Defeat Your Invincible Enemy Using This One Weird Old Trick

I just finished Mass Effect 3. As you may have heard, there is some controversy over the ending to the game (which I will not spoil). I loved the game, as I did its predecessors, but I too thought the ending wasn’t up to par. The ending to Mass Effect 3 is not what I’m here to discuss today. Rather, I’m here to discuss the beginning. You find out in the first 15 minutes of the game that an unstoppable alien force has taken over Earth, is working on conquering the rest of the galaxy, and nobody has a military strong enough to beat them. Under normal circumstances, everyone would be completely hosed. However, somebody found some plans for some doohickey that can turn the tides of war (somehow), and you spend the game rallying all the peoples of the galaxy together and trying to build this thing, unsure if anything is going to turn out OK even if everything goes as planned.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Find, Find A Magic Amulet

In both fantasy and science fiction, it’s a fairly common theme to pit unlikely heroes against impossible odds. In very few circumstances do we said unlikely hero train and practice for years to become strong enough to beat his enemy — in many cases, the fan has been thoroughly defecated upon and the problem needs to get solved as soon as possible. That means something really unusual needs to happen in order for the good guys to win.

Sometimes it means the hero finds some hidden source of strength that he can use to beat the enemy. This might be some magical item he goes questing for, or getting in touch with his inner golden hypermullet monkey powers. It may be a matter of surviving long enough to find and gain the help of someone who is strong enough to win. A twist on this is defeating an otherwise unstoppable foe by exposing and exploiting a weakness. If the bad guy always wins because he’s invulnerable, getting the Sword Of Cuts Everything No Takebacks Infinity is going to be necessary to beat him. The protagonists could foil the plans of an evil nobleman who keeps sending troops and assassins to kill them by exposing him to someone who can strip him of power.

The common thread to these things is that the good guys can’t win on their own. There will be no straight fight that ends in good times. Another way has to be found. This can be a good thing or a bad thing for a story (or an RPG adventure).

Dishevelling The Playing Field

One thing an indirect way to victory provides is the ability to support opposing forces on wildly different playing fields. Little kids can beat evil monsters. Mortals can defeat gods. The stakes of an adventure can be raised as necessary.  The power levels also don’t have to be really disparate and dramatic. It doesn’t always have to be an invalid with the flu vs. Orcus. It may simply be that a foe is strong enough or has some kind of advantage over the heroes that has to be overcome.

There’s nothing that says the resolution of this has to happen quickly. A short-term objective for the heroes could be to find something to temporarily stop the wrath of the gods from destroying a town. Using the final solution might be the goal of an entire campaign. This is how a lot of adventures work already. Take The Legend of Zelda, for instance. You’re not getting into Death Mountain without the Triforce, and you have a lot of questing to do and bad guys to fight to get all the pieces (and don’t even think about fighting the end boss without the silver arrows!). This lets the heroes do what they do best in adventure-sized chunks, and provides a means for working up to defeating something invincible.

Aggressive Negotiations?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making characters do things they don’t normally do — especially in fiction and tabletop RPGs. When you can’t fight an enemy directly and you require someone else’s help, the social skills need to come out. Some people and many adventurers don’t possess these. It’s a good thing when a character has to stretch and grow to overcome. This keeps us from one-dimensional characters like this one:

Name: Shooting-Guy
Premise: He is good at shooting things and people.
Background: He has shot many things and people, and has won several awards for shooting (which he then shot).
Motivation: To shoot things and people. Probably ones trying to kill him.
Aspirations for the future: To shoot things and people, some of which he is not aware of or do not exist yet.

Granted, with some players, putting Shooting-Guy in a non-combat situation is a recipe for a bloody massacre. The fact remains that if S.G. is played (or written) with some restraint, and he finds his own way to succeed, he gains depth. He becomes more interesting and people will be more likely to become invested in his story (and well-being). A party of adventurers will likely have a wide variety of skills and personalities, and their interactions helping each other through difficult times frequently make a good story in their own right. Sometimes, the story is about them killing each other, but it’s much more likely that they bond and fight onward to victory and mountains of gold — if your DM is kind.

Treasure or no, a situation outside of the heroes’ comfort zone has a lot of potential for interesting things to happen, and it’s fertile ground for roleplay.

The Yellow Brick Road Is Paved With Good Intentions

Creating magical or special solutions to problems is a double-edged sword. At its best, a plot that uses these can be an exciting ride where the heroes narrowly escape death time after time, building to an epic, climactic finale where the heroes are finally ready to fight. At its worst, the author or DM can’t figure out a good way to close out a story, eventually winding up with someone randomly discovering Zeus’s peanut allergy.

In fiction, doing this wrong winds up with the story feeling forced and disingenuous. In an interactive format like gaming, it feels like the DM is artificially and arbitrarily taking the players’ choice and potency away. This usually makes people angry. I do not recommend it. A great man who died after a wrestling match once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Don’t blame me if you get too ham-handed with your story and your players beat you to death with a PHB. As a DM, you may wield ultimate power, but that is your weakness.

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  1. The “Find a Magic Amulet” Principle explains my biggest complaint about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Everyone is afraid of the evil Queen, but in the end the good guys just team up and face her in one huge battle, which they win fair and square. Where are the stakes when good is physically stronger than evil?

  2. Actually, I’ say that the Lion, the Witch,and the Wardrobe is an excellent example of what Vanir is talking about. The children are the Party, and Aslan is the person they find who is more powerful than the villain and enables them to achieve victory.

  3. This is a topic that I revisit over and over in my mind. I believe that for heroism to show up, the odds must be against he would-be heroes. Therefore, I am guilty as charged of playing the “find the Phlebotinum so you can defeat Lord BobMcVillain at the end of the campaign” completely straight.

    Now, aside from Zeus’ secret allergy, in your mind, what’s an example of this tool being misused? And also, what is an example of a good use of it?

  4. Well I read a lot of fantasy and its not the magical amulets and such that annoy me. It’s more the old “peasant turns out to be hidden heir to the throne” thing that really gets to me. Why can’t ordinary people just be ordinary? It’s like a peasant wouldn’t be good enough so they have to have some magical royal lineage.

  5. As a GM, I take the approach of throwing things at my players without really thinking about it. When I want to raise the stakes, I’ll do something crazy and throw in a creature six or seven levels higher than the recommended, just to “see what happens”. When you’ve got six or so players in a group, generally they can compensate for this by being… well, creative.

    That’s something I like to do to my players, because I want them to feel the triumph of winning against impossible odds. I want to push their characters to the edge, whether it’s 3rd level normals in a Modern game against a Gear Golem (that was fun), or a party of 4th level fantasy-adventurers up against a Werewolf Lord (which went a lot better than I expected).

    As a player, I love the feeling of knowing I’ve triumphed over odds and done the impossible. When presented with a foe who has a shield of invulnerability, I want to look at my options and ask myself, “How can I defeat this with what I have?” Sometimes, it pays off – even if it’s just managing to deal 1d4 points of damage someone who probably was twice our party’s ECL.

    As a player, I don’t like to be faced with an enemy we are not supposed to defeat. As a GM, I don’t like to pit my players against enemies they cannot win against. However, I do enjoy putting them up against foes they should *not* be able to win against, for story purposes. Or, to put them against an enemy that, should they start to win against, who has an escape mechanism planned. Because what’s the fun of having an enemy the players truly, truly hate, if not to use them to drive the narrative?

  6. Patrick,

    The stakes need not be physical for the struggle to matter. I’m thinking Wormtongue is an excellent example here. He’s physically weak, but the danger is his poisonous words.

  7. Sure, I love the Rohan parts of LotR. I just mean that a really epic villain–and the kind of story discussed in this article–means a villain who For Wormtongue, that means a physical confrontation can’t defeat his schemes, because he’s already gotten inside Theoden’s head. For Saruman, that means Gandalf can’t defeat his control over Theoden until he has died in Moria and returned as the master of the Istari. But in Narnia, the White Witch has somehow established her evil empire, despite being utterly inferior to Aslan and despite being thrown down in a straightforward battle.

    After reading up on it, I suppose the MacGuffin in Narnia is Aslan. Without Aslan, the White Witch can defeat everybody. The Pevensies bring back Aslan, and her winter is ended. In the battle, she’s winning until Aslan comes back to life.

  8. “After reading up on it, I suppose the MacGuffin in Narnia is Aslan. Without Aslan, the White Witch can defeat everybody. The Pevensies bring back Aslan, and her winter is ended. In the battle, she’s winning until Aslan comes back to life.”

    Aslan in this case is more of a deus ex machina, not a macguffin. More to the point, he’s a Christ figure. That takes the discussion out of our context here, though.