Recently I’ve been thinking about how the stories of various mediums and how those stories compare to the stories that role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons are designed to tell. One pattern that I’ve noticed, particularly in television shows, is that the heroes are often initially overwhelmed by a new villain and need to take time to either learn a new skill or get a new weapon before being able to defeat the threat.
The structure of a story using this pattern generally looks something like the following:
First Encounter: When the protagonists first encounter the villain, they are unprepared for it and struggle to either harm it or withstand its attacks (or possibly both). Eventually the group is either defeated or the villain escapes after accomplishing its objective.
Rest & Research: Following their defeat, the heroes needs to take some time to recover from their wounds and research a means to combat the threat. This research could be consulting a knowledgeable ally, preparing a new weapon, or simply thinking about their previous fight and piecing together something they had missed in the chaos of the battle. In some cases, the research step may be a quest in and of itself, such as retrieving a long-lost magical weapon. Depending on the villain, it might also make progress towards its goals or attack the protagonists again while they are attempting to rest and research.
Rematch: Finally, the group sets out to take on the villain armed with either a new weapon or useful knowledge. This fight is still a challenge for the party, but not a hopeless one like the first encounter. Eventually the villain is either defeated or forced to abandon its goals and flee thanks to the new weapons acquired during the rest & research part of the story.
Using this in a Game
I think this pattern could be used to good effect in a role-playing game, but there are some challenges since D&D and many other role-playing games aren’t designed with this structure in mind.
Mechanics of Invulnerability: The first issue in using this pattern is that the villain needs to be strong enough to overpower the player characters in the first encounter, but not so strong that he or she finishes them off before they have a chance to realize they’re outmatched. I think the best approach in most games will be to make the monster hard to kill either through fast regeneration, damage reduction, or just complete invulnerability. Increasing the villain’s damage output can stress that the player characters are outmatched, but it also increases the chances of having player characters die quickly which is generally not desired.
Player Knowledge: A second problem is that such stories often rely on the characters not knowing the weaknesses of the villains they face. While that is easy for a story’s authors to arrange, gamers often have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the common monster weaknesses (silver for werewolves, piercing weapons for a rakshasa, fire for a troll, etc). While just getting buy-in on their characters having less knowledge can work for some groups of players, you might need to get a little more creative to keep the story interesting. One way to do this is to ignore established weaknesses and instead come up with new ones. For example, in your world werewolves might not have an aversion to silver but instead be weakened by moonstone. If you go this route, it’s a good idea to let players know that you’re departing from standard lore for the game in advance to avoid them feeling cheated when they try the normal weakness to no effect (unless of course the moonstone-weak werewolf is a unique individual and most werewolves in the setting are weak to silver).
Making Research Fun: A key part of this story structure is doing research which is generally not something people think of as especially exciting. While mechanically the research could be reduced to a simple skill check in most games, I think you should avoid that and instead strive to make this step more interesting. The skill challenge framework from D&D 4e can serve as a good start for the structure of a research quest with several steps being needed in order to unlock the knowledge of a monster’s weakness or forge a new weapon. Alternatively, the research could take the form of a dungeon delve to find a lost tome or other ancient artifact that can help against the villain.
The Rematch: Once the player characters have their new weapon and are ready to take on the villain again, you’ll want to make sure that they still have an exciting encounter since this fight should be the climax to the adventure. The villain should still be a challenging opponent despite the weakness. You should also be careful to ensure that all of the players can participate in the encounter in a meaningful way which can be a challenge if only one of them bears a weapon capable of harming the monster. Some ideas for that would be including henchmen who attempt to aid the main villain or a skill challenge to keep the villain’s plans at bay while the rest of the party focuses on defeating it.
Example: Vampires and Lichs
In D&D, both vampires and lichs have abilities that allow adventures built with them to follow a similar pattern. When defeated in combat, they both have a means of retreating and recovering again and again until the heroes manage to uncover their home base. Vampires turn to mist and return to their coffins, and lichs are able to regenerate as long as their phylactery remains intact. While this allows for a similar research step in which the player characters attempt to uncover and destroy the phylactery or coffin, the key difference is that vampires and lichs are generally not invulnerable in combat. A relatively easy twist would be to use a more powerful version of the monster that can overpower the player characters, but once the phylactery or coffin is destroyed drop the stats down to a more level-appropriate challenge. In this case, the heroes will need to focus on uncovering the monster’s secret lair and weakening it before they can confidently take it on in combat.
Example: The Witch Lord
In the HeroQuest board game, the last three quests follow this pattern. In quest 12, the players accidentally awaken the Witch Lord while looking for an artifact in the ruins of his fortress. At this point, he is entirely immune to their attacks and they are forced to flee the ruins. In quest 13, they must enter an ancient temple in order to retrieve the only weapon that can harm the Witch Lord, a sword known as the Spirit Blade. Finally, in quest 14, the heroes return to the Witch Lord’s fortress and confront him with the Spirit Blade.
In D&D, the Witch Lord could easily be based on the stats for a lich. Rather than having a phylactery, he would be invulnerable to damage from any source other than the Spirit Blade. Non-damaging powers and abilities could still be used in an encounter with the Witch Lord, but those should only slow him down. In order to truly defeat him, the players will need to retrieve the Spirit Blade which could have several magical abilities focused on fighting undead in addition to its ability to harm the Witch King. Finally, when the players once again confront the Witch King, he should have a newly raised army of undead at his disposal that the other player characters need to hold at bay while the bearer of the Spirit Blade focuses on the Witch Lord.
While they aren’t a single invulnerable monster, this same pattern can be used for a zombie plague. The heroes might be able to easily defeat individual zombies, but the rapidly spreading contagion and near endless hordes can force them to require taking time to research a new method of combating the plague. This could be a new weapon that neutralizes the disease, a vaccine that can be administered to the healthy, or even the location of the necromancer responsible for the undead rising from their graves.