Thursday, January 21, 2016

The villain who makes a point about the character


On Supergirl on Monday, they had the episode with Toyman, which was a lovely episode from an emotional point of view and a bad episode from a superheroes-have-powers,-you-know point of view. (Really...some of the fixes that both Supergirl and the Martian Manhunter got into should not have been problems.) Both might be suffering from limitations that have not yet been explained to the viewer.[1] Henry Czerny does interesting things with his characters, regardless of the writing.

Part of the emotional thrust of the episode is the parallels drawn between Winn and his father, the Toyman, and the existence of those parallels as a driver to move Winn's story forward. That interested me. It's connected to the whole evil twin thing I've been thinking about.

But as a gamer, it isn't necessarily enough to set up a parallel. I mean, it would be great if the players immediately cottoned on to the idea, but it might be that the parallel is only obvious in your mind, or that you haven't presented it well enough. And, of course, even if they see it, the parallel is not necessarily going to drive them to change their behavior, even for one session.

There are a couple of things you can help in the presentation.

First, echo things between the two. If someone describes one situation the way (perhaps in your GM text), use the same words to describe the situation that the character faces. This is especially obvious if you use a particular phrase.

Second, if you can, establish that other things are similar. One character's father hung out with the evil twin's father, or they worked at the same industry or place. The evil twin was a mentor before he turned bad.

Third, give them essentially the same situation so that the difference or similarity of the responses can point up the similarities and differences. In fact, you can provide the same situation several times. Let's say you're doing essentially the Bizarro adventure, where a copy of the hero (meant for good!) starts to deteriorate. You can start by introducing the copy while rescuing the dependent. Both are racing for the endangered reporter, and it doesn't matter who gets there first (the rerporter is going to be saved)...but it might burn a bit if the copy gets there first. Then they both show up somewhere else. One of the PCs predicts dark things ahead (either because he's genre-savvy or because he always predicts dark things). Then the copy starts to deteriorate. The PCs have to fix some of the problems that the copy makes. And finally, the copy decides that to protect the intrepid reporter, the reporter should be put somewhere safe. Like the arctic. Or the moon. Then you have a bit of repetition that calls back to the earlier rescue.

Fourth, if necessary, have an NPC comment on the fact that this is the same situation. Even if the NPC is shot down ("I'm nothing like him!") the idea has been planted.

But the other thing I thought of is that this parallelism might limit the villain if it's all you do with him. The various Berlanti superhero shows are rife with this: an interesting villain shows up for a single episode to act as an Aesop and provide a moral that the character should change his ways.

In a gaming context, that doesn't necessarily work. In a screenplay or a novel or a comic book, you can make the character change his ways. In a game, it's not your character. And if that's the only reason that the villain exists, well, the villain is kind of a flop if the PC doesn't change...

So in a gaming context, you can provide the opportunity to change. You can use the evil twin to comment on the path a character has taken...but you can't make the character change. Which means that your villains have to have something else about them to make them interesting and possibly re-usable.

The Endnote

1. I'm going to recap here because I need to vent.

  • At one point, Supergirl is caught in quicksand. In a vat of quicksand. The woman can fly and lift a helicopter, but quicksand holds her. What? 
  • The Martian Manhunter has a whole slew of issues on his mission, one of which does reveal a power limitation for this version of J'onn, but really, little of it should have happend. The dude can phase through walls. He can be invisible. Why not go through the building as, say, a security guard, from the outside, straight through to room 52? When questioned about the password, why not read his mind, eliminating the need to perform the awful mind wipe? 
  • How did Max get the camera on Alex's purse? Why was Alex using her own purse, for starters? She's been undercover before. Since she suspects Max of doing evil things, why not make sure all the clothes are from the DEO costume department, which she has raided before? They might have cut some cat-and-mouse stuff for time, but at least allude to it. Or run the story past a gamer.

I enjoy the show, and as a roleplayer, I'm sure that I'm more tactically-minded than some of the writers, but hey... Maybe I can explain Supergirl's problem as hero-in-training, but the other characters are supposed to know. Vent over.