Question Keith #5: Death and the Master Villain

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By Mates Laurentiu
You know what they say about the 3rd time.

This Sunday, while running a game for my group, I revealed that a recurring NPC the PCs had believed to be an ally was actually a rather sinister antagonist. I believed, when creating his stats, that he would be a difficult enemy to defeat; indeed, I intended for the PCs to fail to defeat him and for him to teleport away through an interplanar portal. A force field blocked off the group (and the NPC) from the NPCs two lackeys that were generating the portal. However, the Warlock in the group used the “Iron Spike of Dis” power. This power, while more than bloodying the NPC, had the effect of immobilizing him. Improvising, I had the NPC open a portal in the floor below him and appear behind the force field and thus out of harm’s way. The Warlock, who was proud of his strategizing, felt as though I cheated him out of his glory. If I hadn’t, I would’ve cheated the entire group out of a potentially epic and rewarding campaign. Did I handle this the right way?

I addressed a similar question a few months back – What do you do when player actions clash with the outcome you expected in the story? I suggest you read that and the discussion that follows, as the point was explored in more detail in the comments.

However, there’s another aspect to this question that I’d like to explore: the challenge to using recurring villains. Recurring characters add a lot of flavor to a story. Looking to comics, characters such as Doctor Doom and the Joker can be as interesting as the heroes they fight. As a player gets to know a villain, his appearance in a story serves a number of purposes. It lets the player have some idea of what to expect (Magneto? We’re going to be fighting evil mutants, guys). Beyond that, the history between the players and the villain can add dramatic tension, especially if the villain has occasionally won in the past. At first you didn’t care about the Lord of Blades. Then he killed your sister. This time – it’s personal!

Of course, in superhero stories defeated villains generally go to jail. As a system, D&D is set up for bloodier battles. In 4E, you can technically decide if an opponent dropped below zero hit points is dead or simply down for the count – but as The Knights Of The Dinner Table have shown us time and again, mercy for enemies isn’t always a top priority for adventurers. You can always come up with a plan for how you want the villain to escape, as with the portal above. But clever players can always come up with a solution the DM hasn’t thought of. So how can you save an NPC without your players feeling like they’ve been cheated of victory?

The first answer is the simplest: You don’t. The underworld has a revolving door in D&D. Raise Dead, Resurrection, Reincarnation… in many stories you can’t be sure the villain is dead until you’ve seen the body, but in D&D you can’t be sure until you’ve burnt the body and trapped the soul.

Of course, with a good story, even a burnt body won’t take someone out. Count Feldvar cut off his finger and gave it to a friend to ensure that the ally would have a piece of his body to raise him if required. The Faceless One is an agent of the Goddess of Death, and Death will never hold her for long. And wily Serella made a bargain with an archdevil—she’s regained her life, but now she has a debt to repay. To me, this last example is the most interesting one because it can actually drive a future adventure. By the time you next meet Serella, your characters will have gained levels. But now she has new powers gained from her infernal pact and a new mission. She’s going to wipe out the city of Ux with a terrible plague because she HAS to in order to pay off her debt – something you set in motion by killing her!

Another long term option is to have a new villain step in. How come it’s only the HERO who gets to say “You killed my father, prepare to die?” Just because the PCs never knew that the villain had a lover/child/parent/partner/apprentice doesn’t stop you from pulling such a figure out for the next story; when Beowulf brings down Grendel, it simply sets the stage for the even tougher battle with Grendel’s mother. Rather than looking at the death as the end of the story, it may be an opportunity for it to evolve in a new and interesting direction.

Perhaps you needed that villain to escape because the story you’re running just won’t work without him. Realistically there’s no time for him to be raised, and you don’t have stats handy for his mom. You just weren’t prepared for things to go this way. You could take the trapdoor getaway approach and hope the players aren’t too annoyed. Or you could take the Doombot option – which is to say, the villain the PCs killed wasn’t the villain at all. As soon as he dies, his body transforms into the corpse of a changeling – but exactly when did the switch occur? Alternately, spells like domination or mind seed could allow the villain to use a dupe as a puppet – and when they get to your final scene, they’ll be surprised when a seeming stranger announces “You fools! Now you face the TRUE Count Feldvar!”

In any case, my gut reaction is: don’t rob the players of their victory. Find a way to make that victory part of the story. Find a way to return the villain from the dead; have a new villain be created by the defeat of the old; or allow the players to have the victory, but have it turn out that it wasn’t actually the villain that they were fighting in the first place.

You know your players, the history of your campaign, the mood at the table. At the end of the day, my advice is to be flexible and to do what is best to ensure that your players have fun.

7 thoughts on “Question Keith #5: Death and the Master Villain”

  1. That’s not so hard. If they kill a person they shouldn’t, have them charged with murder. They might get off, they might flee, they might get convicted and escape prison, who knows? The point is that within civilization, you can’t just go around killing people you don’t like without consequences, even in the medieval era. If they’re too powerful for the law to apprehend, well… we all know what townsfolk do when there is a threat they can’t handle on their own. Time to hire some adventurers to take care of the threat.

    If you don’t feel like being so heavy handed, you can teach the lesson from the other side of the table. Have the adventurers hired to apprehend/slay a group that is wreaking havoc in a manner similar to what they’re doing, or a group using behaviour you want to prevent.

  2. While I really like the “You killed my father” idea, I find it hard to let go of my “character”. I am starting a campaign and have created recurring character. That I view as my own, and would hate to have him killed off just as much as my players would theirs. Would it really be so bad if say he happened to have a wand that allows him to escape capture or even death. Even the resurrection route seems to be cheating the players out of their kill. How can I encourage my players not to simply kill everybody, and maybe instead try to see the benefit of leaving someone alive?

  3. I have an additional idea, thought it would definitely be a “once per gaming group” kind of trick. You could combine the mask idea with the domination/mentalist/mind control to create a villain the PCs might actually shy from fighting. It would take some work, though. Let’s say we’re playing a Superhero game and the villain’s name is Headache.

    The heroes fight a masked guy named Headache, and when they kill/capture him, it’s revealed that the person under the mask was someone that would NEVER have been pegged as a supervillain– like the waitress mentioned in the OP. Have this happen early in the characters’ career. If they’re alive, they end the fight mentally damaged and in a coma.

    Then later, Headache returns, but the original body is still dead/comatose. This time when defeated, the bad guy under the mask is some kind of city official that the PCs have encountered before– a minor ally or rival, but not a villain. Again, if Headache survives, the body is comatose.

    Later, after a few unconnected adventures, Headache is BACK– same costume, same mask, everything. Only thing is, both of the first two Headaches are still dead/in a coma. This time, the damage he wreaks is terrible, and the characters are pushed to their limits. When the villain is thwarted, the mask comes off to reveal– ONE OF THE CHARACTER’S PARENTS. Identical to the first attack, if “Headache” survives, the body ends up in a coma.

    Headache is dominating the bodies of his victims in some way that lets him “ride” them like a body-snatcher and commit his crimes. When the body-snatching is turned off, the brain has been abused so badly that it just goes into a coma.

    Headache could be a Super-Sorcerer, Telepath, or have some kind of super-science that allows him to do whatever you want with him. But from the second (or third) encounter, this villain is built to be a bad guy that the PCs KNOW they are going to see again.

  4. Thanks for the great comments, everyone! I’m looking for good questions for upcoming articles – anything you’d like to ask?

  5. One of the best games I ever ran was started by a “you killed my father”. The PCs killed an evil cleric who had just barely warranted a name, but something about their attitude got to me that day and I decided to have some consequences for the kill-first-ask-questions-later mentality.

    Turned out the cleric had connections and the city Lord decided to take his children under his wing and send him to finishing school. That son spent his father’s fortune and his patrons goodwill becoming the greatest swordsman possible (an evil counterpart to the PC who killed his father). He would frequently challenge that PC to duels in public, always finding a way to humiliate him, and never appear when he might be outmatched. He was eventually defeated but never slain. Later campaigns featured the blood feud that arose between his children and those of the PC’s, complete with hired assassins and a Romeo-and-Juliet romance. It was awesome.

  6. I especially like the “revolving door” and “you killed my father” options.

    For an example of the first, consider Dracula in the classic Hammer movie cycle. He was staked, immersed in running water, blasted to ash by sunlight – but he always came back for the next movie. Adding an infernal pact for which the PCs are at least partly responsible is a brilliant means of blurring the moral lines – something that has always been very close to my heart in my own roleplaying writing.

    And Ma Grendel is a perfect example of the second. In the case of really serious, uber-mega-baddies, you also have what I call the Alexander Option. No, it’s not a Robert Ludlum novel. When Alexander the Great kicked the bucket, his empire fell apart into smaller (but still very powerful) factions run by various successor generals. A similar thing happened after the death of Charlemagne, which is why France and Germany are different countries today. So the PCs may think they have killed the metaphorical serpent by cutting off its head, but they could find they have created more enemies, like Mickey Mouse with the brooms in Fantasia. And although these new enemies may be individually less powerful, they are causing chaos all over the place rather than being focused on a single goal, which will make the task of stamping them out longer and more complicated.

  7. One thing I do with recurring villains is have them dressed in certain clothes, or have something which clearly identifies them. If there’s a chance the villain could be brutally killed, include the fact that he/she is wearing a hood or a mask, concealing their face. Many PCs will run with it, believing that it has to be the villain, since no one else in town could possibly have a similar red cloak. If they stomp all over the villain or do something completely unexpected, and they pull off the mask/hood, maybe they find the local waitress who gave them all a free meal yesterday morning when they were broke. Maybe she got dominated, as Keith said in his post. There’s no reason it couldn’t happen like this.

    And, Keith’s example actually is easier to use, with the changeling, because then there is no way to tell the difference until it is too late. Granted, the party probably shouldn’t leave a path of slaughtered changelings all dressed in identical red cloaks… but then, why not? Maybe they need to find an artifact that reveals changelings, so they can finally be sure they’ve killed the real villain.

    Having a couple of extreme power gamers and excellent tacticians at my table, I sympathize with the difficulty of holding onto one villain. It’s tough to justify the third escape, when instead the party should be hosing him off of their boots.

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