Adventure Design

Are Modern Bad Guys Broken? St. Cecilia’s Blasphemous Bordello

December 18, 2021

This month’s free adventure is St. Cecilia’s Blasphemous Bordello. It’s a creepy, investigative horror adventure set in the old west. But I’m going to use this adventure to talk about the problem with all modern-era big bads.

The problem is this. With magic and melee deemphasized, the toughest RPG boss can barely last a turn against the heroes. The moment modern heroes see the big bad boss, he’ll be gunned down in a hailstorm of bullets. This doesn’t exactly make for a dramatic ending.

Worse, this problem makes for a bad beginning, because if your villain is vulnerable to a few gun shots, it’s difficult to introduce him early. It’s likely he won’t even survive to final battle at the end.

This guy is ready to ruin your entire adventure…

(This problem does still exist in fantasy games. Lots of DMs have seen their end bosses go down with a few spells, but it’s generally much easier to avoid in low-tech games. Fantasy has protective spells, arrow ranges are limited, and armor can always withstand several blows.)

But in modern day adventures, the GM is a crazy person to present the big bad to the players before the finale.

This “sudden death” problem CAN be solved mechanically. A lot of Hit Points shields a boss from instant death. A narrative system might give the GM enough fortune chips, drama points, or whatever to have the boss avoid fire.

However, I’m not convinced that any mechanical solution is going to satisfy your players. It feels weird to shoot Hans Gruber with a dozen machine gun bursts before he goes down. Too many lucky breaks for your villain is going to start feeling “gamey” and break immersion.

So how do you prevent the Sudden Death issue in modern-era games?

  • Keep the Boss’s Villainy a Secret. This suggestion is simple. If your players don’t know he’s the boss, they won’t kill him. Insert your boss at the beginning of the adventure in some other role. He can still be a jerk, a megalomaniac, or whatever, but he should avoid doing anything overtly evil until he’s out of range. Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home is a great example of this — he starts out an egotistical hero and then transforms into a maniac by the end. This approach lets your players get some roleplaying in with your villain before any kind of violent confrontation, making the boss feel more epic when they finally deal with him.
  • Don’t Make Your Boss Combat Effective. Players usually fight force with force. If they see your big bad is a brute in a tac-suit with a sniper rifle, they’re not going to spend much time talking to him. A villain who does horrible things but just looks like a scrawny guy is much more likely to get to interact with the PCs before they take him down. They may hesitate, giving your boss time to execute just one more plan…
  • The Boss is the Least of Their Problems. I’ve written before that I’m a big fan of plate-spinning. This is the technique of giving the players more problems to deal with that they can, and challenging them to figure out the optimal way of dealing with all of them. For example, the big bad may be standing in the street, his hands raised in surrender, but his goons are holding hostages, he has a bomb that’s about to blow up an apartment building across the street, and a mysterious helicopter suddenly appears out of nowhere heading towards the area. Even if the PCs decide to kill the villain quickly, this overall situation is going to make for a tough, memorable encounter.

St. Cecilia’s Blasphemous Bordello

St. Cecilia’s Blasphemous Bordello takes place in the old west, so it has a lot of the same problems as modern games. A Colt Army revolver is going to take someone out pretty fast. To help set up a better villains, I used some of these tricks.

In the adventure, the PCs discover that a dastardly villain — the Candleman — is behind some unusual attacks in town. I wanted the Candleman to be a creepy, but unassuming, regular guy. He’s dangerous, but I designed him to be in the background for most of the adventure. But I still wanted to have him live long enough to creep out the players with his occult activities.

The sinister Candleman

To help with this, when the PCs finally meet the Candleman, he’s not armed. He’s skinny, alone, unlikely to try to fight. When I ran this adventure, the PCs took the time to talk to him, threaten him, and question him before finally taking him out. But even though he’d only take a bullet or two to take down, the encounter with him was tense and creepy.

Next, I gave the GM lots of options for adding complexity to the adventure’s action-filled ending. No spoilers here, but the PCs conclude the adventure by fending off a dangerous, netherworld spirit. However, if they are well-prepared, it’s likely this final boss has the same problem as other modern-era bosses — one or two good shots can take him out.

To help with this Sudden Death problem, I gave the GM several options to add complexity to this encounter, in the event the PCs really are that organized. I provided options to add innocents into the mix, a surprise ambush, and other hazards to make sure that even if the final boss does go down in a few shots, the day isn’t won yet.

I had fun writing this adventure. Old west horror was the very first adventure genre I posted to this site, and it was a blast returning to a genre I’ve already covered.

If you want to watch a summary of the adventure along with some tips how to run it, check out my YouTube channel:

Download the Adventure for FREE

In St. Cecilia’s Blasphemous Bordello, a small town’s famous bordello was suddenly shut down and purchased by a group of nuns – who promptly reopened the site as an orphanage. A few weeks later, the old bordello has become the site of two ghastly decapitations. Not having time to get involved, the sheriff asks the PCs to help. Soon, they discover the existence of a horrible entity created through the town’s anger and shame.




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Random Musings

This is the first adventure to include an audio track to kick off the adventure. Do you GMs actually use this sort of thing? Let me know in the comments below…

Related: More Old West horror

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Great topic and fun one shot. It’s less relevant in one shots, which need to be more direct, but in longer campaigns I love the figuring out ways to tease players with scenarios where brute force is a very bad idea.

    Spy films often feature this kind of teaser though they also do a lot of The Boss is the Least of Their Problems. The casino collects guns at the door, shooting up the wealthy fundraiser would get the group labeled terrorists (granted, I’ve had clever players plot out successful assassins), firing guns in the pressurized cabin will kill everyone, and so on. One of my favorite opening set-ups is the players imprisoned and needing to break-out together. It can be a great way to gel a group of new characters with clear stakes and purpose. This can work well as a one shot; get taunted by the bad guy, figure out how to break out, find your gear, and then go on the hunt.

    1. Great point – some genres typically have the big bosses duck for cover and order their goons to take care of the PCs. Usually followed by a helicopter to come take them away 🙂

  2. Yessss, I love audio tracks! I use audio a LOT while GMing on Foundry VTT with the GURPS Game Aid (shameless plug because it’s a work of love and I’m so glad it exists!).
    Please, you can always include this and it will be most welcome! Suggestions of types of songs or incidental effects are appreciated as well. Even if it’s a simple youtube playlist, all the help is welcome!

    1. Awesome – thanks for the feedback! I’ve added them to a few of my adventures lately… so much fun to create!

  3. Hi mate,

    yes audio is great if you are playing VTT. I add background music, specific sounds, songs which are centre in a given scene and even something you did here. So please keep up. With audio you can extremly well set certain emotional states.

    Here I will add classical Italo-Western Music from Ennio Morricone, coyote howling, clinging of spurs etc. All what you expect to find in a Western movie.

    Thanks a lot for the great work! Keep it up.

    Does anybody have by chance a good map of Tunis?

  4. Enjoyed launching this adventure with my GURPS group this afternoon. One of my favorite roleplaying scenes ever occurred with Abigail on the porch of the orphanage. Luella, the grifter, used her acting skill to win over the kid. After some conversation about the doll, Miss Annie, and her loneliness, Luella did well enough on a reaction roll that I had Abigail tell her story without the other doll (though she did receive it later). Because of the way the scene was playing, Abigail bent down to Miss Annie and whispered, “Should we tell her?” Luella made her perception roll and knelt down, whispering directly to the doll, “Tell me what?” And so Abigail proceeded to tell the story of the faceless man as if Miss Annie were telling the story. It was *phenomenally* creepy and beautiful.

    Thank you for putting so much into these adventures. They’re a real gift for the community.

    1. Had a very similar experience except it was Petar (who has a soft spot for children) talking with Abigail and then “Miss Annie.” It was one of the most fun encounters in recent memory. This whole module is dripping with atmosphere.

  5. Finished this last night and my group loved it. Very atmospheric and a rare western cthulhu module that doesn’t have to be pulpy (but definitely can be).

    If you’re thinking of running this my biggest advice would be to prep the train encounter with Guzman really tightly, it can quickly go off the rails (no pun intended) if you don’t have a plan and maybe have some fallback options in the event things go sideways. Same goes for Plez- my group couldn’t get it out of their head that he was critical to the resolution so I forced a conflict at the train station.

    I ran for two investigators and it was very tight and atmospheric. There are plenty of NPCs to form a posse so they don’t immediately get in over their heads.

    They barely survived, a little insane and sporting some major wounds. We’re going to sidle into Shadows over Stillwater with the same characters next month.

    This is the second of JCs adventures I’ve run and I can’t stress enough how great the premade investigators are. Better than any official scenario I’ve run and they make players new to Cthulhu a lot more comfortable getting into the game.

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