Villainous Escapes: How to Help the Bad Guy Live to Fight Another Day
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #432
- Villainous Escapes
- A Brief Word From Hannah
- For Your Game: Holidays
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
From Roleplaying Tips Readers
In issue #425, we posed to you the following question:
“How can bad guys escape? Players are effective at slaying all opposition. In most systems, the rules are stacked against the villains. Free hacks, different movement rates (Darth Vader is not exactly a fast runner) and all that.
GMs also often shy away from the improve required. If the bad guy moves off the map, what now? Then there’s the dreaded chase scene. How to GM those well, under pressure, without a plan?
Many GMs throw in the towel. If they’re experienced, they enter the encounter knowing the bad guy is likely to die. If they’re not thinking ahead with the proper expectations, then they’ll end the encounter frustrated, thinking they somehow botched things.
How do you help bad guys escape when you hope for a recurring NPC?”
We received a ton of great responses from the following readers: Chad Samuels, Ken Burgan II, Lev Lafayette, Mark of the Pixie, William Honchell, Chuck Neves, JFK, Carlo, CRader, Brad Gilbert, Richard Coulson, Fernando “Shiruba,” Steven, Charles Ciaffone, Ian Winterbottom, Guy Goddard, Ulv, and Christian Kelley.
Mixed and matched and compiled into themed lists, here are their suggestions.
I Planned For This All Along
Your villain is smart, connected, and powerful; why else would he be such a threat to the PCs? It stands to reason that he’d put all of his resources to use in achieving his most important objective: not dying.
The number one tip that reader after reader sent in was this: plan the escape route in advance.
Here are a number of ways that could be achieved:
- Traps to slow down the heroes, including trapped escape routes.
- Secret passages and trap doors are always good, as are false walls.
- The old movie chases favorite: use a large moving object or a closing door that closes just behind the villain.
- Ninja smoke bomb. Need not be smoke; flinging around a bag of flour can obscure a room long enough for an escape.
- Have some method of stunning the PCs long enough for the villain to make some sort of quick quip and walk away into the darkness
- Traps and minions dedicated exclusively to assuring an escape.
- Make the escape route hazardous to the PCs. Not just standard traps, but long drops or murky water that the villain has pre-planned ways of navigating.
- Set timers or triggers. The ice tunnel caves in, the building explodes, or the hounds are released just after the villain has made his exit.
- Plan for the worst case. Have tricks and spells for getting out of restraints and escaping captors.
- Don’t wait around for the party. Have them face a doppelganger, an illusion, or the chief lieutenant?
- Use trickery. Make the PCs’ assault on the evil lair look like an unprovoked attack on an innocent location, and call in the proper authorities to help defend it.
- Think like the PCs. They’ll cut the rope holding up the chandelier? Reinforce it, or better yet, connect it to a trap door instead.
- Have a secondary base already prepared somewhere else.
Want to See a Magic Trick?
Many villains are evil sorcerers, seductive enchantresses, or power-hungry archmages. Even those who aren’t have henchmen or contacts with at least some amount of magical skill. Put all that power to use.
Some tried-and-true methods of escape by magical means:
- A ring of invisibility is always a classic.
- Teleport out, but leave something behind. For example, a-bomb.
- A wall of fire is nice, but a foot-thick wall of ice is better.
- Summon fodder creatures to keep the PCs busy while the villain escapes.
- Escape portal. Another classic, the villain who can create portals and step through them. Having the bad guy close the portal and cut an NPC in half, or having their destination be a realm of fire, does a lot to discourage pursuit.
- The bad guy just flies up and away, or steps through a wall, jogs across the river, or runs at super speed for a moment. Any mode of transport the PCs don’t have can be a possibility for escape.
- Swap bodies with someone in a safer position – even better, with a friend of the PCs.
- A simple illusion or shape changing ability can make blending into a crowd the perfect escape.
- Any psychics working against the heroes? Just have them use telekinesis to create a physical barrier between the heroes and villain. Too high to climb over, can’t dig under it, too heavy to move.
- Distract the players with illusion spells.
- Let the villain die. If the bad guy had the backing of a powerful organization, then resurrecting him should not be too much trouble. Even if he doesn’t, there are always wandering necromancers with entirely too much time on their hands.
What better way to save the villain than to convince the party they don’t want to kill her in the first place?
Failing that, face the players with a different choice: kill the villain and risk losing something just as important.
Potential moral quandaries include:
- The villain fires a shot into a building support. The hero has to choose between saving the bystanders or capturing the bad guy.
- A character who is untouchable, such as a popular mayor or respected priest.
- The villain knows something important. Best done if the PCs have personal secrets they need answers to.
- A poison will. The old “Copies of this letter will be released to the press in the event of my death” trick. Best used when the PCs have dirty secrets they don’t want exposed.
- The villain is needed to do something important, such as keep the hell mouth closed. If they die, it opens.
- Make the party choose between saving a hostage and finishing off the villain. If he pushes the captured heiress into the river, bound hand and foot, what will the PCs do?
- One way to discourage pursuit is to take a hostage along for the ride.
- Have your bad guy linked, magically or otherwise, to innocent captives who soak up his damage.
- If the PCs are greedy, toss a timed grenade into the vault.
- Have the villain be an old friend or a family member who just might have a spark of goodness left within them.
Know When to Fold ‘Em
Sometimes the best way to win is not to play. Facing down a band of powerful adventurers tricked out in all the latest and greatest magical gear certainly qualifies as one of those times.
For your villains who prefer discretion to valor, try the following:
- Don’t get near the party. If the situation requires the villain to be in the area of combat, he will be inside an armored vehicle with the max possible amount of discrete armor on. And he will leave exactly when the PCs notice he is there.
- Know when to run away. This can be as simple as realizing well in advance when the battle is up, or be as complex as a surveillance system.
- Put hordes of lackeys stand between the big bad and the heroes.
- Make henchmen strong enough to be a threat the PCs can’t ignore. This way the villain has more time to act and plan.
- Place the villain near a trap door let them lob projectile attacks at the PCs. Let the villain flee before the lackeys are all mopped up.
- Leap to certain death. A classic, best if done into a river or the sea. Any PC foolish enough to follow will wash ashore beaten and battered and barely alive.
- Call in a favor. The party has powerful patrons, so why shouldn’t their nemesis?
- Surrender. If the party has characters with strong morals, they will be hard pressed to just kill a foe who has surrendered. Sure the villain might end up in prison, but they can still scheme, and quite possibly, escape.
Do the Monster Math
These escape tactics are all well and good, but how do you implement them in the game?
Some crunchy ways to ensure your baddies keep coming back:
- If the villain engages, give him the initiative. That way when he gets down to low health he can flee right away.
- Have getaway spells keyed to a certain Hit Point total. When the villain drops below it, the escape mechanism kicks in automatically.
- Make sure the villain’s enchanted item only has one charge. The party will be ready for it the next time anyway, so it doesn’t make it less useful for the villain, and it does prevent the PCs from abusing it if it falls into their hands.
- Specific D&D spells that make for good escapes include Darkness, Grease, Fly, Invisibility, Hold Person, Sanctuary, and Expeditious Retreat.
- Targeting PCs often gives them a chance to save, so try to work out spells that don’t.
- Use an action point, or any mechanic that bestows an extra action, and use that action to outrun the party.
- Rituals take time to cast, but they can last quite a while. Summon some Phantom Steeds or be ready with Shadow Walk before the party shows up.
- If you don’t want the villain to die yet, have them just be too strong for the party. An AC that only a critical can hit, or enough hit points to take all the party’s attacks for five rounds and still walk away smiling.
Placate the Players
Recurring villains can be great fun, but they can also be major annoyances. Make sure your players see their antagonist’s escapes as awesome plot twists rather than frustrating obstacles, or worse, deus ex machina.
Before setting up a recurring villain, check with the players if they are okay with the idea. Letting your players know up front this guy will always escape death means they do not mentally set themselves up to kill him.
Make the villain pay for his escape. If he teleports away, the PCs should hear the laughter of the demon he bargained with to do so; if he calls on the dark side to boost his powers, they have to see the lightning crackle and his face contort. The mentalist should bleed from nose, ears and eyes; the vampire’s pride should be visibly shattered. Even if the PCs don’t win, their adversary must be seen to lose.
Thanks to everyone who e-mailed in for your excellent tips!
A Brief Word From Hannah
Candle Campaign’s Back from Break
I had my first post-holiday session this past weekend. It went very well. The party killed some goblins and even managed to be sneaky a couple of times. Sort of. Now the paladin is glowing and the Big Bad is on her way. Or she just sent an army of goblins to slaughter them; no one’s sure yet.
Our party’s ranger now lives elsewhere, but we weren’t ready to count his character out of the campaign just yet. Our solution: a webcam on our end, focused on the battlemat, and a microphone on his end. We switched back and forth between various chat programs trying to find one that worked well with our audio/video setup, and I think we settled on Skype. We kept a chat window up for secret communications.
It wasn’t as good as playing in person, but it’s by far the best long-distance setup I’ve ever tried.
D&D to Wushu Quick Conversion
A while back, I mentioned how much fun our group had running the first few combats of a session in Wushu. Johnn asked if there was a sure-fire way to convert from D&D to Wushu, and I didn’t think there was. Having thought about it some more, I finally have an answer.
Wushu characters are usually defined by three Traits and one Weakness. To insta-convert a D&D character, have one Trait be their primary attack, one be related to their race, and the third related to their class, with a roleplaying-related Weakness. Set two Traits at 4 and one at 5.
For example, a Dwarf Paladin might have Traits of Hammer Time 5, Like a Rock 4, and Hotline to Moradin 4 with a Weakness of You Gonna Drink That? “Like a Rock” could apply to both the character’s endurance, and his skill with stonework. If you’re not feeling up to catchphrases and your DM doesn’t mind broad traits, Big Hammer 5, Paladin 4 and Dwarf 4 would work just fine. Traits in Wushu can be a lot more creative than that, but if you’re looking to spend 30 seconds or less switching over, just go with attack, race and class
For Your Game: Holidays
Once planting is done, the farmers living near Brigid’s Forest celebrate the end of the work with a feast for the fey living within the wood. This is the time when local druids bless the fields and children are given their birth name.
Marriages should not be performed on this day, however, lest the happy couple be “blessed” by the mercurial fey and bring trouble upon their house.
During the feast, people dress in elaborate and sometimes shocking costumes based on the fey themselves. Costumes range from faux pixie wings and goat-hide trousers to dresses of woven leaves.
It’s not unusual for a few sprites or a satyr to join the festivities, though sometimes rarer and unusual fey appear; a nymph, a spriggan, even the occasional unicorn straying from its glade. Strange curses and quirky blessings are commonly bestowed by the fey, though generally lifted by the next full moon at the latest. It’s a day for mischief and merriment for all concerned.
- A crew of mischievous pixies spike a bowl of punch with Elixir of Love.
- A ragewalker shows up at the festivities, sowing chaos.
- The satyrs get drunk and, well, go read some classical mythology.
- A redcap curses the town for refusing to let him participate.
- The Queen of the Fae arrives with her panoply for the celebration, but when she leaves in the morning, the inhabitants suddenly become ravenously hungry and discover that the town has lost three days of time.
- A couple who elope during the holiday at a satyr’s suggestion have their first child replaced by a changeling.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Secret Information Cards
From Mark of the Pixie
I made up a list of about 30 cards with common secret information on them. I just wrote them out on the back of a stack of old business cards.
My list had things like:
- They are hiding something
- You are being watched
- You don’t trust them
- Something is wrong
- They are trying to delay you
- They are scared
- They are lying
- You sense magic
- You sense evil
- 🙂 [Smiley face.]
- 🙁 [Frowny face.]
To keep players honest I also put in some red herring cards:
- Smile and hand this back
- Frown at another player
- Ask me what this means
I also kept a few blank cards on hand so I could scribble a more specific note if I needed to. Then I could shuffle it in and hand it out with some blank or red herring cards and players would not know who got what.
It worked really well.
Homebrewing A World
From Jack Crow
The best advice I can give for homebrewing a world is know the difference between a fully realized and a fully detailed setting.
A fully realized world does not have to be complete; it just has to suggest completeness.
- Don’t detail more than you need, or you might risk creative paralysis when you’re playing.
- Detail the awesome parts of the world and really make an effort to create something unique to enhance play experience.
- Be sure the feel and tone of the setting reflect your overall meta concept.
- Let the game evolve to fill in the rest of the details during play.
I have learned this the hard way. I over-detail all the time and have to force myself to only create what needs creating for the game.
I am going to write a series on creating a homebrew setting on my blog sometime in next while, feel free to pop by and give me some advice. I hope that helps and good luck. Just to let you know role playing tips was the first RPG site I ever read, and it’s still one of my favorites.
From Loz Newman
“Freewheeling” gaming within a restricted game-sector.
Step 1) Get an idea for a campaign, work it up into a proposition for a group of players.
Step 2) If they go for it, define the world history, basic cultures in conflict to explain to players the PC creation possibilities. Define the starting sector fairly well, and the world only lightly (they won’t be visiting the entire world immediately anyhow).
Step 3) Let them create their characters together. During this, listen to/ask them what they’d like (campaign-wise). Sometimes I go the full blown questionnaire route.
Step 4) Run a short intro scenario to “get their feet wet”.
Step 5) Before the next scenario, detail the area they’ll game in in greater detail, keeping one step ahead of them all the time. Have the concept of the important areas they might visit in your head at the very least. Maps and galleries of NPC images are even better.
Basic principle: In-game, improvise the role-playing/stats for NPCs around your concepts. Don’t bother defining everything in great detail ahead of time, most of it will just end up be unused (could be used later, though). Keep notes about player’s goals/wishes, and work them into the concepts for future scenarios.
Have the broad canvas in mind, and be able to improvise convincingly on an instant’s notice, then do the detail work on NPCs the players want to keep interacting with between scenarios.
This cuts down on the unnecessary work, allows you to adapt the world as you go and allows the players wishes to influence what the GM put into play.
The Introductory Game Session
From Loz Newman
Since I know my players (e.g. have listen carefully to their comments and wishes during PC creation) I usually already have a good idea of what would make a good session for them. If I’ve gone the questionnaire route I’ve got maybe too much info. 🙂
With this information, I adapt the intro scenario (cameoing- in NPCs mentioned in the PCs’ backgrounds and concepts, for example).
The basic goal of the intro is to present the campaign initial thread to hook the players’ interest. I’ll emphasize threads of particular interest to them during the obligatory first step of briefly recapping of the world (two minutes of capsule history of the world, one minute of local history).
Next, I briefly tell every player why their PCs are at the initial encounter location (public info out loud; sneaky private stuff linked to their secret identities briefly by written note I had time to write during the character creation process). Linking the PCs into a living world is *very* important.
Intro scenarios are generally one or two encounters to federate the PCs together, leading to an intrigue of some lives/secrets) and a whopping “cliff-hanger” to hook them into the fully-blown second scenario and give them that “Wow” feeling towards the end of play.
I give a minor XP award so players can tweak the PCs (with me paying attention to the use of XP as signposts about players’ worries and desires), and we’re off to the races.
Note the key thread of engaging player emotions, giving them links to the campaign they should wish to explore, generating the feeling that the world lives and moves around them, and they can influence it. Positive emotions (e.g. that “Wow” feeling) for all. In short, *fun* gaming.
My Best Campaigns
From Leonard Wilson
My best campaigns always seem to go like this:
1) Pick a premise (including a synopsis of the setting) and rules set.
2) Have the players create their characters.
3) Sketch out some vague thoughts for a master story tailored to the PCs’ motivations, with an important NPC or two.
4) Sketch out some vague thoughts for a more immediate story arc, with an important NPC or two.
Before each session, I then do this:
5) Write an opening script for the session (a la West End’s “Star Wars”) to begin in mid-action, brainstorming what has set up this cool situation, and some directions and scenes it could all lead to. This is always where my hardest prep- work comes, trying to make sure that everyone’s imagination is fired up, and we can hit the ground running.
6) Sketch out some vague thoughts for the NPCs who’ll be critical to the session.
7) Grab some dice, sit everyone down, and let it roll.
Note, when I say I sketch out ideas, that can be literally true. A page of game notes for me is often a series of doodles meant to jog my memory for key people, places, and events.
When I do more prep than this, I tend to lose sight of the end goal of actually getting everyone together to play, and it becomes strictly design for design’s sake. And if I actually do get players to the table, I’m so involved in the creation that I over-think the action, and play begins to drag.