Hello everyone! In this week’s installment of How To DM, I’d like to talk about villains.
You spend a lot of time designing a super-cool bad guy to challenge your players, and he gets creamed in the very first encounter, or you have to resort to some shady shenanigans to save him. So, your players either don’t respect your villains, or now they’re frustrated because you’re essentially cheating “for story purposes”.
How do we avoid both of these things and make our villains memorable? I’d like to use an example from my Icewind Dale game. Specifically, a minor character named Yselm who is a Frost Druid worshipper of Auril. Don’t worry; I’ll be careful with the spoilers.
So, let’s talk about bad guys on in this week’s How To DM!
Don’t Fight to the Death: It is a rare person who will simply keep swinging when they’re in serious danger of dying. Just as your players use caution and strategy in their approach to combat (the ones that survive for any length of time anyway J), the bad guys can certainly do the same.
Auril has commanded Yselm to kill the PCs for their interference, and she certainly doesn’t want to fail. Suicide would be the ultimate failure, no? The PC’s deaths are what matters; no one said they all had to die in a single encounter…
So here is what I did for the initial attack.
Yselm upcast Conjure Animals to summon four Dire Wolves to send in first. This was done from cover while the PCs were busy fighting something else. As soon as the PCs finish that fight, the wolves come charging in.
The wolves are just a distraction though. They’re there to divert attention away from Yselm’s winter wolf ally who is sneaking around to hit the PC’s from behind. As the wolves get killed, she started casting Ice Storms on the party; the damage to the winter wolf would be minimal since it’s immune to cold damage anyway.
However, as usual, I rolled terribly and the party rolled like savants. They put down all the dire wolves and the winter wolf without anyone being killed. So, instead of her charging in with her (pitiful) sickle attack, or wild shaping into an equally pitiful beast form to get chopped into bird food, I had her escape. In the dim light of the full moon, she cast Pass Without Trace, wild shaped into a snowy owl, and flew away into the night.
Some of the players weren’t really sure what had attacked them or what happened to her!
Speak Softly and Bring More Friends: Why wouldn’t your villains seek out allies to fight against your PCs? “Gondor calls for aid!” is a basic trope of fantasy literature. If your villain is defeated and is forced to flee, they’re going to come back with whomever and whatever they can find to even out the odds.
Villains Are Sneaky…So Be Sneaky: Don’t have them stand in the road like the Black Knight (Have at you!). Don’t have them take over the village to “set a trap”…because now the PCs know exactly where they are, and your bad guy is hemmed in and under siege.
Let them pick the most advantageous time and location to strike!
A week or so after the PCs first encounter with Yselm, they set out as part of a fairly large expedition to the Spine of the World Mountains to locate a lost artifact. Yselm knows all their plans; she can wild shape into any number of forms that would be good for spying. What she lacks is help; at this point it’s more important to slow the expedition down while she drums up some allies. She can make some good use out of her Awaken spell…but not just any old creature will do.
So, I had her attack their camp in the middle of the night. But she didn’t attack the PC’s…she attacked the picket line where all their mounts and pack beasts were. She sneaks in under Pass Without Trace and cuts the picket line. She then withdraws and uses conjured dire wolves to scatter the axe beaks to the four winds.
A few Ice Storms on the camp itself coupled with a water elemental, and she withdrew, mission accomplished. The camp is in utter chaos. The PCs are running around trying to figure out what is going on; it added to the confusion that they weren’t the sole target of the assault. The expedition is effectively stalled as they try to recover the axe beaks, and they lost a good bit of provisions to boot.
I’m not sure what Yselm will do next (basically because some of my players read this blog J), but I know she has time now to come up with something truly diabolical.
This minor character has now become a major force of antagonism for the PCs. They hate her – which will make it all the better if they finally defeat her. Right now though, they’re at a loss as to how to even begin to take her on.
And all because she ran.
What tips, tricks and advice do you folks have? Put them in the comments below, so we can all share in the info. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for another installment on How To DM!