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Minibosses: A Primer

Most tabletop RPG campaigns are action adventures of some form, which is to say that they involve characters that go places and do stuff, and fighting tends to happen along the way.  This puts them in the fine tradition of action movies and most video games, and as such, they tend to have the same conventions.  Most of those conventions (eg. beating up goons with increasing levels of skill, picking up better weapons and allies along the way, etc) adapt to RPGs very naturally.  Today, we’re going to look at my favorite of those conventions: The Miniboss.

A Miniboss is defined by being:

  1. A bad guy
  2. Less powerful than the final bad guy
  3. More powerful than some random goon
  4. Distinct and memorable

There are basically two types of Miniboss: the Lieutenant and the Nemesis.

The Big Bad, Just Smaller

The Lieutenant is a powerful antagonist, one that requires the combined efforts of all of the PCs to defeat.  If we go back to the foundations of the modern fantasy tradition*, the works of the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien, we find the seminal Miniboss, Saruman.  He has his own army of Uruk-Hai to fight the heroes, he is more powerful than any one of them on their own, and the protagonists are forced to defeat him before they can move on to facing Sauron more directly.

The mere existence of Lieutentants gives a story structure.  They are defined by being powerful and crucial to the story, so it is easy to create story elements that deal with defeating them.  If your miniboss is an undead horror ruling over an army at the gates to the malevolent kingdom to the north, then your heroes first task might be to raid an ancient tomb where a weapon capable of defeating him is said to be buried.  Then they have to circumvent his army by passing through the Black Wood – but not before assisting in the defense of that one key castle from the evil armies.  Then, finally, they can sneak into his keep and do battle with him directly.  Only then can they turn their attention to the real threat.  Voila! Instant Plot!

Additionally, Lieutenants make for fun and epic battles without endless combat.  There are basically two ways to create epic battles – either your heroes battle their way through a tremendous number of lower-level baddies (think House of Blue Leaves from Kill Bill volume 1) or they have a fight with someone way better than them.  On the screen, these battles are fairly comparable in time and effort.   Scenes where the protagonists dispatches lots of goons with ease look awesome, as it gives them a chance to be totally badass.  In RPGs, fighting your way through dozens of lower-level baddies means hundreds of die rolls, and instead of feeling awesome, it just means monotonous and anticlimactic die rolls to kill yet another baddie.

The Decoy

There is an interesting variation on the Lieutenant that you see from time to time where they are presented as though they are the Big Bad, but it turns out there is something Bigger and Badder waiting behind them to be defeated.  This is a particularly common trope in video games (good job Mario, but the princess is in another castle), mostly because there is no sense of how long a game is supposed to take, so the player/audience can’t look at their watch and figure out if the end is approaching soon.   In films and books, you see this device more commonly in multi-part stories.  The Lieutenant is defeated at the end of the first installment, and then the real villain gets introduced.  Since I’ve already referenced Tolkien, let’s look at the foundation for Sci-Fi RPGS, Star Wars.  In A New Hope, Darth Vader is clearly presented as the Big Bad.  It isn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that we see the real villain of the story — the Emperor that is giving Vader his orders.

The challenge with Lieutenants is keeping them alive long enough for them to be important.  If Lord of the Rings were a role-playing campaign, when the players were faced with the choice of fighting through the snowy pass or going through Moria they would instead have decided to just sneak into Isengard and kill Saruman in his sleep.  This is why Lieutenants usually have armies of goons standing between them and the players – they provide more opportunities for the players to fail Stealth rolls.  On the other hand, this can also be a strength; if your players are particularly effective at short-circuiting campaigns by circumventing obstacles, Lieutenants become magnets for their ingenuity, giving them meaty problems to solve before they can turn their focus to ruining your plan for how the final boss fight is supposed to go.

Like You, Just Eviller

The other type of miniboss is the Nemesis – a character roughly on the same power level as the PCs who serves as a foil for them.   A good Nemesis has two characteristics: they show up more than once, and the players hate them.   Unlike the Lieutenant, the Nemesis usually survives deep into the story, only to be defeated in the final act right before the Big Bad.

I know that this is somewhat less nerdy than my usual fare, but a terrific example of the Nemesis is the “creepy thin man” (masterfully played by Crispin Glover**) from the first Charlie’s Angels movie.  He’s distinctive and memorable, so the audience/players notice and remember him.  He’s a match for any of the protagonists one-on-one, setting him apart from the usual goons to be dispatched.  Because of his skill, he manages to elude them on several occasions, and the protagonists really despise him.

I really, really like using Nemesis Minibosses in role-playing campaigns.  Powerful adversaries are a good thing, and I’ve found that players really like to have somebody that they can hate.  Lieutenants and Big Bads, by their very nature, tend to be powerful and remote, which makes it difficult for them to inspire disdain.  I mean, they can slaughter families and make their goons commit atrocities and the like, but it’s not the same as if you see them up close.  There is a very visceral feeling associated with finally defeating that annoying bastard that’s been bugging you and kept getting away.

The trick with Nemeses, like the Lieutenants, is keeping them alive.  In order for the Nemesis to be effective, you have to throw them at the PCs early and often, and they have to have ways to escape without the PCs feeling like they are being railroaded.   It’s advisable to give them some skills that make them naturally durable or able to escape at will – or both.

The Dark Image

The most common type of Nemesis is one that is a foil for a specific character in a story.  If Magneto is the Big Bad for an X-Men story, Mystique might act as a Nemesis for the entire team – she is formidable, but not so powerful as to take on the whole team at once (conveniently, she also has a power that gives her the means to escape). Sabretooth, on the other hand, is a Nemesis purely for Wolverine.   The Dark Image Nemesis has very similar skills and attributes to one of the PCs, and should be used to make that PCs life particularly difficult.  The fact that they are so similar to the PC somehow serves to make them that much more annoying for the player, and that much more fun to defeat at the end.

*Interestingly, Tolkien based his work on Danish and Norse mythology – where Grendel is another terrific example of a Lieutenant Miniboss.  The heroes are brought into the story initially just to dispatch him, and the first third of the Beowulf is devoted to his defeat.  Of course, it turns out that Beowulf is the smaller threat, and that the real Big Bad is his mother.  And then there’s this story about a dragon that’s kind of tacked on at the end to make it a trilogy. 

**I saw Crispin Glover once.  I was standing in line for a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse and he was there to present one of his indie projects.  He is In-Tense.  And short.  I mean really, really short.  It kind of threw me off.  The total effect was this little dude that looked like he could start a fire with his eyes and flip out and cut people ninja-style at any moment.  Just thought I’d share.

Categories: Mastering the Game
  1. Carl
    November 23, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    “…it turns out that Beowulf is the smaller threat…”

    Beowulf or Grendel?

    • Ben
      November 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      Haha! Good catch. Probably he meant Grendel.

    • Stewart
      December 1, 2010 at 11:51 am

      Yeah, I meant Grendel. And now if I fix it these comments won’t make any sense. Oh well, at least somebody read the footnote.

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