APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 10 November, 2000



Facing the Villain

Janne Kemppi

People speak more than they shoot. This is the case in role-playing games as well.

Practically all role-playing game scenarios concentrate on conflict. Protagonist (usually player characters) and antagonists (typically NPCs) are pitted against each other and they try their best to outfox each other. Methods vary from clever plots to outright violence.

However, enjoyable game is not just outsmarting 'common' enemy. Routinely dispatching opposition that varies little (or none?) gets fairly boring quite quickly. Furthermore such opposition does little to encourage good role-playing. Thus antagonist of a scenario (or at least a campaign) should be flesh and blood.

Fleshing out antagonist could be done both directly and indirectly. An example of indirectly fleshed out antagonist is character of Sauron in J.R.R Tolkien's novel "Lord of the Rings". While he is clearly archenemy of antagonists and his influence can be felt everywhere, he is only shown in the end when his fate is sealed and his power crumbles. All other characters speak constantly on Sauron's might and danger he represents thus giving us a good picture of what kind of character Sauron is. In a way, the fame precedes him.

Indirect fleshing out is quite clever technique when opposition is faceless, impersonal or so distant that antagonists have no chance to directly face it. In such a case, the protagonist is defined through direct actions and especially how protagonists feel and see results of actions of antagonist.

In role-playing setting in Terra Nova, force like Colonial Expeditionary Force is essentially faceless protagonist. Their actions are not known, only a result from dropping down individual agents to wholesale destruction of cities is seen. This mystery also helps in making antagonist even more threatening, as it is natural for man to fear what they do not know or understand.

Direct fleshing out happens when antagonist and protagonist see each other or feel immediate cause of their action. It is said that action speaks louder than words. Thus having characters witness how protagonist or his minions are in work is very effective method of conveying what kind of opposition characters are against. In Terra Nova, player characters could see CEF in action. For example see one of their military operations unfolding and get first hand experience of speed and power CEF can command. Sight of mighty hovertanks or ability of individual agent to possess weird and wonderful gadgetry give player characters understanding with forces they are dealing with. Way these powers are used gives also a lot of hints what kind of persona protagonist is.

Second popular method is a face-off where both antagonist and protagonist meet each other to size up their opposition. This technique is widely used in popular culture. An example of direct fleshing out of opposition is meeting of James Bond and Largo (Number 2) in Ian Fleming's "Thunderball". Both men play cards and feverishly ponder and evaluate danger their opposition presents. This way both antagonist and protagonist are clearly set up against each other. Both characters also come out as tigers, dangerous capable men, who are very much the same.

Face-off is excellent way to flesh out protagonist. In role-playing setting they are, however, quite rare. Most player characters do not want to risk their necks (for very human and obvious reason) going out to meet villains. Most prefer to avoid meeting villain until they can set the terms.

However, GM can always lend a helping hand here. Protagonist can always take the initiative. They do not spend all their time in their home plotting for death and destruction. Quite opposite, they should have their own lives too. They have hobbies, interests and daily work they are doing. Thus there could be quite few chances that they could 'accidentally' be in same place as player characters. Villain could for example go out to relax by swimming pool, enjoy a round of golf or see a performance and bumble upon player characters.

If villain and player characters live in different spheres, more ingenuity is necessary. For example it is highly unlikely that beautiful people on high and mighty jet set hang out much with same hobbies (and certainly not places) as slum dwellers. In such a case, this meeting could happen on the move. One or both parties could be moving to another place and see each other more or less accidentally along the road.

If characters see a villain, all kinds of things could happen. They could elect to just observe their opposition. Villain might be alone or accompanied by friends/bodyguards/henchmen and like. GM could merely describe villain's entourage and let characters see what is going on. For example, hints might be dispatched (villain being with someone who could be a vital clue) or just letting characters feeling what kind of power and prestige villain can command (number of bodyguards, expensive clothing, rare items etc). In such case GM should strive to convey mood that villain should represent.

Alternatively villains entourage might notice the player characters and actively see contact with them. This could quickly flare up into face-offs or even worse. Assuming neither side actively seeks to destroy (that is, to kill) each other, they will confront each other instead. Both sides know of each other and acknowledge others. They should soon consider what would happen. GM should consider this as well.

At this point GM should at first decide the mood of situation. Light hearted approach fits well with comedic and cinematic adventures where everything is larger than life. Characters will then willingly take risks no sane person would ever do. In such a case GM could introduce a situation where villain is in some embarrassing situation and witty comments of player characters will surely not help antagonists situation at all.

In more serious vein, villain is no buffoon and real threat to antagonist. It is here where GM should make things tense, threatening even. However, threats should be low key enough to avoid making player characters jump to their guns. GM should decide if protagonist (typically player characters) or antagonist (usually villain of the scenario/campaign) has the advantage here.

Some writers like their heroes have advantage all the time. In such a case confrontation becomes one of lecture, where hero makes villain (or one of henchmen) a fool. While this works fine towards making protagonist even more 'heroic' it actually cuts down the most important part of being a hero: surviving and overcoming tremendous obstacles. Defeating a tiger is heroic task, beating a kitten is certainly not. Since most role-playing adventures strive towards making characters real heroes who rise beyond tormenting small pets, player character advantage should occur only rarely.

When villain has the advantage some moderation should always be remembered. Not every villain is bloodthirsty (or there could even be a friend/companion who abhors such thing and indirectly saves player characters lives). Furthermore, the exchange could (and probably should) be verbal in nature. While it is impossible to plan ahead how discussion will go, there should be some consideration towards defining 'victory' in the confrontation.

Both villains and heroes should win some and lose some. If villain says and does everything, the characters (and especially their players) are depressed and angry. There are situations when this is warranted, like when GM wants to show player characters whom really makes the rules. For example in Terra Nova there are characters who command immense resources and can do anything in their whim. If characters go face to face with them, they should consider themselves lucky to have even survived alive.

In most cases both sides should get some. Fairly good trick is to have villain run the show so long that his superiority (and thus worthiness as a capable, dangerous villain worth his salt) is established and then give player characters chance to snipe at him. This way player characters are happier (even when defeated). Alternatively GM could let player characters jump on table and run the show for a short time before pulling a rug beneath them and thus reestablishing villain.

Ending confrontation is difficult. Here GM could use third party interference. For example there are few people who'd be ready to go violent in place filled with small children (and guessing how massive manhunt could follow when bystanders would be killed) or a police patrol stomping to place. Fairly simple trick is to have villain receive an urgent call forcing him to go away immediately and thus defusing the situation.

Anyway, the loser of confrontation will remember it. This can be used in future meetings with protagonist and antagonist to spice up situation. This also reinforces role-playing by adding more continuity between game sessions. Death seems to have only passing notion while humiliation experienced in confrontation continues far longer.

Summa Summarum, GM should not avoid confrontations. Quite contrary, GM should use them in establishing heroes and villains. It is a good method for fleshing out characters and yet another trick in GMs sleeve that could be pulled out when necessary.

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APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 10 November, 2000