This is part of a series of posts about planning and running your first session as a new GM. In previous posts, we created an enemy faction: a tribe of goblins. Now we'll think about the goblins' lair.
Why do you care about your antagonists' home or lair? Because the PCs will likely track the antagonists back to it and try to wipe them out, and they might want to do it as soon as they encounter that antagonist. So, this is worth figuring out as soon as possible.
You don't need to plan too much about the lair, but there are a few things that are important to know:
- What kind of lair is it?
- What should a fight inside the lair include?
The Lair Itself
Do your antagonists live in a dank cave, a fortified camp, an ancient dungeon, or an abandoned temple?
The nature of your antagonists should narrow down your choice of lair considerably.
- Goblins and kobolds will likely live in a cave or abandoned underground complex (like a mine or dungeon).
- Bandits will likely live in a cave or a camp.
- Zombies will come from a graveyard or dungeon.
You may be tempted to come up with something unusual and genre-breaking here for your first enemy home base. Resist that urge. You and your players will be grappling with plenty of new information in the form of rules and social expectations; don't over-complicate that experience with unexpected setting details that can confuse your players. Go with something recognizable and that instantly "makes sense."
Size and Layout
There's a Goldilocks Zone for lairs in your first session. A massive complex creates too much material for the amount of time you have, while a solitary campfire in a small clearing lacks drama for a climactic showdown.
So, give the lair a few different rooms or zones. For example, a cave will have a large entrance chamber (with lookouts) and 1 or 2 smaller chambers containing treasures that the inhabitants will try to protect. A bandit camp should be set within an abandoned barn or old shrine, giving you a couple of rooms to work with. A graveyard should include several large crypts that contain some object the antagonists will protect.
You don't have to get detailed about this, but it's useful to quickly sketch out a few boxes on paper (or a digital drawing tool) to fix in your mind the different rooms or areas in the lair, their relative sizes, and how to get from one to another. Just a few minutes of work here is all you need.
The Final Fight: Not Just Killing Things
Killing a bunch of monsters isn't inherently dramatic. Killing a bunch of monsters under a deadline or before they do more damage is dramatic.
This is why, in previous posts, I suggested creating the antagonists with a reason to kidnap a villager or two.
When the PCs come to the lair, the antagonists should be about to do something bad with a captured villager/victim.
- Orcs are about to kill and eat a villager.
- Goblins are about to sacrifice a villager to their god.
- Cultists are about to complete a magical ritual that will destroy a nearby village.
If you have younger or more squeamish players, you can totally tone down the threat here. Sacrificing a villager can simply mean strapping them into the middle of a ritual circle that drains a little life out of them and turns their hair white (a la The Dark Crystal). The villains could simply be forcing the villagers to cook their meals and clean their lair, a la Cinderella.
Importantly, when the PCs attack, the villains shouldn't all turn their backs on the villager in danger and rush at the PCs. Most of the antagonists should fight the PCs while one or two continue the ritual in question (or try to escape with the villager). The PCs will have to be smart about getting past the enemies in front to disrupt the ritual.
Of course, the leader of the antagonists should be involved, as well.
You may feel a need to ensure the leader escapes so he or she can threaten the PCs another day. Why waste a perfectly good villain, right? Resist this urge. The PCs want to defeat their enemy, and whisking the leader away often feels like you're taking away their victory. Let them defeat the big bad guy.
However, if you come up with a way of naturally linking the antagonists to a larger leader or faction, do so. Perhaps the bandits have letters from a crime lord who helps finance them, or the cultists have a magical artifact that can be traced to a larger organization.
Importantly, if you do connect this initial faction to a larger one, don't just make this group the equivalent of one unit in a large army, where defeating them makes no practical difference. Winning this battle should matter. Don't take that away from the PCs.
And if you can't think of a way to connect this faction to another, that's totally okay! You'll create plenty of enemies later. In fact, the defeat of this faction will create a power vacuum that other, unrelated factions can take advantage of, but that's another post.
Okay! To recap:
- Decide on the type of structure in which the antagonists will lair
- Sketch out a few rooms in that lair
- Decide on some negative outcome that the PCs have to prevent during the final fight
- If you can do so naturally, link the antagonists to another faction