A Xanatos Gambit, according to TV Tropes, is a two-tiered plan designed to assure victory, even in the face of apparent defeat. It’s named after a character from a certain animated series who was a master at this particular tactic, and would often use it to manipulate the story’s protagonists into fulfilling his own goals in spite of their supposed foiling of his presented plot.
Today, we’re going to be examining the Xanatos Gambit and its potential usage for your campaign, as well as taking a few cautionary measures to ensure your players don’t start busting out the torches and pitchforks after their own actions come back to haunt them.
Why should the Gambit be used?
The true potential of this particular strategy is that it relies on the an element found in every player party: the unrivaled ability to ruin everything. Just as the party fighter will desperately hurl themselves at the enemy wizard in an effort to interrupt the impending flesh-to-scorpions spell, a player party will usually leap at the chance to foil the antagonist’s plans before they can get off the ground.
This strategy can do wonders for a campaign because it veers away from the traditional progression of “find bad guy, smash bad guy, save the village/kingdom/planet” and into a game where the players are seeing plots in every innocuous occurrence and spending a lot more time thinking things through and making careful strategies, fearing that they might be playing directly into their adversary’s hands.
As an added bonus, if your players have the tendency to murder anybody who looks like a threat, this is a great way to break them of that particular habit.
How does it work?
In simple terms, the Xanatos Gambit is a plan where the antagonist would benefit from just about every probable outcome. This can usually be simplified something along the lines of “if the obvious portion of the plan is foiled, the act of defeating it will still further my own goals through careful manipulation of the circumstances.” These plans can vary in complexity and layers, though the simpler plans tend to be a little sturdier and offer greater room for adaptation on the fly.
Let’s have an example scenario, shall we?
The player party is a group of well known well known, reasonably powerful adventurers who helped depose the despot ruling their homeland and install his more sympathetic younger brother to the throne. Given titles, resources, and the official jobs of protecting the royal bloodline and kicking evil in the face whenever it pops up, the party has been living the high life for several years. Things keep going swimmingly until the King’s son suddenly falls into a deep, unbreakable sleep. The court wizards are baffled, the king and queen are unable to produce another heir, and the various landowners are gearing up for a nasty little war of succession. Finally, the royal spy network makes a breakthrough, tracing a plot to assassinate the monarch after enchanting his son into a deep slumber, ensuring a divided kingdom ripe for a foreign invasion. With great haste, the players are dispatched to break the curse and kill the necromancer responsible for laying it.
Things are, however, more complicated than they seem. The child hasn’t been cursed into a magical sleep, he’s been turned into an empty vessel, a body waiting to be filled with a soul…the Necromancer’s soul, specifically. Desiring a kingdom without the effort of conquest, the necromancer has been laying the pieces of his plan since the old monarch fell. Leaking the information to the network of spies, he is busily tallying a list of demands while he waits for the inevitable arrival of the royal head-stomping task force. While reasonably confident that he and his undead minions will be more than a match for the party, getting killed at their hands and having his soul shunted to the young prince’s body is also a perfectly acceptable outcome. It might not allow him to allocate the proper resources via extortion before “breaking the spell” and taking over the prince’s body, but will certainly help alleviate any suspicion held by the royal family.
This qualifies as a Xanatos Gambit because the necromancer wins regardless of the outcome of his conflict with the player party. If he defeats them, he’s given the luxury of a little more time and resources before inhabiting the prince’s body. If he doesn’t, they kill his current mortal shell and he inhabits the prince’s body anyway, and inherits the player party as his personal unit of sworn protectors.
Making it work.
This kind of gambit can be tricky to pull off properly, but here are a few tips to make the effort a little more successful.
- Foreshadowing. Throwing subtle little indicators of the villain’s true intentions will make the gambit hit that much harder, and it will also make it seem likely a deliberately designed element of the plot instead of a last-minute improvisation to deny the party their hard-earned victory.
- Have a way for the players to actually win. In the given example, the party could defeat the necromancer in a number of ways, such as revealing his true nature and slaying him in the prince’s body, or by finding the magical decanter containing the boy’s soul and working with the court wizards to cast out the necromancer and restore the prince to normal.
- If a villain is smart enough to plan a Xanatos Gambit, they are smart enough to adapt. While foreshadowing and having a preconceived plot is important, only a moron sticks exactly to the script when the whole affair is burning down around their ears.
- On that note, smart villains work through proxies. Players usually solve their problems by murdering them, and a smart primary antagonist will cheerfully feed minions into the woodchipper of righteousness by the spadeful if it will further their own plans and give the protagonists the illusion of victory at the same time.
- Be sure to let the party make actual progress. If the player’s actions are irrelevant, you might as well send everyone home and perform the entire campaign yourself in a string of unsettling soliloquies. While a smart villain stands to benefit from either outcome, the players should still be able to save lives, restore some semblance of order and, ultimately, thwart the foe behind it all. Nobody should be untouchable, and not even the world’s craftiest villain should dance completely outside the grasp of defeat.