How to Protect Your Elite Villains

by Mike Shea on 5 April 2010

From a storytelling angle, we all love the big bad evil guy (BBEG). We love our main villains whether they be Sarumon or Hans Gruber. They are the mastermind behind the treachery faced by your PCs and, for that reason, they are the most sought out for your PC's vengeance.

In good storytelling we like to see our masterminds struggle with our heroes but in D&D this often plays out a different way. Elite villains in D&D end up being a lightning rod for damage, often dying in the first one or two rounds of combat as all of your players use every powerhouse daily they have to bring the poor wretch down. It is not uncommon for every member of the party to ignore any other threat in an encounter to focus all of their attention on the big bad evil guy and bring him or her down as fast as they can.

Today we're going to look at some ways you can keep your mastermind upright even when the full wrath of the PCs falls upon them.

(Artwork courtesy of the awesome@JaredvonHindman ofHead Injury Theater, used with permission.)

The Prismatic Shield

I used the prismatic shield to keep my main villain in "Nightwyrm Fortress" from dying too quickly. He was a larvamage wizard and agent of Orcus named Magrathar. I knew from watching my players fight previous elites that they would drop him in one to two rounds if he didn't have some sort of protection. Following good story design, Magrathar knew this as well! So he used some magic, old magic, to protect himself: the prismatic shield.

Prismatic Shield

Magrathar begins battle surrounded in a shell of shining colors. As long as this shield is up, Magrathar cannot take damage. Each color requires a specific elemental attack to destroy. These elements include fire, cold, lightning, and poison.

You will want to tune the required elemental attacks around the ability of your party. Ensure there is no element in the shield that your party does not have. Another variant of this would be a shell of protection that requires four specific weapons to break. These weapons would be hunted down by the party and acquired so they can face the mastermind and defeat him.

The Circle of Protection

I used the circle of protection in another battle, this time against a dwarven death knight. The death knight had performed a terrible ritual to protect himself in four beams of violet light each emanating from a tortured impaled sacrifice. Each beam bestowed +2 to all defenses to the death knight (+8 total). This made him VERY hard to hit but not impossible. In fact, our ranger critically hit him on the first shot for a whopping 90 damage. Each sacrifice needed to be broken down to defeat the beam, requiring three religion, arcana, or athletics checks. These could be conducted as minor actions (so the PC didn't waste a standard on a challenge) but could only be undertaken once on a character's turn.

This made it very hard to hit the mastermind but not impossible so players still felt like they had a shot. It also only required minor actions to use a skill but requiring three per sacrifice (of four) slowed down the party's ability to unleash the fires of hell upon the mastermind. It ended up being a good threatening battle that didn't frustrate the players.

The False Lightning Rod

There is another tricky way to ensure your big villain isn't quickly killed - the sheep in wolf's clothing. Take a creature that the party will assume is your big villain and have it show up first. A death giant, for example, in a battle with smaller humans will grab a lot of attention from your defenders and strikers - until it turns out he was simply there to take all that damage before the REAL bad guy reveals himself. Players love to attack big things so putting a big thing out on the table is likely to grab their attention (and damage) moreso than the true mastermind who waits in the shadows.

For a very challenging encounter, it might turn out that all of the minions waiting in the wings are truly the dangerous part of a battle. See the Foulspawn monster optimization article for an example.

The best insurance you have to help your mastermind stay alive is to know your players. Understand that the minute they see a big boss, they're going to unleash everything they have at it. Use this to tune your battles and only reveal the mastermind when you know it can come out swinging and, hopefully, last enough rounds to show its true power.

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