Adventure Builder Workshop: Henchmen & Antagonists

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 14, 2010

If you’ve started to notice a trend of overlapping topics in the Adventure Builder Workshop series, today’s post will come as no surprise. Henchmen and Antagonists are closely related to the villain and there is bound to be some overlap. However, henchmen and antagonists are separate enough topic that they deserve their own post and place of discussion.

Your players will face off against the villain’s henchmen far more often than the villain himself, so it’s vital that you be prepared. Henchmen and antagonists is the fourth installment in our series inspired by the Adventure Builder Workshop run by Wizards of the Coast at this year’s GenCon. The previous posts discussed:

Today we’ll look at how henchmen and antagonists interrelate with these other aspects of adventure design.

The first thing to distinguish is the difference between henchman and antagonists. A henchman is a servant or associate of the campaign’s major villain. A henchman might be a villain in their own right. A great example of this is the relationship between Sauran and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Saruman is a great villain in his own right, but in the larger context of the Lord of the Rings story he is a henchman. While the relationship is slightly more complicated than I’ve presented here it serves to demonstrate the scales of villainy that are available to you.

Antagonists play the minor parts. They are the monsters and NPCs that the PCs meet during encounters, whether in combat or otherwise. Antagonists are there to be killed by your PCs; henchman might survive the encounter depending on your larger campaign story.

Henchman and antagonists add to the adventure in two ways:

  • How henchman and antagonists advance the story
  • Effective use of henchman and antagonists in encounters

How Henchman and Antagonists Advance The Story

Like villains henchman contribute to the agenda of the campaign. In many cases henchman are acting at the behest of the villain. This allows henchman to contribute to the story and have their actions have the same weight as if they were the villain.

The key question to determine is how will each henchman contribute to the story? Will the villain’s orders be followed out or will some other character flaw inject itself into the story? Perhaps the henchman will have a change of heart or will seize on an opportunity to remove the villain permanently. Think back to the Transformers cartoon from the 80s. Starscream was always looking for ways to remove Megatron from the picture, the fact that Megatron is the main villain is reaffirmed by Starscream’s plans always being foiled.

Where the villain is a more complex antagonist, henchmen are a much simpler breed. As a result make henchman motivations much more apparent and obvious to your players. Don’t leave them guessing as to what they need to do, instead spell it out and leave the means for stopping the henchman up to the players. Similar to the villain, player actions effect henchman. As mentioned previously think of your henchman as mini-villains, their plans will be foiled by the players.

Effective Use Of Henchman and Antagonists In Encounters

Encounter balance is a subjective area and every DM has their own preference for what makes a tough or easy encounter. When plotting out your combat encounters look for good connections between your henchman and antagonist types. You should have a good blend of leaders, artillery, controllers, lurkers and brutes to thwart your players. Look for monsters that have abilities tied to each other. Pick one monster that deals fire damage and another that has resistance to it.

Ensure that you change up the monsters your players face from encounter to encounter. Maintain one or two for consistency purposes, but try to change it up as you’re able. Fighting the same monsters encounter after encounter can get very boring for your players very quickly. Variety, they say, is the spice of life.

Don’t get too carried away though, your monster variety should make sense within the context of the story. In short, don’t use a monster just because you like its abilities. Use monsters that will assist you in moving the story forward. If the players are asking why those fire elementals were present during the last encounter and they seem genuinely puzzled, maybe rethink your fire elemental in the ice cavern encounter. Ok, maybe that’s a bit extreme but you get the point.

When building encounters don’t be afraid to use terrain and traps as antagonists. Effective use of terrain can make a bland encounter more engaging and interesting. By adding levels and obstacles you force your players to think tactically about how they want to deal with their foes. Similarly, traps can add elements of the unknown and surprise into an otherwise straight forward encounter.

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