I recently read a fascinating novel, Something Like Normal  by Trish Doller. It was fascinating–and somewhat alien to my experience. Since it’s set in the world around us today, it should have been easy to slip right into the character’s head, but it turns out that I’m more easily able to get into the heads of mighty magic wielders, nanotech artists, and creepy alien races. Strangely, those heroes of destiny seem to share my upbringing and values. You know, they’re people who buckle down, study hard, and fight to fix things. They’re not messy, impulsive people who turned to beer in junior high, or who never picked “the right path”, though I admit that those impulsive people often cast better as the muscular hero.
Reading about real people who aren’t engaged in Batman or Bond-like super prowess reminded me that we’re not always at our peak, superbly trained, or even ready to study. Combine that with a cold or flu that swept through California, knocking down me and several coworkers and friends, and I thought again about heroes who always fight at optimal. Sure, people lucky enough to be “generally healthy” might get to roll into fights at peak efficiency… but what about everyone else?
Limiting heroes so they’re sub-optimal is not a very interesting though… the evil GM who nerfs their characters and powers is an oft told story. On the other hand, villains and foes who fight way below peak could be a great tool for GMs. “Strong, but temporarily weakened foes” provide a way to expand “appropriate foe” lists, reward the PCs for research and prep, and put the PCs on the clock. (If they can barely handle King Kong while he’s sick, waiting until he’s healthy seems like a bad plan…)
- Natural talents who lack skill refinement, training, or study. This may be due to social restrictions, apathy, or lack of effort. That big bruiser has never really fought–because who would mess with him? Maybe he thinks that after hours of working out and chomping protein powder, he is going to smash face… and be quite surprised when the PCs don’t take his blows squarely.
- Malnutrition : In just about every society there are people who never reach their potential. Kids can’t concentrate in class because they’re hungry, growth and muscle is permanently stunted due to deficiencies, and malnourished people are sick more often. Speaking of which…
- Sick. Even a routine cold or bout of the flu saps your energy; just concentrating can be tough, especially if you’ve got a headache. Spell casters with coughs are going to have problems with their verbal components… and man, the diseases of the future can be horrific. Tailored bioweapons and nanoswarms might leave you wishing they’d finished you off.
- Exposure. The guy who trudged through the blizzard is going to be exhausted; his fingers might be frostbitten and are certainly numb. Similarly, the mighty warrior who can barely stay upright due to heat exhaustion, or the miner scoured by the acid rain of Xhion VII, aren’t the overwhelming threat their gear and experience might suggest.
- Lack of commitment. Semper Fi keeps marines fighting and holding when it looks grimmest–but are you willing to die for the leader of the thieves’ guild who takes a big chunk of loot for operating in her territory, and won’t let you burgle the merchant’s district? Will you hold the gates for the king who is months behind on your pay? If you’re under siege and feeling abandoned, when no relief force is reported and supplies are running out–will you fight to the last? If you only turned to banditry for money… remember, dead men spend no coin.
Different eras have unique weaknesses and some that manifest more often, though adapting most of these to another era is rarely difficult.
Old World and Medieval.
- Drinking When wine or beer are all you drink from sunup (to avoid disease from water), you’re probably not the most clear headed guy around. If most of your workers are mildly toasted all day, how much useful thought are you missing out on? How much quicker are tempers to flare? (A great way to justify ‘oversights’ among a villain’s work force.)
- Previous injury. Too often, a lack of skilled doctors meant incompletely healed injuries. This might manifest as a broken wrist that’s not as strong as before, a leg that pains at any pace faster than a walk (or whenever it’s stormy), a knee prone to blow out when exercised vigorously (particularly on stairs).
- No stimulants. Think about how hard it is to function before your first cup of coffee, tea, or can of diet coke in the morning. Lots of people never tasted stimulants–in fact, sometimes they started drinking first thing in the morning. Hair of the dog, right?
- Disease Much disease was something to endure until it ended on its own, due to a lack of understanding and antibiotics. Tuberculosis wasted away several Romantic poets, dysentery leveled armies. and many STDs became life-long complications, if they didn’t render you sterile–or unhappy to stand. For more on diseases, La Belle Compagnie has a quick guide to medieval diseases .
- Unfree. When working hard isn’t rewarding, how much time will you dedicate to improving processes? A slave might fear death if his patient doesn’t pull through… but doesn’t a large dose of painkillers keep the master calm? If the heir makes generous promises, why not add a little arsenic to his father’s medicines?
Modern and Future
- Buggy cyberware. The guy who’s just recovering from upgrade surgery, or whose limb is suddenly jerky due to plaque buildup along the conductors, or the woman who survived crashing her hovercraft but is having datalink artifact issues all have good reasons to dramatically under-perform. The hacker who’s recovering from a brain fry is another good genre example.
- Addiction/withdrawal. This is common in cyberpunk, whether it’s an addiction to tailored drugs, virtual reality, stimulants, booze, or something specific to the character. Stimulants in particular are a deadly spiral; they’re often necessary to compete with cyberware equipped intruders. Don’t read the list of side effects though.
- Malnutrition. Not necessarily a lack of food, though in novels, scrounging for pizza from dumpsters isn’t uncommon. Krill can only emulate so much, or the soy-press vitamin port is jammed. Simple things like bad night vision, or classics like rickets can manifest. If the manufacturer stops supplying vitamin packets or soy flavorings for the KR-3000, you’d better upgrade before they sell out of their back stock.
- Lack of sleep. Runners often have odd schedules. If they’re trying to keep up an ID by day, they’ll be exhausted before their midnight run starts. Similarly, most runners use the cover of night, putting them off schedule for interacting with the corporate world. Someone’s sleep is getting mangled if they need to study the target to prepare for extraction.
Why Make Flawed Foes?
- Increases your opposition pool. Maybe this campaign your players don’t have to fight a d4 kobolds at level 1. Sure, it’s a common trope, but no one will complain if in this one campaign they start off fighting a huge band of starving, weakened bandits. If the PCs don’t mention their foes’ drawbacks, rumor may peg them as much mightier than they really are…
- Improvement is just getting over a cold. If the foe survives, they can be better next fight–an easy way to keep them as a tough challenge for longer. The improvement is less hard to explain than why the guards are suddenly two levels higher after a couple weeks of guard duty.
- Fun reveals. Why is the legendary fighter’s blade moving SO slow? Maybe it has to do with coughing every third swing, hacking green globs of spit whenever he catches his breath. Which his skill allows him to do, always parrying with minimal effort, despite his obvious incapacity.
- Turnabout is fair play. Perhaps that cool sword from the fallen fighter is great, but its magic was stolen from a drunkard. Carrying it results in slow building headaches, and the shakes set in after a few days, only calmed by regular application of beer. Of course, go too far and there’s only so much your sword can compensate for.
- Instant Adjustment. If your heroes are having a cake-walk, adrenaline can focus their foe for a minute or two. Or, conversely, the evil fighter who can’t be hit might have a minute-long coughing spell. That might be plenty of time for the PCs to regroup–or run!
I hope those ideas inspire you to try out some tough foes who are having a bad week. If you’ve ever tried out foes who are suffering from bad circumstances, I’d love to hear about it. If you have thoughts about how to make them work in your campaign, or want to discuss ways to model this type of thing in different systems, take advantage of the talented gnome stew commentariat!