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Friday, February 4, 2011

RPG Brainstorming: Bad News Rising

The popular Law & Order franchise likes to feature stories that they refer to as 'Ripped from Today's Headlines.' That seems to have paid off nicely for them. It's a nice approach that delivers readily-accessible and immediately identifiable fare for their TV audience. It's also a strategy that can be adapted to various genres of role-playing games, and not just Cthulhu-derivatives or gaudy morons-in-tights games. They had celebrities in the 1400s-1600s (mostly they were called Royalty, but a few adventurers made the grade), and they had their share of scandals (Inquisition anyone? How about all those wives of Henry's? The whole Catholoc-Protestant squabbling...there's plenty there if you want to go digging. We'll even have a set of links just for this kind of research shortly.) But what if you went past the screaming headlines and dug a bit deeper into the murky underbelly of modern news reportage? We live in incredibly interesting times. What sorts of stuff can we find lurking just past the hype, glitz and endless parade of reality-drivel?  Let's take a look, shall we?

Taking The Long Term Viewpoint
Discover Magazine has an article on Which Nations Think Over the Long Term that opens-up some interesting possibilities to consider and maybe adapt for an on-going campaign.  The concept of time preference isn't exactly anything new, but the research into it is very interesting and rife with implications that could help to suggest some strategies that extremely long-lived or even undead beings might develop.

Some Examples of Villains with a Long-Term Viewpoint
  • Sax Rohmer's insidious villain Fu Manchu was a consummate master of this sort of long-term preparation, even though inspector Nayland Smith still managed to thwart those best laid plans of perfidy and peril. You could do a lot worse than to develop your own Fun Manchu-style uber-villain. And no, not the lame movie villain, but the terrifying genius who makes Moriarty tremble.
  • Even worse is Bram Stoker's Dracula, a character that just about every comics publisher, myriad TV-programs, and countless authors have appropriated and re-interpreted to the point that it is almost expected that the Count should make at least a token appearance in every fictional universe. So long as the Count gets enough blood in his diet and avoids a stake in the heart, he can quietly out-wait and out-wit his opponents. The strategic genius of a great warlord such as Dracula has almost always been given short-shrift in order to facilitate the victory of weaker heroes. A great monster like Dracula demands better heroes. He also would never stoop to doing penny-ante stuff first-hand--he would have a vast network of minions and disciples. Dracula isn't a moron. He's potentially the single most dangerous being you'll ever run up against, and the real terrifying part of his power is not his physical strength or any of his showy powers--it's his ruthlessness, his coldly calculated logic, his vast knowledge, and his followers. You don't get to fight the Count until you've learned enough, grown powerful enough, or finally figured out just who was behind all those other encounters, disasters, assassination attempts, etc. Then you are in a world of hurt beyond imagining, because he's Dracula, and you're either going to serve him or suffer a fate worse than death, like being bankrupted, excommunicated, black-listed, slandered in all the papers, shut-out from all grants, cut-off from all financial support, and dropped from the social register...and then it starts to get nasty...
  • The Abominable Doctor Phibes, as portrayed by the one and only Vincent Price, is a truly classic villain who discovers a way to cheat death itself in order to wreck vengeance upon his enemies with a series of execution-style killings inspired by the Biblical Plagues. If you knew that death wasn't the end and that you could take your time to get things right, and you were half as smart as the bad Doctor himself...you wouldn't waste time on small-time antics or easy-to-spot or foil capers. You'd build things up in the background, carefully orchestrate everything like a machiavellian chess match and have the so-called good guys out manuvered ten moves ahead. One good way to simulate this is to have a set of options at hand such as ten major schemes currently in the works, so that if the players mess up any one of them, the villain can shift over to another one. Always keep them guessing and always try to use the players as lab rats, test subjects, or unwitting dupes. Not only will it motivate them to go after the villain, it'll give them a real sense of investment, and of accomplishment once they do topple the villain once and for all...or at least until they return from the dead one more time...
  • Ardeth Bey...The Mummy...as portrayed by Boris Karloff in the original Universal movie. Old Ardeth not only removes all of his accursed bandages and dons a snappy fez, he takes up residence in the older, less well-policed parts of town and quickly asserts himself as a major underworld/cult leader of considerable power and influence. He uses obscure knowledge, old pacts and ancestral blood-oaths, possibly even spells to get the descendents of ancient slaves to serve him even as he wages a psychic war upon all those who oppose him. If he weren't so obsessed with the supposed reincarnation of the one-time love of his life, he would have taken over a sizable portion of the Middle East in a matter of months, but just like King Kong, 'twas beauty that killed the beast, and in the end it is Ardeth Bey's obsession with the femme fatale that ends his career of terror, assassination, and worse. Just imagine what would have happened if the girl had been killed accidentally, or if the forces of Ardeth Bey had managed to spirit her away from the heroes--and then either co-opted, misdirected or killed those same heroes--the world would have entered a new dark age indeed.
There are other examples, maybe we'll revisit this notion again in the weeks ahead. Villains who really do plan ahead and strategize for the long term are incredibly difficult challenges, and not exactly suited to the casual one-off scenarios, but for a campaign that lasts a few dozen session-episodes or more--they are priceless.

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