Defeating Villains in Roleplaying Games

There are plenty of articles out there on how to play good villains, create good villains, and come up with cool plans for your villains. Today, however, we’re going to talk about something slightly different – how to allow your players to defeat your villains. No, I’m not talking about scripting your game; I’m talking about making sure that there are ways for your villains to be defeated.

If you take as a given the idea that your villain does her research and is fairly intelligent, she can become fairly difficult to stop. Part of this is because of you, the game master (GM): you know all sorts of things about what the player characters (PCs) are doing, and have the chance to sort through that and decide which things the villain might be able to learn. Part of this is because intelligent, creative, resourceful villains have everything the PCs have, plus a possible something extra: a lack of morals that allows them to get away with more than the PCs can.

Today we’ll talk about ways to make sure that your villains can be defeated (can, not will). We’ll talk about flaws and problems you can give them that offset some of their advantages, and ways to make their advantages less unbalancing.

Intelligent Villains

With all of this talk of toning down advantages, why would you want to make intelligent, creative, resourceful villains in the first place? Why not just make them dumb and lonely?There are plenty of reasons why you might want to use intelligent villains:

  • Your players are pretty creative, and you want to give them a challenge.
  • Your players’ characters are pretty powerful, and you want to give them a challenge.

Note that there’s a difference between providing a challenge and creating an unstoppable opponent – hence this article on villain flaws.

  • Dumb villains can get really boring after a while.
  • Dumb villains can get pretty silly after a while – if they’re so foolish, why do they survive long enough to be considered real villains?
  • Intelligent villains can make for more interesting plots.
  • Intelligent villains can provide a wider variety of potential plot solutions than simple hack-and-slash.

Villain Flaws

Inhibitions

People often assume that morality is the only reason why someone wouldn’t want to kill or harm another. Thus, villains will never have qualms about harming innocent bystanders, making it much easier for them to harm the PCs than for the PCs to harm the villains. And of course, an intelligent villain will take advantage of this in order to get a leg up on the heroes.

Luckily for you, morals aren’t the only possible thing getting in the way of your villain’s killing spree. Inhibitions also provide a great obstacle to your villain’s success. It’s entirely possible for someone to avoid killing for a reason that has nothing at all to do with morals:

  • Your villain is squeamish. The sight of blood makes him faint, or the idea of death scares the living daylights out of him due to some childhood trauma.
  • Your villain is practical and killing is impractical. Perhaps the local authorities would be willing to look the other way if the villain killed the party for some reason, but they wouldn’t look the other way if innocent bystanders died.
  • Someone the villain cares about or doesn’t want dead is among the innocent bystanders.
  • The villain just hates guns (or other relevant weapons of destruction) for some reason.

I’m sure there are other possibilities; this should give you some ideas to start with. Inhibitions, weaknesses, obsessions – intelligence does not mean that your villain is perfect or perfectly capable of making entirely rational judgments. A lack of morals doesn’t mean that he’s willing to use any means necessary to achieve his objectives.

He has issues!

Everyone falls prey to fears and worries. What worries your villain? What frightens him? What past actions haunt him? What past events echo into his present? Here are a few things you can play with:

  • Phobias, fears, anxieties, terrors, and traumas. If your villain is afraid of something, that can be used against him!
  • Regrets, disappointments, humiliations, shameful secrets – if your villain’s mistakes can be exposed, his allies might leave him. If he can be reminded of his humiliations, he might lose some of his confidence and make a mistake.
  • Deep-seated traumas, mental illness, a need for medication – such things can be exploited by a clever party. Check out our articles on mental illness in roleplaying for more ideas.

Blind splots

Just because someone is intelligent doesn’t make her omniscient, even with respect to her own psyche. Particularly with respect to her own psyche! Pretty much everyone has personality quirks, flaws, weaknesses, or problems to which they are blind. Intelligent does not mean perfect, after all, and people tend to have a lot of trouble recognizing their own problems.

A blind spot is a problem or weakness which the character does not recognize, has trouble keeping track of or remembering at important moments, or simply can’t get past. Here are a few examples of possible blind spots:

  • Emily is overly trusting, and even when people obviously lie to her she’s likely to believe that the person was simply mistaken rather than lying.
  • Max is overconfident, and is likely to take on challenges he isn’t quite up to.
  • Jim loves his sister and would do anything to protect her, even though he knows she doesn’t approve of his actions.
  • Mary has a great deal of drive and stamina, and doesn’t tend to notice when her allies and compatriots are burning out and wearing down.
  • Eli is convinced that he’s doing things for the right reasons, and thus that he isn’t a villain. Because of this he tends to forget that most people would disapprove of what he’s doing, and sometimes allows information to slip that could turn people against him.
  • Norma is so enraged at the actions of the enemies she fights that her judgment slips during tense, emotional battles. She becomes so angry that she’s less likely to notice problems or remember to check everything she should.

Another thing to remember – intelligence does not mean all-encompassing intelligence. There are plenty of people who are intelligent in one area (tactics, quantum physics, whatever) and downright dumb in another (interpersonal relationships, staying calm under pressure, etc.).

The traitor or informant

No matter how careful or suave or convincing the villain, it’s always possible that he might have at some point hired (or otherwise trusted) the wrong person. Perhaps one of his old employees has a little information and would be willing to sell it. Maybe one of his trusted lieutenants is starting to feel under-appreciated. Or maybe there’s an undercover agent in his minions’ midst who’s been cut off from his own people and is looking for someone to help him.

Luck and random chance

Every now and then, things just go the PCs’ way. Obviously you don’t want to overuse this one or it’ll seem like you’re solving the game for them rather than allowing them to win on their own merits. But if sometimes things just go badly for the PCs, then you might as well allow things to go well now and then too. Maybe they stumble across a pointer to the information they need, an informant comes to them, or they happen to be in the right place at the right time to witness something helpful. Think of it as karma, or plain old opportunity.

Unexpected PC resources

The villains can’t necessarily predict, find out about, or expect every resource the PCs could potentially get their hands on. Allow your PCs to put some hard work into finding an extra resource or two that could tip the scales. Send them on a quest that will give them an item that will help them defeat the villain. Allow them to woo allies who could turn the tide of battle.

Tips

Leave evidence

Make sure there’s a way in game for the PCs to discover the villain’s weakness. It doesn’t help that the villain always orders his special cigars from one particular bribable store clerk if there’s no way for the PCs to discover that fact.

Provide more than one piece of information

Prepare more than one thing for the PCs to learn about the villain. Otherwise it becomes painfully obvious when they discover the blind spot or weakness that they’ve virtually solved their plot. Give them a handful of things they can research and uncover, some of which are useful, some of which are dead ends or misinformation, some of which might or might not be useful depending on how clever the PCs are. Let them sort through things, find ways to verify information, and decide which things to take advantage of – and how.

Think small sometimes

One traditional way to deal with villains is to have one specific, glaring weakness that can be exploited. Once in a while, try giving your villain a handful of smaller things instead. There’s no silver bullet that’ll do the trick. The party has to dig up several things and make use of all or most of them if they want to weaken the villain enough to give themselves a fighting chance.

Disguise weaknesses as color

Remember those random details that you use to give color to your NPCs? Things like the imported leather jacket, the unusual tattoos, and so forth? Disguise some of your weaknesses as these bits of color. The imported leather jacket can be tracked down to a dealer who has the villain’s delivery address. The tattoos are linked to an unusual set of religious beliefs. If you’re used to throwing in bits of color that don’t have any meaning within the context of the plot then it might take your players a little while to catch on. Thus, you’ll have to go back to that first tip: leave evidence of other kinds as well.

When putting villains into plots, it’s important to think about both how the PCs might lose and how they might win. How might the villain get away with his dastardly plans? How might the party stop him? Give the villain a few subtle (or not-so-subtle) weaknesses, and you’ll be off to a great start.

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