Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Equipping the Effective Villain

Bad Guys!  Every hero seems to need a bad guy to fight. There’s a great scene from the Justice League cartoon series where Superman’s arch-villain Lex Luthor rubs his nose in the fact that Supes just couldn’t put Luthor away for good – he couldn’t be the hero without a villain to oppose.

But what is a villain?  In a roleplaying game, a villain is an NPC whose goals or plans are contrary to the PC’s interests, or to the society as a whole. A villain is an OPFOR, an obstacle to overcome and moreover, a villain is a recurring, ongoing problem. Villains frame an adventure, and that can then develop into a campaign. Villains are a challenge and a reason to go adventuring. GDW published a lot of adventures, but very few of them had a specific villain. So, adventure is possible without them, but it can be a whole lot of fun with them.

What makes an effective villain? (I can’t bring myself to say a ‘good villain’). Villains need a motivation, of course, and usually it is an ignoble motive behind the goals they pursue, but that does not always have to be the case. The classic archetype of the Noble Enemy can make a terrific challenge for players. The PCs don’t want him to succeed, but they can completely understand and maybe even sympathize with why the villain is acting that way. Or maybe the villain is an immoral scumbag who eats puppies and steals candy from children, and the PCs can’t wait to deliver the well-deserved beatdown.
Uh, guys?  I think I know who this game's villain is . . .
But before you get to that point, remember motivation alone is not enough. They need two other things as well. They need Power or Influence or both. What do I mean by this?

Defining our terms
Power is ‘hard’; is the capability to get things done, without the consent of those you do it to. My fleet invades, you surrender or I smash your cities until you do surrender. Direct. Alternatively, I buy up all the available stock of Unobtainium which your business depends upon. Your business collapses. 

In fantasy RPGs, Power is easy and readily available. A character can have large attack bonuses, carry about piles of magical weapons or equipment, and cast mighty spells. In some ways, it seems that the whole goal of a fantasy RPG is the accumulation of Power.  Past a certain point, high level fantasy characters are effectively immune to the myriad dangers that threaten mere mortals. In addition to having lots of personal power, high level characters may even establish strongholds, and start raising armies. Eventually they could rule countries. 

In a sci-fi setting like Traveller, where PCs do not evolve into demi-gods, it is a lot harder to acquire Power that sets one apart. The FGMP-15 is a terrifyingly dangerous weapon, and the battlefield Meson Accelerator (see Book 4, Mercenary) will ruin your day in a 100 meter radius, but they are technological devices. That means that if your PC has one, so do the Imperial Marines sent to take yours away from you! Armed starships are common, and millionaires and Barons seem to be everywhere. 

Money and hierarchical position are also Power. When the CEO or the reigning noble speaks, people listen. Hierarchs who are part of the government have the Power of the state to bring to bear. That’s what makes dictators such fun villains – they have all the machinery of the state at their disposal to harass the PCs and foil their plans.

Influence is ‘soft’ and therefore less visible or tangible than ‘hard’ Power. Influence makes things happen indirectly, and more often with your consent.  I show up in your capital with my diplomats and the run-down on my fleet capability. Through display of force and persuasion, you surrender to me. I haven’t fired a shot, nothing has been destroyed, but I still win. Perhaps I persuade you to financially support my expedition. The decision is yours, but you would not have made it without my Influence to bring you to the point of deciding. An elected executive may not be able to simply decree “execute these PCs” but he can certainly use Influence to get their starship impounded, their assets seized and their every move scrutinized by the police until they decide to leave. 

Influence is often harder to counteract, because you don’t always see it at work. If I want you do to something for me, I might use my Power in the form of my own weaponry, or by arms bearers loyal to me. But, then you can easily counter by calling out your arms bearers to meet mine.  If I prefer to avoid that, I might use my Influence to get one of your subordinates to do the thing in your name.  That way, I get what I want, and you may never know that it happened. If you do, your subordinate may present it as being something in your best interest, and never mention that I wanted it to happen. 

Influence can be very open, as well. The street-corner preacher or politician is trying to Influence the public. In some societies, open public debate is the main way of moving public opinion. Contests of Influence, public or private, will be less violent, and involve a lot more role-playing as the opposing parties try to find the points at which their Influence can counter their opponents’ most effectively. 

PC’ Influence comes from their social skills. See my post on the Reaction table for a list of those skills. Contacts and reputation are all forms of Influence. I plan to discuss those two concepts in a later post. 

What has all this to do with my original point? Without Power & Influence, an NPC won’t be much of a villain. Sure, the nebbish clerk (UPP 555555, Admin-0) can interfere with the PC’s lives by denying a permit, but he won’t be much of a long-term problem, no matter how evil his intentions are in denying the permit. 

If you create a villain for your PCs to oppose, take the time to establish how much Power or Influence the NPC has, and of what sort it is. As I have tried to demonstrate, Power and Influence come in many forms; make sure that your PCs can at least attempt to counter the Villains P&I. A PC with Liaison-5 will not have much chance against armed goons with orders to shoot on sight.

So who has Power & Influence?

The obvious answer in the Official Traveller Universe is that the Imperium has the power. The Imperium’s power is vested in the Aristocracy, particularly the Archdukes and Dukes. It is stated in the Library Data that the Imperium maintains stability by insuring the balance of power on the local level. Any side that gets too powerful, or if an extra-planetary force tries to exert destabilizing influence, the Imperium sends in the Marines to keep things balanced. The Imperium tolerates Nobles having their own private ‘security’ forces, both armed guardsmen and armored ships, but only so far. A subsector Duke who has too much Power will be watched carefully by the other Dukes and the Archduke, to keep the Duke in check. 

In my TU, where there is no Imperium, things are looser. Each of the Big Four has its own sphere, and the points at which those spheres overlap are where a lot of the conflicts in my setting will take place. Holtzmann’s Corridor is mostly in the Sphere of the Talaverans, but The Trade Protectorate is trying to move in and claim a share of the markets. 

Standing over against what I said earlier about fantasy characters, is the Psionics rules for Traveller. Telepathy, Clairvoyance and the rest can all be used as Influence that's particularly hard to counter, even if you know it's happening. A few Psi talents can be considered Power as well - the telepathic Assault, and many applications of Telekinesis.
One of these people is using Telepathy to steal valuable trade secrets.
At the PC's level, because Power & Influence are easily accessible, just about anyone could become a villain to thwart the PC's plans. Here are just four possibilities, which I have rolled at random from Patron List One in the Encounters section (a villain is likely to be someone's patron, after all).

  • Noble - a landed but credit-less Noble (Influence but no Power) embarks on a plan of crooked business deals, including sabotage of the PC's ship to benefit businesses in which he has holdings.
  • Assassin - This killer (Power but no Influence) wants to make a reputation for himself, and has targeted people close to the PCs.
  • Governor - The local potentate is trying to discourage explorers, like the PCs, from visiting the border region he controls. Perhaps he has black market projects or a secret pirate base that he does not want to be discovered. The PCs face progressively more and more bureaucratic obstruction (Influence, then Power) aimed at convincing them to leave the region.
  • Tourist - A dilettante with Psi powers and few scruples (Influence) decides to start following the PCs around, using his ability to cause them trouble by using his Telempathy to antagonize all the people the PCs meet for his own amusement. He hires the PCs as companions/bodyguards to mask his self-serving motive.  
A villain does not need to be a world-conquering megalomaniac, just someone who uses his Power & Influence to further goals that the PCs will wish to stop. So get out there and stop them!

Photo credits:
Villain - photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/daniel_gies/4898461733/">~dgies</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">cc</a> 
Board meeting - photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/9110880@N04/13756154804/">le temple du chemisier</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a> 

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