interesting. If you want your battles to be tactically interesting, I recommend using miniatures and a grid. Theater of the mind lends itself far more toward narrative gameplay and combat that is simple and quick. You can try to apply these tricks to theater of the mind combat, but you may not get the same results.
Movement is essential to a fun and interesting battle. Lots of characters have unique options for maneuvering around a battlefield, and if they aren’t using them, the fight turns into “stand still and hit the other guy until one of you is dead” which isn’t fun for anyone. It also makes it harder to use ranged weaponry in interesting ways, and more challenging for spellcasters to shape the battlefield.
Disabling spells, used sparingly, can really make your players hate an enemy. An enemy wizard throwing out hold person and web spells will strongly motivate them to take down that foe, and if you have a spellcaster in your party with counterspell or dispel magic they’ll feel like the star of the show. Don’t let your players be the only ones to bring magic to a fight.
Keep the fight short and dangerous. Monsters with moderate hit point totals but very strong attacks make for interesting fights. Instead of using a bunch of weak monsters, consider replacing them with a couple of custom swarm monsters. Each one will only take a single turn in combat, but it still has the thematic feeling of fighting a horde of monsters. The risk with weak and slow fights is that your players won’t feel threatened, and so they won’t use their strongest abilities. Those abilities are fun! You want your sorcerer to throw a fireball at a swarm of goblins and wipe them out, you want the paladin to smite an undead into dust, and they won’t do these things if they feel like they have to save their abilities for “the real battle” that you may or may not have planned.
The second general technique to making fights more interesting is with mid-combat surprises. Around halfway through the fight, change it dramatically. This can be the arrival of more enemies, reviving already defeated foes, or something that changes up the terrain of the fight (like a thunderstorm moving in). Mid-combat changes like this encourage the players to think on their feet and react to changing circumstances. The thunderstorm, for example, might cause the player with a druid to stop using wild shape and start casting call lightning. It might provide cover for the rogue to flank the enemy and get the drop on their commander.
Another example is “boss” type creatures with multiple phases. Essentially they are creatures that, when reduced to 0 hit points, change into another creature with a new pool of hit points, new abilities, and different tactics. Thematically you can represent this as an ogre becoming enraged when it takes a serious wound, or a dragon realizing the party is actually a threat and unleashing its full power. It also might be a platoon of soldiers all drinking potions of giant’s strength.
A mid-combat surprise can also shift the style of encounter, whether through all the enemies fleeing and hiding (turning the fight into an investigation) or by having them surrender (creating a roleplaying challenge). In each of these cases, you’re keeping the battle from dragging on and becoming stale. In my experience, nothing leads to bored players as quickly as a long, slow battle.
The next post will have even more advice for creating exciting skirmishes with your villain, and then we’ll get into showdowns and cover how to build an awesome final battle.
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team