Thursday, December 19, 2013

Faces of The Enemy...No Relation

A recent email conversation with my good friend and player Will prompted me to consider this post and I think it might be an interesting catalyst for some cool conversation with the readers out there.

It goes something like this...

Are Villains Necessary?

Moreover, are antagonists necessary for a good game and is it always useful to make clear cut opponents?

What started my thinking on the subject was this message from Will (paraphrased a bit):

"I was listening to an RPG podcast and they made an interesting point that I was curious about your opinions on. They said that any good RPG needs an antagonist. Not necessarily a villain, though they help, but an antagonist.  I sat there and thought about it for a second and Traveller could use something we all hate, but it doesn't necessarily need it, and Star Trek certainly doesn't need it to function, but Pendragon? I think maybe a real villain to unify against would help. Granted we are (were) still early in the story and keep getting bogged down in details but our Arthurs need a Mordred and Morgana."

I found this interesting on a number of levels.

The first is the basic question or point the podcaster makes; Does a good RPG campaign need an antagonist? Must there be a villain, villainous organization or some unified danger that the PCs are going to be facing on a reoccurring basis?

What do you all think?

Personally I think many a tale can be told, and good ones at that, with no antagonist as they are usually defined. Is a storm an antagonist? An earthquake? A meteor bearing down on your location? What about the decaying and malfunction wreckage of an old space cruiser as it tears itself apart while you are exploring it for salvage?

I may have to revisit this at some later date.

There is another level on which the paragraph above, the one Will wrote, initially had me bordering on gamer nerd rage. After a deep breath and a ten-count I realized that this was an honest question/observation on his part and an incredibly helpful question. It tells me something about my players I wasn't unaware of but didn't really follow through on addressing.

They don't know how to find things in the game. Any game. They need it to be shown to them or at the very least, made more obvious.

My response to Will's message was:

"For some reason this group, regardless of the game, seems to concentrate so heavily on their own characters that they are not looking at the universe. You may all already have a common enemy and your individual antagonists may be connected."
In my opinion, Traveller (especially the way we are running it) doesn't explicitly need a villain or distinct enemy to face off against the PCs. Traveller is a game of trade, personal conflict, politics and many other elements that aren't directly hindered by lack of a specific villain or necessarily enhanced if you have one.

That said, 16 sessions in, and they have antagonists. There are a least two distinct enemies I can think of, with numerous minor opponents connected to one of the two opposing powers. The problem is, while fairly proactive and becoming more and more interactive with each other, the PCs are largely still not investigating the universe they're in.

If something happens, say, a shuttle docking accident, the PCs might try to help or they might mind their own business or they might try to purchase some of the salvage from the shuttle afterwards.

What they won't do is find out if the shuttle really had an accident. I could drop clues, make references to an unsavory character or whatever and it won't really matter to them. They weren't on the Shuttle and neither were any of their important NPC contacts so it never occurs to them that the incident might be important. Important to what? The story. The adventure.
Suggesting to me that our Pendragon game (which I am unlikely to continue for this and other reasons) could have used a unified enemy got my blood pressure up initially because...Each and every one of the PCs has HATES SAXONS on their sheets. The story begins with Saxon Raiders attacking and kidnapping able-bodied men from A PC's HOME VILLAGE WHILE THEY WERE THERE. In addition, these Saxons seem to be able to mysteriously avoid road patrols and navigate difficult terrain with ease. Maybe it's MAGIC?

If only there was someone everybody could hate and unify against. *Facepalm*
If only there was some Mordred or Morgana type individual. You know, like with dark magic and such. *Facepalm*.

Me: "I'm inviting everyone over for dinner. I know what you like to eat so I made that."
Them:"Adam, where is all the food?"
Me: "Blink. Blink. On the table. Did you look?"

Them: "Huh? Oh!"

Will goes on to suggest areas and individuals who could connect the PCs better, cementing an alliance between them because they share a common enemy and so forth. Again, they already do. If no one realizes a number of seemingly disparate events and individuals are connected, I will drop clues. In some cases, a good number of clues. If you still don't see the relationships is it me, the GM or is something missing from your approach as a PC? Or is it both? It could certainly be both.

On a related note that does go a bit off the main topic...

Many GMs, when creating a campaign, don't really concern themselves with the Player Characters. They simply construct their world and/or plan their adventures and the PCs, whoever and whatever they are, undertake expeditions into these places and events.
I on the other hand enjoy taking into account the background, personality, interests and ideas the players have created for their PCs. This means, if Joe likes combat and action, rest assured there will be decent chance for a good fight or a chase sequence fairly often. Bill likes brainy characters and his PC is a Cyborg who can jack-into machines and navigate through the net with his mind. Cool. Expect a lot of secret computer files, mysteries and conspiracies and the opportunity to get involved with these things. Samantha is a role player and loves to get to know the NPCs. She enjoys conversing with her contacts and getting the inside scoop through character interaction. Excellent. Expect a lot of NPCs with a desire to chat, but info they need, to be available.
The key words here are chance, opportunity and available.
If the fighting guy never gets into a fight that is not my fault. If I don't provide antagonists or sufficient reasons for him to get into a fight than THAT IS my fault. If the catalysts and opportunities are there and you don't participate in them, well that's on you, the player.
If Samantha is the party 'Face' but never strikes up a conversation with anyone, she shouldn't complain that there is nothing for her to do.
There are numerous things happening in our campaigns outside of the five to seven PCs. There are also numerous things going on involving the PCs. Many of these things, both within and without, are interconnected.
I can take a friend to Barnes & Noble but I can't make him read if he only came with for their Starbucks.
Barking Alien

If I may be serious for a moment...

I am still experiencing a serious financial crunch (more a crush) this holiday season and would like to once again ask for a little assistance from my friends and fellow gamers out there if it wouldn't be too much trouble or hinder you and yours. Even a small donation will go a long way. I would not ask it I did not have need. Thank you.


As I sometimes do on this blog, I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of some true icons and remember the life of another on the anniversary of her departure.


I do not know exactly what to say that will convey the profound admiration I have for this first man but I can say the world had best take heed and remember him. Nelson Mandela, passed on at the age of 95.


From World Leader to the leader of the Velvet Underground, my ears are pained by the silence. A salute from the Satellite of Love to the one and only Lou Reed, who died in his home in Southampton, NY at the age of 71.


Peter O'Toole, the famed actor who starred in such classics of American film as Lawrence of ArabiaA Lion in Winter and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, passed away on the 14th of this month at the age of 81.

A great deal was made during his lifetime of the fact that he was an Irishman, trained in the arts of theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and appearing with the English Stage Company before breaking into the movies some time later. The truth is he was of mixed Irish and Scottish heritage and yet holds an American cinematic record. O'Toole had the most Academy Award nominations without a win.

I will always remember him most fondly as Allan Swann, the swashbuckling analog to Errol Flynn in the comedy My Favorite Year. Great movie. If you haven't seen it, see it.


On December 18th, 2008, we suffered the passing of the 'First Lady of Star Trek', Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, who died at the spry young age of 76 due to a brief but ultimately fatal bout with leukemia. She was a fascinating woman and a true pioneer of the television medium.


  1. Sounds like you need players interested in the game and not just their PCs. Why are they even playing if they don't want adventure in the world you've presented? I don't get it. What do they do all session? Just sit around talking about their awesome PCs?

  2. Heh, no not exactly. They are simply a tad egocentric. A big tad.

    Let's say one of them is a Bounty Hunter and another is a Doctor.

    The Bounty Hunter has, as part of his background, the fact that the one criminal that got away was a Scientist who bioengineered a deadly virus that killed the Bounty Hunter's family. The Hunter still tracks this guy to this day, not for the reward, but to deal real justice.

    The Doctor was part of a rescue effort to stop an epidemic on a space station from wiping the place out. He and his team managed to eliminate the outbreak but not before it took the life of the Doctor's girlfriend, a member of the medical team.

    As GM, I hear or read these two backgrounds and go, "Awesome! Someone got off the planet the Bounty Hunter came from and infected people at the orbital space station or the station in the next nearest system. These guys have a major connection and a shared grudge instantly! The Scientist who invented the plague."

    Now here is what will happen in the game...

    The Bounty Hunter and the Doctor get hired by someone to bring back a criminal alive. The Doctor is there to heal the Bounty Hunter and save the crook if the Hunter is too rough in trying to capture him. Fine. The Bounty Hunter is there to be a Bounty Hunter.

    When they get back from a successful mission and get paid, the Hunter will go buy weapons and than flirt with a woman at the local bar. The Doctor will grab food at the bar, then shop for medical supplies and equipment. Maybe the Doctor will return to the bar later.

    They will rarely if ever talk to each other. If they do it will not be in depth. No one will learn the others background.

    Finally, the Doc meets another Doctor at the bar who starts telling him about his work with pathogens years back. They talk shop for a bit and part ways. I will drop clues about the style of his clothes or his accent, pinpointing where the Scientist/Doctor is from (i.e. the Bounty Hunter's homeworld).

    1) There is really only a 50/50 chance whether the Doc will guess that this guy might be the guy who created the disease. The player will sight the fact that his character knows about the illness and what it did but not who created it. Good RPing but no curiousity toward this NPC.

    2) The Doctor has only a 50/50 chance of mentioning his encounter with the Scientist to the other PC. The Bounty Hunter would have to talk to the Scientist himself to get the info.

    3) Instead of pursuing the Scientist, the Doctor in our game would look for another NPC to perhaps follow the fellow or even apprehend him. After all, they created a Doctor PC and not a combatant or a detective. Logical, but ultimately a little boring. Furthermore, Doc, you know a Bounty Hunter. Why not tell him and get him to follow the guy? Nope. Rarely happens. Why? First, my players' PCs never full trust the other PCs. Ever. Since they all share that same view point it never improves.

    Why should I listen to Steve's plan? He got us into this mess and I don't trust him not to sneak away.

    Me sneak away? Dan is the sneaky one and you trust him!

    Actually I don't trust Dan. He left us high and dry in that mountain pass.

    That's 'cause I thought you guys were going to try and steal my secret weapon. I don't trust any of you.

    GAH! *Bangs head against wall*

    Second, having the other PC pursue a storyline that they could have pursued themselves seems to bug them. The Doctor's player, feeling he may have messed up, wants the chance to talk to that Scientist again. He does not want another PC to be the one who does. I have even seen the Bounty Hunter at that point say he wouldn't want to follow him anyway, feeling that the Scientist is now part of the Doctor's story, not his. So who ends up following the Scientist? No one.

    1. So when I get an email that says, "Perhaps we need a common enemy to unite us", I think of the scenario above. They have encountered mutual enemies, big ones, at least twice now. Ones that effect everybody, though some on a more personal level than others. They have yet to pursue or even engage these enemies. I don't think they recognize them as such.

  3. Though I have not knowledge of your players beyond what you've described, I'd guess they are fairly young (say, 30 or less) and grew up on D&D 3.5, Pathfinder or even, I shudder to say it, D&D 4e. Those games seem (I say seem, 'cause I've only looked at the 4e rules) to be designed to promote that behavior... An entire notebook of paper to list all your powers/skills/stats and write your background, before you've played a single moment. Then, after all that work PRIOR to play, they wanna know what the story arc is going to be...

  4. In one of my Firefly campaigns I used Niska from the "War Stories" episode. He wasn't a direct enemy. The PCs knew of him and that he was a very bad man. They were merchanting in Niska's territory and had dealings with his people. But they never came face to face with Niska. They worked hard to avoid him. Their adventures were sprinkled with Niska stories told by NPCs. It was a great way to have an antagonist and avoid the cliché End Boss plot. At one point the PCs had to visit Niska's Skyplex to fix their ship. They had become very successful Privateers and were trying to avoid Niska's attention. The players told me the Skyplex episode was scarier than playing Cthulhu. They never knew when he might take notice of them.

  5. That "player inertia" you describe above is tough to overcome. It doesn't come up for me so much in D&D (everyone knows what to do in a D&D game) but in other stuff, like Traveller and especially in Shadowrun that lack of "connection" can kill a game. You drop hints and clues that there might be something interesting here and ... nothing. The only consistent way I've found to overcome is pretty heavy-handed but it works to kick things off.

    Shadowrun example: he party is sitting at a patio/restaurant/sidewalk cafe when they notice (skill use) a man walking oddly in the crowd and realize it's likely because he is injured (skill use). He looks up, notices them noticing him, weaves a staggering path to them, pulls a wrapped bundle out of his long coat, hands it to them with a "please ... take it", looks over his shoulder, then stagger-runs out into the street and is hit by a truck. Players erupt into conversation with things like "who is he, check the body, what's in the package, is anyone watching us, drop it and let's get out of here, is anyone moving towards us, etc.

    Like I said, heavy handed but a) this was after several sessions of circling around but not actually doing anything b) fate sometimes intervenes rather than waiting for you and c) I like to think it's on the lighter side of railroading as I'm not forcing them down any particular path or to take any set action. I didn't have them jumped by ninjas (well not right then anyway) but it got them interested in the universe and got them to take some action.

    As Teresa describes above, at a minimum, activating player paranoia can lead to good times. It works from dungeons to starships.

    1. I agree. If no one is noticing it, throw it at them in a way they can't ignore to make them move.

    2. It's odd but there is a mild misconception here.

      It's not exactly that the players don't know what to do. They don't sit around all game doing nothing. In fact, a lot has happened in our campaign so far. A lot! It's just that very little of it is adventure oriented. Also, very little of it comes from me directly. They sort of create their own scenarios to some extent.

      This works extremely well for the more proactive players (Will and my buddy Dave when he was in the game. Andy to a lesser capacity), but not as well for the players who tend to want to follow a pre-laid plot or obvious adventure (Hans, Rays and even Marcus).

      Add to this the distrust I mentioned and you get an every man for himself mentality.

      Marcus wants fame, fortune and glory in a D&D sense, so he sets up a crazy, poorly thought out mission to an unknown play for riches and glory. No one wants to go with him at first because that sounds like a dangerous, expensive and badly planned endeavor. Finally two others go to make sure Marcus' character doesn't die.

      Will and Ray are thinking, yeah, we could head out into uncertain conditions with little to no preparation OR we could stay on the space station and work on our own personal agendas. Hmmm. Tough one. NOT.

      The idea you describe is one I've down but only sparingly and not in a very, very long time. It is a little too heavy handed and way too heavy handed for me. I'm of a much subtler style. I don't even like the meet in a bar and get hired by someone deal unless, like our first session of Traveller, it was turned on its ear.

      I was already tired of the Wizard hires party in a bar cliche back in '82.

  6. I've never had to deal with this problem. maybe I'm lucky: the players make characters who want to work together and have adventures. Even the PCs with the most disparate background would go to the bounty hunter and tell him about the scientist, and the guys unrelated to the plague story would go along for the ride and the adventure 'cause that's why they're playing adventure games.

  7. I have a lot to respond to here but let me address Matt Celis first ('cause Matt is special like that) ;)

    I've never had this problem either.

    I've been gaming for over 36 years now and I've seen just about everything, or heard of it anyway, but never quite this. I wonder if, as Dave above suggests, it is a more recent phenomenon, more common with a newer, younger generation of players.

    The thing is, while the group is generally less experienced than I am and has played fewer games overall, most of them are in their late twenties-early thirties or mid-thirties. They certainly haven't played D&D 4E and only one of them (I think) is familiar with Pathfinder (though he's very familiar with it).

    It might be a combination of the type of game I am running - Very large, 'open world', sandbox with adventures and plot threads hidden throughout it - and their inexperience with such a game. As noted by Dave, even standard D&D 3 and 3.5 , though it could be run this way, is often run a bit more tightly.

    In effect, I am the anti-Old School guy taking Classic Traveller and running it more Old School Than Old School, lol. Think on your feet, make the adventure or find the adventure. It isn't coming to you if you sit in a bar and drink Scout Brew. (See above).

  8. To hit your original point on this post, "Antagonist" - no. "Antagonists" - yes. Most of my D&D time as a player and as a DM has been spent facing a multitude of antagonists, but very little of it has been facing any one consistent antagonist. A classic sandbox is pretty much predicated on the idea that stuff is out there waiting to be discovered but there's no single overarching opponent that is behind everything.

    Published adventures: who is the antagonist in Keep on the Borderlands? Isle of Dread? White Plume Mountain? Barrier peaks? There are good adventures that do feature antagonists - even the G series does this with the Drow - but I don't see it as required.

    Some of it is tied to genre too. Superhero games tend to have lots of them, as I know you know, and sometimes they all team up against the PC's for a super-over-antagonist. Trek on the other hand, well, who's the antagonist in Denial of Destiny?