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> 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Critical Vector - Amber Zone Reviews # 33

Amber Zone: Critical Vector, from JTAS #20 by William H Keith Jr.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

Location: Vendetierre, a backwater middling-tech planet. No location for this planet is given in the OTU.

Patron: Everybody on the planet. Seriously.

Mission: Vendetierre's number has come up; there's a Killer Asteroid on the way and the PCs have the only ship in the system. So it's up to them to divert or destroy the threat before it wipes out all the people on the planet.

Complications: In one sense, this mission is very simple. Find a way to divert or destroy the asteroid before it collides with the planet. This is not complicated, but it will be very hard.  The asteroid is huge, it is only about 96 hours away from impact, and if they don't pull this off, BOOM! Everyone Dies.

Payoff:The successful PCs can pretty much write their own checks at that point.

Strong Points: Suit up, Travellers, it's time to be Big Damn Heroes. The idea of cracking open an asteroid is a fun adventure concept that has appeared in a lot of science fiction. I had not realized how popular until I read this Wikipedia article. The PCs can try just about anything, and get to do space walks, and blow stuff up! The ticking clock aspect makes it dramatic, as does the fact that cracking the asteroid is the only thing they can reasonably do to save more than the merest handful of the locals. 

 If it turns out that the PCs can't prevent the disaster, the referee could then build a whole new campaign around disaster recovery. What will Vendetierre look like after an asteroid collision?  What if a few people did survive, what then?  Could they rebuild the society?  Should they just transport the few survivors off-planet and leave a dead world behind?  Morbid as that may be, a post-disaster campaign has lots of potential.

The PCs do have the option of agreeing to shuttle a few wealthy persons off-planet and leave the rest of them to their fate. The referee is encouraged to make this option as difficult as possible if the PCs want to try it. As referee, I would take steps to ensure such a decision haunts them for a long time. Talk about a reputation: "that's the crew that left a whole world to die, all for the sake of profit."  Public opinion if not Imperial opinion would be against them from that point on.

Weak Points: If you're trying to maintain any amount of hard sci-fi seriousness in your game, you're asking for a big, big debate. Are tactical nuclear weapons going to significantly move, let alone destroy, a space object described as a 50 kilometer wide rock & a "mountain of nickle (sic)-iron” that's moving at 30 km per second? The folks over at TVTropes explained this pretty well: Sci-Fi writers have no sense of energy.(see the bit on the movie Armageddom, under Film). The Wikipedia article referenced above makes it sound like serious scientists think that it might work. Hey, it's a game, go with whatever will be fun.

There is also an inconsistency in the write-up of the introduction. The PCs are supposed to be delivering a cargo of industrial widgets, which sounds like they had been hired by a local firm; but the text says that their arrival was "sudden and unexpected". So which was it?  This is a minor issue, but worth mentioning.

The asteroid Vesta

What I'd change: I have already used this adventure with my PCs. However, the asteroid was a comet, and therefore made of ice, and it was not on a collision course with a planet. The goal was to fragment the comet and harvest the bits to use as a new water source for a near-desert planet. I made the comet a lot smaller than the 50 km behemoth in play here.

In My Traveller Universe:This could happen anywhere, of course, and with a hard sci-fi orientation, even a TL-15 planet would have trouble diverting such a massive rock. However, in keeping with my pattern with these reviews of trying to match a planet IMTU with the planet given; I would set this adventure on Venestia, near the Stedhard Alliance. The starport is low-grade, the tech is TL9, and the population is in the low millions.

Map: As this adventure takes place almost exclusively in space, no map is really needed. The referee could easily sketch out a range band map, with each range band representing 12 hours of asteroid flight time. 

Images courtesy of NASA

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Win Friends or Antagonize People - The Reaction Table

His Liaison-5 skill means you're doing it his way.

The Encounters section of Traveller is simple yet flexible, like the rest of the rules, leaving a lot of room for creativity and customization.  Whenever the PCs encounter a significant NPC, whether a patron, law enforcement or fellow adventurer, the referee must determine how that NPC will respond to what the PCs say or do. While some times it helps the adventure along to determine by fiat how an NPC will react, the referee should in most cases consult the Reaction table and just work with what comes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pride of the Lion - Amber Zone Review # 32

 Amber Zone: Pride of the Lion, by John M. Ford 

Two Aslan hiding in the tall grass.
This time the Aslan are the prey, not the hunters!
 Check out the series introduction here.

Location: Grizel (C-768400-6) No location is given for Grizel in the OTU, other than it is an Imperial world, near to Aslan space.

Patron: Martin Trelane, an old acquaintance of the party.

Mission: Rescue a family of Aslan from a local rancher, who has taken them prisoner. The rancher is playing out a revenge fantasy against them, in the fashion of The Most Dangerous Game.

Complications: The patron is wounded, the PCs are going to be outnumbered and outgunned, none of the locals will be willing to help. The rancher has no intention of letting his quarry win/escape, and will not let the PCs live either, once they get involved. One of the Aslan is a child, but that will not stop the rancher from killing her.

Payoff: Trelane asks the PCs to 'help', not 'do a job'. He has no time to haggle over fees or rewards. In the end, the PCs should gain from their help.

Strong Points: This adventure jumps straight into the action, and time is of the essence! The players will have to come up with a plan on the fly, including how to find the Aslan before the rancher does. For once, the PCs may be motivated by something other than money; helping the patron & the Aslan is just the right thing to do. The bad guy is a jerk, but the author gives him enough backstory for the players to understand why he is playing out this revenge – it doesn't make him sympathetic, but it does make him three dimensional. If the PCs are successful in their rescue attempt, they will have gained a significant Contact among the Aslan, and opened the door to future adventures with Aslan NPCs & Patrons. A side note: if any of the PCs already have a negative attitude towards Aslan, this adventure will have even more complexity and opportunity for role-playing. Don't ignore the moral aspect of adventures!

Weak Points: I do not see anything in the adventure itself as written that I want to change: nothing is illogical, silly or ripping off the PCs.

What I'd change: Before I ran this adventure, I would include Trelane as an NPC in another adventure, perhaps also at least referring to the Aslan. If the players are already familiar with Trelane, and with the Aslan, they are more inclined to jump to the rescue.

In My Traveller Universe: With some work, I could convert the Aslan (I have no non-terran aliens) into a minor human culture which is insular and tradition-bound. The language difference would still exist, and the story would have to be changed only slightly to fit the new societies' details. I would locate this adventure on the planet Hinar in the subsector called the Wilds. It is TL-4, sparsely populated and controlled by cattle barons.

Map: The ranch and its environs. The Ranch house is in the center, the Aslan ship is to the east, at the starship icon.
Map scale: 10 km/hex

I made this map, using Hexographer. It may be reproduced or modified without permission.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Random Encounters part Two: Random Events

The universe of Traveller is big enough that almost anything can happen. The referee's job is to determine what has happened, and how it affects & influences the PCs. The world/universe should not be static, just waiting for the PCs to act upon it.

In a previous post, I talked about how the Random Encounters mechanic in Classic Traveller is a tool for the referee in crafting adventures.  It also works for introducing contacts & patrons, and showing the players the game world through play.

The Random Encounters Table is set up as what is now called a D66 table; you roll 2D6 but do not add the two dice together, one die  represents the tens digit and the other the ones digit. Combine the two and you find that entry on the table.

The last part of the table, the 6x entries, is blank. I take this to mean that the referee  has some customization space to add in his own kind of random encounters. Old-school games like Traveller were  easy for the referee customize; the rules did not try to define everything.

The Animal encounters rules included the concept of the terrain tables providing challenges to the PCs while out exploring the wilderness. These were natural hazard events, like carnivorous plants, rock slides and bad weather kept the adventurers on their toes. 

I have used the custom space at the bottom of the Random Encounters table to define some random events that can happen in civilized areas.  I decided to group these events by their general nature. 

The world around the PCs should be in motion and active.

An Outstanding World Building resource for your game

Neptune's South Pole
Image Source: NASA. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140515.html

From Steve Savage's Seventh Sanctum site (alliterate much?) I present for your interest the whole run of his Way With Worlds (again!) essay series, which I intend to plunder with abandon for developing my Traveller Universe. This series of articles is well worth reading, whether the 'world' is in the far future, the far past, or another dimension. Game Masters, adventure designers and fiction writers will all find useful stuff here.