Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: Big Boss Battle – Escape

314017_CNThere is an old Gaming cliché where you finally meet the Big Bad of this part of your campaign, you engage them in combat and the Big Bad gets away to menace you later. It is a scenario as old as Roleplaying games and a great way to build a report between the players and the big bad, while encouraging more player engagement in the story at hand. It is also, however, a huge source of player frustration sometimes, for the execution of this ‘escape’ can easily be handled poorly and the players feel cheated.  So I’ve decided to write a blog of tips and tricks on how to do this well.
 
I come to the subject because I have been running a 5th Edition D&D game of Tomb of Annihilation for some time now, and my players just got into their first fight with the Adventures first big bad a Yaun-ti named Ras Nsi. As I was looking over the encounter I noticed some great things that Chris Perkins and the writers of the Adventure put in place to allow a reasonable way for the villain to get away if the DM so desired.

Scene

The players have finally made their way into the Throne Room\Lair\Laboratory\Warren of a Big Baddy. On the Baddies home turf, the heroes are in for a fight.

Mood

The mood of these fights should always be a little tense, for you and the players.  For you never want to create an encounter like this that is a pushover for the players, nor should you want a TPK. However, bad dice rolls and bad tactics could have this go south for the players.  Make sure you are prepared for that possibility as well.

Threats

The Big Bad is a threat, but for the first meeting, they should not be fighting alone. Maybe they have Champion by their side, a witch, a trusted advisor, or some other exotic enemy.  Just don’t make it a bunch of mook guards. Sure have a couple of those but there should be more than one Creditable threat so that the party can’t just focus on the Big Bad and down them in a couple of rounds.

Another great idea is to have a monstrous threat just out of the scene. Maybe the Big Bad has a pet monster or a chained up creature, something that in itself poses a threat to the party.  This was something built into the Ras Nsi encounter, another large threat that could enter the scene and spell doom for the players, but it is also a great tool to let the major villain escape. The players cannot pursue because the other creature is coming, or maybe the other creature arrives in the encounter allowing the big bad to get away as the players have to tactically change their strategy to face the new threat.

Mechanics

Fight Mechanics are fight mechanics, the mechanics we are looking for in this scenario are ones that allow the Big Bad to get away.

If the Big Bad has their own way instantly get away, via magic item or special ability, make sure the players know about it beforehand. Have the villagers tell tales of the fact that the Bad guy can turn into a swarm of bats, or talk about the magical ring they stole from some poor halfling. Don’t have the first time they learn about this item or ability be when the bad guy uses it to get away. It will cheapen the experience for the player, they may feel like you simply cheated.

Other than Special Powers or Items, make sure the description of the room describes the ways of egress from the room. Secret doors are one thing, but you better make sure you call out that nice bookshelf or ornate wardrobe that secret door is hidden as part of. Even if it is magic. Describe the strange alcove with the rune inscribed metal disc on the floor.

This gives the players options. They may and should try to maneuver to cover these exits so make you have more than one way out and put them on opposite sides of the encounter to make it harder for the players to cover them all. 

Tips

I’ve thrown in tips throughout this whole article, but the biggest tip I can give is don’t force the escape. Players are crafty and they may have come up with a plan that nullifies the big bad’s escape plan, or the rolls swing the wrong way and they have the big bad dead to rights. Let it happen. Lose the Big Bad. Give the players the big victory and start thinking about who will come and try to fill the power vacuum, what are the consequences of the Big Bad’s death.

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: Fly You Fools

The castle is being over-run; the King has been Usurped and the town is crawling with the enemy; Imperial troops have entered the base, or the undead have broken through the walls.  It is time to use discretion, the better of Valor, and live to fight another day.  In an RPG getting players to flee overmatched fights is hard to do, but when presented with an overwhelming force they may decide it’s time to fall back.   In this Set Piece, I will discuss how to run a fun encounter where the heroes are on the back foot.

Scene:

The Players are forced to flee overwhelming odds.  This kind of idea requires some setup.  As a GM you can spell out the scene.  The army arrives and your forces are falling there is no way you alone can stem the tide.  This scene could follow an epic Hold the Line type fight that failed or could just be the result of events the players had no hand in.   Try not to be rail-roady; if the players wish to fight to the end you should let them. Just don’t let up on them.  This should lead to a captured or imprisoned set-piece or maybe just player death.

Mood:

The mood could be utter chaos and fear or it could be composure in the face of adversity it really depends on how the players play things.  Do they give orders? Do they calm the hysterical? Or do they find a shadow to sneak in towards a hidden way out of the city?  Take your cues from them.  Show the effect they are having on the people around them with their fearless demeanor, or show the chaos and death occurring as they run away.  If they choose the latter route you don’t have to punish them.  Maybe show others trying to lead and get swarmed by the fearful mob, or cut down by a defector or the enemy.   Sometimes making whatever decision they choose seems like the right decision after-the-fact makes for a more enjoyable role-playing experience. Continue reading “Set Piece: Fly You Fools”

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: Hold the Bridge

Olin, Hildr and Frode stood stalwart as the undead army approached.  They had set their traps, prepared all they could but it was a long time till morning.  They knew that the only way to keep the Illustrious City of Silasthorp from falling was for the three of them to hold the Bridge.

“Well Olin,” Hildr began as she grabbed her axe from her belt and turned toward the hardened warrior.  “We may feast in the halls of Valhalla before this night is through”

“Odin owns us all,” Olin replied.  The three then shouted the known refrain in unison as the undead army was upon them.

 

Introduction:

Whether it is the rickety rope bridge in The Temple of Doom, a strategic bridge to war effort like in Saving Private Ryan, or the last place you have to stop the Balrog a la Fellowship of the Ring,  a Bridge encounter is always a classic Set Piece.  One of the more exciting ways to use a bridge as a chokepoint, a place to hold from an overwhelming force. So let’s give that a go.

Scene:

Evil must be stopped and this Bridge is the last place for your heroes to make their stand.  Have they had time to prepare or are they desperate?  There is hope however, they only have to hold out for so long. Wherever the scene is, be sure to describe the bridge itself in great detail make sure you include features for the players and the enemies to exploit narratively. How’s it lit? is the railing weak in areas? Are their pot holes? Is there cover? This is going to be longer encounter be prepared with a few ‘intrusions’ that could alter the landscape and shake things up. Don’t be afraid to choreograph them in your description maybe your players get the idea to trigger events first for their benefit.

Continue reading “Set Piece: Hold the Bridge”

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: The Reverse Pickpocket

Introduction:

Will Smith is in a lingerie shop buying a present for his wife when an old friend (Jason Lee) runs into him.  The friend slips something in Will Smith’s bag, then runs off proceeding to get himself killed.  This, however, kicks off Will’s involvement in the wonderful suspense film Enemy of the State.    The reverse pickpocket idea is not a new concept.  It’s been used in fiction, film, and television for years.  Scott Lynch’s book The Republic of Thieves has got a great scene where the method is used multiple times by two opposing thieves on some unsuspecting officials.   Needless to say, you can kick off quite an adventure with a scene like this, without requiring much of any buy-in from your PCs.

Scene:

The PCs are in a crowded market buying good our trying to find a buyer for their cargo.  When someone runs into them.  Classic pickpocket scam right.   They check their belt pouch or wallet.  Their cash is still there.   What they don’t realize is, something else has been added.  A crowded market of any type does well for this.  However, any public space or city street will do.  Even an Inn, Bar, or shop could be a great location for this scene. Continue reading “Set Piece: The Reverse Pickpocket”

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: The Gladiatorial Arena

Introduction:

The protagonists being forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena or fighting pit is littered throughout sci-fi and fantasy mediums. (Star Wars, Star Trek, Planet Hulk, Game of Thrones, John Carter, Mad Max, Hunger Games).  It is also a staple of roleplaying games.  It is an interesting way to start a campaign(DCC funnel anyone) or a great place to introduce new players into your game.

Scene:

The players are forced to fight for spectators in an arena.  This could be a grand coliseum or a fighting pit.  How they got in this situation is up to you.  It could be the result of them being captured or part of a bargain with the authorities of the place or even something they volunteered as a show of skill or as part of a contest. Continue reading “Set Piece: The Gladiatorial Arena”

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: Captured

Introduction:

Heroes being captured is something that happens a lot in adventure stories with villains, but less frequently in RPGs.  (Unless you’re Leenik Geelo and your go-to plan is to be captured on purpose) Most gamers refuse to accept defeat and will fight to the death instead of being taken prisoner. Many GMs, however, balk at killing a character or railroading their players by forcing a capture.   My advice is to do the former not the later.  If your players outsmart the antagonist and find a way out of the ambush and avoid capture, good for them!  However, if the Antagonist has them dead to rights and your players refuse to surrender, killing, maiming, or knocking unconscious a PC may be in order.  Though you should probably appeal to the player.  Ask them what their character would really do in this situation.  In the heat of the action, some players forget they are playing characters and do what they think is right or would ‘win’ instead.  However, fighting to their dying breath is the right character decision for many player characters.  So make sure you are aware of that and plan accordingly.    With that said I am going to talk about how to run a “players are captured” set piece.  This is different from a ‘players are imprisoned’ set piece I’ll get to one of those later.

Scene:

The PC have been captured and are being held in a temporary or makeshift cell, something not designed for long term holding.  This could be in something like a prison wagon, (Dragonlance, Way of Kings, Game of Thrones) a cage, a holding cell in a police station, locked in the basement, or simply confined to their quarters. Continue reading “Set Piece: Captured”

Posted in Gaming Advice, Set Piece

Set Piece: The Long Stair

Terry stepped carefully on the narrow path.  A few rocks skittered over the edge into the darkness below. They were lucky to find the path,  he wasn’t sure if it was natural or if someone or something created it.  Kate was sure it led to the lost city of Dzuvia.  They had to be over a hundred yards underground now.  The claustrophobic caverns they had squeezed through to get here had opened up considerably. Terry could feel a cool breeze and the faint sound of a waterfall somewhere far ahead of him.

“I think we’ve found it,” Kate said in a reverent whisper.

“How can you tell I can’t see anything past this lantern.”

“The sounds. This cavern’s huge, just like the one Dzuvia is supposed to be in.”  Kate had taken off her pack and was rummaging around in it.
“We taking a break?” Terry asked massaging his aching calf as he watched her.

“Maybe,” Kate replied and produced a flare from her pack and proceeded to light it.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Terry asked.  Kate seemed to always attract trouble.

“No, but only one way to find out.”  Kate hurled the flare as far as she could over the cliff’s edge.  Both Terry and Kate watched the streak or orange light intently as it seemed to float through the air and towards the cavern’s floor.

The light slowly revealed what Kate had dreamed about for so long Dzuvia.

Terry stared.  The buildings and temples below were clearly Vertruvian in design. They must have dated back to the…

A few pieces of rock landed on Terry’s shoulder.  It interrupted his thoughts as he looked at them and brushed them off.  Slowly he raised lantern high and stared at the wall behind him.  A wall that seemed to be moving…. And chittering.

Terry pushed Kate forward. 

“Stop it,” She complained.  He prodded her forward again.

“Stop it, I might fall.”

“run.” Terry all but whispered.

“What?” Kate asked as she tore her eyes from Dzuvia and looked at Terry.  That is when the wall seemed to lurch forward.

“Run!”

Introduction:

Back when I was DMing D&D with larger groups and higher level players I discovered that the key to a great encounter isn’t usually the monsters but instead the location that can really make the encounter memorable.  I have used the long stair encounter quite a few times, the most memorable being when the party was trying to escape an infernal city in a large subterranean cavern. Continue reading “Set Piece: The Long Stair”