The Final Showdown
The Final Showdown should be the cumulation of a series of adventures; possibly months or even years of real-time gaming sessions. You should plan the Final Showdown out in perfect detail—this is too important an adventure to run by the seat of your pants. Your players are going to sit down to the Final Showdown session with bloodthirsty, anticipatory grins, and you’d better be ready to give them what they want—action, drama, and the ever-present threat of death.
The ideal Final Showdown is one in which the archvillain knows the characters are coming, and the characters know the archvillain knows, and both know that one side or the other isn’t going to survive to see the next sunrise. If the characters have managed to sneak up on the archvillain unseen, then the archvillain doesn’t deserve the title. There’s no excuse for allowing the characters to surprise a Mastermind, and a Nemesis always expects to run into the characters, just as they’ve come to always expect to run into their Nemesis. If the characters are completely brilliant, you may have to scramble a little, but the DM is always permitted to cheat to enhance the story … and this is a good time for it. In this situation you may need to suddenly decide to make one of the party’s henchmen or NPCs a traitor (willing or unwilling, knowing or unknowing) in order to explain how the villain is alerted, but the villain should be alerted! Don’t tell the characters this, though—let them find out later that the reason the villain knew they were coming despite all their care was that their trusted henchman spilled the beans to protect his infant daughter’s life…
The classic Final Showdown occurs in the archvillain’s personal stronghold. Players expect this cliche—that’s why it’s survived so long in books, movies, and TV. You can buck the trend, but if you do, try to come up with an equally interesting and dangerous setting. There may be some value in setting the Final Showdown in a dungeon that poses a threat to both sides, especially if you’re planning to force characters and villain to fight side-by-side for a while against a mutual threat and then, after being “softened up” by their mutual foe, face each other to fight over the ultimate prize. Just don’t let either side use the third-party intervention as an excuse to run away from the dungeon—it’s not a Final Showdown unless characters and archvillain finally face each other and work out their differences in combat or negotation.
If the Final Showdown takes place in the villain’s stronghold, make certain there are plenty of alarms, both audible and inaudible, for the characters to trigger. You want the villain to have time to prepare the troops! Besides, nothing crushes the characters’ morale better—or makes them more likely to go charging in without thinking—than realizing that the alarm’s gone off and the bad guys are alerted.
Of course the archvillain has to be involved in the Final Showdown, but don’t stop there. It’s time to pull out the stops. Virtually each and every villain or monster who has ever managed to elude the characters or who can be feasibly sprung from jail by the archvillain should be here, ready and waiting. If they specialize in a particular weapon or spell, they should be armed and ready, with spares or scrolls to hand. Make sure all the villains are protected by the same kinds of defensive spells the characters have up—fair’s fair, after all. I’ve learned that it’s usually wise to make the villains a little more powerful than the characters. You might think that this would mean the characters would always lose, but players are a crafty lot. They never shine so brightly as in that moment where it looks like their characters are all about to be destroyed for good. After all, it’s one brain (yours) against many (the players’), and no matter how crafty you are, your players are going to out-think you when their characters’ lives are on the line. So give your villains a little edge by boosting their power level. You wouldn’t want to make it easy on the heroes, would you?
The archvillain should be around, of course, but s/he shouldn’t appear until the characters have been softened up by all the lesser villains, agents, and lackeys. Again, the players expect this—they know that they’re not going to see any trace of the person they’ve come for until they’re down to the dregs of their hit points, spells, and magic-item charges. Why disappoint them?
When the archvillain appears on the scene, the long, winding plotline that has led up to this encounter is finally coming to an end. The DM should have a pretty good idea of what the characters are going to do, from listening in to their planning sessions and simply being familiar with their strategies and personalities. If the characters going to try to negotiate (and still plan to negotiate even after fighting their way through the stronghold), the DM should already have an idea of how the archvillain will respond. This is a tricky situation because it can be anticlimactic—the characters nearly die in a huge fight, then offer the villain a deal and walk off? Something seems to be missing…. There are two ways to avoid this.
The first way is to milk the scene for every ounce of melodrama possible. Ham it up. Roleplay it to the hilt and encourage your players to roleplay it, too (if they see you going into full emotive swing, chances are they’ll get into the spirit pretty quickly). Act. If you provide the players with a h3 enough performance and milk the same out of them, they’ll end up feeling just as exhausted as if they’d actually been in combat. This is a big demand to make of yourself and your players, and I’ve only seen it done on a few occasions by particularly fine gamers, but it’s always memorable.
The second way is to carry out the negotiation but then throw both the characters and the archvillain into danger. If you’re going to do this, try to plan it ahead of time so you can foreshadow the possibility. For example, if they’ve been fighting in a cavern, have bits of rock fall off during combat … maybe a small earth tremor as they begin to negotiate … and then have the roof start to cave in as they near some kind of agreement. If they’ve interrupted the villain in the middle of a grand ritual, have the spell still crackling in the background, and then a henchman break the circle, or blood run over an important line, or the spell energies surge out of control, conjuring up that ethereal juggernaut that the villain had been trying to summon before the negotiation started. If there’s a third party of villains you can bring in, have them teleport in and attack right as the negotiation starts to go well. In other words—give the characters a fight of some sort, even if it’s not with the person they’d been expecting to fight.
If the characters are going to try to fight the archvillain, the DM should already know what the archvillain’s tactics are—and what the archvillain intends to do if the characters lose. This is important, because although the ideal is for the characters to emerge bloody but triumphant, sometimes not even the most skillful fudging of dice rolls on the DM’s part will be able to give the characters the edge they need. AD&D is, in part, a luck-based game—the dice inject an element of randomness that can sometimes tip the balance so far against the characters that there’s no way to save them. The DM should have planned for this contingency: Does the villain kill the characters? Imprison them? Enslave them? Bind them in some way so that they are no longer a threat (say, by a geas) and then set them free? Or are the characters saved by some unlikely deus ex machina? I don’t like last-minute divine intervention—I feel it robs the glory from the characters—but if it makes sense in your game, and especially if it can be done in a way that still gives the characters some glory, then plan for the possibility. And be sure to plan it in such a way that the characters are indebted to their rescuer, so you can exploit the debt later.
Once the archvillain has either been captured, killed, or has undergone a change of heart, the characters will probably collect their booty and drag their dead, dying, and walking wounded out of the dungeon. This is the decompression stage, and it’s best not to throw anything more at the characters. Assume the rest of the minor villains or monsters have fled (hey, you can always use them later for the next major plotline) and gloss quickly over the treasure-gathering and return to normality. There’s little point in staging any important scenes after The Final Showdown—they’ll detract from the moment. Your next step should be to let the players do their bookkeeping (healing up, counting gold, divvying treasure, figuring out how to raise the dead, and so forth) while you either figure experience points or decide what the repercussions are going to be. Are there authorities who must be reported to? If the villain is still alive, what next? Let the game wind down with record-keeping and wrapping-up-the-loose-ends roleplaying. Give yourself and your players a rest—you’ll both need it. Because after this game, you’re going to have to figure out what to run next … and The Final Showdown with the campaign’s archvillain is a tough act to follow!