Netflyer Oxford University Role Playing Games Society
Netflyer 31


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How to be a Truly Dodgy Bastard in Ten Easy Steps

Have you ever noticed that the best lines in any movie always go to the villain? (Okay, forget the Shakespeare- quoting nitwit in Star Trek 6, but otherwise the rule holds true.) Have you ever walked away from a film or a good book realising that while morally you had to hold with the hero, it was the stylish but slithery bad guy who you'd really like to hang out with? Indeed, who but a truly heartless (and tasteless) individual would want to be Robin Hood if they thought they could get away with being the Sheriff of Nottingham (especially if Robin Hood meant being Kevin Costner)?

It was this kind of feeling which inspired me, for three society games and innumerable Vampire characters, to play villains, power-mad lunatics, and in general Dodgy Bastards. Okay, a certain typecasting had something to do with it, and I can't say that I always did the right thing in my playing style, but it was the fascination with the villain and his relentless quest for power which kept me playing Machiavellian characters constantly waiting for the next back to stab.

There have been those who claimed that, in many games, it is counter-productive for a character to start with the goal of stealing power from other characters, that this activity is inherently distracting from the plot and disruptive to game balance and the enjoyment other players receive from the game. But while in many games this is unmistakably false (Inferno or Vampire, to name two) I would argue that pursuing a career of villainy against the heroes of the game, particularly a society game, inevitably adds to the enjoyment of players in the long run. First of all, GMs have an awful lot on their plate anyway, and are usually concerned with meta-plots that challenge all the characters in one way or another. PCs have the time to tailor individual attacks on other PCs, providing a kind of individual detail that gives realism and real challenge to a player. Secondly, as long as a few rules are followed by players who wish to play ambitious but unscrupulous characters, I think intra-player conflict can be avoided, and indeed the game can be made even more enjoyable. Therefore, I've taken the time to record some advice for those thinking of turning to the "dark side" of the game, from my experiences as a character. Hopefully it will help in the attainment of new standards of dodginess by those who choose to go against the grain.

A brief note: Most of the time I make assumptions on what GMs "will" and "won't" do based on my past experience. These are rules of thumb, and should be taken as such. Some GMs (especially certain people who actually name their story "degeneration") will kill characters at the drop of a hat and allow you to do the same. Some will actually allow villains to take over the world. (I know I do.) But for the most part, these things hold true.

1.   Realize you are going to fail. This is the most important advice that can be given to any aspiring Darth Vader: good always triumphs over evil, no matter how cunning or powerful that evil may become. The GMs have, in essence, the power to control reality itself, and that's a hard disadvantage to overcome. Few will want to see characters who have behaved virtuously rewarded with an eternity of servitude to your evil overlord, and in the end will go to any deus ex machina length to make sure you do not prevail.
Use this to your advantage, and it can be incredibly liberating, however. If you are certain to fail, you can make sure that when you do go, it will be with a bang that shakes the very foundations of reality. Your goal in acquiring all this power as a player, whatever your character's goals, should be drama. No GM will allow a player to take over the world (at least not without the fluffiest of motives), but provided they're entertaining, a player might be allowed to get quite close before victory is finally ripped from his grasp. And the opportunity for grand exits is one of the best things about playing villains. Only consider yourself to have "failed" if your character is defeated in a manner so easy as to be boring. If you have fun with your character, and the other players have fun defeating them, you've added a lot to the game.

2.   Never, ever, kill or permanently incapacitate another player. Nothing will get you defeated faster than trying to gain your power by taking out other players. First of all, it's rude: other players have put as much of themselves into their personas as you have, and trying to bump them off should be out of bounds, no matter how "in character" it would be for you.
Secondly, the GMs more than likely won't allow it, and there are usually in-game restrictions that limit the ability of players to execute fellow players. NPCs are usually much more vulnerable, and great targets if you're playing someone bloodthirsty.
Your goal as a villain is to challenge the other players, to take power from them while leaving them perfectly capable of gaining that power back (though preferably not from you). A character that has been completely incapacitated is no fun for your fellow player, and you have for all intents and purposes destroyed a work of art. But a character who has been substantially weakened by a brilliant strategem on the part of a (hopefully unseen) opponent is a character challenged to go to new heights of creativity to pull themselves back up.

This rule cannot be stressed too highly: it is the line between being entertaining and being a nuisance. You may be destined to fail, but this is one way to make sure you get yourself killed swiftly.

3.   Make sure you're well hidden. The GMs generally have three or four characters who have "Baddie" written all over them. (The Eastern Gods in Pantheon I, the New Empire in ICON I, the Demons in Inferno, to name just a few.) These positions are filled already, so you aren't really needed in that section of the plot. And needless to say, it is much easier for your fellow players to stop you if they know you're playing a power-hungry megalomaniac. So a cardinal rule of every good PC-run Dodgy Bastard is that he shouldn't seem to be so (no matter how much other players might typecast you into that role.) Even if they know you're a baddie, it's important that they not know what kind of bad guy you are.
There are several ways to accomplish this. Perhaps you can actually show up at meetings and interact as the representative of your actual character. Then any attacks on "you" are frustratingly ineffectual. Or pretend to be something you are not, with your cover being as far removed from your real identity as possible. If done well, you can even convince your victims to have you lead the fight against the "enemy." Once, to confound other players, my accomplice and I specifically created a work designed to look like the style of another player, to cast suspicion away from us and onto them. We mimicked that player's writing style ("...dainty-hoofed trotters...") and then pointed out, subtly, to other characters that it was indeed the way that player wrote. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, politics is the art of making sure the populace is in a constant state of panic from various hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Similarly, make sure they can't get to you. A secret identity or a hidden base is vitally important not only because they're strategic assets, but because they give a great feeling of satisfaction to any other player who does find you. Although this is true only if it is difficult for them to find: every member of just about every House managed to break into House Virgo's top-secret base in Sheffield, which was about as well-hidden as the House of Parliament, and blown up more times than Big Ben. On the other hand, no one to my knowledge actually broke in to the backup base in Wales. I've often liked to think, though it's probably not true, that this is because they had a nice, newly rebuilt "secret" base in Sheffield to blow up each time.

4.   Have allies. Just because you're a dodgy, shifty, and untrustworthy bastard doesn't mean you can't have friends. It means you can't trust them, but they're still friends. Never develop a character concept that would be completely incapable of attracting allies, since even one co-conspirator makes success at any endeavor a great deal easier.
Many character concepts for your villain allow almost built-in allegiances. In Inferno, this was implicit in the structure of Houses within the Illuminati: those within your house were at least predisposed to be your allies. Certain NPC villains can be useful, but are usually fairly obvious. But as you are unlikely to be the only one who is attempting to expand their metaphorical grasp to include the entire known universe, other Dodgy Bastards can be your greatest source of strength. Which brings us to the next point...

5.   Never backstab your allies. Feel free to make false alliances and break them. But if you've made a real alliance, whatever you do don't break it, even if the short-term gain is incredible. These are the people you've likely shared secrets with, characters who if you don't destroy them utterly (and see Rule 2 for why this is difficult) are going to be able to cripple you simultaneously. If you've done your job right, just about every character in the game is going to want to put your character on ice after three turns. Having to fight your enemies when you allies want you dead is an unenviable, and indeed unsurvivable, position.

6.   Be creative in your attacks. Never try to steal another character's power in a way that would be directly attributable to you, or in a way that they would be expecting and defending against. This is obvious, if for no other reason than the fact that the predictable is no fun and much more likely to blow up in your face.
The easiest and most effective way to steal power from another player is to remove his power base, preferably taking it as your own at the same time. For instance, in Pantheon, a game involving mythological gods, the easiest way to gain power relative to another character was to take his followers, or at the least convince them not to follow him. A simple ideological dispute among his members, spread by carefully crafted propaganda, ties his hands for quite some time while he has to instruct his wayward followers in the true religion. If most of a character's power comes from his control of the banking system, engineer a run on his banks (preferably gaining his money at the same time).
Most players also have weaknesses that can be exploited. Particularly vulnerable are those who overspecialize their characters in certain areas. They give you every opportunity for gain, and allow your victim some great roleplaying opportunities. For instance, superheroes who are especially burly or bright can be brought to their knees by financial scandal or impoverishment, while scientists who are geniuses in their field can be felled by a carefully run publicity campaign. Industrialists are always vulnerable to government regulation (as I once found to my regret when I lost half my assets to a Communist revolution), and governments are always vulnerable to military takeover. Know your opponent, and you know his downfall.
One of the best sources of great ideas for dodgy plots is the newspaper, particularly the Financial Times or the Economist. Anything included in the news not only has the advantage of reality, but usually has more detail already included in it than your opponent will have considered. The S&L crisis in America, the current economic mess in Japan, any of the intrigues of Cabinet officials in the new Labour government, or the American President's current crisis could provide fodder for your next evil scheme.
Remember, however, that you don't want to leave your victim crippled and unplayable. Anything stolen can always be taken back, but anything destroyed is lost forever. As a rule of thumb, never do anything that would leave your victim more than 50% worse off than he is at present: it likely won't be allowed by the GMs anyway, and can ruin the character for the other player.

7.   Always have a backup plan, in case of betrayal. Never give something to anyone, friend or foe, which is not always and completely under your control. Paranoia is a job requirement in your line of work, and you should always remember it. Anything you have should preferably be usable only by you; if not, you should be the only one who knows everything about it. Indeed, the best position for a villain to be in is one that's indispensable.
An example from Inferno II: Karl Davchenko requested that House Virgo make Russia the most technologically advanced nation in Europe, in return for certain land and mineral grants in Siberia. We installed a new steam- powered lightbulb system, advanced railway technology, factories that were more modern than anything they had ever seen (and ran on abnormally calm slave-labour from Russian gulags), and an advanced telegraph system. Then Mr. Davchenko turned the entire country Communist, nationalized everything we thought we "owned," and sent a nice letter saying, "Oops, sorry."
At which point the backup plan kicked in: the abnormally quiet gulags rose up in revolt and the populace became ill with the "Russian sickness" as soon as House Virgo was forced to leave, because we had been keeping the populace in line with large quantities of a highly addictive drug added to the water supply. Those telegraphs were connected to our international telegraph system, and were useless for talking outside of Russia if we decided not to carry the signal. The railways were similarly connected to our systems outside of Russia, and the steam-powered lightbulbs had a limited lifespan. Did we mention we were the only supply? Even if it was only temporary, Russia was left not only isolated, but deaf, dumb, and blind.

8.   Reinvest your gains, and build power slowly and unseen. A standard rule of thumb should be that out of every four plans, three should deal with the here-and- now and one should be investment. Even if you can't think of something that will be useful three or four turns away, start on a project that will allow you to do something that you can't at the moment. Start making a new contact, build a new factory, or learn a new skill. If you do a favour for someone, make them provide the equipment, and then keep it afterwards.
If you can spend your time gathering information, dig up some dirt on another player, one who isn't really an ally or an enemy. Everyone has some weakness you can exploit, usually something they don't want anyone to know. Learn it, and then when you need another piece to put on the board, you know you have it in reserve.

9.   Make your character complete and full. A full and complete character will make it surprisingly difficult for other people to understand you, and keep you unpredictable. If your goal is merely, "Try and take over the world," everyone knows what you're doing and why. But if you have some other reason, one which no other player knows about, they may think you'll zig when you would naturally, and unthinkingly, zag. Besides which, this kind of depth is what makes an enjoyable RPG character.
An example of this would be Francis Mathen, whose wife had died a few years before Inferno I began. He loved her more fully and deeply than he loved anything else, and he kept her body frozen in a large pool of ice beneath one of his mansions. One reason he remained loyal to House Virgo for so long was that he believed the House to be his one way of getting his wife back. Whatever power he gained, he wanted it (or at least rationalized his want for it) because he felt he could use it to get his wife back.

10.   Give yourself vulnerabilities. If the heroes are going to have them, you should too, but it's important that you know what yours are, and do as much as possible to compensate. If your character is going to be irretrievably weakened if other characters discover his deep dark secret, that's a weakness. So bury that secret as far away as you possibly can, and put that fact in your character sheet. If you have a very weak will, make sure you have a trusted servant, or at least an ally, that you can send into stressful situations ahead of you. Pick your own weaknesses, instead of picking your strengths and letting your frailties form by default. Superman became a sickly weakling in the presence of Kryptonite, so one has to wonder why he never got his scientist buddies to build satellites or something to detect it, so he knew where it was before he got there.
Heroes have the luxury of being unprepared idiots. You don't.

Of course, the one key to being a Dodgy Bastard that I never quite avoided was what should probably be Rule 11: Don't do it all the time. If your chief weapon is surprise, then it won't help if no one trusts you before the game even starts. Similarly, if you never tell the truth, everyone always knows that you're lying.

Hope it helps. I have a wooden spoon still waiting as a prize for the next aspiring Dodgy Bastard.
Anthony Rickey