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Originally Published: 15 March 2016

 

In previous shorts, I've covered the importance of identifying characters and how this affects the narrative, but I wanted to highlight the value of a good antagonist. Something that I've noticed to be overlooked in some games is the importance of a strongly identified villain, CRPGs and other video games tend not to have this problem, it more common in table-top and live games – possible reasons I've covered briefly at the end. Though when I mean ‘villain’ I don’t necessarily mean the end-boss…

Often the villainous organisation or group is clearly identified, but this in itself doesn't lend the same depth and draw to the narrative. If the villainous organisation is small or really strongly defined, then this is less of a problem, as the group itself achieves a level of personality against which the player characters can react. However, it is generally better to provide a single individual antagonist against which the player characters can rail. It is human nature to compete against other humans - when the competition/challenge is posed by a non-personified agent, then the sense of competition is diminished. This is particularly true when the opposing organisation is only loosely defined, a nation, race or species – they’re orcs so they are bad doesn't give the players much room to explore or imagine the foe they face.

This antagonist does not need to be the head or public face of an opposing group, but their actions should be reflective of the group’s aims and motivations as a whole. They are a personification of the group, their character and method of operations should show this. The antagonist must also be apparent, if not visible, to the players. It must be possible for the players to fairly regularly be updated on the progress of their antagonist.

 

To make sure the antagonists matches the players for level of power and agency, and to keep the antagonist apparent to the players, it often can mean that the antagonist isn’t the ‘main enemy’ of the story but instead they are a narrative foil to carry the players along.  This isn't always the case, sometimes the end boss as the sole antagonist works well, but it’s something to be aware of.

 

The existence of the antagonist should be shown early in a narrative, but their identity does not need to be. The officer who ordered the attack on the defenceless village or the killer stalking the streets -it might be clear that they exist, but they retain mystery to their identity. Their actions, however, speak of their own beliefs and the beliefs and goals of the organisation that they are a part of. A real world example of this, with the killer angle, is Jack the Ripper - never identified but, by his MO and actions, inherently compelling and defined as a ‘character’.

 

Without a strong antagonist, narratives can often lack direction. The players have less investment and goals can be less clearly identified. Having a single focus individual can help motivate and drive players - even if, for some players’, the goal can be summed up with ‘I hate that guy, he’s a dick’.

 

An advantage of the strongly defined antagonist is that when framing the setting and showing how the story develops, the relative agency of the antagonist and the players can provide an interesting informal metric to the progress of the game. Eg. Do the players face a challenge to complete their actions, does the antagonist have an easy time OR does the antagonist struggle to catch up whilst the players are one step ahead. I.e. are the players doing well or poorly?

 

In situations where a victory or defeat might not be clear, for narrative reasons or chance, the interactions, directly and indirectly, between the players and the antagonist can be useful. Did the players succeed at the mission even though the attack on the enemy base was beaten back? Well, the previously mentioned officer was defeated by the players and his secret weapon was destroyed. What is therefore important is to demonstrate how the players’ agency affects this individual. This doesn't need to be a sword fight in a lightning storm, but if the players cause the antagonist problems then showing this can make the players feel good about themselves and show that their actions do matter to the story.

There are times when an overt person as the antagonist might not be appropriate but they are relatively few. Even in under-dog and conspiracy style settings it can help to have a nameless figure to exist as the foil to the players’ actions, even if they may be partially invented by the players to join together the events the players are witnessing.

 

At the other end of the scale is the scenery chewing dark-lord type, but that can be a problem of a different sort.

 

Why is this more of an issue with LRPs and Table-Tops games?

I think this might be three fold, in the classic D&D style game the evil overlord is often clearly identified which means, when people move to more complex stories, there is a rejection of this type of overt villain. Secondarily CRPGs have the advantage of showing what is happening elsewhere in the world, the antagonists actions can be clearly identified and shown during cut-scenes, for the most part other RPG media don’t have the option to do this. Thirdly and finally, CRPGs are just used to giving a single (or tier) of ‘bad-guys’ for players to fight against, each clearly identified through mechanic and art styles, for other media of games this isn't always so easy to achieve and define.

 

Five points for better antagonists:

  • Keep them original and unique, even between different in-game enemies.
  • ‘Their Antagonist’ - make, build-up in the narrative, the antagonist to be the specific antagonist for your specific group of characters. The overall villain of the story may only become the player’s antagonist once they have defeated lesser ones.
  • Give the antagonist agency of their own – they react to players actions, but they also have their own objectives and goals.
  • Keep them apparent to players – players should know what the antagonist is up to (and show don’t tell).
  • Make them a puzzle to solve (this is probably an article in itself)…

 

 There's probably plenty of ideas contained within here that could stand to be developed further so these are probably themes I'll return to at some point. Cheerio for now.