Monthly Archives: October 2011

Dastardy and Rascalry

If you’re in the business of running games, you’re in the business of generating antagonists. If you run a game with a pretty high lethality index like D&D or the average WoD game, then you have to generate a bunch of them. Players chew through them quickly, pick through the bones, then hand out their bowls and request another. It can be pretty draining, especially if you make the mistake of getting attached to your little preciouses.

I think most everyone has a favorite villain trope: the remorseless noble with the code of honor, the Jokerish nihilist comedian, the dumb brute, the woman scorned, whatever. And of course, players will burn through them quickly if you let them. Sure, the antagonist doesn’t have to be dumb, and he will probably take whatever measures he can to stay alive, if staying alive is the sort of thing that’s in his motivation. (It isn’t always, and sometimes those guys who would rather die in a manner that spites their opponent are pretty memorable.) But if players are clever and competent, they will probably figure a way around those defenses and 23 stab wounds later, your antagonist is lucky to gargle out a quick “et tu” before he bleeds out. So that leaves you thinking about the next villain, and whether or not you’re going to do a new spin on your favorite trope or explore another one — and basically, wondering how to make the next blackguard stand out.

By this point, I’ve built a lot of exercises to stock up the next bunch of jackasses. It’s a process that’s relevant for work as well as recreation, though admittedly some of the techniques you’re going to need to disguise a lot better for work. You’ll see what I mean.

Motivation: This is something you have to do for antagonists anyway if you want them to have as many as two dimensions, but it’s a brainstorming motivation anyhow. I have a list of motivations jotted down in one of my graph books that runs from “revenge” and “avarice” through “nihilism” to “bad romance.” Selecting a motivation from the list I haven’t used in a while is a fine starting point.

Organizations/Numbered Villains: Antagonists are sometimes easier to build if you buy in bulk. Let’s say as a brainstorming exercise you’ve got a group that is meant to parallel Dante’s Inferno, one for each circle of Hell. If you pick out all nine at the same time, you can look at stuff like gender ratio, complementary roles, if all your guys are old and maybe you should have some younger ones in there, etc. If it’s a fairly symbolic number, all the better; to use the Inferno example, you know that the guy representing the Fifth Circle will have something to do with anger, and that’s something to build in. And players loooove killing numbered villains — more on that another time, I guess.

Veiled Allusions: I’m kind of susceptible to doing this. This can be associated with the organizations/numbered villains concept above; say that you have seven villains, and each one represents one of the Deadly Sins (for simplicity’s sake, the most familiar incarnation, not the version where it’s sinful to feel sad). Now, they aren’t all together because they recognize that they’re references to the sins, it’s just an allusion. But it’s easier to brainstorm them if you know that, say, the disgraced general is in some way influenced by Envy. Even if it manifests as nothing deeper than a penchant for wearing green — that’s still distinctive. The trouble is when you start getting cheekier (or nerdier), doing things like placing antagonists that are carefully veiled takes on Batman villains or the Scooby-Doo gang. If you hide this right, your players never have to know — but be real careful if you’re doing this for work or the like.

Existing Relations: This is great for well-realized settings like a city full of interesting characters. Pick a character you’ve already got in place. Now figure out what sort of antagonist would play off that character well. A relative? Someone with a diametrically opposed philosophy? Professional rival? Romantic entanglement? This gives the antagonist a more immediate hook into the setting than the plot-related one you already had in mind for her. And if that existing character is not the focal point of the plot (the assassin targeting the Prince is an old rival of the protagonists’ mentor, but cares more about the Prince’s assassination at the moment), then that villain becomes more fleshed-out by default — she cares about something in the setting other than the plot that has mandated her appearance.

A Hobby: This is an odd starting point, but it can work. Think about an odd, interesting hobby that an antagonist might have, and then see if that suggests anything about their personality that could help you build them out further. Take Wee-Bey from The Wire. While he almost certainly wasn’t created with this method, consider how you could start with “he keeps exotic fish in several aquariums” as a basis. Who’s interested in watching fish? Someone who doesn’t need excitement all the time; someone who’s got a certain level of serenity. Now consider an antagonist whose hobby is bonsai. It implies someone meticulous, who likes things to be controlled, doesn’t it? What about a falconer? A scholar of history? A pickup artist?

A Visual: Sometimes I just pick a miniature and use that as a basis for an RPG villain, it’s true. The visual is one of the easiest ways to brainstorm a new character. Maybe it’s a certain color — you want to do someone who wears yellow, for instance. Or a villain that looks brutish, but oddly civilized in an expensive tux. It’s very useful. Why is it all the way down here instead of one of the first ones I picked out? Well, because a visual doesn’t always suggest a motivation — or when it does (like “he looks like a Goth, he’s probably a nihilist”), it may be a little too simplistic to make someone nuanced.

Of course, the amount of nuance you put into a given antagonist depends on what you’re using them for. As I noted earlier, if your players are chewing through them, you probably don’t need lots. But everyone should have something. If your players or readers notice that there’s really no such thing as a generic bandit lord or Brujah thug in your game — that everyone with a name has something that makes them stand out as a little more real — you’ve got them. And to be honest, coming up with that nuance is fantastic exercise.

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Posted by on October 29, 2011 in Uncategorized


American Gaming

Well, thanks to the outage yesterday and a flurry of getting writing samples done, I have not created new content for this blog nearly as quickly as I would like. So here’s a previous piece from another page, something that still seems relevant to me.


Somewhere along the way of turning a misspent youth into a misspent adulthood, you may notice that there’s a certain…something about the way we tend to play. It’s something that came into focus once when I realized that one of the cardinal differences between an American fantasy like D&D and a European fantasy like Warhammer is that, well, American roleplaying game characters act a lot more like cowboys. Even a casual glance at the origins of how D&D tends to play out Stateside reveals lots of emphasis on frontiers, scattered settlements, huge amounts of space. The current 4e system of “points of light” reflects that frontier mentality, which is itself a callback to back in the days of the Keep on the Borderlands and huge hex-maps of undiscovered terrain. Westerns tend to be easy to cut-and-paste into D&D plots, usually substituting orcs and whatnot for the usual bandits or Amerind nations… with a touch of unfortunate subtext there. (This also means we have a spiritual brother in the form of the samurai epic, of course, but I shouldn’t stray too far down that sakura-strewn path lest my writing become any more unfocused.)

When I put a little more thought to it, though, I realized that the Western really is kind of the forerunner of so much of our gaming. A very, very common theme is the idea of taking the law into your own hands, be it altered into the modern form of the maverick cop (and hey, look, “maverick” is a term with its roots in the West) or playing at comic-book heroes like Batman. The basic conceit of the Western is that it’s a place where either the law has failed, or if it hasn’t, the protagonists are shining lawmen. The geography defines freedom — wide open plains, huge skies, riding across the border — and that romanticizing of the settler places value on the thought of carving something your own out of the land, with few people to tell you otherwise.

The tropes are everywhere. Our superhero battles have their roots in god-making and mythology, yes, but they also absorb key elements from the Western. Superman gets a hefty dose of Hercules, but he abandons the moral failings in favor of another graft from the Lone Ranger. Fights between hero and villain take the form of showdowns. Similarly, in the World of Darkness, martial law prevails. Just as the government can’t really reach out and control all of the frontier, it can’t reach into the world of the supernatural. A vampire prince draws heavily from the same well as the corrupt sheriff or outlaw who controls a town with an iron fist. And player characters act like protagonists in a Western as well, often shouting defiance and spraying (silver) bullets everywhere even if it’s not the optimal course of action.

It’s neat. I find it really interesting that this uniquely American philosophy informs our gaming. It certainly explains why you find the occasional D&D gamer who goes into apoplectic fits that so many D&D games are not at all reflective of What Medieval Culture Was Like, utterly missing the point that we’re telling frontier stories with longswords instead of six-shooters. The presence of castles and knights is a visual motif, not a treatise — it’s really about being cowboys and rangers and grifters. When players decide they’d rather risk it all than spend another night bowing and scraping to Prince Poncipanz, they’re tapping into that romance of the lawless. Robert E. Howard did the same thing, and he was a hell of an influence on those first gamers.

I’m not going to praise the American Western influence entirely, of course. I think the rest of the world is well aware by now just how those Texan cowboys and their yee-haw attitude can be a royal pain for everyone involved when they take that American attitude too seriously. But honestly, the world is well-served by having a variety of Westerns to choose from, and I honestly think some measure of accepting the frontier romance is well and truly justifiable. I wouldn’t enjoy gaming quite so much if all my games had to be Unforgiven. I like the ambiguity (of things other than morals, mind) of Pale Rider for my WoD gaming, usually with a dose of the also-very-American Ray Bradbury for taste. I love D&D that hangs around The Magnificent Seven level of romance, and nobody can tell me otherwise.

Of course, this being gaming, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that there is also no small amount of Young Guns that creeps into the actual play. I’m lucky enough to attract good players whenever I set up camp at the end of my table, but we’re gamers. You know what it’s like. You’re partway through a complicated story of bad men doing bad things for what they might call good reasons, and hard folks in the saddle riding to dish out the closest thing to justice you can manage, and blam… “Hey, dog. Dog. Did you see the size of that chicken?”

(Truth be told, I’d felt I’d be kind of disappointed to find out I was the only person who ever thought that a perfect quote to drop into the middle of a Werewolf session would be “We’re in the spirit world, asshole, they can’t see us!” As I was delighted to find out, I’m not.)

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Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


On to Blogging

Precipitous changes have left me simultaneously with more free time, less free time, and most tellingly, one fewer outlet through which to apply discipline to the act of creation.

So I’m adding another one. This thing. Let’s see how heavily I can feed and water it.

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Posted by on October 25, 2011 in Uncategorized