Using Foils in DnD: Shining a Literary Spotlight

woman with red lipstick and silver diamond ring

Before anyone asks, NO, I am not about to write 1000 words on the aluminum foil you keep in your kitchen. Let’s put on our school hats and think back to English class: a foil in literature is a character trait that exists purely to bring attention to or emphasize the opposite trait in another character (often the antagonist and protagonist, but not always).  Being that we covered side characters and NPCs last month, I thought it would be fitting to dig a little deeper into player character development using foils today!

Foil Purposes (Furposes)

I like to separate foils into two kinds: character-based and plot-based (much like how stories tend to be written).

CHARACTER BASED:

The main point of foils is emphasizing a particular character trait, but that goes for anything! Physical attributes, aspects of their personality, even moral alignment. Whether it be two player characters or two (or more!) NPCs, here are some ideas to get your brain juices flowing:

  • Physical: The classic “smol and tol” trope. You might remember this from reading Of Mice and Men in grade school. George is the short-but-mighty character with a temper, while Lennie is the gentle giant of the duo, who is always calm and kind. Whether it be “shipping” two characters together or pitting them against each other, the contrast makes their differences much more noticeable. Try turning a trope on its head and see what happens!
  • Morality: Using a moral alignment chart is the easiest way to do this. If you move at a diagonal, you’ll easily be able to find the exact opposing trait for your character. Maybe you have one character who is Chaotic Good; making their enemy (or begrudging ally!) Lawful Evil could create a lot of interesting conflict! Or you can invert it in one character by itself, like a devious (evil) angel (good) or wholesome (good) devil (evil). I like to take this alignment test in-character to get a second opinion on what my character’s morality might be.
  • Build: You can try this in your character class builds, too! What if you played a ranger or druid who hated animals, but had to work with them as the only source of their powers? Character sheets are a big help with this one. I once played a roguish chameleon character who got into some great plots with a friend in the group who was playing an owl paladin. His character followed a strict code of honor, leading to a lot of internal conflict on both of their parts. It led to some great conflict and character development!
  • Personality: Remember that scene in The Nutty Professor remake where Eddie Murphy plays everyone at the dinner table? That moment brings to light how wild and crazy his family is, while how “normal” Eddie Murphy’s main character, Sherman, seems. (And of course, the obvious differences between Sherman and Buddy Love goes without saying, since this is a spin on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll, the honorable gentleman, and Hyde, the instinct-driven beast, is a classic example of a foil).

STORY BASED:

Although foils are mostly used for characters, you can use them in other ways, too!

  • Side quests! Foils are amazing for generating quick side quest ideas when your group needs a break from all of the heavy plot madness. Maybe Iggy, our wannabe knight-in-training, has to go on a small fetch quest in order to prove his worth. Having to do one serious mission after another can be emotionally exhausting, so switch it up once in a while! Doing a lighthearted quest in between plot sessions can give everyone the refresher they need to continue. Plus, it will make the sad parts seem sadder. Think of the shape of a soundwave, up and down, then back up again. Variation is key!
  • Settings! Is the villain’s tower dark and looming over a warm, sunny village? The foil lets us know that something is amiss. Or maybe it’s the opposite, and the villain loves pink things and she lives in a bouncy house on the outskirts of a gothic town. This also makes the universe you’ve created seem more lively and real. The world is your oyster–if you world has oysters. (Yes i know I’ve made this joke before).

Other Tips

A few quick things to keep in mind when you’re foiling.

  • Use them sparingly! One or two foils can really drive a plot home, but using too many at once can seem really outlandish, and defeat the purpose of the foil in the first place. If you’re struggling, just remember that foils can change over time, just as the playable characters can change over time. You don’t have to bring attention to everything all at once.
  • They’re not always bad! Remember that the two comparing factors don’t always have to be a protagonist and an antagonist. Not only that, but the two traits don’t always have to be good and bad. It can be social class, upbringing, class types, physical traits, anything you like!

If you’re stuck, here are some cool suggestions I found, as well as more info on foils from DnD publisher, Wizards of the Coast. Also, these pictures of shipping tropes always bring me back to foils. “Opposites attract” will always be a favorite trope of mine, and that’s a fact.

Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂

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