When PCs Kill the Final Boss Too Soon

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 10, 2013

As a player nothing bugs me more than a villain that is protected by the power of plot. No matter what happens, no matter how creative or lucky the PCs get during a direct confrontation early in the adventure, this one particular villain cannot be killed, captured or defeated because the DM needs him during the final showdown. It’s the biggest tease in gaming and it needs to stop.

Now I’m not saying that DMs should never have the PCs engage the major villain before the final confrontation. I like it when the PCs get a glimpse of who they’re up against early on. But if circumstances happen to put the PCs into a fight with the big boss and they manage to take him down, don’t rob them of that victory. Obviously something went very, very right for the PCs or something went very, very wrong for the villain. In either case the encounter was likely memorable and no doubt thrilling. So why belittle such an amazing convergence of fortune and let the villain live simply because the story demands that he does?

In a home game the DM obviously has significant latitude to tweak the story if a big boss villain is unexpectedly killed early on, but in printed adventures it’s a lot more difficult. However, it’s never impossible and more DMs need to remember this. You are in charge of everything behind the scenes. You are empowered to make changes as you see fit. You are responsible to keep the adventure moving forward and ensuring the players are having fun along the way. Waving the magic DM wand and saying “he wasn’t really dead” is not the right way to handle things. Not when there are some many great alternatives.

Let’s assume that the PCs do manage to defeat the big boss villain before the thrilling climax of the adventure and let’s assume that you decide not to fudge the rules and allow the boss to escape, what do you do next? How do you save the game? There are plenty of options, but just in case you find yourself in this situation and are at a loss, here are a few suggestions.

The most important thing to remember is that whatever you decide to do, it must seem plausible. Letting the PCs actually kill the boss and then using some out of left field explanation for how and why he came back to life will anger the PCs more than if you’d just let the villain escape in the first place. The good news is that in the world of D&D magic exists and that opens up a lot of possibilities.

But before resorting to some crazy ritual that returns you villain from the dead (which we’ll talk more about later) there are great non-magical means to keep things moving in the right direction.

Promotion from Within

Very few important villains work alone. In fact one of the tell-tale signs of a significant villain is the number of people he has working for him. These people might be on his payroll, they might be under his magical control, they might be fanatical followers of his religious beliefs; the point is that the villain has people. A good leader always has capable and ambitious people working under him – a lieutenant, a right hand man, an apprentice, whatever. In the unlikely event that the main boss is killed, captured, or defeated it’s reasonable to assume that whoever is second-in-command will step up and keep the plan in motion.

In order to have this explanation as a backdoor option in case of emergency, be sure to have the heroes face off against the villain’s people throughout the adventure. Make it clear that they’re fighting a leader with a cause and not just one crazy individual working in isolation. I know when I’m the DM I’ll often have enemies flee when the fight is clearly leaning towards team PCs. Use one of the guys who got away as the new boss if the main villain is killed. In fact have the PCs learn the new boss’s identity before they confront him in his new role as boss. The fact that they’d already faced him and failed to capture or kill him will provide them with additional motivation to succeed.

Bait and Switch

This one may be seen as a cheat, but if the proper ground work is put in place it is a very plausible option. This is a particularly good option if you want the PCs to have direct confrontations with the boss during the course of the adventure. The idea is simple; the enemy the PCs face isn’t actually the real boss – at least it isn’t if he gets killed or captured. Many leaders throughout history have employed decoys. After all, if the leader is easily distinguished from the minions he’ll become the focus of everyone’s attention and firepower. If the heroes see five identical “bosses” they won’t necessarily know which one is real and which ones are not.

For this to work the DM must establish early on in the campaign that the villain uses doubles. They might be minions dressed in identical armor, they might be Changelings disguised to mimic the boss, or they might be magical clones or simulacrums. There are a lot of easy ways to demonstrate that the boss the PCs see isn’t necessarily the real boss. Just remember that eventually this will get boring and frustrating so don’t have the PCs face a copy of the boss during every session. Have them face one early on to establish the practice, but after that the boss (or a copy) should only appear when it makes sense for the story.

One last reminder when using a duplicate of the boss, the copy should have similar powers. If the boss villain is a Wizard, copies should behave like Wizards. A copy that uses a sword and wears plate armor isn’t a very convincing copy. However, the boss will obviously be more powerful than any copies so this too should be reflected in their stats. Lower defenses, lower damage output, and lower hit points should all imply that this is a copy and not the real deal. Also you may want to give the villain a few special powers that none of the copies have so that when the time comes the PCs will know with certainty that they’re facing the actual villain.

Undead

There are two ways to play the undead card when it comes to the big boss. The first is to say that he was always undead but the PCs never knew it. If he was a Vampire that could explain how he got all those followers, they were enthralled by his powers. If the PCs are unaware that the boss is a Vampire and they don’t take the correct steps to ensure his permanent destruction (because of their ignorance) then he will eventually regenerate. If he is a Lich then the PCs need to destroy more than just his body to permanently kill him. A side quest to find the phylactery may not be in the cards if there is some kind of deadline in the adventure.

The second way to play the undead card is to bring back the villain as some kind of undead after his living form is killed by the heroes. A simple (and kind of lame) explanation is to just say that some evil entity grants the villain a second chance as an undead servant. This is similar to how Revenants work for PCs. I’m not a big fan of this approach because it seems like a cheat. However, if the villain was a powerful Cleric of an evil deity and the campaign revolved around stopping the deity’s latest plan for world domination then this makes more sense. My preference is to have one of the villain’s followers, most likely a lieutenant, use some kind of ritual to revive their fallen master. If the follower was already undead (like a Vampire) then maybe he can revive the boss that way.

Regardless of how the boss is returned to unlife, the PCs should find clues that something’s amiss. Maybe they get word that the unmarked grave where the boss’s corpse was buried was desecrated and that the corpse is missing. Give them a hint that they haven’t seen the last of this villain.

The next time you’re running a game and the PCs face the big boss villain before the end of the adventure, don’t worry if the PCs manage to kill or capture the boss. More importantly if they do accomplish the impossible let them bask in the moment and savour the victory. The adventure won’t come apart at the seams just because one villain was killed. Now you have to flex your creative muscles and figure out how to keep the forces of evil moving forward be it with the boss you intended to use (revived in some creative, yet plausible way) or be it under a new boss.

How often has your DM denied you a thrilling kill because the villain had plot immunity? What lame excuses or method did he use to let the villain escape? As a DM what methods have you used to keep your main villain alive and kicking, lame or otherwise? How many DMs have used some or all of the suggestions I’ve provided in this article? What are some other good options that I didn’t cover?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe June 10, 2013 at 9:14 am

I also like the “villain wasn’t really a villain” reveal. This was done really well in Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” novel series, but I’ve used it in numerous games as well. The basic idea is that after they defeat the awful despot, they then have to try to do his job, and realize that a lot of the “evil” things he was doing were actually the least evil of many evil choices.

Or worse, the party discovers that the “evil” villain was a mostly innocent forced into that situation by a bigger evil entity (the “do this or I’ll kill your loved ones” manipulation). Then the party has to not only deal with a bigger evil, but also with the guilt of having killed a victim.

I once used a “copycat villain” to make the party think that a big boss had come back to life. They were able to figure it out by witnessing the differences in M.O., personality, etc in the “resurrected” villain.

And once (though it required years of set-up), I managed some time travel shenanigans which turned the villain into a hero, making the PCs the villains of the new timeline they’d fallen into. I don’t recommend that, though… it’s impossibly hard to pull off well, and time travel messes up way more than it fixes.

2 Phalse June 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

You could even combine two of those options, and have the Lieutenant, who was a vampire, raise his former boss as a thrall vampire and have the PCs face the former boss thinking he is still the boss, but then find out that the former Lieutenant is now the real boss.

3 Svafa June 10, 2013 at 11:25 am

The Bait and Switch is also a great way to teach your players how to fight the boss. I’ve used it a few times to this end, where I’ve created a boss that would surely wipe the party if they didn’t already have some experience fighting his henchmen and doubles. Having done so, the fight was still difficult and complex, but they had an understanding of the villain’s strategy and attacks, so were able to negate or at least minimize his effectiveness. I remember one turn they used an enemy’s petrification ability to make a low health party member effectively immune to an incoming attack. They wouldn’t have known about the petrification or incoming attack had it not been for previous fights.

Another strategy is to never show the body. Our current campaign has three villains who have been defeated, but not left a body. Well, one left a body, but the party abandoned it when the dungeon began to collapse due to an earthquake. So, he was definitely dead, but then I’m not entirely certain he was alive when they fought him, or his psychic manifestations, or multiple personalities, or whatever those things were.

4 Arellan June 12, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I like the article – short and to the point. Nicely done.

One of my campaign villains died recently but was resurrected by her loyal followers and her Elven crime lord lover in Stormreach. Partly because resurrection spells are supposed to be rare in Eberron but mostly because I will only use the ploy once in a campaign, the Drow Priestess will not be resurrected again. If I need the Drow to continue to be a thorn in the PCs’ sides, there’s always her sister…

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