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Villains

July 11, 2011 Leave a comment

You’re doing it wrong.

That’s not actually true (necessarily), but inflammatory hyperbole supposedly motivates a reader to keep going, and this is kind of long.  I’ve had villains on my mind lately, so villains are the topic of the day.  This may get a little disjointed, please bear with me.

There’s two main schools of thought in gaming: one says that the PCs drive the story, and the other that the villain drives the story.  The latter is a more traditionalist view, while the former is advanced more typically by modern indie gaming.  Both require that antagonistic presence, but in the former case it’s an obstacle on the road to a goal, and in the latter it is the thing to be defeated – the villain is the goal, in a sense.  Let’s leave aside the merits of these competing viewpoints (and how they may overlap) for a moment and focus on that antagonism.

A Villain (note capital), for the purposes of this post, is not just the Bad Guy, not merely the antagonist in the story.  In the class Underdog Sports Team Wins the Championship story, the team they have to beat aren’t necessarily Villains.  They may just be a faceless (trait-wise) obstacle, a “them”.  A cop in a criminal story isn’t necessarily a Villain – they’re just opposition.   A Villain, instead, is a malevolence – a force inimical to the protagonists, and who must exhibit a character of their own.  Bad guys, antagonists, are a dime a dozen.  Villains are memorable.  Villains are legendary.  Villains are what the player fears.

Fear is the key.  An antagonist that the player does not fear cannot be a Villain – they’re just an obstacle, an annoyance to be swatted down.  When a player fears the antagonist, however, you’ve got an emotional connection.  A feared opponent is always a challenge, because the players are fighting themselves inside their own heads before ever facing the Villain.  The question then is: what makes the player afraid of the Villain?

The cheap way out is power.  Make the Villain nightmarish in power, wealth, etc.  The “going up against a god” kind of thing.  This, by itself, is yawnsville – it’s the blockbuster sequel mistake: “GO BIGGER!”  Generic Evil Wizard #7 isn’t a memorable villain just because he likes to cast Meteor Swarm or whatever.   Similarly, unbridled violence isn’t terribly effective, either.  Every shitty B-movie where the bad guy pointlessly kills someone to show how “bad” he is kind of proves that – there’s a reason why that sort of thing makes the Evil Overlord list (#32, for example).

A fearsome Villain is born out of motivation.  Just as with the protagonist, motivation defines a Villain in a way that doesn’t apply to lesser characters.  You can’t skimp here.  You cannot half-ass it and have a memorable Villain – you’ll just end up with a bad guy.1  “I WANT TO BE ALL-POWERFUL” is a shit motivation, and the reason why the Generic Fantasy Bad Guy is so damn generic.  That’s not a Villain – it’s barely even a character.

To my mind, there’s two ways to go with this.  For purposes of illustration, let’s use two of the finest examples from competing powerhouses – Marvel and DC.  Marvel gives us Magneto, while DC gives us the Joker.

Magneto is all about motivation, and is a perfect example of the first route: make your Villain right.  For the purpose of this discussion, let’s put aside his “heroic” stints and focus on Magneto the villain.  A concentration camp survivor, he understands better than any other character in his universe the darkness and depth of human intolerance.  He knows firsthand the ultimate endpoint of racism and nationalism.  Magneto is terrifying as a villain not simply because his mutant power is of earth-shattering potency, but because in our heart of hearts we agree with him.  Look at his counterpoint, Charles Xavier, who argues peaceful coexistence and acceptance but is shown to be wrong (to greater and lesser degrees), time and again.  Even the recent X-Men: First Class film hit on this.  For all his idealism, Charles is both wrong about humanity’s reaction to mutants and every bit as condescending.  We may not be able to agree with Magneto’s goals at times (particularly his more genocidal moods), but we intrinsically recognize that his motivation is righteous.  And an opponent who is not merely righteous in their own mind, but in ours, is truly terrifying.  They frighten us because we know the lengths to which we ourselves would go if we thought ourselves truly justified, the acts we would excuse for the hero if it was for the greater good.  The brakes are off, and we fear not only what they are capable of, but that we might be wrong.

Conversely, the Joker is about motivation as the absence of motivation in a conventional sense.  The Joker is not merely a homicidal maniac – he is not some interchangeable movie slasher.  Nor does he have a “motivation”, the way Magneto does.  The Joker does not do what he does because of Traumatic Event A or Lofty Goal B or even Lust for Power or Wealth C.  He is not even “crazy” in a sense that has meaning – insanity has causes and structures, even comprehensible wants and reactions.  None of this drives the Joker.  The Joker is, in a very important and meaningful sense, an alien.  He terrifies not because of his powers (he has none) or his specific actions, but because he does not operate in the same universe we do.  He is freed from all expectations and constraint.  He is an elemental force, entropy in human guise, desirous only of the joy of chaos.  As Alfred puts it in The Dark Knight Returns, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”  He is a seething torrent of human emotion simultaneously divorced from anything we can understand as human reasons.  We can understand a serial killer, we can understand the mass murderer, but the Joker remains an enigma.  No explanation of his true origin could ever satisfy, and no rationalization for his actions beyond “because” will ever ring true.  But he is more than a boogeyman.  We recognize his emotions, though not his reasons: we see that despite it all, somehow, we share the same species, and fear what lies inside us.

Both are fantastically effective villains, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.  Magneto is feared because he is, in a significant way, heroic, and heroes are terrifying if you’re on the other side.  The Joker is feared because he is the unknowable – the permanently alien, anathema to all we understand.  The best Villains draw effectively from one or the other of these methods.  Bringing either to the table is, frankly, a bitch and a half.  Players are notoriously resistant to fear.  However, going back to the beginning of the post, we have some aid available.

First, in a game where the players are the motive narrative force, it is easier to pull off the Magneto.  The player characters believe in something strongly enough to be pushing towards their goal independent of opposition, so now you can bring in opposition that believes something conflicting just as strongly.  The trick here is to make it a valid argument.  This has to be stronger than just “I’m the rightful king because dad was the king and I’m the firstborn” kind of stuff.  Make it count.  Pull on the the other beliefs of the player characters and show them a compelling alternative.  Doubt creates fear.  This can be even more effective if you can lead the players into going too far.  Get them to make hard, hard choices, where they have to decide for themselves how much they can justify in the name of their beliefs, and then hit them with the Villain’s motivation.  Show them someone willing to go as far as they will.  You can’t guarantee that you’ll get true fear out of them, but you can the odds are good that your Villain just got upgraded from opposition to nemesis in the players’ minds.

Second, in a Villain-driven game, it’s harder (though not impossible) to effectively do the Magneto version – you have to sort of push the players into defining their characters in opposition to the Villain, rather than designing the Villain for their characters.  Conversely, it’s easier to fit in a Joker.  Plots and disasters that drive the players into action can create expectations in the players which you can, at the right time, shatter utterly.  This kind of thing is still quite difficult – it’s a tricky balancing act between “agent of chaos” and “why the fuck did that just happen?”  The goal here is to get the players not to be asking confusedly, “what’s the Villain trying to do?” but to be instead worrying the same thing.  You want the players to fear the unknown plots of the Villain the same way they fear an unidentified but obviously-trapped door: even if they can disable the trap, they’re still panicked about what’s behind it.

 

1: Darth Vader is kind of the exception to the rule here.  Nobody would argue that he’s not an iconic and memorable Villain, but I would argue that this is a case that can only happen in film: one where the visual design of the character carries sufficient resonance as to overcome deficiency in development.  Paired with a reasonable backstory (developed more in the sequels), this elevates him to a status he never could have achieved with weaker design.  Sadly, visual design is not something we can utilize effectively in a tabletop RPG, though it plays a distinct role in video games.

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Categories: General, RPGs Tags: , , ,

Sweet Chin Music

March 27, 2010 1 comment

Tonight I ran a session of Unknown Armies for some folks here at the Guildhall.  Violence, madness, tragedy, and just plain weirdness ensued.  A full after-action report will follow tomorrow, but for now I just wanted to note that it’s good to put on the GM hat again, good to revisit this truly strange game, and that I still don’ t feel like I’ve got the chops to run a really good weird game.

My thanks go out to the players, whom I hope I did not bore overmuch.

Categories: RPGs Tags: , ,

Audacity in Non-Traditional Gaming

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Not necessarily success, not necessarily victory, but action, adventure, and a damn good story.  And if you’re not getting that out of your gaming, why are you playing?

So I said last time.  “But Josh!” you exclaim, “I play them newfangled indie RPGs!  They’re not all about action and adventure!”

You silly straw man.  Always missing the point.  Still, it’s worth talking about briefly.

First, I think we can agree without debate that the point still includes getting a damn good story out of the game.  Indeed, with more narrativist-oriented games, this is an explicit goal.  So let’s put that aside for the moment.

Working backwards, let’s move on to “adventure”.  Adventure is a much broader term than people give it credit for, especially in gaming.  Within old-school circles it is synonymous with “scenario” or “module”, specific units of designed play.  By extension, it carries a bit of a sense of that style of play as well…the archetypal fantasy “meet a stranger in a tavern yadda yadda treasure hoard”.  We also associate “adventure” with a certain kind of story, full of action and wild events and long journeys.  We think of The Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones.

“Adventure” doesn’t just mean these things though.  “Adventure” means an exciting or unusual experience.1 When we play a game, we do so to experience something different from our everyday lives.  Even the most relentlessly avant-garde  gamers are unlikely to play a game about ordinary people leading ordinary lives doing nothing of interest.2 We play for excitement or novelty.  Perhaps we want to explore fear, or madness.  Maybe we want to use a game to ask ourselves questions about morality by confronting them in play.  Or maybe we just want to pretend we’re half-dragon bards.  Regardless of whether we’re buckling our swashes on an epic journey across a mystic land or we’re playing a quiet, deeply psychological game about love and loss, our play is an adventure.  We are moving beyond our usual experience.

Finally, and importantly, “action”.  Again, to object here you have to misunderstand this term to have a narrower meaning than it does.  “Action” is what happens when someone is active.  It’s what happens when people are doing things instead of talking about doing them.  In gaming, action is what happens when your character is doing something rather than you, the player, is talking about what to do.  Note that even a conversation is action, if it happens in-character.  The meat of play3, the tasty bit, happens in-character.  It’s where the story happens.  It’s also where you learn things even you didn’t know about the character, until that moment when you had to take action.  Writers often say that their characters sometimes surprise them, and it’s true in gaming as well.  But it can only happen when the character is active.  No matter how experimental your game of choice, no matter how narrativist or abstract the rules may be, action happens in-game, not out of it.  If you spend all your time talking about the game but aren’t actually doing anything in it, you’re not really playing…and it will be no surprise when you find you’re not having much fun.

So we want action and adventure, even if the game is about barbers solving the problems of their customers with an understanding ear, homespun wisdom, and a good $10 haircut.  And we want it to be a good story.  For less-traditional games, audacity still matters, perhaps even more so.  In games where there is less (or no) focus on the sort of combat-action typical of traditional RPGs, it is more critical than ever that players be bold with their choices and willing to invite risk.  Safe is boring in these games, many of which specifically depend on players to shape and dive forward the conflicts that make them so potent.  A player unwilling to belly up to the table with a character sheet full of problems is a player asking to be bored.  Audacity lets the player say, “screw it, let’s make my enemy the KING…a baron just isn’t dangerous enough.”  An audacious player knows a flawed character invites drama, tension, and the kinds of scenes you talk about later.4

So what I said stands.  If you’re not getting action, adventure, and a damn good story out of your games…maybe it’s time to look at the choices you’ve been making and ask yourself, “am I playing it safe?”

1: Worth noting: “adventure” also means a bold or risky undertaking; it even used to simply mean a risk (or as a verb, to risk).  If you’re not risking anything, you’re not having an adventure…and you’re probably not having a very memorable game.

2:  If you are: why, for fuck’s sake?

3: Or the juice, if you’re veg.

4: Please note that we’re not talking bullshit scene-stealing asshattery here.  This is not about making everything be about your character to the detriment of the other players.  But it’s good gaming when each character occasionally has a moment to shine (or at the least, be in the spotlight), and that works best when there’s drama and conflict built-in, ready for that moment.

Categories: RPGs Tags: ,

THROW THE SWITCH, IGOR!

March 20, 2010 1 comment

To inaugurate this bit of online presence, let’s talk about the title a bit, and why it’s there.

Jim has a blog he calls “Struggle, Fast Talk, and Bluff”, named for what he refers to as the core competencies of most of his RPG characters.  Amused by the idea, I asked him, as one of the people who has gamed with me the most, what he felt were the core competencies of most of my characters. “Audacity?” he replied.

He wasn’t wrong.

This isn’t a talk-about-your-character post, but his point was valid.  I have always most enjoyed playing characters who often should not have gotten away with the things they did.  They succeeded, not just by skill, but by acting with a total certainty (sometimes from blind naiveté, sometimes as a deliberate gambit) that the insanely risky actions they took were perfectly reasonable.  These were characters that took time out to browbeat a villain on the evils of collaborating with Nazis while the airship collapses around them.  Characters that walked into highly secure corporate research facilities mumbling in a barely-comprehensible accent about “mhrmuhnuh consortium ferahmmmrhm private investors” until a PR flack gave them a tour to solicit an investment.  Characters that dove out of planes without parachutes or into arctic waters in their skivvies.

Some of this is comedy.  Some of this is genre-convention.  The unifying factor, though, is a willingness to not merely court danger, but walk headlong into it.  This behavior has led to some of the most satisfying gaming I’ve had, and by most accounts seems to increase the overall fun for the other players at the table.  So, I want to kind of break down exactly what I’m talking about as a behavior, and why I think it leads to better gaming.

Most players in games, RPGs or otherwise, are fairly risk-averse.  They would rather not gamble significant resources on a longshot if more conservative avenues offer better odds.  This is mitigated by the severity of consequence.  Players in a video game, particularly with frequent save points and especially with the ability to save anywhere, find little risk in bold attempts and are much more likely to try unusual tactics.  Players in a board game are often more willing to take large risks, as the time-investment is often minimal and another game can always be played.  But players in an RPG often face much more severe consequences, up to and including character death.  The game, as they currently experience it, can truly and permanently be over if they make a poor decision or are unlucky.1

What tends to happen, then, is that RPG players are particularly risk-averse.  They will spend significant time arguing over what gear to take, what path to choose, how to approach the castle/compound/cave.  They spend hours of gaming time trying to avoid trouble, to minimize the risks to their characters, and essentially render them impervious to negative consequence.  Sometimes this is genre-appropriate: Shadowrun, for example, expects a fair amount of pre-op strategizing.  Most of the time, however, this is simply wasted play time.  The players argue over the “best” plan, rarely agree unanimously, then things don’t work out as planned and the new argument is over who screwed up and whether or not the plan sucked.  This is not fun, I think, for most people.  Fun in games comes from the action.  Not combat, necessarily, but “characters doing things”, rather than planning to do them.

A thought experiment:

A group of players plan a daring raid on a castle to rescue a princess.

In Universe A, the players spend one and a half hours of real time arguing over the plan of attack.  One faction favors a stealthy midnight raid, another wants a heavily armed and armored assault, and one guy wants to just try to bluff their way in.  Flaws are found in every plan, accusations are made, tempers get a bit hot.  Everyone is trying to control all the variables and cover all the bases.  Eventually, a crude and grudging compromise is formed, the players spend 20 minutes actually attacking the castle without a lot of interest before they have to go home for the night because they’re out of time.  Everyone kind of grumbles a bit.

In Universe B, the players spend 15 minutes debating strategies, take a quick vote, and run with the winner.  It’s not a terribly well-thought out plan, and things go awry.  One of the characters is captured, and the players spend the next hour and a half sneaking into the prison, meeting the captured character (who has meanwhile tricked the warden, stolen his keys, and is making his own escape), rescuing the princess, setting fire to the place, and escaping on stolen horses.

The Universe A group is risk-averse.  They’ve tried to manage those risks into nonexistence, nobody is really happy with the plan, and they’ve used up a big chunk of their gaming session fighting over the plan.  The Universe B group is risk-aware, but action-focused.  They consider the options briefly, but recognize that no plan survives first contact and instead roll with the punches.  The problems this leads to are seen as opportunities, because they are further chances for the characters to take actions.  In Universe B, the players spend most of the night playing the game.  Now, it’s possible Universe A had more fun, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

“So, Josh,” I hear you say, “you’re saying that players shouldn’t plan?”  No, you foolish little straw man.  I’m saying that planning and playing are rarely the same thing, and that the excitement and energy of a game dips sharply when the former takes precedence over the latter.  I’m also saying that RPGs are about conflict.  Conflict includes the possibility of failure and of negative consequences.  Trying to plan to avoid those consequences and to rule out failure is both futile and counterproductive.  Take a die roll.  Rolling that die determines, say, your character’s life or death.  You can build a bit of tension by shaking it a few times in your hand and uttering a few comical prayers, but once you spend five to ten minutes planning an elaborate die-throwing strategy intended to maximize the possibility that a six will come up, the other players will rightfully want to kill you and the actual roll will have lost a lot of interest, too.  That may seem like a silly example, but it is, in essence, what elaborate planning and risk-avoidance is in most games.  It is a long and mostly-pointless attempt to influence a die roll, operating under the misapprehension that the die roll is the interesting part of the game and that the goal of the game is to succeed on all your die rolls.

JOSH’S MAXIM: Getting out of trouble is more fun that avoiding it.

JOSH’S COROLLARY: It is better to spend an hour and a half getting out of trouble than it is to spend an hour and a half trying not to get into trouble.

When the players are in trouble and trying to get out of it, their characters are active.  As players, they are building the stories they will tell other gamers about their characters.  “Oh, man, there was this time Totally Not Drizzt got caught sneaking into the Forbidden Temple of Blood…”  They are role-playing, revelling in success and improvising wildly when they fail.  When the players are trying to plan to stay out of trouble, their characters don’t exist.  The players are having that argument (usually).  They are debating the likelihood of scenarios, trying to find modifiers to die rolls, looking up charts, and the like.  The game grinds to a halt, and that session almost certainly slides out of the memory as kind of boring and uneventful.2

To bring it back to the beginning, audacity is the quality that players bring to the game when they spit in the face of the whims of chance and accept the risks, confident that a better game comes to those who take action.  Not necessarily success, not necessarily victory, but action, adventure, and a damn good story.

And if you’re not getting that out of your gaming, why are you playing?

1: This post is about player action.  I’ll talk about how the GM fits into this later, but for now, suffice to say that if a GM is allowing for player death as the consequence of anything but combat or the most dramatic and story-relevant of rolls, they should be slapped (my opinion).

2: Yes. There are players who actually consider this to be the fun part of the game. These players should be gently pushed towards Warhammer or perhaps Advanced Squad Leader.

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