One trope I and the group I often gamemaster for enjoy in shows, films, and other media is the hero(es) come up against a foe which greatly outclasses them, which they must then outwit or trick to achieve an objective. Sometimes this is done by luck or to reveal a weakness of the foe for later in the story; other times this happens in a circumstance where the main part of that foe's strength is not necessarily relevant to the problem, or in which constraints on the goals of both sides make timing or daring more important than raw power.

Unfortunately, I am new to Fate and somewhat intimidate by its modular nature. I've been given some good and applicable advice (chief among which is 'consider what all sides want out of a conflict rather than just playing it out to the death') but I am seeking specific advice on how to model these personally potent threats without either over-tuning them or taking agency away from my players. What resources and/or guides exist to model this trope in Fate?

A couple examples of this sort of conflict follow:

The Lich (Adventure Time; spoilers, graphic): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9A3fc5qo2aA . Here you can see Finn revealing (creating?) a weakness in his enemy.

Samurai Jack (Samurai Jack spoilers; violence, blood): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQXpd1GIV1Q & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDiN9w_Min4 . Under-equipped and outnumbered, Jack outwits a superior force. This one's more direct than usual, but still fitting.

Pirates of the Carribean (Still spoilers; violence, blood, pretty sure a guy blows up in here): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8M7HopGZX4 . This fight was unwinnable until conditions were met that required distracting Barbossa.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like a useful question, with a useful answer. Changing the title of the question to reflect which trope it is would make it a more useful question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 15:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aye, I'll be doing that either here this morning or later tonight depending on when I can find some time. I'm also looking to refine the main body to enhance its clarity (not that it's been a trouble so far but if I can make it more clear, I ought to, yes?). \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 8, 2017 at 15:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lord_Gareth I edited the title a couple of hours ago, so that part's handled. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 8, 2017 at 17:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ There's this somewhat related question about different scales. Maybe you could use some inspiration from there. \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 11:36

5 Answers 5


This is simple enough, but completely different than how you'd do it in many other games.

In general, you can't simply give the "can't defeat them head on" NPC or situation much higher stats. The PCs don't scale up that much over time, so giving a NPC overpowered stats will just blow out the mechanics.

So instead, treat this as a difference of scale, and give them an aspect to match. Lets say the bad guy has the Aspect "Impossible to defeat head-on, unless you hold Excalibur." So presuming the PCs don't have Excalibur (yet), they're not going to be able to just charge in and handle things in a physical combat; an aspect is Always True, so you can simply disallow that, compel a "and you're captured" (refusing the compel means the PCs manage to run away instead) result, etc. But if the PCs act in accordance with the Aspect, then they can succeed--quite probably including exploiting a loophole in the Aspect like the one I specified above.

Of course, an aspect like this wouldn't be suitable on a PC; it's not compellable, it's too powerful (mostly), etc. But on a NPC it works exactly as intended as long as you don't overuse the trope.

Note that this is the way you want to do it if you're designing the fight as a gated encounter, where the players -have- to take a side path if they want to overcome the main goal. An alternative if you're willing to leave things a bit feral and open is to just give the foe a big number (for attack, defense, etc); not enough to make things entirely unfair, but enough that they will probably win -- and then play an initial conflict for concession (being fairly generous on taken out or conceding PCs), but prepared to let the dice and player creativity turn the tide. As long as the initial conflict has an open ended "loss" condition, the PCs can gain a lot more from a loss than they could from a win--gaining fate points for every Consequence they take during the fight + 1, and also valuable information about how tough the fight is expected to be, so they can go back next time with enough resources (fate points, free tags on Aspects, etc) to win.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Within the context of the OP's question mentioning that a corresponding aspect like "Easilly hoodwinked" would be appropriate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 6:54

I would refer back to the Bronze Rule. The opponent in the first conflict doesn't have to be the Big Bad, it could be a conflict with the Big Bad's Hidden Weakness.

"Okay players, you've encountered the Big Bad and you know that you cannot win at this time because you don't have enough information on what can hurt the big bad. I'm going to tell you that the big bad has a weakness and I'm going to invoke the Bronze rule and turn discovering this weakness into a character. Then I'm going to make discovering this weakness the opponent in the conflict. Sort of like how I used the Raging Snowstorm as a character a few weeks ago."

Big Bad's Hidden Weakness now gets skills/approaches, stress, and consequences. At the end of the conflict when the players win—which they should—the narrative will sound like defeat as the PCs are strewn about, physically defeated, but the big bad left a significant clue behind (amulet, misspoken word, true name) on what can defeat them.

I understand that this could be a bit esoteric, but once you start thinking of everything as a character, a world of possibilities opens up. My personal favorite use of this technique was when a player was a werewolf and "The Unwilling Transformation" was the opponent in the conflict. Each player "attacked" it by either trying to calm the affected PC or trying to knock him out. And the affected player got to "attack" with Will to resist.


Player agency isn't necessarily at risk, before an overpowered adversary, because Concession is player agency, and so is the Extreme Consequence.

However, yes, as others stated, in a campaign where the adversary will be encountered again after one or more Concessions, the adversary shouldn't be so far out of reach that it can't be defeated after some further roleplaying, some new fictional positioning gets developed, some new advantages get created, or some Milestones help the PC's grow.

So here's a guide to tuning NPC opposition to suit a given Conflict. It should be easy to extrapolate out to a series of Conflicts: http://station53.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-tao-of-fate-creating-challenging.html


Amazing Rando's answer is great, but there's another good option.

Just play it by the rules. While the Big Bad may be Big And Nasty in its preferred mode of operation, it may not be as good at other things.

So, yeah, maybe it can Fight the heck out of you - that doesn't mean it's Athletic, or is good at Noticing things.

This is where Create Advantage comes into play. Choose your actions to get preferable skill matchups, and Create Advantage the snot out of them. Then, pass the invokes to the character that can go head to head, and let them dish out the smackdown.

For hidden weaknesses and the like, simple aspect permissions can handle things quite well. If something is Heavily Armored, maybe you just can't smack it with a sword - but once you've discovered its Vulnerable Spot (again, Create Advantage), then you can strike at that, instead.

This works well with the Lich example - at first, we see Finn trying to do various things to the Lich, only to be struck down by its dread power or whatever. Then, Finn falls on the globule thing, opening it up and getting it on itself - a clear Create Advantage.

Once he's got the glowy stuff on him (the Lich's weakness), he can do fairly standard Attacks because now his attacks can do something.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The problem here is that it seemed like the OP was looking for a frame for a longer term resolution -- not so much "come up with a fix in the middle of the fight" as "you can try to just attack the Lich, but he'll mop the floor with you. Also, leaving it up to normal create advantage risks either the players running out of FP or having enough juice to just win without the desired chrome. That said, if you overpower the foe just enough, the players can lose, get FP for their wounds on concession, and come back in better prepared next time. \$\endgroup\$
    – mneme
    Commented May 8, 2017 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ The examples given were pretty much all "single fight" situations, and I pretty much explicitly walked through one of them in the answer. I'm not sure why Create Advantage would require Fate Points. In the example of the Lich, the fact that Finn has the glowy goop on him is sufficient to allow normal attacks on the lich - no extra Fate Points involved. Even in other cases, you can always do more Create Advantage actions to get more invokes without having to use a single Fate Point. But for this type of thing, it's usually not invokes you care about - it's narrative truths that matter \$\endgroup\$
    – kyoryu
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 5:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you're basically making an Aspect that prevents normal attacks, which can be bypassed by an Aspect that sets up the narrative truth overcoming it (but not Overcoming it), working in both cases on the narrative, not mechanical level, then yes; this was basically where my first answer went too. \$\endgroup\$
    – mneme
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 18:18

There have been a number of other good answers, but I want to throw one more idea into the mix. As @mneme points out, you can't necessarily just give the bad guy crazy awesome stats and expect things you work out. However, Fate seems like possibly the ideal system to use a different kind of "invincible" bad guy who's hard to beat because he's studied the PCs and can get inside their heads.

If the villain has studied the PCs extensively, he can probably take a good guess at what a lot of their aspects are. He knows how they fight, how they talk, what they think about. He know just how to taunt them for maximum effect, which PCs will cower when threatened and which ones will explode with righteous anger, that sort of thing.

There are a few options for how to represent this in the game, depending on how far you want to take it. If you really want to show that he knows the PCs through-and-through, you could basically say that they can't use some of their personal aspects against him, or charge them extra for doing so because of how well he knows them. They have to figure out which things he couldn't possibly know about them, or else fight using the environment and what they can figure out about him. Alternatively, if you're concerned that this takes away too much player agency, it just gives him a lot of options for things to compel (possibly for reduced cost).

If you pull this off correctly, you might even be able to make the "boss fight" into more of a character arc - if the villain wins because he knows how to exploit their personal demons, they can beat him by confronting those demons and changing their aspects into new ones he doesn't know.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The problem is, compelling PC aspects just isn't something NPCs do. THe GM can compel aspects, but it's players who launch compels; never characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – mneme
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 18:20

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