Phantasmal Killer—Tiered Villains

Welcome back to Phantasmal Killer, a blog delving into weird and fun game mechanics and how you can take advantage of them to bring new ideas to life at your tabletop. In each article I look at using a game system in unexpected ways to create unique or bizarre characters to pummel your players.

Admit it. We’ve all beaten the villain in a videogame before and said “That was way to easy,” only for the villain to return, powered-up and ten times as challenging. As each iteration of the villain falls, they bounce back bigger and meaner than ever! It’s the anime trope that launched a thousand memes. But it’s also something that tabletop RPGs—mostly rooted in early 20th-century fantasy fiction, rather than video games and anime—don’t capture as well.

Tiered villains are opponents who bounce back immediately after defeat with more power, more health, and posing a far greater threat to the conquering heroes. They provide a fun bait-and-switch for an encounter, as the players think they’ll encounter one threat only to face another, but they also provide a way to raise the narrative stakes of the adventure, as the danger literally escalates before the heroes’ eyes. What they thought was a decisive victory suddenly becomes a far more dire fight for survival. A tiered villain is also a handy tool for “boss battles” that end too quickly and easily thanks to a lucky critical or a bad initiative roll. If your heroes take down the final villain of the storyline too easily, it can feel unsatisfying, and ad-libbing a “final form” for that opponent unleashed by their defeat lets you re-use that un-used statblock.

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