Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who's Bad? - Part One

I have observed, over the years, the power creep of creeps. Or, to be more specific, how hard can be for GM’s to distance themselves from their villains. It’s a problem I can understand only too well. When you create an adventure or dungeon or campaign, you usually arrange for there to be an adversary for the players, a villain, or in special cases even a super-villain (being an especially successful villain). This NPC is vested with dastardly schemes, and likely a range of accomplices/underlings/hench-people that can be deployed to achieve these ends. Often the villain’s actions which do not involve the PC’s directly are unscripted, left to the imagination of the GM, as this NPC interacts with the game world through his or her imagination alone initially.

Naturally, during the course of the game, the PC’s will encounter some aspect of the villain’s plan, either by accident or intent, and inevitably confront underlings or allies in a manner which will either thwart, or otherwise inconvenience the villain’s schemes. It is, therefore, only natural that the villain will take measures to stop/eliminate or distract the PC’s once they become aware of them. It’s pretty much the plot of any bulk-standard Hollywood action flick right? So far, so good?

Here’s where it gets tricky. The GM has watched events unfold, probably with a smug look, as PC’s bicker and blunder their way through plots (by which I mean quality roleplaying of course!). The GM is aware of just how lucky they have been to this point, whereas the NPC villain may only be aware of something going awry with a plan, or the sudden death of a minion in a very remote way. Can the GM adequately separate his or her own knowledge and intellect from that of the villain?

The problem is that most villains are extremely successful operators within the game-world. Where players have fluked or blundered their way through encounters and survived often by luck (or the use of GM fiat), villains have risen to their position through force of personality, ruthlessness and cunning. They are wealthy and powerful in a way that is remarkable. In most cases, they are more successful in these ways than the GM, so it is somewhat natural for a GM to justify superior reasoning and capability to the villain.

What does this mean? Well, sometimes it means that no matter how clever or well thought out the actions of the PC’s the villain will be neither surprised nor prone to sudden defeat. It sometimes means that the villains will lways achieve their major aims because they can tap into the game-world better than the PC’s. It also can mean that the villain will rarely suffer a major defeat or die in a non-epic way. It might even lead to the GM berrating or belittling the PC's due to perceived shortcomings, when their actions are compared with the villain's.

It might even have serious consequences for a game, but is there anything we can actually do to combat this phenomena?

To be continued…


  1. That's fine as far as it goes - you've got a little simulated world in your mind there, judging what makes sense within the context of that world. But that's just a single paradigm, one entrenched in and bound up with the Old School of roleplaying. It's the idea that the game world exists in some theoretical/ideal state and the players interact with it on that basis: very much a simulationist kind of concept.

    Another paradigm, and what I think is the emergent message of indie gaming, is that the villain only really exists to give the PCs something to do - so the logical cause-and-effect which would mean he kicks their incompetent ass is tangential to the needs of the game.

  2. Hi Mash

    I can't tell if your first para is directed at my premise, or the idea that GM's operate a simultion of the world largely in their own minds...

    Assuming the former, yeah I'm only going to talk about things that I've experienced, and confine my observations to my own conclusions on that basis - which would be why I started with "I have observed...". Otherwise I think I'd run the risk of devolving to some kind of esoteric, faux academic wank-fest.

    Because I play and run old-school games, that's pretty much what I'm interested in, and therefore, what I'm going to write about. Perhaps I should have made that distinction more clearly.

  3. Although, by all means bring in some indie examples of the paradigm you refer to, from games you've played or run...

  4. I get that you're all about the Old School on the blog, I just think there's some room to move without breaking your experience. I guess what interests me, in the form of a question, is:

    How much that doesn't make it to the table is canon in your mind?

    Looking at your example: if the PCs don't really understand how powerful the villain is, then is there scope to downgrade him without creating a continuity error with what they do actually know?

  5. The example I have in mind is Moriarty. Early on when we learn about Moriarty we discover that he's everywhere and nowhere: he rules the entire underworld. But when Holmes finds that one loose end and starts pulling, eventually he gets to the face-and-face with Moriarty, and defeats him in single combat.

    It never feels implausible in the way that you imply it should in your post, if it were a RPG. Perhaps Holmes is simply more competent than a PC - but by the time the PC is a threat to the villain, surely they've demonstrated their right to be considered a threat?

    I guess IME the main situation where I've run into the kinds of issues that you're talking about have been where there has been a big power differential.