Why do villains get the best plots?

Have you ever noticed how in storytelling/ RPG types of games, it’s always the villains who have the coolest plots?

They must have spent years recruiting minions, devising and populating huge dungeons or castles, building up networks of spies, and plotting over their careful spreadsheets. We talk about evil genius for a reason. Even though the plan probably has a fatal flaw, it takes a certain amount of dedicated effort and creativity to put it into practice.

Not only that, but any great villain has an actual goal. Not just ‘defeat the good guys’ or ‘get more xp’ but a real honest-to-goodness goal. Something that they genuinely want to accomplish in the world. It’s probably connected with money and/or power and the reason that they’re a villain is because they’ve picked an unconventional route with which to get it. Revenge is another great motive. Being mad (while overused in WoW) is not actually a motive in itself, although it may mean the villain picks goals for illogical reason. And any memorable villain probably has a dose of megalomania too.

As heroes, we’re usually reactive. We follow clues. We find out more and more about the Big Bad and what they are planning. And when we finally decide to thwart them, it usually involves the sophisticated ‘CHAAAARGE’ tactic. Even when our tactic is a little more interesting, it’s because we’re following some other NPC’s suggestion.

More to the point, our character’s goals aren’t always the same as the player’s goals. The player may want to socialise, to progress their character in specific ways, to get more xp, to get more gold, and so on. As soon as we talk about our characters’ goals in game, we’re roleplaying (ie. “what would my character want?”) and that’s simply not why most players play.

Not that it matters because even if your character does have goals, it’s quite possible that the game won’t allow you to pursue them anyway. Let’s think about that.

The only way you can fulfil In Character goals in an MMO is if you (ie. the player) pick it very carefully. If my new Death Knight wants nothing more to do with the Scourge and seeks only to retire quietly to a cabin in the woods I can do it, but only if I stop actually playing the game. If my character has a grudge against some particular NPC and wants to plot against them politically, it’s not going to happen unless it’s programmed into the game, in which case everyone else will do it too.

Even in a more sandbox type of game like EVE, there are some valid in character goals which simply aren’t possible in the game because they’d involve NPCs or NPC factions. If you wanted to take over one of the NPC factions for example, you simply can’t do it.

So if you enjoy setting and achieving goals in these kinds of games, you simply have to narrow your scope. I think this is why roleplaying in MMOs is so limiting. And sometimes very frustrating.

The best MMOs are set in fascinating worlds, and yet we’re so limited in how we can interact with the setting.

When other players are involved, the gloves come off

As soon as you are plotting with or against actual players, things get much more interesting. On the downside: they’re players so will be frustrating, anti-immersive, unpredictable, and unreliable. On the upside: the game won’t be getting in your way any more.

If you want to plot politically against your guild leader (don’t ask me why!) then you can go ahead and start that whispering campaign. If you want to beat the bank, you’re competing against other real players in the economy and there won’t be a helpful NPC there to tell you their cunning plan that somehow involves disguising yourself as a cardboard tree.

What if you don’t have goals? And this, to me, is where a lot of games fall down. Characters should have goals in games. Players should also. And maybe, just maybe, players could be given a bit more assistance in setting goals appropriate to their preferred playing style.

Imagine a game where when you create your character you get to pick some details about their background and history and what sorts of goals or play you are interested in as a player. You might be asked whether you’re more interested in playing good or evil. You might be asked if you prefer to be part of a faction or a solo operative. You might be asked whether you’re interested in romantic types of plot or not. Whether you’re interested in being involved in politics. Whether you’re interested in being a merchant.

And although these views could change in game, you could start with a set of game defined goals to help direct your play.

It sounds odd, but it’s how we go about running freeform LARPs. In a game like that (which may run from a few hours to a whole weekend) all the characters are pre-written. They have detailed backstories and many of them have reasons (written into the background) to need to interact with each other.

Players are given questionnaires to fill in to help the organisers assign them to a character. When you get your character sheet, it will have some background information and also a section marked ‘Character Goals’. And a well written game will give you a mixture of easy and more difficult goals. You aren’t marked on them. It’s accepted that it’s actually impossible for everyone to fulfil all their goals because some are written to be mutually exclusive.

Computer games: they have limits

A game run by and with real people will always be more flexible in terms of what you can do. In a pen and paper RPG, you can do anything that you convince the GM to let you try. No computer game will ever reach that level of simulation.

But some kinds of games do offer more flexibility. In a RTS you have a lot of freedom as to what tactics you choose to use. Maybe you’ll never be a supervillain but you have minions, you can build structures, you can try to funnel your enemy tactically. It’s why we call them strategy games — the game is all about working out your strategy.

In a storytelling RPG, you have very little flexibility. You follow the story. Some games may offer more options but you’re never going to control your side’s strategy or be able to implement some really off-beat plan. If you sign up for the story, it’s assumed you’ll be along for the ride.

Part of the appeal of sandbox games like EVE is that there are real players involved in each faction. So the gameplay is a lot more flexible than a storytelling game, but the actual story may not be as good. If you’re a minor peon in a big corporation, you may never find out what actually happened in that corporate takeover. Your whole game world may have changed and you will never find out why. No other player is required to tell you. There won’t be a helpful NPC explaining exactly why the defias got kicked out of Stormwind. You just have to go.

So there’s always going to be some give and take. If you want every player to have total freedom to set their own goals, your personal story and experience may be less interesting in the game. It certainly isn’t guaranteed to be good. If you want the game to guarantee you an exciting story then you’ll have to go with the goals they set.

But MMOs are the eat-all-you-can buffet of the gaming world. Part of the appeal is that there are lots of different things you can do, lots of different types of gaming available in the world.

I wonder if somewhere in the mix there’s room for the freeform LARP style of character assignment. To give players some forward momentum and help them set goals that suit their style of play.

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7 thoughts on “Why do villains get the best plots?

  1. Pingback: West Karana ยป Daily Blogroll 5/28 — No funny name episode

  2. I think the idea that a villain has less strings attached when it comes to actually carrying out a plot is one of the main reasons they look so kewl. The villain appeals to the “human” side of the world more overtly than a hero does. You can see their problems, how they’ve decided to handle them and the basic necessity for violence and power-gain becomes very visible.

    Heroes, on the other hand, try their best to live by the strict code of justice and people just find that … boring. I mean you’re basically playing a policeman in a game that can throw fireballs or run fast or whatever.

    Now, once you’ve played a bit in various mediums (table tops, computer games, LARP, etc) you have undoubtedly worked on character development skills so you can actually MAKE a hero interesting. How so? By giving them a past, by giving them feelings, inner turmoil, the want to be bad, but counted on by society to do good. Maybe they just wonder for a split second each day what it’s like to be the villain.

    I’ve played a lot of “downfall” characters and I must say it’s very fun. It’s also fun to portray the hero that is beset on ALL sides by evil, but remains steadfast to his cause. Tirion Fordring comes to mind from WoW ;) But then you have Mograine who goes evil from being raised good, then returns to good when he sees what evil truly is.

  3. I suspect the actual reason that villains get the cool plots is … so that players have something interesting to do by foiling them. Imagine tracking down the evil overlord ™ to find out that he was mostly just involved in a local card racket. It’s the same reason that detective stories usually involve particularly complex cases. You can throw the odd simple one in as a red herring but people want to see the detective doing some detecting.

    The player’s story arc is generally about travelling around the place,learning more about a cool evil plots and then stopping them, saving the world, and getting the girl/boy/furbolg and more xp and possibly some cool loot. It’s not so much about devising cool plots to gain IC power.

    You’re right about it needing practice to make a character interesting or really get into the mindset of a redemption or damnation plot, I think. But I’m playing through Knights of the Old Republic at the moment and loving it (which is why this is on my mind :) ) and the heroes seem pretty interesting there.

    I don’t know that I agree that people find the strict code of justice boring. I think it really appeals to a lot of people. Possibly moreso when you actually get the chance to make a moral choice and show what your character is made of.

  4. Remember though, Spinks (and you may not be playing it in this manner) that the “heroes” in KOTOR and KOTOR2 CAN be changed to be evil; even the main character. So you’re always presented with situations that you must think on whether or not it will influence you in a good or evil way. That kind of struggle is what makes character development fun :D You don’t have to choose evil, but you do have to choose to go against it to be good.

  5. Heroes are often defined by the villains they face. Thus the cooler the villain, the greater the hero. Superman-Lex Luthor, Batman-Joker, Holmes-Moriarty, Picard-Borg, Kirk-Khan, etc.

    A lesser villain diminishes the hero.

    • That’s a good point. I’m not so sure about Picard and Kirk though — they had great villains but I don’t think that was what defined them. Kirk is still cool (for some values of cool :) )if you haven’t seen that film.

      I’m wondering if it’s a part of the Pulp genre (I include superheroes there because they’re a kind of direct descent from that) to have action heroes defined by their enemies.

  6. What you’re talking about is the sort of neural-net interactions that we see in virtual reality type situations. Tad Williams wrote about a system like this going tragically wrong because of some players “in-game” actions. They most certainly became villains but the interaction is exactly what you would desire in terms of goal setting, options, and desires. The only things set by the game are the initial conditions and to some extent the playing field.

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