Villains get got – when your cool characters don’t get to do any of their cool stuff
C: So today we are talking about what happens when your baddy gets dunked on by the party.
A: By which you mean, when they get absolutely obliterated.
C: Scientifically speaking, yes. Right. And to prevent this being used in response to, like, eight conversation topics—I don’t mean, like, what happens if a fight is too easy for the players, because I don’t think that’s actually a problem we often have as DMs—
A: Hold on. I constantly have that problem. I always feel like I’m giving you too-easy villains.
A: Yeah. Often I plan slightly tougher enemies, or have more of them, and then at the last minute I panic and I’m like, ‘No, they’ll never be able to handle this!’ so I take out an NPC. And then I watch you steamroll your way through them without breaking a sweat and I’m like, ‘Oh.’
C: Oh, yeah, actually I feel that too sometimes, especially now in my game. I fret before a combat and think, ‘Oh, they’ve got no way of taking these guys on’, and then the party does something I don’t anticipate and crush it.
A: Right. It’s so hard to find the balance between impossible and way too easy.
C: That’s a good point, though—and maybe I’m just a helicopter DM—but I don’t usually feel like, ‘Oh, they can handle this easily’ and then the party gets destroyed.
A: True. Although I can think of a few times in my game where—But, as you said, that’s not actually what we’re talking about today. We shouldn’t get off topic.
C: Yeah, we can chat about that soon, but this conversation is about when you have a fight and one of your goons gets taken out before he can use either one or all of his cool abilities. Like, how to deal with not getting to do all that epic stuff you had planned, for example, when big-ass baddy gets hit on round one by something like Blindness.
A: Or when they get stunned and then punched into oblivion and there’s nothing you can do about it but be like, ‘Dammit. That’s no fun.’
A: If it wasn’t obvious, both of us recently had sessions where this happened to us.
C: Yeah. We’ve both been like, ‘Here’s this cool villain,’ and they haven’t been able to use everything in their arsenal. My guy got to do a few cool things—he didn’t get got from the get go—and he was a backstory villain who suddenly manifested in the main campaign arc, so it was still a really good fight in many ways and I wouldn’t change it. But, you know, there are abilities of his that I’d have liked to use that I never got to use. He has an ability called ‘Taste Fear’—that shit would have been dope.
A: You say dope, I say incredibly creepy; thank goodness we managed to kill him before he did that! Also, I will put money of Hamish getting that ability eventually.
C: Hah! Maybe. I mean, this villain is gone now, but maybe another NPC will get it so you can still experience it.
A: Great. I cannot wait. But yeah, sometimes I do the bad thing after fights where I pull back the curtain and tell players way too much about the enemies they’ve just fought. But if I can resist that urge, chances are you’ll meet a similar villain down the line so I can have another bite at that cherry, as it were.
C: That’s totally fair. Like, if you do the work, if you spend ten hours preparing for a session and then your dude gets sniped on turn one, you know that you’re going to find a way to use his shit again.
A: Yeah, I cling to that thought as I watch you guys destroy all of my beautiful villains. Otherwise it’s too distressing.
C: Maybe I’m just being a big baby about this, but yeah, DMs want to have a good time too. You want to use your cool shit. Obviously you want to put on a brave face and avoid bringing the mood down by being like, ‘Oh, I didn’t get to do the cool thing I spent two and a half hours preparing’. But when you find something cool and ingenuitive, you want to give it a spin, and it sucks when you don’t get that chance. That’s only human.
A: That’s a really important thing to remember—it’s okay to be kind of sad that your villains get killed. I mean, I’m not ever blaming the players for the things they do, I really want to stress that. The point of villains is to be defeated. But it’s totally normal and fine to be like, ‘Oh, but he was going to murder you with his cool ray of death.’ As a DM, you’re allowed to have those feelings.
C: And you want to show off the cool things, you want to get that reaction of ‘Ooh, this is so crazy!’ from your players. You want to be able to up the ante. So when a baddy gets defeated, or if the party finds some way of circumventing your boss—like they try to coup de grace him or they escape by moving into a trans-dimensional space where he can’t get them—it’s totally justifiable and understandable to be like, ‘I know that you guys are being smart and creative and tactical, but I just want to do all my cool stuff too.’
A: It really is.
C: Also, sometimes it isn’t even that your guy gets stunned and taken out before he gets to do his cool stuff. Sometimes it’s that you have so many abilities in your arsenal and it’s like, ‘This guy will be dead in three turns, which one should I do?’ The pressure is intense!
A: I’ve got around that in some fights by making my villains flee. There are a lot of recurring villains in Blackmarsh and I will keep having you guys interact with them until you have seen all that they can do!
C: It feels realistic to have them flee. Often the Vanilla monster sheets will have a tactical section explaining, like, ‘Yo, if this guys in single digits, he’s going to get the fuck out of there’, because, you know, people don’t really like dying.
A: But sometimes they can’t flee! Last session my boss tried to run, then you goddamn stunned them and they were like, ‘Well now I just bleed to death.’
C: Sorry about that.
A: It’s fine. One of his minions made it out, so now they can have a dramatic story arc where they must avenge their boss in order to take his place, or whatever. But I also wanted to say that, that’s my technique for getting around this, but I also liked what you did last session, where your villain kind of appeared slowly. Like, we were looking for him in the house and some things happened before we actually had eyes on him. That was a good way of getting to use more of your enemy’s abilities than you otherwise would have.
C: And it gave the party time to stew, let them get nice and paranoid.
A: Yeah, by having a battle-map but nothing on it yet for us to fight was really smart. It created this really tense atmosphere which matched the creepy murder-house setting very well.
C: Thanks. That was obviously something I’d planned. But I think you did a really good job of managing your combat even though you were down a villain from the start. And you were very honourable about your rolls, because it’s worth remembering that you wouldn’t have been in such a pinch had you been rolling better. And you were pretty earnest about the fact that you kept the rolls low; in that situation I as a DM would have fudged some of those rolls probably.
A: Well, it turned out that one of my players could see my dice, so…
C: Instant death. In real life.
A: Haha, yeah, no. Maybe. Sometimes I contemplate fudging the rolls—and that probably should be a different conversation—but it’s kind of easier when you don’t.
C: Yup. Just let the fucking fates take you.
A: And with this fight, I was juggling so many things, it was like, ‘Whatever the roll is, I’m keeping.’ And I think it probably balances out in the end—some other fight I’ll roll great for.
C: Yeah. And even if your players have had an easy fight this time, next time you give them an even tougher challenge, which means that you get to use their feeling of satisfaction—like, ‘Oh, we were so good at killing that enemy’, you get to be like, ‘Well, enjoy that feeling of confidence. Next time I’ll make sure that I get to use my abilities.’