How to Protect Your Villains

by Mike Shea on 11 August 2014

Note: this article has been updated from the original published 5 April 2010.

From a storytelling angle, we GMs love our big bad evil guys (BBEGs). These villains drive the ire of our players and move the world along with their villainous quests. Villains are the masterminds behind the treachery faced by our PCs and, for that reason, they are the most sought out for the PCs' vengeance.

In good storytelling we like to see our heroes struggle to face and defeat our villains but in D&D this often plays out a different way. Villains in D&D end up as the lightning rod for the PCs' most devastating attacks, often dying in the first one or two rounds of combat as all of our players use every powerhouse move they have to bring the poor wretch down. It's not uncommon for every PC to ignore any other threat in an encounter and focus all of their attention on the villain to bring them down as fast as they can.

It is for this very reason that our villains often require a bit of extra protection, a trick or two to ensure they can stay alive longer when they finally face the PCs. Today we're going to look at some tricks our villains can use to keep themselves upright even when the full wrath of the PCs falls upon them.

A Note On Editions

Though these tips were originally written for the 4th Edition of D&D, the same tricks work perfectly well for just about any d20 fantasy RPG including Pathfinder, D&D 5th Edition, and 13th Age. With some subtle design tweaking, there are many ways to shore up our villains defenses regardless of our system of choice. Use the examples below as guides for designing your own villainous defenses.

The Elite Boss Clippy by Jared von Hindman

Artwork courtesy of @JaredvonHindman of Head Injury Theater, used with permission.

Designing Your Protection

When you're designing some form of protection for your villain, there are a few things you want to keep in mind. Here are the steps for building a good villainous shield:

  1. Decide what you need to shield the villain against. Does your villain fear debilitating status effects? Massive damage? Critical hits? If your villain has been studying the PCs (and they should be), they should know what sorts of dangers they will face.
  2. Determine what actions will defeat the shield. Will PCs have to solve a puzzle to break it down? Will they have to hit it with particular elements such as fire, cold, poison, and lightning? Will they have to perform a set of skill checks such as athletics or arcane knowledge?
  3. Determine what the shield will let through. A protective shield shouldn't simply make a villain immortal. It might boost defenses or increase hit points or neutralize certain effects, but PCs should be able to struggle and defeat the villain even if they choose not to break down the shield. A villainous shield should be a choice: tough it out or break it down.
  4. Add flavor and a narrative to suit the villain and location. What flavor should the shield take? What fits the theme of the villain? Vampires might use sacrifices being leeched of life energy. Lichs might use ancient arcane obelisks from a lost civilization. Evil priests might use demonic circles of unholy protection. Dragons might use the arcane energies of captured metallic dragon souls. Add in a flavor that fits the shield.

Here are some example shields you might use or re-flavor to suit your villain's needs.

The Soul Siphon

A vampire lord lurks in his chamber plotting his villainous ascension when the PCs burst into his door. Having planned for this contingency, the vampire lord reveals two NPCs dear to the PCs whose souls protect the vampire. As long as he is channeling their life energy, he takes only half damage from attacks and is immune to any action-reducing status effect. Further, he gains one extra action per turn as long as he is able to channel these souls.

The PCs can defeat this protection in two ways. First, they can inflict a certain amount of damage to the NPCs and kill them outright. Second, they can attempt to disrupt the flow of life energy with three successful skill checks per NPC, one check per round per NPC maximum. When disrupted, the vampire loses his shield of protection.

The Circle of Protection

Having seen the devastation left in the wake of the PCs, a dark priest has created a circle of unholy protection while he performs his ritual to open a gate to the nether-realm. While within this large circle of protection, the priest's defenses are all increased and the priest is immune to all mental effects. Further, any creature who attacks the priest takes a suitable amount of unholy damage in return.

This circle can be disrupted with four consecutive religious or arcane skill checks, one per round. On each success, the defensive bonus drops until, after four successes, the circle of protection fails completely.

The Triplet Hags

A powerful night hag has been harassing the PCs from the shadows and now they have discovered her dark plot and cornered her in the deserted streets of the abandoned village of Nulb. She smiles when they face her and suddenly, two copies of the hag appear behind the PCs.

Instead of a single villain, this night hag has split herself up into three. Each of them gets full actions and takes damage as an individual opponent. However, the twisted nature of these creatures means that, when hit with an area attack or multi-target attack, only one of them takes the damage from it. Otherwise, they act as three completely separate villains and are only defeated when all three are taken down.

Avoiding Frustration

It's easy to go overboard when designing protections for our villains. Always keep in mind what is fun and what is frustrating for our players. Protections should be like an interesting puzzle for the group, not a roadblock or filler to pad out a battle. There's a thin line here sometimes, and one you may overstep from time to time. Be prepared to think on your feet and change the rules of a shield if it turns out to be too much of a pain in the ass. Above all, our game is mean to be fun. Don't let your own frustrations with a weak villain end up turning the game into a grind fest.

Know Your Enemy

The best insurance we have to help our villain stay alive is to know our players. Recognize that, the minute they see a big boss, they're going to unleash everything they have at it. Without making it a complete pain in the ass for the players, use the villain's knowledge of their strengths to shore up the villain's defenses. With the right defenses in place, our players will face an opponent far more dangerous and crafty than the typical brutes they're used to.

Knowledge is power. Give your villains both.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide. Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.