Bearding The Dragon – An Epic Villain Recipe for You — RPT#539
From: Johnn Four
I recently received this reader tip request from Tom G. about GMing dragons:
First off, I’m totally thrilled by the Faster Combat GM-Course! Second, I am planning an encounter with a dragon. PCs will be 6th level and a dragon is going to destroy Falcon’s Hollow.
I realized that I’ve never GMed a dragon before, and feel that I need to keep special things in mind but don’t know which.
My question, could you write a blog about what to keep in mind when staging an encounter with a dragon and how to pull it off?
Your wish is my command, Tom. Through the years I’ve run awesome dragon encounters and terrible ones.
Most recently, I’ve run what I think are memorable encounters with a black dragon in an acid rain cave and a red dragon shaking down the PCs like a common road bandit.
Both encounters had roleplaying, combat, drama and some story.
I’ve learned from my botches and successes, and here are my tips on how to run great dragon encounters.
1. Treat Them Like a Villain
All villainous tips need here apply. Even for a one-off encounter, set the table properly and turn this legendary creature into something terrible and feared.
a) Give the creature a great real name and a memorable common/villain name.
Use the common name with the PCs for a while. Then use the real name for a surprise, twist or clue fodder.
For example, start with the common name in your campaign and set the PCs in motion to kill “The Black Death” and “The Ash Creator.” Two names might offer a bit a variety in your roleplaying.
Then generate references to another villain in a parallel thread. Villagers have legends of “Moraleth” and perhaps the PCs could pit Moraleth against The Black Death to save them all? A fun twist.
Keep the real name in your back pocket and time its reveal for great story effect.
b) Give the creature a purpose.
Hatch an evil plan so you can direct the creature intelligently through the campaign or adventure. A plan gives you purpose, as well, instead of an encounter in a vacuum with no reason to act one way or the other.
Some example villain goals:
- More slaves for labor and attention (the current slaves are burning out, ba dum bum)
- Growing its territory to be worthy enough to attract a mate
- Acquiring the “set piece” that completes its treasure horde, such as the King’s crown or wizard’s relic
- Retribution for something the village did years ago
- His father has commanded it to acquire more wealth, experience and strength
c) Create an entertaining personality.
Dark and mysterious rarely makes a villain entertaining in an RPG because there’s not much to learn or roleplay with from the players’ point of view.
So make your dragon interesting and give him a great personality.
Who is your favorite movie or book villain? The Joker played by Heath Ledger? The Wicked Witch from Oz? Darth Vader? Pick a villain and model your dragon after them for fast and easy – but entertaining – roleplay.
Here’s a black dragon roleplaying tool that might give your ideas, regardless of your dragon’s colour: New Generator: Roleplaying A Black Dragon.
A name, a purpose and a personality gives you a sound foundation to make your dragon a great villain in your campaign. Now lets’ go a bit deeper.
2. Plot A Brief History Timeline
Details add weight to your foes. They provide context and mental candy for players to chew on.
One of the fastest ways I know to flesh out a dragon’s presence is to build a simple timeline. What’s happened before?
a) Pick five dates in the past.
b) Give each date a location.
c) Give each date a sympathetic victim.
(somebody the PCs relate to, such as a defenseless village, a band of noble adventurers or a pristine forest).
d) Whack the victim.
Outline the circumstance, such as the nature of the conflict and why the dragon attacked. Push the envelope a little bit here, HBO-style.
Use a random name generator to give victims’ names: 40 Great Name Resources, Lists and Generators.
e) Now tell the story of each event.
- What happened?
- When did it happened?
- Who was involved?
- Why did it happen?
- What was the outcome?
Practice with a friend or in a mirror. Be sure to use the dragon’s common name throughout.
These become your five legends you can give the PCs any way you like during gameplay:
- Bard song
- Inn gossip
- Sage information
- Found diary
- Character background
- Village epitaph
Now we’re really cooking with these stories. Throw gas on the flames by ensuring each location is part of the adventure. The five legends you tell will add drama and possibly foreshadowing to your adventure’s places.
Try to have at least a few NPCs in the area related to the past victims, as well. More hooks and ties!
“The foul creature killed them all. My gran-pappy could not save a one. <Tear descends down cheek> But he got a few licks in with’is burnin’ sword. I bet that left scars in the bugger. Too bad the sword got lost in the battle.”
3. Change The World
Unless the dragon is new to the area, waking up after an age or is a surprise – all of which I advise against because growing drama is so much better than a one-shot surprise encounter – you want the world to reflect the evil and destructive presence of the creature.
Start with the creature’s breath weapon. Brainstorm all the nasty things you could do with that over a century or five.
- Torture forests
- Poison streams
- Erode the land in bizarre ways
- Create smog or change the air’s properties
- Topple buildings (churches and orphanages being prime targets)
- Change the weather or climate
If the dragon casts spells, go through the same brainstorm exercise for its best spells.
Finally, think how the creature’s presence might change things:
- Inspire cults
- Attract armies or heroes
- Attract other minor villains, flunkies and sycophants
- Deplete the region’s magic items and money from raiding
- Impoverish nearby settlements due to annual tithing
Change the people and the land around the dragon because of the lizard’s presence and abilities. When the PCs arrive, they’ll revel in the detail and integrated feeling of the setting.
As always, mine these things for clues, roleplaying and encounter hooks.
For example, a villager wears a mask because he got too near the creature’s breath one time. Now the villager pleads with the PCs to save his daughter who has been selected to be part of this year’s offering to The Ash Creator.
4. Build An Awesome Lair
A dragon’s gotta live in style. Dark caves were so last millennium.
Unless you plan on the final battle being elsewhere, you know eventually the PCs must track the creature down and beard him in his lair.
I prefer this approach because the journey to the lair is iconic and full of adventure opportunities. Besides, bringing the battle to the PCs just spoils your players. 🙂
Have the PCs experience the warped land and denizens as they draw closer to the villain’s base.
Increase difficulty of encounters as the PCs travel, with the occasional easy encounter to break up the pace.
Keep combats fast and furious so the journey does not take forever. And intersperse fights with roleplaying encounters, according to your GMing style. 50/50 is a nice split if you are not sure.
Use the roleplaying encounters to propel the PCs into danger, to reveal more lore about the villain, to offer conflicting lore (red herrings) and to give PCs a chance to rest or test non-combat skills.
Once the characters reach the lair, they should experience something unique and spectacular.
a) Pick two or three theme words.
Describe the mood and feel of the lair with keywords so you can ad lib easily with the words as guides.
For example: “A cave opens in the side of the glacier.”
Your theme words: Dark, Acid, Angry
Your revised description: “In the side of the glacier has been carved the face of a roaring dragon. In its mouth is a large opening, jagged icicles forming teeth. Acrid smoke seethes out the cave.”
The great thing about this technique is you build up a repertoire as your brain gets familiar with the keywords and subject matter.
Turning anything into a flavor of your theme becomes faster and easier. By the time you get to the heart of the lair, you should have no problem ad libbing awesome details!
b) Trap the place like crazy.
Traps offer interesting gameplay when done right.
I remember running encounters that dragged on because the players had to guess the right combo or choose the right actions. Better to get to yes fast and move on, rewarding creativity and punishing hastiness. Say Yes, but Get There Quick
I recommend offering a few traps, but to mostly use hazards. Hazards are an excellent type of trap that do not tax your GMing like other forms of traps do.
Hazards add flavor to encounters and can actually speed up combat, while offering challenging gameplay to players.
For example, black acid pools boiling in treacherous ice passageways would be entirely on-theme and dangerous traps.
A simple bull rush or knockdown attack could ramp up damage in a hurry.
Try to also theme traps around the personality of the dragon. A Joker dragon would put dangers in the PCs’ way for giggles. A Wicked Witch dragon would use command and control traps to render PCs helpless so the dragon could gloat, threaten and frighten. A Darth Vader trap might try to change alignment, recruit, maim or overbear.
c) Think “Great Encounter Environments.”
For each location you place in the dragon’s seat of power, make them fun encounter settings.
Yes, logic and realism is good for dungeon design. But layer on exciting encounter features and options. And toss realism out if need be in exchange for awesome location design. As long as there’s a way for players’ sense of disbelief to operate, you can use it.
For example, a forest would break up ice cave settings nicely. But a forest inside a glacier? How about trees whose roots love and feed on acid?
Check out banyan trees. The roots are tough and could elevate the trunk off the cold ground:
A thin sheet of ice allows sunlight through the roof. Gnarly black acid-flinging trees that hate visitors would be perfectly in-theme.
Here’s the thing with encounter location designs. Tie them back to other campaign elements as much as possible. Weird acid trees suddenly discovered in a cave would be entertaining, but not as powerful if you had laid the seeds for their appearance beforehand (sorry for the pun).
For all encounters within the lair, try to tie in details from the rest of the campaign leading up to these moments. Go through your villain’s traits, history, NPCs, previous locations, treasure found, rumors and clues. Mine everything for connectedness.
Bonus points if lair encounters close loops you opened earlier. Disappeared NPCs, missing magic items, unsolved mysteries. Create open loops in the campaign and close them in the lair. Now we’re talking climactic build-up!
For example, the peasants live in poverty because the dragon keeps turning the fields and forest to ash. Hence the creature’s common name, Ash Creator.
Turns out, though, the dragon’s breath weapon warps the tree’s fruit so the seeds inside give birth to black acid trees – the creatures’ favorite snack.
Villagers must go out to harvest the fruit from the ashes. I smell NPC and encounter opportunities here, plus something to make the region unique. As NPCs get mangled from the ruined forests and get poorer every year, they pray for heroes to come along….
So, inside the lair might be clues about this cycle and chain of life, including the acid forest itself, scrolls with lore, enslaved gardeners, cave drawings and so on.
The PCs might discover missing NPCs abducted for harvesting, the old warrior’s flaming sword dropped in an acid pool, the reason for the dragon’s presence in the region, previous village “offerings” used for planting seeds and tending the forest.
Closing story loops like this quickens the pace, which is why the technique works so well in the drama build-up during lair exploration.
5. Lots of Minions, With A Chain of Command
You need several build-up encounters with bad guys before a final confrontation with the dragon.
It’s smart business to have lots of servants to do your bidding, man the defenses and buffer you against pesky rebels and heroes.
I would use a chain of command to create not just a logical body of minions, but to provide additional structure to your campaign.
What level will the PCs start at when the dragon plot starts? What level do you want them to be when the dragon dies?
That range becomes your encounter level structure with the dragon’s minions, using a chain of command to pace and measure things out.
a) Flunkies and minions
Early encounters, weakest foes, likely encountered in groups
If you are running a campaign based on the dragon, then use these tips to create factions and deep gameplay from your flunkies and minions:
Creating Memorable Enemy Groups – http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=404
Have Fun with Factions – https://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=393
How to Create Factions – https://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=447
Add to groups of minions for more advanced encounters
Remember to have your sergeants, flunkies and minions *doing something*. Avoid having them sitting around and playing poker:
- Harassing villagers
- Capturing villagers for questioning
- Gathering resources for the dragon
- Counter-attacking the PCs
- Fighting off some other threat
- Repairing something
If you want to mess with your players, have these guys doing something nice. Nobody is pure evil 100% of the time.
c) 3 Lieutenants
One per faction, or just junior, middle and senior
These guys are your stage bosses. Call them generals or offspring or whatever you like. But the PCs gotta get through or around these bad asses before reaching your main villain.
Lieutenants should be surrounded by minions and sergeants. And then give them a few surprise defenses or attacks. Give them mini lairs with hazards, cool magic items or special powers.
Every dragon adventure needs a double-crosser. Depending on your game’s scope, this could be an individual or a full-on information network.
Would you mind if I suggest my book, Assassin’s Amulet? Assassins make excellent spies, as described in the book: http://legaciescampaignsetting.com/
And every story needs a Loki. This NPC helps and hinders the PCs.
He should enrage them but always be too useful or elusive to kill off.
A nice trickster role is mentor. Perhaps a sage who drip feeds PCs excellent information about the dragon, but who also sends the PCs on missions that only serve himself.
Or perhaps the sage senses the PCs are still too weak to challenge the dragon so he toughens the group up on useless missions or surprise challenges.
Maybe the sage is being blackmailed to betray the PCs repeatedly, but he still finds ways to help the party from time to time. If the PCs are good, they’ll try to help the sage while getting screwed over by him at the same time.
Thus the power of this role.
Learn more about the trickster story archetype: Trickster
Find a suitable NPC or agency to fulfill this role to make your dragon story much more entertaining.
f) The dragon
Here we are at last. The final destination up the chain of command.
With baited breath, we witness the ultimate confrontation.
Let’s review how we’ve come to this climactic encounter.
We started with villain design, giving the creature a place in the story with motive and flavour. We teased the PCs with stories and legends.
Then we gave the creature full context within the setting, leaving his terrible clawprint all around.
We let the PCs experience the awfulness of the villain and his impact. We confronted the heroes with victims, flunkies and various challenges.
Then the PCs went on a journey to the seat of the creature’s power: his lair. On the way, the group faced more challenges and further felt the impact of the dragon’s presence.
Once in the lair, the heroes fought through traps, hazards, flunkies and lieutenants. They resolved a few things, spurring them onward with greater momentum.
And now they face the might creature!
May I suggest a hard-pitched battle with fingernail-biting action, and then….
A slick escape?
Villainous Escapes: How to Help the Bad Guy Live to Fight Another Day – http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=432
I hope I answered your question, Tom. I went a bit meta on you and got into more than encounter tips. Drop me a note if you still have questions.
For more villain advice, check out these articles:
Running Recurrent Bad Guys – https://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=437
A Brief Word from Johnn
D&D 5th Edition Kicks Off
Earlier this month, Wizards announced the next edition of D&D is coming.
They’ve brought together a new team of designers, including two of my favorites, Monte Cook (D&D 3 and Ptolus) and Bruce Cordell (mind flayers – yum!).
I was asked to be part of some kind of inside playtest group to check out the new rules, and I think it’s excellent they’re tapping the community for feedback so early in the process.
I’m not sure what I’m allowed to tell you yet, but I received a draft of the rules Saturday. I’ll find out what I can and can’t say and post what comments I can in the coming months in this newsletter.
One thing I’ve heard is they’re looking to make the game Sympatico with previous editions. That’s an interesting premise that was the primary hook for me for wanting to check the game out.
Hopefully I’ll have some inside scoops for you soon.
More info on D&D Next here: Morrus’ Unofficial EN WORLD Tabletop RPG News.
Johnn in 2011 and 2012
Last year was both an awesome and a terrible year for me. I wrote about this in detail recently at the Campaign Mastery blog.
If you want to hear why 2011 went for me the way it did, and to let me know how it was for you, please drop by:
Claw a chunk out of your schedule and get some gaming done this week!
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