Bad Guy Chararacterization 2: General McChrystal does RPGing

Yesterday I talked about how my almost 5yo came up with – with no prompting – that the “bad guys” in the Lego Movie didn’t think they were bad – they thought that the good guys were bad.

And of course, the British thought the same thing about the American Revolutionaries (and were technically correct) and the aims of the Confederacy that seceded from the United States were preserving the rights of their member states to their rights, including the “property rights” of slaveholders in certain industries. The Nazis – and it’s not an internet argument, so don’t go all Godwin’s Law on me – presumably thought that putting some of my relatives in the gas chamber was all good stuff in a day’s work as well.

That’s earned them primo status of RPG bad guys that you can maim, kill, and dismember with no compunction if you’re on the “good guy” side of things.

Chiwetel Ejiofer: Giving Sam Jackson a run
for his money as a BMF since 2005

In the Monster Hunters series of books by +Larry Correia, the plotline of the second book (Vendetta) has the Big Bad state that well, yeah, his goals are whatever they are, but it’s way, way better than the alternative, so really the Good Guys should just throw in the towel.

The point is, to the “bad guys” at least, what they do is at least along the lines of “self defense,” “justifiable homicide,” or some level of being morally and ethically permissible, given a certain background logic. Very few are as clear about this as, say, The Operative:

I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done. (Serenity, 2005)

Seeming non-sequitur that isn’t: I have participated in one of the +McChrystal Group‘s CrossLead seminars. Other than the privilege of spending a day with a member of SFOD-D – which I said then and say again now, was truly an honor (and I gave him a copy of GURPS Tactical Shooting, ’cause why not?) – there were some concepts that were given then and again in a recent corporate communication meeting that emphasized stuff that while good for corporate governance, is pure gold for GMs.

It’s also online, more or less, so I don’t feel bad about distilling it in this context. I’ll happily shill for them, though – it was an impressive way to look at things. So let me break it down from the perspective of . . . writing and working with plausible bad guys. Good guys too, but a plausible adversary is so much more fun.

Kickin’ it Bad Guy School


I’m going to assume that a bad guy and his motivations can be characterized in the same way you might motivate, say Evil, Incorporated.

There are five parts to consider when plotting out bad guy motivations and methods.

1. Vision and Values
2. Mission
3. Strategy
4. Tactics
5. Measures

In short, and in gaming terms as well

1. Vision and Values

Vision: What is our “bad guy” trying to make the world look like in the future?
Values: How the bad guy and his minions are expected to operate.

Vision is often combined with Mission, but they are different. Vision is “in the process of winning or after I win, what do I do then?” Values in this context is basically “What disadvantages do I have?” at least in GURPS terms.

One thing about the Vision: sure, “I want to rule the world!” is a vision, but why? What dysfunction will the BBEG’s rule fix? “I’m smarter and better and could do things more effectively than all these clowns” is completely appropriate. One can likely look at anyone that, say, runs for high office – especially the Presidency of the US – as having to believe this to a degree that probably disqualifies them a priori from the very office they wish to hold. I’m not being partisan here: ask Douglas Adams about that:

“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

2. Mission: What is the bad guy trying to accomplish. In McChrystal soldier-speak: “What does winning look like?”

This is different than Vision. Really. For a company that sells disc drives, winning looks like a series of awesome products that are technically awesome (because that’s what the geeks in the company want to make), serves the chosen market segments – and that may well be all of them, and makes money hand over fist, both due to brand power and reputation (high revenue) as well as a flawless execution and low cost. Winning, frankly, looks like the reason Rolls-Royce has to protect it’s brand (“the Rolls-Royce of XXX”) so fiercely.

For the bad guy, You want “the bad guy is trying to do X, and that will allow his Vision to be completed.”

3. Strategy: How do you plan to accomplish your mission? “What do we need in order to win?”

This is the question as well as the answer. It is likely a list of things you have, but more importantly it’s a list of things you either need or must accomplish in order to execute the mission and achieve the vision. It will borrow heavily from tactics, below.

4. Tactics: Specific action plans needed to get what you need to win, and then accomplish the mission. This is the who, what, where, when, and how.

For GURPS, it’s the people, skills, locations, and likely an equipment list.

It may very well be such that the tactics you use can be phrased as “we will do X things, with Y people, on Z timeframe,” in order to get the M, N, O, and P that are required to fulfill the strategy.

Tactics is about the right now, the visceral. Strategy is, I think, largely about mental initiative and momentum.

5. Metrics and Measures. “How do we know the tactics are succeeding? Quantify that our strategy is working? In short, how do we keep score ?”

This is key, because it will be the easiest and quickest way to figure out what the bad guys will be doing at any particular moment. If they’re trying to make/steal money, then they’ll be looking for the right level of score. If metrics are around recruitment, then it’s about brainwashing or persuasion or whatever, and it’s about the numbers. If you can quantify it, you can probably also generate a risk/reward profile for it.

If the bad guys are recruiting their Legions of Terror, then a mission that loses more than they recruit because of poor planning and run-ins with the Special Justice Group will not be repeated in the same way.

Breaking it down simply.

For game purposes, the mission and vision should be a quick summary, one or two sentences about the bad guy’s outlook for what he’s trying to accomplish and what the “world” will look like when he gets it.

Values are basically the Sean Connery line from The Untouchables: “What are you prepared to do?” What methods are within scope? How does one justify such methods? I can torture my foes because they’re “Other” seems to work. “Our ends justify any means” is used with surprising frequency by groups whose goals would not “rationally” be associated with the actual methods used.

Examples? Protecting unborn children . . . by killing people. Protecting the environment . . . by killing people. Spreading a religion . . . by killing people. Common thread there? Yeah.

Strategy tells the PCs (and the GM) where the bad guy is going to deploy his resources. My Alien Menace patron “good guy” organizatin needs ships, space crew, exploration/scout crews for peaceful missions, scientists to figure out what the stuff is, and security teams to protect them all (or go in aggressively). That also means political contacts to ensure that the missions are either “undetected” or at least unreported. My Wayne Oliver good guy needs recuitment and training. Access to materials. Equipment, either purchased or bespoke, and doubly so for where a good/bad guy gets those stockpiles of weaponry.

Tactics can probably be summed up as “at any given moment, what activities are being executed or planned?” In my Alien Menace example, they are probably flying actual missions, recruiting and training operatives, maybe some politicking if needed, and research into what they bring back. Building extra ships.

Finally, metrics. What does winning look like? Market share? Percent of the world’s population that fall under his iron fist/benevolent control?

Parting Shot


Know what your bad guy is about. Make sure that his outlook is logical, even if the logic is twisted. If he’s a “madman,” it’s probably a good idea to get a “map” of how normal inputs are twisted into something that would make sense for someone to respond that way.

Sure, someone standing next to you is no threat . . . but certain types of personality have an exaggerated view of their own personal space, and react to what even an American would say is plenty of room with extraordinary violence. Way more than the usual discomfort an American feels at “European” conversational distances.

I say this having been backed into a corner by a very intense Polish PhD who really needed to explain his theories to me emphatically and from about six inches distance.

Give yourself a lens with which to view the bad guy’s world and objectives, and he’ll come alive.

Or undead, if that’s how you roll. But have a reason for it.

One thought on “Bad Guy Chararacterization 2: General McChrystal does RPGing

  1. Villains are way more interesting when they think they are in the right. Actually, they are even more MORE interesting when they partly are.

    Bad guys in games are almost universally portrayed as black-hat vs white-hat… but they can be so much more interesting for the GM (and even the players) when they work in those shades of gray.

    And even more interesting when the PCs realize that they may have goals in common with the bad guy and may have to [reluctantly] work on the same side to avoid some larger catastrophe.

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