Fatal flaws that make unconquerable foes conquerable

As the story behind Van Dyck’s “Daedalus and Icarus” tells us, pride can be one’s undoing. And pride is only one character flaw a D&D villain can have.

The game worlds in which most Dungeons & Dragons games take place are brutal places, so it is not surprising to see that overcoming foes by force in combat is the most common way of resolving disputes for player and non-player character alike. Given D&D’s wargaming roots and the violence prevalent in fantasy books and films, it is relatively safe to say that an interest in fantasy combat is a primary reason for many D&D players to come to the table in the first place.

Players expect their characters to fight.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop a dungeon master (DM) from putting a twist on that expectation by presenting villains that, at least at first glance, are far too powerful for the heroes to defeat in combat. How can such villains be presented without overmatching the heroes? The answer lies in afflicting such villains with fatal character flaws that the heroes can discover and exploit.Regardless of the flaw chosen, it is important to give players clues about its existence early in a D&D adventure, and to provide periodic reminders of it as the game progresses. Doing so will help the heroes to use their knowledge about the villain to best effectiveness when the moment of the final confrontation arrives.

For example, a villain with the flaw of vanity would probably have numerous portraits and sculptures of himself decorating his stronghold, in addition to plenty of mirrors, in which he routinely checks his appearance and admires himself. Astute players will probably comment on his apparent vanity, and very astute players may conclude that the villain is vulnerable to flattery. Armed with that knowledge, the heroes may decide to engage the villain in a lengthy talk about the villain’s best traits before the battle can begin – giving the party rogue, thief or assassin time to get into position before the combat starts.

In addition to the flaw of vanity, consider these other exploitable weaknesses:

Hubris. Overweening pride is a very dangerous trait for a villain to have, as the need to quickly and decisively avange insults to her self-image can cause her to make tactical mistakes.

Honor. While normally a positive trait, a villain with a strong sense of honor, such as a “fallen knight” type, can be exploited in numerous ways. Apart from his predictability in combat, such a villain will probably show mercy to fallen foes, allowing heroes to live and fight another day. The concerns of heroes pointing out that the villain has an unfair advantage in a fight will probably be carefully considered.

Cruelty. Cruelty is a common villainous trait. But extreme cruelty is something that can be exploited by players who are aware of its existence. When the heroes hear a villain say, “”Of course, I have mercy. I’m just not providing any to you,” they can safely assume that the villain probably doesn’t show much mercy to anyone else, either, including her allies and subordinates. in such cases, the heroes may be able to sway those subordinates to betray the villain by citing the cruelties she inflicted upon them.

Wrath. Although almost every villain becomes dangerously angry when plans are thwarted, a wrathful villain’s anger supercedes his reason when it takes hold. Clever players will learn which stimuli will trigger the villain’s wrath, and will provide that stimuli at a critical moment, hopefully forcing the villain to make tactical mistakes that would never happen when cooler heads prevail.

Overconfidence. How many heroic incursions must a villain repel in order to reach the 15th experience level? The short answer is many, and a villain’s recognition of her own power can hold the key to her downfall, as she is less likely to view the heroes as the threat they are. The best published example of this flaw appears in the first edition Advanced D&D module Ravenloft, in which the heroes are imprisoned in a vampire’s castle. The vampire and its minions could easily wipe out the party in a stand-up fight, but the vampire decides to play cat-and-mouse with the party for a while. Unfortunately for the vampire, the heroes discover several deadly artifacts in the castle during the cat-and-mouse game, a circumstance the vampire discovers exactly one melee encounter too late.

In the interest of fairness, the DM may decide to reduce the experience point award for defeating a “flawed” villain; after all, the award dictated by the rules is to be granted for overcoming a villain that makes the best use of her abilities to defeat the heroes, not one that makes tactical errors based on personal shortcomings.

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3 comments on “Fatal flaws that make unconquerable foes conquerable

  1. Marty says:

    Quoting from the 3.5 DMG: “Bad rolls or poor choices on the PC’s part should not modify ELs or XP awards. If the encounter is difficult because the players were unlucky or careless, they don’t get more experience.”

    Conversely, If the villain makes a mistake, Especially if this mistake is a direct result of the PCs actions (A wrathful Villain charges…past the main fighter, and the rogue… at a PC who’s taunting him, for instance), Then they should get full experience, because they defeated a villain. That they used their brains, and not their muscles, should be rewarded, not punished.

    • Alric says:

      A valid point, even if it does come from a heretical text (i.e., legacy edition). I would counter with this equally heretical qoute from Gygax in the afterword of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide: “It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter as written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rulebook upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game.”

      of course, I hold you in much higher esteem than a barracks room lawyer and I value your opinion, so the entirety of the quote doesn’t apply. The part that does apply, though, is the part about not holding to the letter of the rules in some cases. For me, this is one such case.

      I’d probably deviate from the rules you cite in this case since I, as DM, spoon-feed the players with multiple clues to the information which they later use to advantage. In my eyes, that circumstance is different from a player coming up with a clever tactic on his or her own, a character taking the time to research a villain’s history/personality for exploitable weaknesses, or my failure to employ a monster’s special abilities due to human error, all of which should bring a full award in my opinion.

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