Good antagonist design isn’t just essential for good TTRPG sessions, it can be something you base your whole session on – even if it’s a convention one-shot. I’m going to look at a method to build a session outwards from an antagonist, including looking at some rules tweaks that you might want to put in if your system isn’t as great at supporting solo monsters.
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In previous Prep Techniques posts, I’ve looked at 5-Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s Method, Three Places, Con Pitches and a Bag of Tricks. Here, I’m going to talk about using an antagonist as a starting point for your one-shot or session. This turns traditional adventure prep on its head – and gives you a stock of prep material that should let you run a flexible session, with multiple routes to take down the antagonist.
First, the Fluff
Let’s talk about the boss’s background first. Who is he and what’s his plan? What does he want to do, why is it terrible, and why can’t the PCs ignore it? A good starting point is one or more of the PCs – can you link them to their backstory to make the players care about the antagonist? If you’re in an ongoing campaign, think about linking him with previous sessions, or foreshadowing future plans.
Your boss should be tough fight, even if they’re on their own. Clever plots or schemes from the players should have the option of getting to them without his supporters – and they should still be a challenge then. So think about levels of power – they need to be a threat!
They aren’t going to be alone though, so have between 1 and 3 lieutenants – minor monsters that support him, who can be a challenge with support themselves. These lieutenants should be distinct in terms of powers and personalities from the boss – if the boss is an archmage, make his lieutenants warlords or combat monsters.
Plan for the PCs to deal with a lieutenant first, maybe even as the hook to discover the boss’ plans. Also, think about what their weakness is – even if it’s a tendency to monologue – and a way the PCs can find this out and use it to their advantage.
Next, the Crunch
To have a truly effective boss in a fight, you might need to bend or break your game’s action economy. In D&D, consider using Matt Colville’s excellent Villain Actions hack, so your boss can act multiple times a round – and in another system consider giving them 2 or more actions each round. If you don’t feel like doing this, or your boss has multiple attacks already, consider spreading them out across the round – you want to keep the spotlight on them during the fight, rather than it feeling like the PCs have all the actions.
They also need to be hard to kill. This might mean just more hp, or some sort of special rule. I’m a fan of Feng Shui 2’s boss rule – when they would go down, roll 1d6, and you need to get an odd result to actually defeat them. It adds a level of jeopardy and pressure to a fight and distinguishes them from lesser enemies.
As you’ve got the lieutenants sorted, almost any boss should have a numberless supply of minions – these can be added to any encounters liberally to balance to the right level of challenge you desire. With minions, I like them to sometimes be much easier to defeat than normal – don’t be afraid to send your 5th level PCs up against hordes of kobolds – often with the boss’ supporting powers they might be a challenge, and usually some PCs will still want to deal with the minions.
Third, the Adventure
Now, you want to think about some key scenes. I’d recommend having a starting scene fully prepped, where they learn about the boss’ plans in some way – maybe a fight with some minions, or one of the lieutenants. And think about mid-scenes, where they might take down a lieutenant or learn the boss’ weakness. By combining lieutenants and minions in a few different ways, you can have some options for different opposition they could face along the way.
You’ll want around 3 locations along the way that could lead to the showdown, and some things that could happen to the environment there. Some of these – or some of the lieutenants – can lend themselves to non-combat challenges (if you’re looking for rules to support these, try here or here) – that you can steer towards. Make some plans for the final confrontation – this needs to be a showcase fight scene, so bear in mind the advice here for building it.
So far, your adventure prep will look a bit like this list… next week, I’ll post up some examples for a few different systems!
Goal & why the PCs care:
Potential non-combat challenges: