A Fair Play Villain is a villain who, when the hero is at their mercy, gives the hero a way to survive. If he traps the hero in his Dungeon of Fear, he'll deliberately leave a possibility of escape. If he throws the hero into the Arena of Doom, he'll promise to let the hero go if he emerges victorious. And, unlike most villains, he probably will. In both cases, he has the hero in his power... but crushing him wouldn't be sporting.
This kind of villainy bears an outward resemblance to Bond Villain Stupidity, but has nothing to do with obliviousness on the part of the villain. The Fair Play Villain simply values 'fairness' (in a villainous sense) more than he does victory. He's not lying or deceiving the hero, he's genuinely giving Team Good a chance to win. He doesn't necessarily want to be beaten, and his idea of 'a sporting chance' may involve extreme hazards to the hero, but ultimately he is giving the hero an opportunity to defeat him.
Obviously, Fair Play Villainy is not (usually) based on pragmatism. The villain may be Affably Evil or a Knight Templar who regards giving the hero a chance as 'ethical'. Perhaps the villain just wants to see how skilled the hero really is, or give him the option of getting himself out alive or rescuing somebody else. The villain may be Nigh Invulnerable and believes Victory Is Boring, so that the hero's victory becomes a Self-Imposed Challenge. Or the villain may be a Noble Demon who really does want to earn his victory. Or, more rarely, it's a PR or reputation thing.
Examples in fiction are usually male, but this is not a 'male only' trope. Compare Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him?, the logical question that this trope answers. May overlap with Let's Fight Like Gentlemen, Just Toying with Them, Hunting the Most Dangerous Game, and Mercy Lead. See also the Spirited Competitor and Worthy Opponent. Can be related to the Sadistic Choice. Contrast the No-Nonsense Nemesis, who goes for the kill in the most efficient method possible, honor be damned.
- Yu-Gi-Oh!: This is enforced on most of the Big Bads by the rules of magic in the setting. The only way to properly transfer ownership of a Millenium item is to defeat its owner in a duel, so as much as they might wish they could just steal the Millenium Puzzle from Yugi, they'd just end up with a useless piece of jewelry for their trouble - and, as many lesser villains find out, someone who breaks the rules of a Shadow Game ends up having to endure a curse inflicted by a Penalty Game. On the other hand, this doesn't stop them from doing anything that's not explicitly forbidden - and Shadow Games don't consider using the powers of Millenium Items to be cheating, even if they create an extremely unfair situation, as with Dark Bakura's rigged dice, Pegasus's mind reading, or Dark Marik making the game extremely physically taxing and painful to play.
- Rishid/Odion is probably the straightest example - he doesn't even bother with the cruelties or supernatural torture of his fellows, and relies solely on his skill and power. This is what tips off the protagonists that he's not really Marik.
- Grimmjow toward Ichigo in Bleach. After killing Loly and Menoly and saving Orihime, he drags her to where Ulquiorra's left Ichigo for dead and demands she heal him so they can have a proper battle. He even turns on Ulquiorra when the latter appears and demands to know why he's having Ichigo revived. In truth, Grimmjow was doing it more for the sake of his own pride, rather than fair play. He wanted Ichigo at his best, before crushing him, to pay him back for scarring him.
- Then there's Ginjo, who deliberately placed a flaw in his own plan to give Ichigo a chance to thwart it. In his case, he did so in the opinion that allowing a small risk of failure was more fun.
- In Sword Art Online, the main villain Kayaba Akihiko traps ten thousand players in a virtual reality video game, and promises to let them out when the defeat the 100th floor boss. The game is fairly balanced, and so on, which starts to show this, but the real point comes when Kirito defeats the final boss (Kayaba, it turns out) on the 75th floor. Kayaba keeps his word and lets everyone out.
- Subverted by Heathcliff, his alter ego who has an exceptionally powerful unique skill that even people in-universe consider broken. He also is immortal after taking a certain amount of damage and explicitly cheats during his first duel with Kirito. The game may have been fair, but his place in it sure as hell wasn't. Double-subverted during his second and final duel with Kirito, however, as he intentionally turns off his admin privileges to give Kirito a fighting chance of winning and freeing everyone. Kayaba/Heathcliff always intended to give the players a fair chance of beating the game once his own role as Final Boss was exposed, he was just rigging the game before that point to make sure he wouldn't be killed by somebody who didn't yet know he was the final boss. Since as Heathcliff he was helping the trapped players clear the floors up to 75 (and was intending to do so up through the 99th floor before revealing himself) rather than impeding their progress, Kayaba considered that to still be sufficiently fair.
- In The Seven Deadly Sins tournament arc hosted by two ancient demons, those who made it through their maze of death were divided into teams of two at random. When not enough passed to make an equal 16 team bracket, they just made golems of themselves to fill the open spots, instead of just killing them until the numbers fit an 8-team bracket setup.
- Shokugeki no Soma: Subverted, in the case of Azami. Azami makes sure to be scrupulously straight in all his dealings with the heroes, but has no problem ignoring or encouraging his underlings to play dirty in whatever ways they can think up, provided it can't be traced back to him.
- Played straight by Char Aznable in Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, when he intentionally leaks the mysterious but powerful Psycoframe technology to Anaheim Electronics to give his lifelong rival, Amuro Ray, a fighting chance. Unfortunately for Char, the ν Gundam is simply too much for him and his Sazabi to handle, and he gets quite literally beaten out of the mobile suit.
- It gets better: during one of the Gihren's Greed games, Amuro is successfully captured by Gyunei and his Jagd Doga, and Char looks utterly dejected by it, as if his glorious final battle had just been stolen from him.
- The modus operandi villain Two-Face, who believes that chance (specifically, a coin toss) is the only fair thing in the world, and will flip a coin to make any major decisions. How "fair" this is can become skewed, such as flipping a coin to decide whether or not he should honor an agreement when the other party already held up their end of the bargain or doing multiple coin flips for every petty little thing.
- Some versions of The Riddler are quite fair about riddles and death traps. If his victim (usually Batman) escapes his death traps or solves his riddles, the Riddler will usually hold up his end of a deal or accept the result, even if he is rather whiny about it. In Riddler's mind, he's the smartest man in the entire world, and he won't lower himself to "baser instincts" because that would mean he isn't as smart as his victim. Of course, the Riddler has also been known to cheat like hell, so this should be taken with a grain of salt.
- Sometimes anti-heroine/sometimes villainess Lady Shiva is a Blood Knight martial artist who is constantly seeking a Worthy Opponent to defeat and kill her in hand-to-hand combat. During one battle against Richard Dragon, Richard had technically defeated her and was ready to deliver a killing blow when one of Shiva's minions interrupted the fight to save her life. An angry Shiva killed the minion for interfering and restarted the fight with Richard. However, this time, she won.
- On a different occasion, Lady Shiva battled against Batgirl (later revealed to be her own daughter, Cassandra Cain) and "killed" her by stopping her heart for a length of time and then reviving her. Batgirl, as a former Child Assassin that became The Atoner, was a Death Seeker just like Shiva, which is something Shiva didn't find particularly sporting, so she killed and resurrected her enemy just to give Batgirl a taste of death that would ease her guilty conscience. It worked, and Batgirl went on to win their duel.
- Marvel has Arcade, whose M.O. was trapping heroes in carnival-themed death traps and getting his kicks on seeing them try to escape. He claims that his Murderworlds are designed so that the heroes all have a chance to escape. A small chance (which may well depend on realizing that Arcade can't actually be trusted and thinking outside the box rather than falling for the "obvious" challenge), but a chance nonetheless. It may also be Arcade's own way of justifying his continuous failures to kill any superheroes.
- In the The Legend of Spyro fic The Legend of Spyro: A New Dawn, Deadlock makes sure that Spyro and Cynder have a fair chance of saving the dragon eggs she has captured to sacrifice because years ago she was denied that same chance and can't bring herself to force it on anyone else.
- In the Sakura Wars fic Price For Power, Tenkai confronts the Flower Division with an entire army of demons, though the demons are only meant to ensure that they don't escape and he intends to fight them himself because, even though he wants to destroy Tokyo, he wants to give Sakura and co. a fair chance to stop him... only to shrug off all of their attacks and wipe the floor with every single one of them.
- The vital part of Jigsaw's games is that all his victims have a chance to prove their desire to live and free themselves from his traps. This usually involves self-mutilation and/or psychological torture.
- Subverted in Saw III: Amanda's traps are designed without any actual chance of escape, which Jigsaw acknowledges as proof that Amanda is too unstable to carry on his legacy.
- The titular aliens from Predator are a Proud Warrior Race Guy species who will occasionally and intentionally handicap themselves by removing their advanced plasma weaponry and camouflage when fighting technologically-outmatched races, particularly if they deem them worthy. That said, they're still incredibly strong and have dangerous wrist-blades, but it's a much more even fight than laser-death from afar.
- Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett introduces the old Count Magpyr, the traditionalist vampire who litters his castle with weapons that can be used to take him down - instructions and diagrams included! After all, taking a stake through the heart is one thing; looking like Swiss cheese because the average peasant can't find your heart is quite another. For him, this is also Pragmatic Villainy: if he can be overthrown by anybody with a lot of guts and a little luck, the villagers will generally be satisfied with 'killing' him (something a vampire can eventually recover from) rather than being so horrified that they'll take extreme measures to make sure he's Deader Than Dead.
- The Duke of Ch'in in Bridge of Birds has elaborate mazes and death traps that always give the heroes just enough of a chance to escape. Master Li eventually figures out that this is because the Duke is like a child who protects himself with things straight out of fairy tales and believes it just wouldn't be as much fun if his victims had no chance of winning.
- The Bene Tleilax are first introduced in Dune Messiah in the Dune series, and it is noted that they consider it unsporting not to give victims of their plots one chance to save themselves. However, they are repeatedly shown to have an extremely idiosyncratic definition of what a "chance" is.
- I Did NOT Give That Spider Superhuman Intelligence!: Goodnight encourages this as much as possible, refusing to fight villains when they are not actively committing crimes, and even defending them from other heroes. She doesn't get very far until Spider steps in and starts enforcing it. Violently.
- Alphonse Wheeler was a bank robber from the world of Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I.. Arising as a ghost after his death in prison, he grew frustrated with his immaterial state, and committed another robbery to try to re-capture the thrill of being a Gentleman Thief. When even that proved disappointing, Wheeler allowed himself to be incarcerated again ... then broke out of jail without using his ghostly powers, just to prove he could do so without "cheating".
- In The Q Continuum, Q claims this is the difference between him and the Big Bad 0. Q always offered the people he "tested" a chance to win. 0 on the other hand is a sadistic Sore Loser who went so far as to trigger a supernova to wipe out a civilization that had beaten all of his "tests".
- Played straight in the Star Trek novel How Much for Just the Planet?. A villain with an obsession with old Earth cinema ties up Uhura and a Klingon communications officer in a Death Trap triggered by the end of a movie he starts on the screen. When the Klingon notes there there has to be a way out of this, the villain replies.
"Of course there is. But you don't have until Continued Next Week."
- Kamen Rider Ex-Aid's Parado has a rather complicated worldview when it comes to this. He'll give Emu a new Gashat for seemingly no reason other than to power him up to his level, but he's also fine with taking on opponents whose level is far below his own. At the same time, if a Bugster gets destroyed in a fight and the odds were fair Parado will take no issue with it. His goal is pretty much just to have a fair fight with Emu and he'll even seemingly violate his own code in order to make Emu fight him seriously.
- Luxord of the Kingdom Hearts series teleports Sora's allies away to fight him as a Duel Boss, making the battle a Timed Mission where they have to attack each other to deplete a time gauge.
- In the same series, Hades mostly tries to defeat Hercules by sticking to the tournament format of the Coliseum and pitting him against powerful opponents. The second game shows he's grown tired of this though, and during his Villainous Breakdown decides he's had enough playing by the rules and promptly cheats.
- Tomb Raider (2013): During the Co-Dragons' Extreme Mêlée Revenge on Lara for her murder of their brother, Mathias steps in and stops them from killing her outright.
- Akuma of Street Fighter fame is a Blood Knight who seeks someone with the raw skills to defeat him. He will openly mock any character that obtains power by artificial methods (Seth and Bison) or that utilizes weaponry (Vega and Crimson Viper). By contrast, he rejects any opponent too weak to pose a challenge.
- In Final Fantasy IV, Rubicante is a Noble Demon who heals your party before the battle, even announcing that he wants a fair fight. He does it again when the Four Fiends all come at you at once, and gives your party a final farewell before he dies.
- In Pokémon, everything is settled by a battle between trainers. Adult villains far older and stronger will concede the day to a small child once you knock out their Pokemon.
- In Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, Jaden Korr is captured in one mission and given the chance to fight his/her way out, because the captor wants the chance to hunt a Jedi. However once Jaden starts looking like they'll genuinely escape the captor throws the rules out of the window and goes all out.
- The King of Fighters: Kusanagi, dark magical doppelganger of series protagonist Kyo, will chastise anyone who fights with weapons against him (such as Whip, Chang, Mai etc); in a game where most combatants are barehanded.
- The Legend of Zelda: During the various boss fights with Ganondorf, whenever he knocks Link down after an attack, he always waits for Link to get back up before continuing the fight.
- Then there's Demise, the final boss of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. He's so fascinated and impressed that Link is not only unafraid of him, but willing to fight him directly, that he agrees to a final duel with Link before he moves on to the Triforce. He even waits for Link to get prepared and come to him.
- Tales of Destiny: Barbatos Goetia has a variant where he enforces fair play. If you try using consumable items during a battle against him, he'll shout "NO ITEMS EVER!" and then performs a powerful, unavoidable attack (depending on what you used).
- Miles Edgeworth morphs into this over the course of the Ace Attorney series. While still a prosecutor, and therefore an antagonist to the defense attorney heroes, he's much more willing to hear out the defense if they pick up on something that he missed. This is especially true with Phoenix Wright, as the two are the legal equivalent of Bash Brothers in their court system, and Edgeworth considers Phoenix both his greatest rival and his closest ally in getting the guilty convicted.
- Monokuma from Danganronpa, and by extension the mastermind behind him. He sets rules for his Deadly Game that he too is also bound by, purely through choice in the first game at least. While he does break his rules occasionally by framing Makoto and Kaede, he is willing to submit to demands when called on it. Granted, this is not done out of a sense of honor, but because Junko and Tsumugi dont want to disappoint/piss off the audience by blatantly screwing over the cast, as this would kill the point of the game show, which is to get the students/contestants to kill each other. And in the second game, since Junko is an AI, she physically cannot defy the laws of the Neo World Program.
- In Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, Zero has kidnapped all of the participants to play a Deadly Game; but then plays the game completely fair, giving them rules to trust in, even helping them through sticking points, and arranging that all of them get a clear opportunity to escape and live. It goes so far that a significant mystery in the game, and cause of confusion to the characters, is - why anyone would do that. Its because Akane only wants to save her past self and doesnt want anyone but her four murderers to die.
- This continues in the sequel, Virtue's Last Reward, though Zero III has a different reason for playing the game scrupulously fair. Mainly, to get Sigma and Phi to awaken and hone their timeline-jumping abilities and go back in time to save the world.
- Zero II in the third game, Zero Time Dilemma ... is not this trope, and let's leave it at that.
- The human culprit Sayo "Yasu" Yasuda in Umineko: When They Cry challenges the family to solve the epitaph in order to stop their murders, and in the scenarios where someone does, they follow through. The witch culprit Beatrice is said to not play fair, but she does follow the same rule about the epitaph and ensures that all of her magical murders are solvable without involving magic to give Battler a fair chance at denying her.
- Senor Senior, Sr., a villain from Kim Possible, became an arch-villain not for good or evil purposes but because he's a billionaire seeking amusement. He has studied the failures of genre-blind villains and regards them as important traditions. Lampshaded in one episode, when Senor Senior, Jr. asks why they're leaving the room while a Conveyor Belt of Doom finishes off the heroes. Sr. Senior, Sr. explains that leaving the room to allow Kim a chance to escape is what a "proper villain" would do.
- Carmen Sandiego, the titular character of Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?, is a fair-play villainess who will give Zach and Ivy a chance to thwart her by leaving complex clues for them to solve.
- Reconstructed with The Weeper from Batman: The Brave and the Bold: he's seen as a Harmless Villain by most people because Even Evil Has Standards, but when Batman goes Knight Templar and spreads Sinister Surveillance all over Gotham causing Weeper to see a child trying to steal a candy bar recoil in horror at the sight of the Batsignal in the sky he becomes motivated enough to stop him.
The Weeper: That's not fair.