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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.