The final moment for villains, their biggest scene in any game, is when the PCs finally corner them and end their threat forever with the point of a sword. As a DM, you want the major villain’s death to be tough, so the fight has to be a complex one. But you don’t want the whole thing to end with a whimper either; so then, what should happen before and after your villain loses his last hit point?
I’ve already discussed combat tricks for villains in a prior installment, so I won’t rehash that here. Instead, I’ll focus on two ways to go with a finale: the false death and the combat finale. Plus, we’ll look at a villain’s death scene, including curses, regrets, and last words.
The False Death
The most common cliché of a villain’s death scene is that it isn’t a death scene at all: the villain (sooner or later) bounces back, worse than ever. It’s a cliché because it’s so effective. The easiest way to set one up is with arcanist villains, who have so many tools at their disposal. The villain the party kills could be a simulacrum (a trick used effectively in 1st edition’s Return of the Eight), the caster could have a clone prepared, even a low-level villain could have cast an illusion of himself on a minion or familiar. The point is the same; the party may not immediately realize it, but they’ve killed the wrong monster.
A villain need not be an arcane caster to have a false death scene. The villain may instead prove to be not quite what the party thought he was. You might reveal that the villain has been possessed by a demon or devil all along. An outsider might assume the villain’s form, or a servant might wear the villain’s cloak as a ruse. The villain might have a twin, though that’s also a bit of a cliché. Or you might pull out a squicky bit of nastiness, like the tsochar from Lords of Madness, and have the villain’s parasitic mind move into a new body. Alternately, it could be a disguised rogue, a doppelganger, or other shapeshifter who was impersonating the main villain; even if the tools used in this form of false death don’t include all the magical tricks, they’ll still allow the real villain to get away and plot a new scheme.
The best version of this “cat came back” trick is the version that happens immediately. The villain may be raised or resurrected by a faithful minion. He may play dead and allow a heal contingency to reset him in all his nastiness just when the party is running out of steam. If you feel generous, ask the party to make a Spot check against his Bluff when he’s playing dead (or don’t, if you want to be sure it’s a surprise).
In any case, you need to describe the villain’s near-death, and then end combat turns. When the party starts healing up, searching for treasure, or chasing off the last of the minion creatures, the villain transforms to his new badass self, and comes gunning for the party again -- but this time, they’ve already expended a lot of their best spells, one-shot items, and hit points. With a careful threat or two, a party confronted with the same villain twice will sometimes break and flee. Congratulations, you just built up this legendary villain one notch further.
The last fight against a villain should be as over-the-top as you can picture it. The Demon Queen of Spiders should have ten thousand spider swarms to cover the party in a living carpet of arachnid hatred. The kobold king should have dozens of traps springing all around his throne room, each one deadlier than the last. Ramp it up!
That said, the finale is a great time to fling many lower-CR threats at the party, mostly as window dressing. Yes, that’s right: the kobold king’s traps shouldn’t be a major threat. Lolth’s spiders should be an annoyance that’s creepy, not certain death. You still want the main fight to be between the head villain and the PCs -- but you want the party weakened when they get there, and you want the villain at maximum, buffed-up strength. So slow them down for one or two rounds with henchmen, underlings, and vermin. Let them burn a few area spells or items to close the gap.
Then, when the party thinks they will finally mow the villain down, bring in the big villain’s champion. It could be an abyssal giant, it could be a bunch of demons on retrievers, it could even be a hellfire golem. The important thing is that the champion fights on the villain’s behalf and presents a reasonably tough fight. Combined with the traps and other theatrics, you’ve guaranteed that the party isn’t at full strength when they fight the villain. It doesn’t matter exactly what the threats are, but they should come in close succession, with no time for healing. The villain claps his hands and shouts “Kill them!” -- no stalling, no rest, no heals without burning actions. Grind them down.
Why so much stalling? One word: monologues. Villains need a chance to gloat and taunt and mock. Write out a few key phrases (“You fools never even thought to look in the mayor’s servant’s quarters… where my spies were all along! The mayor is dead now, dead!”), or topics that are sore spots for the party. Make the party steam with fury. When the rogue or the invisible fighter or someone gets to the villain, the victory will be that much sweeter. And if the party concentrates on the villain too soon, they may find themselves with a classic dilemma: finish off the villain, or let him escape so they can rescue the bard or sorcerer who suddenly has to handle too many minions all by himself.
The fight is over, and the heroes have won.
Regrets: Sometimes a villain regrets his deeds…. It’s difficult for a party to know whether this regret is sincere or faked, and if there was ever a time for a Sense Motive check, this is it. Your villains all have ranks in Bluff, right? An ideal set of regrets is something you think up ahead of time: “I should never have promised my soul to the Princes of Hell,” has a certain final ring to it. If you want something that gives the party something to act on, perhaps: “I wish I had never met that the necromancer who raised me. Find him, and destroy him before he seeks revenge for me…” does the trick. The idea here is to have the villain realize that he was wrong all along, and perhaps to set a hook for a future adventure.
As mentioned, not every regret is sincere. If the dying antipaladin asks for forgiveness, anointing, and a last prayer, it might also be a trick to get the cleric to step into arm’s reach. That dilemma for the party brings us nicely to…
Revenge: The villain might simply want to take everyone with him. Killing him is essentially setting the timer on a bomb. In cinematic terms, killing the villain makes the castle start to implode, or makes the island start to sink (think Predator). This definitely reinforces the arcane power of the villain. One advantage of this type of death scene is that it means the party has a very limited amount of time to search for treasure or complete any side quests they may have ignored in their rush to confront the villain.
Another form of revenge is the last curse. It sound great when a villain curses his killer as a coward or a leper, but the game mechanics don’t really support long-term curses all that well. Giving a player lycanthropy, a permanently fatigued status, or the like might work -- or would at least provide a hook for the next adventure.
Twists and Turns: Sometimes the last battle is one where a villain is unmasked, and the result is a plot twist that changes everything. If the party finds out that the mysterious Grey Knight is really the Prince of Cormyr, they have a whole new ballgame. Does the party slaughter a peer of the realm? Probably not. Changing a villain into a power player forces the PCs to put away their swords and find a new way to arrest, foil, exile, or even frame a villain for something. It changes the chessboard under the party's feet. Villains with political power were mentioned briefly in the discussion of treachery, but adventures based on intrigue rather than raw melee power probably deserve an entire set of articles.
Disgrace and Exile: A villain who’s too powerful to touch can still be defanged, just by exposing him and forcing the king or other bigwigs to take action. If a villain is stripped of all his titles, equipment, and allies, though, he’s effectively done as a villain. Simply bringing his cowardice, cruelty, greed, or abuse of power to light is usually a good start; for a more satisfying conclusion, public shaming and humiliation are probably called for, and (to please the players) perhaps the villain’s lands and titles could be given to the party that stopped his plots.
The Minion who Steps Up: Finally, there’s always another villain after the first. A henchman or major minion escapes with just enough gold, magic, or information to start his own plot -- or to tell the villain’s secret master to move on to Plan B. Time to start building up the next big villain….
A great villain should go out with style -- if he really goes out at all. Prepare your final twists, bribes, curses, and monologues ahead of time, and you’ll have a death scene worthy of the players’ hard work tracking down and stopping this guy. If done right, the villain’s death is a great victory -- and one that leaves a scar on the heroes.
About the Author
Wolfgang Baur is plotting his elaborate-yet-ruthless vengeance even now. His escape hatch is a series of cleverly-disguised blogs like Open Design, where he shares further design secrets.