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Better Targeting Flags with Antagonists

April 9, 2015

Ron Edwards has been writing a ton of great posts on comics history, and the most recent one, on Green Goblin is a great one to read to look at how to do Flag based play with villains.

Simple Opposition is the starting point

When you’re targeting Flags, it’s really easy to simply make the “opposed” antagonist.  “I want to protect the city” “WELL I WANT TO DESTROY IT” etc.

Direct opposition sets up quick conflict, but doesn’t necessarily build good engagement.  Usually, what you find out is that directly opposing the Flag doesn’t put you exactly where you want to be, but it gets you in the range of it.  And as you play, you’ll find something that keys in more particular to the player character.

For example, “destroy the city” could be engaging in a number of ways:

“…because this city was built on prosperity that came at the suffering of my father!”

“…because my plans are for a better city, a stronger one, a Utopia.  But everyone who isn’t worthy must die, first.”

“…because it’s Tuesday.”

The creed the antagonists push can make their opposition to a Flag engaging in so many ways – ranging from sympathetic to “angry making button-pushing” cruelty.

The “pie moment” is when you find the exact angle that gets the table to realize this is the real conflict and the antagonist is targeting EXACTLY the thing you wish they didn’t.

This is, unfortunately, something that doesn’t have an easy formula to find in play – it’s about knowing your players, paying close attention to their reactions, and keying in on that.  It’s why I generally prefer a network of NPCs and a host of problems – a shotgun approach and see what sticks.

Pitfall #1: Forcing Care doesn’t work

A lot of times in RPGs, people try to threaten things before the players care.  “They’ve kidnapped your brother!”… but who is your brother? Why are they worth fighting for?  Players have to have an attachment and engagment before it can mean anything.

This is part of the reason when I run a game if there’s good or decent NPCs, I play them as generally good, nice people.  They’ll help without even being asked.  They CARE about the PCs.  And, some of them, the players click with and care back.  So now what happens to them matters. (This is not to say they then become targets for threatening, sometimes simply what they think of the PCs, their opinion, can weigh a lot).

Other media can get away with this because the characters (written, drawn, acted) care and we either read their emotional expression or their inner thoughts and we connect there – and then we start to care.  Here, in tabletop roleplaying, we work with time at a premium and none of the fancy tricks other media gets to do that, so we have to take some initial play time feeling things out. It also helps to ask players to rethink their Flags as well – even in games with a slow turnover of Flags, I usually look at rewriting them a bit by the 2nd or 3rd session.

Pitfall #2: Some things aren’t supposed to be threatened

Some of the things players care about, are actually key to their character concept, and not actually something to be targeted.  This is why Flags work so well- the player is saying “Hey, this is on the table, target THIS”.

Jared Sorensen had a story about playing Vampire and he spends background points to buy a bar.  His vampire has a cool ass bar, right?  Immediately the GM burns it down.  Now, the thing is, he cared about having a bar as a concept idea – and taking it away craps all over who he wanted his character to be.  It didn’t make the game more engaging, it made it less so.

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