Dungeons & Dragons Game Mastering Random Ideas

Unstoppable Monsters

LichRecently 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.

Example: Zombies!

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.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

6 replies on “Unstoppable Monsters”

I’ve actually been exploring the idea of Vampires & Liches as boss characters in a series of posts I’ve been guest writing over at One of the things I’ve found and a point I’ve argued is that, unless you’re playing some seriously epic level stuff, vampires make for great boss characters in undead themed campaigns. Once a party gets to around level 8-10, they become more than a match for a vampire, especially if they have a cleric with them who can turn vampires, but in the meantime, a vampire’s ability to continually harass the party, create more undead, and easily escape when things turn south can make for a good long term foe.

Liches, I’ve found, are another story (at least in the systems I’ve been looking at). In older versions of D&D, you’re not going to beat a lich unless you’re leading an army against it or are gaming at such a high level of play that you might as well not be playing D&D anymore. Moderately high level characters might be able to make a bid to defeat a lich by finding and destroying its phylactery, but liches are going to be doing an average of 100 or so damage per round to multiple targets (BECMI spells are crazy broken and level lack caps on damage dice; a lich’s fireballs & lightning bolts have theoretical maximum damage potential of 216), so fighting them straight up is pretty out of the question.

As for the Witchlord, hell yes, he was awesome. I’m sad I never got a chance to run Return of the Witchlord. Chasing him down through 10 levels stacked floor to ceiling with undead! I don’t think they ever made the expansion where his henchman Skulmar the Bonelord returns, but the threat of a powerful undead fighter returning isn’t as menacing as an undead wizard.

The thing to remember about the first encounter is that the bad guy often has a goal other than killing everyone. The classic move is to take something, maybe one of the three things that will remove the “nigh” from the enemy’s nigh invulnerability. So, the player see that they can’t affect the enemy, maybe get knocked around a bit, but the enemy doesn’t finish them off, because that’s not what they’ve come for. Nerds often yell “why didn’t he just kill them there?” but it’s not hard to make not doing so at least somewhat plausible.

That approach also lends itself to interesting “research,” because it’s about finding what other objects the enemy needs and getting to those first.

This is why liches have a 1d10 paralyze touch attack. Why do hundreds of spell damage when you can paralyze the heroes and leave them in a ditch to watch helplessly while your army of undead continues to ravage the countryside? Sometimes killing isn’t the most eeeevil thing that villains can do.

I wouldn’t say that’s “why” they have that attack. I’d say that’s one use of that attack, if the GM has set up the game to make that use plausible. Otherwise, paralyzing the PCs and leaving them alive seems implausible.

Yes, I know this is thread necromancy, but we are talking about liches here.

Oh, wow, hey, talk about a blast from the past!
Given the duration of a Lich’s paralysis touch attack (it’s months, if I’m not mistaken, but I’m sure it depends on the system), I’m thinking we’re talking non-standard game over.

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