Introducing the Enemy Early
That moment when we as DM’s get to reveal the boss monster at the end of a dungeon or story arch is always thrilling for us. I don’t just mean the final battle against Tiamat or Orcus at the end of a campaign. I’m talking about the boss monsters our players face at the end of almost every session before coming down from their Doritos crash. These baddies are the Crash Man to your campaign big bad’s Dr. Wily.
Have you ever been excited about a climatic reveal of one of these boss monsters only to have your players be unimpressed? Why should they be? They haven’t been thinking of this foe for a week or more the way you have. They might not know the villain’s backstory which is the reason the baddy had to monologue for five minutes before throwing down. They don’t know that the Monster Manual tells you that their blood should be running cold when they see a grell for the first time, which is why your description of a floating brain with tentacles was more confusing to them than intimidating. Odds are this is the first time they’ve met this enemy and I believe that is the problem.
Consider this. In almost every great movie the hero and villain meet several times before the climatic end encounter. That makes the fight personal and gives it meaning. Odds are that many of you are doing this with your big bads, but what about your medium bads? A big monster at the end of the dungeon is not necessarily as scary as you think when the players have no idea what they’re up against. This is even more true if you’ve got experienced players. They’ve taken down dragons in the past. Why should this one be any different?
In this blog post I’m going to give you some tips and tricks for introducing your boss monsters to players before the climax of the adventure so that your battles with these foes have some real dramatic weight. Many of these tips can easily be applied to published adventures, which often have boss monsters who players meet for the first and last time in battle at the end of a sprawling dungeon.
The One That Got Away
If the player characters can meet your baddy in combat once or twice before their final battle that’s always great for the story, but it’s also tricky. Odds are you don’t want your boss monster to die early or run away badly injured with the PCs laughing. On the same hand you probably also don’t want your players to get so throughly trounced that they all die or run away from the challenge thinking the villain way out their league. You also may not want your villain to reveal every trick and ability in its repertoire so the battle needs to be properly staged.
There’s a few way to handle meeting the baddy in battle before the winner-take-all-climactic battle.
During the first battle with the villain…
- The boss monster is under-powered. The first time our heroes meet the boss monster in battle, the villain is not at full strength. Maybe the baddy is coming fresh off another battle and has used some resources. Maybe it has weaknesses in the environment where the first battle takes place (like a drow wizard fighting in the daylight). Maybe it’s a creature that grows more powerful overtime and is rapidly evolving like in the video game Evolve. Maybe the villain doesn’t have all the minions in tow it plans on having during the final encounter. When the PCs reduce the foe to somewhere around half its hit points, it flees vowing vengeance and the culmination of a dastardly plan the PCs must stop. Giving this foe an ability, consumable item, or spell to aid their escape is not a bad idea. Flight, teleportation, and invisibility come to mind as options. You can always fudge the numbers to let the boss monster get away. Make it clear to them they caught the fiend unawares and next time they will not be so lucky.
- The boss monster is over-powered. This is the opposite of the last idea. The PCs run into the boss monster at the peak of its power, perhaps on terrain ideally suited for the baddy, after the heroes have used lots of their own resources in other battles, during an encounter in which the villain gets a devastating surprise round, at a time when the enemy has some powerful artifact that’s powering it up, or at a time when this foe has many, many minions in tow. Make it clear to the PCs this is a fight they probably can’t win (at least without heavy casualties). I like to have a reason ready for the baddy to leave and not kill the PCs in case they don’t take the hint (like being suddenly called away or deciding the pathetic characters aren’t even worth its time), but that choice is yours. Maybe you even want to run a chase scene after such an encounter. When the PCs meet the villain again, this time they’re more prepared because they’ve got more resources, aren’t surprised, have powered down the foe in some way, or have thinned the ranks of enemy minions. Do this well and the climatic battle is tense, personal, and deadly.
- The boss monster is in a vehicle. Much like Liquid Snake in Metal Gear Solid who is first fought in a helicopter, then a bipedal tank, and then hand-to-hand (and then in a truck), put your villain inside some sort of vehicle for the first battle and then have the baddy escape by disappearing mysteriously from the wreckage of appearing after an explosion no one should have been able to survive (without magic and/or mad skills). If the villain is in a vessel equipped with weapons, maybe the PCs don’t even get a taste of the boss monster’s real abilities as it uses those weapons instead of its own to attack. You might want to try one of Exploration Age’s mechs if you go this route.
- The boss monster is just trying to accomplish a specific goal. When the PCs first run into the boss monster it isn’t too concerned with them because it has bigger fish to fry. Maybe the villain is stealing items from a magic shop for profit or to build some doomsday machine. Maybe the baddy appears to kidnap or kill a specific target. Whatever the reason once the goal is accomplished or clearly thwarted by the PCs, the enemy leaves, promising more mayhem to come. The boss monster might even leave some henchmen to battle the PCs and ensure its escape.
- The boss monster has a pressing reason to leave. As the PCs engage the boss monster in a battle, something pulls its attention away from the PCs. Maybe it’s a higher-ranking villain contacting the boss monster with new, pressing orders. Maybe the boss monster’s lair is being attacked by a third party and it has to return to defend it. Maybe something shiny wanders through the battle and the boss monster chases after it. As the baddy leaves it promises some future pain for the PCs.
A Tense Meeting
Of course the PCs don’t have to battle the boss monster before the climax. Sometimes it’s even better if they can meet the villain in some way and have a face-to-face conversation. If the PCs first meet the boss monster in a crowded place where battle might hurt a lot of innocent people, while the baddy has a hostage or two, in a place the foe has prepared with lots of snipers and undercover agents ready to attack the PCs, or during a time which they don’t yet know the evil-doer is indeed evil, the PCs can be convinced or tricked into have a conversation without drawing steel. Make sure your villain has a reason for confronting the PCs in such a way other than you wanting them to meet before hand. Ask yourself, “Why does the boss monster need to talk with the PCs?” There’s plenty of answers to that question – to call a truce, to brag, to lure them into a trap, to arrange a trade of hostages or items, to get some information from them, etc.
Beyond Face-to-Face Communication
An easy way to have the boss monster meet the PCs before their climatic battle, is to give the villain some magical means of communication. If you’ve ever player Arkham Asylum, you know the fight with the Joker doesn’t happen until the end of the game, but that during the entire experience the Clown Prince of Crime is taunting Batman over the PA system and watching him with security cameras. Maybe the boss monster has a magical technology or connection with the dungeon the PCs are crawling through which allows him similar capabilities. If you don’t like that idea, maybe the villain has enhance telepathic abilities which allow it to speak to the characters in some way and it’s up to you as the DM whether or not they can respond. If all else fails, you can give the villain access to a spell such as dream, which allows it to enter the PCs dreams and speak to them while they sleep.
I Know You, But You Don’t Know Me
If the PCs don’t have a chance to directly interact with the villain, it helps the boss monster’s story if they have seen it in action or heard about it in some way. A tyrant queen gives a speech from a balcony right before executing innocent villagers. The PCs pass through a torched town and hear the people’s tale about the great dragon that burnt it to the ground and demanded gold. Rumors about the hag who lives in the swamp at the edge of town speak of her child-eating appetite. The PCs have never seen a mind-flayer, but by the looks of the former thralls they just found, the monster they are going up against is something entirely alien and terrifying. Giving the PCs a lot of little facts and rumors to go on will increase their fear and respect of the boss monster. Ask yourself what you’d like to have your PCs find out about the villain before facing it, and then make sure they have some way to get that information in a scene which also displays a good reason to fear the villain.
Sometimes It’s Ok to Surprise Them
Of course sometimes it’s ok to leave the boss monster’s identity a secret until the end of a dungeon or story arch, but make sure you have a good reason and that the surprise is a great twist that’s actually surprising. The PCs think they’re hunting a red dragon only to discover it’s a gold wyrm gone mad. The werewolf they’ve been tracking is actually the son or daughter of the patron who hired them to take it out. Finding a bugbear chief at the end of a tunnel full of bugbears is expected and boring if you haven’t given the PCs any reason to fear or hate the leader. Finding a kobold chief who is surprisingly good at spellcasting leading the bugbears is surprising and fun just on its own.
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September 1, 2015 @ 11:11 am
This is wonderful advice, and I’d love to add to it further. My current campaign has seen a lot of exactly the same methods that you’ve described. I’ve got four villains that I’m trying to build up to the players, and I know that the players are wondering when they will pop up again.
I had an ettin run away, and he will be coming back soon as the dominated puppet of an evil dark force. I had a frost knight (an intimidating evil fey) that chased the group from the dungeon to the village that I am hoping to have at a climactic fight soon. I have a dangerous soul stealing trickster fey that the players chased away from a temple, but he remembers the group, and they remember him. And finally, the big bad boss of my campaign has already shown himself to them, kidnapped several people, controlled and coordinated many attacks against their allies, and taunted them openly.
It’s been refreshing to have them be so open to the idea that not every fight has to end in total win/lose, and I’ve been able to place a lot of cues in each encounter that either cements the purpose of their quest, or introduces a new villain for them to worry about. But I do attest that this kind of villainous staging (if I had to call it something) goes a long way to getting players engaged and interested rather than having a less exciting monster of the week.
September 3, 2015 @ 8:17 am
Amen! Your campaigns sound awesome!
September 1, 2015 @ 4:51 pm
Agreed, letting the player characters see their enemy and get to know about them before the final confrontation is always best. Encountering the Enemy in battle, even with your excellent advice, is always tricky because some players will just have to try and kill them, then and there, no matter how stupid doing so is. So, you have to be careful when using that tactic.
September 1, 2015 @ 6:52 pm
I don’t tend to pull punches when it cones to letting villains getting away; if the players beat them, then it was due to their tactical ability. It doesn’t mean that the villain in question might not have a brother or lieutenant that might later seek revenge or similar. You may not have to bring a villain back again if you can relate a future encounter to their defeat.
September 3, 2015 @ 8:19 am
True! Turn every unexpected surprise into a new opportunity.
September 3, 2015 @ 8:18 am
Totally is tricky to use battle as a method. If you’ve got that kind of player who just can’t give up the fight, use one of the other methods instead.
September 1, 2015 @ 6:05 pm
I like to keep my boss monster identities secret too. And I agree that introducing them early to a story is great, if you can do it. I like to think of villians like the creature from Stephen King’s It, which while formidable by itself, attacked many times in the form of Pennywise the clown, so that when the full reveal came, it was still a big deal. D&D villains with illusion powers or shapechanging abilities can be used in similar ways to that. Or you can use them to make it really personal: maybe the enemy was the kindly old shopkeeper the whole time, or one of the PC’s adopted aunt! Or an alternate personality of the beloved town wizard! Egad! I can’t watch! 😉
September 3, 2015 @ 8:20 am
Damn it, Ix. I want you to DM me. Can I move your family to the states?
I love the It callout. That’s a GREAT way to get players engaged and on board.