How much, if at all, should the final villain of a long running campaign pull his punches?

Ask the gamemasters

My campaign boss [villain] is a high level wizard with access to epic spells, and my party just made 20th level. They are on the way to fight him. Should I open up with his most powerful abilities, or should I hold off until he is in danger of dying?

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer

I’m actually facing a similar question in my Superheros campaign in the near future, so it’s a question that is quite pertinant. The final scenario of a campaign, especially a long-running one, has to have an epic quality to it, it has to have the players on the edge of their seats; they have to KNOW afterwards that they were in a tough fight, but at the same time they need to succeed even if it calls for the ultimate sacrifice.

If this was a novel or a movie, the best answer would be to pick off the characters one by one, each carrying the rest past another of the hurdles. But this is not a novel or a movie, and you need to find a way to make the events satisfying to all the players right up to the end.

My answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Bear with me, and I’ll try to explain…

The Dilemmna

To be really satisfying, the final scenario needs to consist of a number of highs and lows, each deeper and higher than the last (respectively) until the final scene of the big finish. There needs to be a rythm that builds to a crescendo. At the same time, this needs to be achieved without wimping the bad guy out (so far as the players can tell); there is nothing worse (in any medium) than a villain who is superintelligent until it’s important; everyone feels deflated and let down if the GM “lets” the party win.

Of course, this is true of every scenario, but at any other time, it’s not so critical if the bad guy doesn’t lose at the end. The whole point of an earlier scenario might be to reveal to the players just how serious a situation is, for example, setting the stage for a scenario to follow at a later time. But this is the final scenario, there is no tomorrow; it’s Win Or Die for both sides.

The need to have the villain represent the ultimate challenge argues in favour of him going all out, but to be ultimately satisfying for the players, they need to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, which argues against his using his full repertoire. So there is no easy answer.

The Roles Of Personality and Perception

Part of the question asks whether or not the villain should hold back until his own existence is threatened. There are two considerations at a character level to take into account here, and these in turn offer some initial signposts by which we can navigate our way through those incompatible perspectives raised in the previous paragraph.

The first of these is the Villain’s Personality. If he has established a rep for dealing with problems with overwhelming force, then he will go all out from the beginning – within limits. On the other hand, if he has a more intelligent and self-controlled approach, he will start relatively small and build up in intensity as necessary. The aspect of the villain’s personality that controls this decision is how he reacts to obstacles and threats.

The second consideration is the Villain’s perception of the PCs. Are they viewed as an obstacle, an annoyance, a threat? Does the villain think they’ve just been lucky so far? To what does he attribute their past success? – that’s something he will seek to negate or counter. Does he even know who the PCs are, or have they managed to dismantle his plots without him learning their identities? How much does he know about them?

No matter what the exact answers are to these considerations, there is one solution set that fills every requirement that has been listed so far, and I’ll get to it in a moment. First, though, we need to consider the scope and scale of the question at a purely game-system level.

The problem with epic spells

Epic spells have no limits. No matter how powerful the spell is, all it does is increase the DC of casting the spell, and a 20 always succeeds. The Villain can make attempt after attempt until he succeeds in casting that DC 342 spell which calls down 1000d6 lightning bolts on each party member, and it’s game over.

They are also very difficult for the GM to come up with on the fly, requiring a fair amount of design effort. I combat these problems with a couple of unwritten rules of “Fair Play”.

The solution

The solution to these issues is threefold:

  • It takes time to be confident in success.
  • Therefore, prepared effects will be more powerful than those the Villain can reliably cast on the spot.
  • Using generic spells and a liberal dose of descriptive flair glosses over a multitude of sins.

The first two I interpret as meaning that (assuming the villain has almost unlimited prep time), his most powerful spells will be utilised ahead of time, and will therefore be indirect in nature of effect. In direct confrontation, he would use a couple of fairly generic epic spells which I would “flavour” appropriately (while leaving the game effects unchanged). That means that so far as the PCs are concerned, he has a multitude of abilities at his disposal, but so far as the GM is concerned, only a couple of epic spells need to be prepared:

  • The first is a spell that he will use only if he surprises his opponents. It should be debilitating but not fatal, designed to permit him to get the job done with lesser spells. It should have a DC of his spellcraft+10, meaning that he will have a 50/50 chance of success.
  • The second is a spell that increases his mobility on the battlefield. A limited-range teleport gets him away from difficult foes and situations, for example, and permits him to refocus. Ideally, it should also give a temporary boost to his defences.
  • The third is his usual attack spell. It should have a DC equal to his spellcraft-9, so that the enemy (who presumably are not to be sneered at if they have gotten this far) have to have done a fair amount of damage to remove his ability to cast the spell through penalties.
  • The last is a last-ditch attack spell. Determine the number of points of damage that the villain can absorb in a single attack without being instantly killed by Massive Damage and subtract that from his Spellcraft to get the DC.

I like to get some idea of an epic spellcaster’s capabilities by “extending” the standard spell table as though there were 10th level spell slots, 11th level spell slots, and so on, and then looking at existing spells loaded up with metamagics to match. A Maximised, Empowered Meteor Swarm with Silent Spell and Still Spell is, in theory, a 15th level spell that can be cast at will. There’s no such thing, it is obviously an epic spell, but at the same time, the design work is quite manageable for the GM. Something like this would not be permitted for anything less than a 29th level mage in one of my campaigns – because that’s the level at which the standard spell table, if theoretically extended, would acquire his first 15th-level spell.

Everything else should be handled by standard spells. It can help to convey the flavour a lot if you work from an unusual spell list, perhaps from a different supplement to any that the PCs have access to in the campaign. If the Villain is the only character with access to the spells from Magic Of Faerun, for example, his spells are that little bit more distinctive.

Managing the solution: Part I

So, having defined in game mechanics exactly what we mean be “going all out”, we’re ready to start putting the pieces into place. Part I is Villain prep – this involves everything that he can set up ahead of time, such as enchanting his stronghold, etc. Anything and everything is fair game here, but the fact that these things have to be prepared in advance gives them an inherent limitation of a different sort – there are ways to beat them, at the cost of time and surprise.

Fiendish traps are good. Magic Mirrors which seperate multiclass characters into two or more lesser single-class individuals and invert the alignment of the lesser of the two can be nasty and lots of fun. Perhaps a V-shaped corridor where “Down” is always angled toward the middle, with magical reservoirs of Lava that are only triggered when the PCs are a certain distance down the corridor? Or a room that superheats water to the point of steam explosions but affects nothing else directly? Small offerings of loot can act as bait, but even better is the promise of advancing through the Lair. A maze that randomly reinvents itself every 10′ travelled can be fun – especially if the means of locking it in place is to trigger a trap to which the Villain is immune for some reason! (Use invisible Walls Of Force for the maze, including the floor, to prevent the PCs from leaving a trail).

The purposes here are to avoid wasting his time and effort dealing with lesser challenges personally, to give the Villain time to prepare, and to weaken the party. Particular attention will be paid to eliminating, undermining, subverting, limiting, or restricting (a) anything that has been used to thwart or threaten the villain in the past; and (b) anything that he attributes the PCs success to. Another fun choice is to prevent characters from healing while within his walls, or (if he uses lots of undead) giving a -20 to turning attempts while in his lair, or whatever. No PC should be singled out, each should be handicapped in some respect.

Physical security should be high on the list. Preventing teleportation within the walls unless you are holding a bay leaf or a loaf of gold-pressed lye bread, or something equally improbable, is an obvious protection. A moat, tricky locks, etc. Think of this as the ultimate Dungeon Crawl. Reinforcing the walls so that they can stand up to the sort of punishment they might be exposed to is another useful technique. I’ve also had success from time to time with walls so flimsy that a child could break through them – that are filled with acid, or something else that’s nasty. The villain wants to channel the activities of any invaders away from sensitive areas until they are weakened and demoralised.

For the party, these are a succession of small triumphs and minor (and temporary) setbacks, with a cumulative growing impression of the power of their opposition and an awareness of their own advantages being stripped away, planting a seed of doubt.

Managing the solution: Part II

Eventually, the PCs should succeed in breaking through these outer, “static” defences and begin confronting opposition in the service of the Villain. Again, the purpose is to weaken, demoralise, and destroy the invaders without bothering the Villain. These should start mildly serious and get progressively nastier. Force the party to use up their reserves, their potions and scrolls and spell slots. At the same time, opposition with one key attribute or ability that mimics those of the villain can be useful for gathering vital intelligence for the Villain by revealing how the party cope with that sort of menace.

If the villain has done any sort of decent job of preparing his defences, he should be initially overconfident in their ability to deal with the intruders; but, having come so far, the party will have proven themselves too dangerous to be permitted to escape. Most of the traps and challenges that steer the party will propel them inwards, and only act to prevent escape. These are remote confrontations for the villain, battles conducted at a distance.

In this stage, the party has more successes than failures, setting them up for a fall.

Managing the solution: Part III

By the time the party wins through that lot, they should be both exhausted and euphoric, ready for the final battle. So now is the time to ratchet up the tension and bring them to their darkest hour. For the first time, the Villain is directly involved in events, and should act with his Full Force, but a force that is subverted by arrogance. He should surprise the PCs in some way – it might be with a twist on his nature (they attack, only for their blows to bounce off, doing nothing but tearing the false skin that he was wearing to reveal…), or it might be that the Villain has captured members of a PC’s family (or at least appears to have done so), or he might just seem completely unstoppable (but strangely, he doesn’t kill the party, just KOs and captures them or whatever). You want the party to believe that all hope is lost. Perhaps the Villain isn’t the real mastermind after all, just the front man for something even worse.

Whatever the PCs had planned, it should not work (unless it’s positively brilliant) – the Villain has anticipated their plans and prepared himself accordingly.

Managing the solution: The Final Battle

All this sets the stage for a hopeless battle – but it’s the Villain who is actually doomed to suffer defeat, unknown to the PCs and the players. This is due to the GM conducting the Villain’s behaviour and circumstances according to six principles:

  • Reliability vs Desperation
  • Single targets plus Blockers
  • A set of prepared vulnerabilities
  • Give each party member a role to play
  • Have a backup plan
  • Take the villain to the verge of victory – until….

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Reliability vs Desperation
This dictates how the Villain will operate, offensively, in terms of the spells that were defined earlier. He will start with his reliable spells, and slowly become more desperate as he gets closer to defeat.

Single Target plus Blockers
The Villain should target one PC at a time. Henchmen and other servants should be employed purely to keep other would-be combatants off his back.

A set of prepared vulnerabilities
The GM should have devised some method by which each PC can defeat the villain in the right circumstances, if they do the right thing at the time. Clues as to what these circumstances are, and what the right thing to do is, should have been fed to the players without their being aware of them. For example, a Fighter can defeat the villain by doing enough damage to him after a regenerative crystal is smashed, and so on. Any abilities that the Villain has blocked earlier are clues of the most potent sort – he obviously feels vulnerable to them. And remember, the party only has to put together the clues to one of the solutions. Perhaps there’s a way for a player to forcibly extract all the evil as negative levels from the Villain, leaving their enemy a withered and dessicated husk – but transforming the sacrificial victim into a low-level undead (low-level because his levels cancel out most of the negative levels).

Give Each party member a role to play
There should be one or more ways in which another party member can bring about the circumstances, but doing so leaves him open to attack, so he will need a third party member to protect him; and so on.

Have a backup plan
This is actually two-fold: the Villain will have a backup plan (usually some means of escape) that he will pull out of his hat when he is facing defeat; remember, his objective is not to beat the party, it’s to accomplish whatever they’ve stopped him from doing this time around. The second meaning is for the DM to have a replacement for each of the elements of victory to be achieved. For example, if the “multiclass splitting mirror” was employed, perhaps the Villain has those “raw levels of expertise” trapped in a jar; if victory can only be achieved by a cleric doing “X”, and the party cleric goes down, by releasing those levels, the player can reallocate them to give himself levels in Cleric (instead of whatever they used to be).

Take the villain to the verge of victory – until….
This is what everything has been building towards. As GM, do whatever you have to do to get the party to this point once they have started implementing a plan to target one of the prepared vulnerabilities. From the lowest of lows, they have slowly built up their hopes of victory through uncovering a prepared vulnerability; now it’s time to bring them back down to earth. Perhaps there is another condition that has to be met, and the (successful) attack won’t take effect until that condition is met. Now is the time for the Villain to pull out all the stops, and for the GM to fudge die rolls as necessary to bring things to the point where the Villain is about to achieve total victory. The first character to suggest a credible possibility as to what that “additional condition” is should provoke, first, a visible fear reaction on the part of the Villain (telling everyone else that the solution is at hand) and then the instant incineration of the party member making the suggestion. By now, both sides should be weakened, but the party now know how victory can be achieved… so let them achieve it, but only with one final supreme effort.

Conclusion

I guarantee that if you properly employ this technique, the epic conclusion to your campaign will be remembered – and talked about – for years to come. There are a number of examples in movies for you to consider to prove the point: The Mummy, who doesn’t become vulnerable until the Golden Book is recovered and the spell read to make him vulnerable; Aliens, where it’s only when the airlock is blown that the Alien is defeated; The Italian Job, where it’s only after the Gold heist has succeeded that the cast can have their real revenge (by proxy); and even The Firm, where Tom Cruise has to get proof of a wrongdoing outside of that of the mob before he can get his life back under control.

The technique has been used, and reused, time and time again, because it works. Compare these examples with Starship Troopers, in which achieving the conditions needed for victory (capturing the brain bug) becomes the focus of the final conflict, but the ultimate coup-de-grace is not shown; no matter how enjoyable the movie has been until this point, you still feel somewhat let down at the end. A Few Good Men, Sneakers, Lord Of The Rings, The Fugutive, Independance Day, Bruce Almighty, The Incredibles, X-Men, Twister, Armageddon, Fantastic Four, My Cousin Vinnie, Pirates Of The Caribbean, and even Bill And Ted’s Excellant Adventure – this technique is at the heart of their big finishes.

As I said earlier, my answer to your actual question is both ‘Yes’ and “No’, so I hope this makes sense of such a cryptic reply!
Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Mike, that’s an epic answer! I don’t have much to add as you’ve covered some awesome territory.

The questioner didn’t mention if the campaign had to end with this encounter. Most likley it does. You’d think an encounter with the villain where the GM is wondering about when to pull out the big guns indicates a final battle. However, my approach to villain battles might be of interest to the questioner.

With villains, I always assume they’ll win and plan accordingly. Do I want to let a total party kill happen? Most of the time the answer is no if the PCs have advanced so far in level. So, what result would allow the PCs to lose and yet still survive? In nearly all cases, this results in a continuance of the campaign.

A few times in my games where this has happened the group has decided to craft PCs at first level who are on a mission of vengeance against the villain. A couple of other times, the PCs survived and had to battle their way back to another confrontation with the bad guy, which started this process again.

Thinking this way – no punches pulled and the villain goes all out to defeat the PCs – helps with planning because you don’t have to scheme how to lose. As Mike mentioned, the appearance of losing on purpose will upset players and leave a campaign on a sour note. In addition, if you game with the same players over the long term, they’ll respect the fact you don’t pull punches and climactic encounters always have the risk of loss, and thus massive tension. Often, the PCs win anyway, despite my best efforts, so things work out and the campaign does end.

A Roleplaying Tips reader sent in a tip recently that said the PCs should never encounter the villain until the final battle. Most of my villains have layers of defenses, as Mike has suggested. My villains also use trickery to keep one step ahead of the PCs.

However, the question mentioned the PCs are on the way to the villain and it sounds like the GM is readying for a final battle royale. Villains in my campaign often don’t hole up in one place, but sometimes they do and so are at the mercy of being trapped like this. The advantage, though, is the ability to set up numerous defenses, such as traps and minions.

My answer to the question is, if it’s possible, to hit the PCs with everything the villain has and assume the villain will win. I’d have one or more plands ready to keep the PCs or campaign alive so they can strive for a rematch. However, if the campaign must end with this battle, then Mike’s advice is perfect. In fact, it’s going to be a template for my next do-or-die villain battle. :)

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