This entry is part 3 in the series Making A Great Villain

A hero is only as good as the villains they fight – but what makes a Villain great? It’s not exactly an easy question to answer, is it? I have three basic answers, for three different kinds of villain – the Mastermind, the Combat Monster, and the Character Villain. In this part of the article trilogy, I focus on the Combat Monster.

It’s easy to make a combat monster. Just throw critical combat values at a character sheet until you have something unstoppable. It’s also easy to make a combat monster boring.

Heck, all that’s required to qualify as a combat monster is:

  • The ability to damage any opponent; and
  • Enough resistance to damage to outlast his opponents, or somewhere close to it.

    Think about that for a minute. It’s a recipe for round after round of “Roll to hit. You do damage. Roll Damage. It’s not enough. He rolls to hit. He hits. He rolls damage. It’s not enough. Next Round.” Repeat endlessly.

    Talk about Dull.

    The mechanics of a Combat Monster

    Divide the total hit points of the PCs by the number of rounds you want the combat to last.

    Identify the highest Defense (AC in D&D, DCV in Hero System, etc) amongst the PCs. Decide what chance to hit this character you want the combat monster to have. Applying the basic “To Hit” math for your combat system tells you what attack value – with every bonus etc added in – you want the Combat Monster to have.

    Divide the party-HP-/-Rounds value by this percentage, shown as a decimal. That’s how much damage the combat monster should do in a round, maximum.

    Identify the highest attack value amongst the PCs. Decide how often you want the combat monster to BE hit, as a percentage. Work the basic “To Hit” math for your combat system to identify what defensive total you want the combat monster to have.

    Multiply the total hit points (if they all hit and do maximum damage) that the PCs can inflict in a round by the number of rounds you want the combat to last, then multiply by the percentage (expressed as a decimal) of that maximum chance to hit. That’s how many hit points the Combat Monster should have.

    Now, the tricky bit: Decide how much of the combat monster’s attack bonus is magical/tech enhancement and how much is raw combat ability. Give the Combat Monster items that confer that magical bonus.

    Then, using the raw combat ability result as a guide, determine how much of the Combat Monster’s defense is magical enhancement, armor, etc, and give the Combat Monster the required items.

    Make sure that the PCs can’t take the villain out with Death Spells, a Surprise Round, or any other all-or-nothing tricks, and turn him loose. This blueprint is both elegant and simple. It is not designed to be consistent with best practice in terms of game mechanics, but rather to be functional from a game-play point of view. Depending on the values chosen, it can give one side or the other a clear advantage, but leaves both operating ‘in the ballpark’ by tailoring the requirements to the real world story requirements of the GM.

    Everything else is style. And it’s style that’s desperately needed, because at it stands, the Combat Monster is also as dull as mud. This article’s function is intended to make your combat monsters interesting again.

    Profile Of A Combat Monster

    Let’s start by thinking a little about the style a Combat Monster should display, both on the battlefield and beyond it.

    The Combat Monster should seek an immediate advantage

    In battle, the Combat Monster should look for tactical advantages. His first priority should be to improve his own position; his second should be to deny advantages to his opponents. Since his abilities have been measured against those of the opposition and values determined accordingly, this can make or break the encounter’s success from his point of view.

    The same principle should carry over into any non-combat situations. The Combat Monster should always be looking for an immediate edge in whatever situation he faces. His philosophy is that “the long term” is simply an accumulated series of “short terms”, and it’s a philosophy that can carry him a long way. It’s also a major flaw in the villain archetype, for obvious reasons.

    The Combat Monster should have an ambition

    It’s important for the GM to recognize the distinction between an Ambition (Combat Monster) and a Goal (Mastermind). The ambition is something that the character wants to achieve but which he may not see a clear path to achieving; a Goal is an end-point with a definite road to successful completion. The Combat Monster is the type who is content to advance one step at a time and then look around for the next step. If he paints himself into a corner where there is no next step available, his response will be to shake things up somehow and reassess the situation. Instability is his friend and the mastermind’s enemy; he doesn’t care about being able to predict what will happen in a few weeks or months or even years – he cares about today, tomorrow, and – at most – next week. The mastermind prefers stability because it makes situations more predictable – and that works to his advantage.

    The Combat Monster should be cunning, not smart – and not dumb

    When you live by your wits, they had better be sharp. A Combat Monster may be simple, but should never be mistaken for stupid.

    With the Mastermind, we could use a retroactive INT roll to assess whether or not he had thought of something, and fudge the combat/tactical situation accordingly. Unfortunately, there is no stat for “Cunning”. It’s a little bit INT and a little bit WIS and a lot neither of these. This is where a technique that I proposed in Look beyond the box: a looser concept for NPCs shows its power. Instead of fuffing around trying to decide how much of an INT score represents cunning and how much of a WIS score, we can simply designate a new characteristic – “Cunning” – and set it to whatever we want.

    When confronted with a situation in which we, as GMs, don’t see an immediate advantage to be had, simply pick one off a list of such and roll a “Cunning” check to see if the Combat Monster can think of a way to achieve it. Pull strings, retcon, and employ narrative as necessary to deliver (and justify) the end result if he makes the roll.

    This is an extremely low fudging that simulates the ability that we want this character to have. We can even apply modifiers to his chance of success based on the degree to which his options have been closed off and the difficulty of achieving the advantage that he’s after. Every player I’ve ever encountered has been fine with this approach, especially if I am willing in principle to extend the benefit to their characters if they come up with something outside the system.

    The Combat Monster should be obvious, not subtle

    The more complicated a plan is, the more things can go wrong with it. Simplicity and Elegance should be the watchwords for this type of character. Hiding whatever it is that you are trying to do takes time, effort, and resources – all of which can be better used in achieving something else. Everyone’s going to know what you were up to when it’s all over, anyway, so why waste time trying to hide it?

    That’s not to say that Combat Monsters won’t try to surprise their foes – surprise is a legitimate tactical advantage, and so is misdirection. The Combat Monster won’t bother trying to hide the fact that he’s preparing to do something, it simply won’t necessarily be clear what that something is and who it is directed against.

    Another aspect of seeking the advantage is being good at assessing people. The Combat Monster should know who amongst his servants, supporters, and lackeys is best at deception, and will use their talents. He won’t trust them, because they are good at deception – but he’ll use them – and have someone else watching from the shadows in case they betray him.

    The Combat Monster should be direct, not manipulative

    You should always have a fair idea of where you stand when dealing with a Combat Monster. That said, they can sometimes be inconstant – if they see a short-term advantage in removing you from the picture, you’re in trouble. With them it’s always “What have you done for me lately?” – and you’d better have a good answer at the ready.

    The same principle applies to every activity controlled by the Combat Monster. “Buy”, “Sell”, “Take” – these are about as complicated as their trade agreements get, for example. None of this complicated stuff of selling something before you’ve actually bought it, or holding options on future purchases – if they want it, they will buy it or take it, at the time. They put their trust in solid reality, bricks and mortar – not complicated contracts and instruments.

    If it can’t be summed up in one word of two syllables or less, it’s too complicated an arrangement for a Combat Monster’s tastes.

    The Combat Monster should have an array of flunkies

    This is a fairly obvious one, but there’s a sting in the tail – why do these “trusty lieutenants” work for the Combat Monster? With a Mastermind, it’s easy to justify anyone working for them because they have been manipulated or deceived or made promises that sounded good at the time – so much so that the question never arises. Combat Monsters are different, and the answer to this question is one of the key parameters that distinguishes one from another. This guy’s servants work for him because he’s generous with the booty. That One’s servants work for him because they are intimidated by him. The Other One’s servants work for him because so far he’s never lost. And those are just a few of the possible answers. Deciding why his troops are loyal to any given Combat Monster is a fast-track into the personality of the Villain.

    The Combat Monster should be wary of unusual sources of information but willing to use them – so long as he controls them

    Combat monsters like things to be straightforward. If a situation is too complicated, they will seek to simplify it – brutally, if necessary. It follows that they will mistrust the exotic and unusual, because there are always complications involved; however, it goes against their nature to turn away from ANY tactical advantage, no matter where it comes from.

    The caveat is also significant. If the Combat Monster doesn’t control the exotic information source, someone else does, and that means that the information is being fed to him in service of someone else’s agenda. Combat Monsters generally refuse to be cat’s paws for anyone – except another, stronger, Combat Monster. Does that mean that a Combat Monster will never work for a Mastermind? Of course not. A Combat Monster can have the deepest respect and admiration for the abilities of a Mastermind, can even be in awe of their ability to deal with complex situations and tug on just the right string to make things happen. It’s quite easy for a Combat Monster to see such an arrangement in terms of “I just have to make sure that I get my part right” while the Scheming Plotter handles the complicated stuff – so long as the Combat Monster gets whatever rewards have been promised him (and they WILL want specifics)..

    The Combat Monster should have a consistent personality

    One of the biggest mistakes that I see people make when they construct a Combat Monster is focusing so much on what they can do that they neglect to individualize them as a character. If the Combat Monster is never to do anything other than face the PCs in battle, and has never done anything more than that in the past, that’s all you need; but as soon as you involve questions of reputation or personal style, the shortcomings of this approach become felt in the most painful way possible.

    If you ever want the Combat Monster to be more than a stock villain who exists to do nothing but fight, they should have a personality and that personality should impact everything they do, from the way they treat underlings to their style in battle.

    The Combat Monster should be shortsighted most of the time

    I’ve already suggested that the Combat Monster should focus more on the short term than on the long term, and suggested that this is as much a flaw as an advantage. This is the other side of that coin – most Combat Monsters are the “one day at a time” types who consider long-term planning to be waste of time. Circumstances are sure to change between now and then, making the plans irrelevant, in any event.

    The Combat Monster should take bold risks

    The one thing few Combat Monsters can be accused of is timidity – and they are likely to treat any such accusation as justifying an immediate and violent response. I make the exception because a combat monster who is – by preference – peaceful and who doesn’t like to fight (but who is naturally gifted in that direction) can be an interesting personality profile.

    There is, once again, an important distinction that must be made and emphasized. A Combat Monster will take a Bold risk, not a Stupid risk. When they make a bold choice, they will have a clear idea of the benefits of doing so, and the potential dangers. They will also have a strong notion of the best ways to minimize the risk and the best ways of maximizing the likelihood of success.

    Audacity may be the stock in trade of most Combat Monsters, but that Audacity will be controlled and directed, focused toward achieving their Goals.

    The Combat Monster should be Legendary

    Once again, I have left the most difficult-to-explain entry until last. This entry describes how others should relate to the Combat Monster, in other words what the PCs can learn of him in advance of a confrontation.

    In the first article of this trilogy, I stated that the Mastermind should have a mythic quality when he is spoken of. The Combat Monster should be Legendary, and the distinction should be clear in the mind of the GM. Where the Mastermind reeks of mystery, the Combat Monster should have a long history of fantastic campaigns, epic struggles, and mighty victories. These should swell in the retelling until they describe a larger-than-life figure – an Epic Hero in magnitude of accomplishments, if not in personality or drive.

    Strengths, Flaws, and Characterization

    The standard profile of a combat monster should apply to most examples, and exceptions should be crafted very carefully by the GM, as any variation on these common elements will have significant repercussions in other aspects of the character. Having considered that profile, let’s now consider the ramifications for the Combat Monster in terms of personal Strengths, Flaws, and Character.

    The Combat Monster should not be vulnerable to assumptions

    The Combat Monster should make very few assumptions, relying on his ability to improvise a solution. His directness should compel him to “find out for himself” rather than making guesses, however informed they might be. He is generally quite willing to throw a flunky to the wolves just to see how they will react, and will often have a number of servants recruited (though they don’t know it) for just this purpose. This can earn the Combat Monster a reputation for ruthlessness, though some may offer great rewards for success in these “impossible” missions.

    The Combat Monster should not be vulnerable to surprises

    As a general rule, Combat Monsters deal with the situation as it presents itself, moment to moment. That makes them very hard to surprise on the battlefield (I’m talking about characters using unusual tactics or being unexpectedly tough here, not about them being immune to surprise rounds if those are a feature of the combat system that you are using). They tend to take such “surprises” in their stride, adapting their combat techniques and targets accordingly.

    That doesn’t mean that they won’t gather and employ intelligence about a foe they know they will be confronting – just that they will adapt quickly should the encounter not follow the script.

    The Combat Monster should not be vulnerable to forced pacing

    Masterminds are vulnerable to third parties trying to force the pace of events. They need time to mull things over and integrate changes in circumstance and environment into their thinking. Combat Monsters live from moment to moment, adapting quickly to any changes that may take place; forcing the pace tends to be playing to their strengths. They are more vulnerable to careful planning from the other side, a planned counteraction ready for whatever move the Combat Monster should make.

    The Combat Monster should not be vulnerable to brute force

    Again, brute force – even seemingly overwhelming force – is playing to the strengths of the Combat Monster. Sufficient force can overcome one, but the level of force required is almost always higher than expected.

    The Combat Monster should be vulnerable to strategy

    Because they live by their wits, they are more predictable (and hence a plan can be more easily formulated to deal with them). This also makes them more likely to come up with the one move that has not been anticipated, especially if they recognize that they are up against a carefully-orchestrated plan!

    The Combat Monster should rarely see through deception

    A fine distinction should be made here. The Combat Monster should be quite capable of recognizing an obvious deception, and should often recognize the fact that they are being deceived the rest of the time – but they are not so adept at penetrating a more subtle deception to the real motivations and plans behind that curtain of deception.

    Furthermore, unless the deception is very carefully planned, it may fall flat; the tactical nouse of a Combat Monster should enable him to focus his attention quickly on any weak points or incongruities in a facade, and while the Mastermind may invent spurious or complex explanations for the discrepancy, the Combat Monster is more likely to treat it as a signpost to the truth.

    The Combat Monster may be fixated

    Being strongly goal-oriented, it is actually often easier for a Combat Monster to become fixated not only on their overall goal but on what they perceive as ‘the essential next step’, or upon an individual, organization, or circumstance that they see as obstructing them in the attainment of their goal. Nor are they averse to targeting something or someone who may eventually become such an obstruction, removing them ahead of time at a moment of (possibly induced) vulnerability, and before the target has any notion of why they are being targeted.

    The Combat Monster will not bother to deceive

    It takes a lot of effort to deceive someone effectively, and a deception might not be all that effective, anyway. Combat Monsters generally consider most such efforts to be a waste of time and energy that can be better spent focusing on and dealing with the next problem on their plates.

    The Combat Monster may possess character virtues

    Another common mistake is making Combat Monsters cartoonish in their monomanias – almost every character should have some virtue or they could not have survived long enough to achieve their current status. However, such virtues will usually be secondary to the attainment of their goals – the Combat Monster should be willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, including sacrificing their principles. Their primary role is that of a villain, after all.

    When confronted with a superior force, the Combat Monster may well cooperate with past and future enemies. Once again, a short-term alliance under such circumstances is a better tactical choice than both sides falling before a common enemy. Combat Monsters tend to be far more pragmatic than Masterminds.

    Above All: The Combat Monster Matters Indirectly

    The Combat Monster should make a difference in the world simply by existing. His reputation as a combatant, a leader, and an object of terror should stalk the world, casting a deeper and broader shadow than the combat monster him-, her-, or itself. Armies should change course based on rumors of the Combat Monster’s position and intentions. Think of the reputation and influence of Baron Von Richthoffen in World War I and model your treatment of the Combat Monster accordingly.

    Combat Monsters – trickier than they seem

    And so we return to the question of making the Combat Monster interesting. I’ve already looked at the basic ingredients, mechanically, of setting up a combat monster, but those issues were all related to ensuring that the Combat Monster was both effective and did not outlast its welcome in Combat; now it’s time to delve a little deeper.

    Vulnerabilities & Protection

    One of the best ways of creating interest around the Combat Monster is to give him a greater vulnerability to one particular uncommon type of attack, or to attacks in a particular environment or setting, and increase his protection from, or resistance to, most other types of attack. This can mean that the most effective combatant is not the usual front-line fighter, so adopting this approach works best when the Combat Monster is supported by numbers of additional combatants upon whom that usual front-line fighter can vent his frustration.

    Of course, there should be clues known to the PCs, or becoming apparent as the combat proceeds, as to the nature of the vulnerability, and the origin and existence of these characteristics should be key contributors to the development of Combat Monster’s personality and perhaps to his reputation. The latter can be deceptive, however – if I were a Combat Monster with a vulnerability to Kryptonite, I would make sure that there were plenty of stories circulating out there about a glorious victory while bathed in the stuff!

    As a general rule of thumb, I find that the best approach – and one that makes an immediate impression on the players – is not a numeric adjustment or cap to the results, but an increase or decrease in the normal damage die size. There are few game systems in which this approach is canonical, but it works better than anything else I’ve tried.

    Because it doesn’t increase the overall damage done by very much, this approach means that no other adjustments are needed to the characteristics we’ve already worked out; but the relative improvement in the effectiveness of attacks that exploit the vulnerability is extremely noteworthy and dramatic.

    For example, if the normal attacks of the normal combat leader do d8 damage, reducing them to d4 is a major change. At the same time, if the normal attacks that exploit the vulnerability are d4 and they suddenly do d8, players will definitely sit up and take notice.

    A related alternative
    Another approach is to make the target relatively invulnerable to anything until something specific takes place – burning a portrait, smashing a statue, forcing an alien back to its native dimension, or whatever. Again, there should be clues given to the players ahead of time; it feels too contrived if these clues are discovered in the course of the combat. Leave revelations at that time to the subject of interpreting the clues that have been offered.

    The Metered Response

    Another approach that definitely gets a player’s attention is the Metered Response, also known as “Tit For Tat”. Under this proposal, the damage the NPC inflicts is divided into two unequal portions – the Combat Monster is subjected to the smaller portion, and the remainder is inflicted by his next attack. On a combat round in which the Combat Monster suffers no damage because the PC attacking him misses, and he only inflicts a trivial level of damage, the relationship between the effects – only suspected until that point, at best – becomes relatively obvious.

    Why these approaches work

    All three of these options work because they completely alter the usual tactical paradigm. They pose an original challenge to the PCs, and to the players, in which the stock responses are ineffective. This always makes the encounter more interesting.

    Customizing Responses

    Functioning in the abstract is all well and good, but for maximum impact, the Combat Monster should be customized specifically for the party they are to face in battle. I generally start by looking at the party’s usual combat routine, their default choices; I then consider each party member’s most powerful attack, the options they exercise when their normal choices are thwarted and they are feeling in serious jeopardy. Ensuring that the Combat Monster is protected from these choices ensures that there are no easy answers.

    Threading The Needle

    It’s also very easy to go too far. GMs should always be aware that the balancing act of constructing the perfect Combat Monster is akin to threading a needle at a distance of thirty paces!

    There is a failsafe option that I employ whenever it becomes clear that my latest frankensteinian creation has gone too far – the ‘Combat Balloon’ principle. Rather than making the customized defenses a permanent capability of the creature, I retroactively adjust the concept to mimic that of a balloon that can only contain so much before bursting – taking the defense with it, in whole or in part. Additional control can be achieved using the “in part” solution with multiple “balloons” but this is not recommended – it smacks too much of the GM being over-defensive of his creation, and increases the frustration levels of the players disproportionately. Better to bite the bullet and give the players the satisfaction of having overcome the defenses.

    Nor sure this be done all the time – these are exceptional strategies for use in the creation of exceptional foes.

    The Combat Monster as Guideline

    Elements of this article are of utility with greater frequency, however. I will often run through the calculations described under “The Mechanics Of A Combat Monster”, above, then use the results as an approximate guideline in choosing an encounter from the Monster Manual or whatever other source is appropriate to the campaign. This has the great advantage of tailoring a combat to fit the combatants, instead of matching some abstract and arbitrary standard.

    Making The Combat Monster Great

    And so I come to the final section of this article – how to make the Combat Monster Great, how to make the encounter not just memorable but unforgettable. There are four essential principles that when applied, will achieve this very desirable objective.

    Make the Combat Monster unique

    Step one is always to ensure that the Combat Monster is something original, something unique, something unlike anything else you have ever used in this campaign or any other. Unlimber your creativity and give it full vent!

    Make the Combat Monster Matter

    Make sure that the existence of the Combat Monster has a purpose and a relevance beyond just the encounter, and that the encounter will have repercussions and ramifications that extend beyond the party. The Combat Monster should be a central pillar of at least part of the campaign, and the themes of the campaign should be reflected in the concepts and history of the Combat Monster.

    Create the Legend, then create the Combat Monster to live up to that legend

    This can seem counter-intuitive, but it actually steps outside the restrictions imposed by the game mechanics and encourages greater creativity, at least in comparison with the alternative. Creating the Combat Monster first stifles the scope of the Legend – so create the Legend first, then choose selected elements of that legend to lie at the heart of the core concepts of the Combat Monster behind the legends. Anything in the legend that doesn’t quite match up can be explained as metaphor, exaggeration, or fabrication, or even reworked until it does fit.

    Look for a twist

    Finally, always look for a twist, for something unexpected that you can throw into the mix. To make sure that the twist is consistent throughout the character’s creation and history, you have to decide what it is in advance.

    Some GMs find their creativity is impaired by doing so; for those who experience this problem, I have a simple solution: Create three (or more) different plot twists that are completely different, none of which requires the other to be true – then decide between them at the time that it becomes potentially relevant by a die roll. It’s very hard to box yourself in when you don’t know what the answer is going to be until the last minute!

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