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.