There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.