Monday, October 12, 2015

To Rule A Galaxy: Evil Overlords

Victor Von Doom
Evil Overlord
White Star is a game built on a foundation of Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and countless other pieces of pulp sci-fi. Yet, one of the classic pulp sci-fi tropes which seems absent from White Star is that of the evil overlord. These classic villains seemed almost ubiquitous in classic sci-fi. From Ming the Merciless to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine to Emperor Zurg, they absolutely require a band of plucky last-chance heroes to oppose them in the name of galactic freedom.

When the referee has decided to introduce an evil overlord into their campaign, they'll need to do more than throw a few stats together. While the evil overlord is a single adversary in and of themselves, that is not what makes them truly formidable. What makes the evil overlord is the level of resources they have at their disposal - in both material means and manpower. Nations, armies, planets and even entire galaxies worth of riches and soldiers kneel before the evil overlord - willing or not. What's worse, the evil overlord has vision for the universe, for their universe.

Designing an evil overlord is a helluva lot of fun because they are, by nature, larger-than-life characters. The referee will need to ask himself a few questions when developing the villain to help make their vile mastermind a worth adversary.

What Made The Character Become an Evil Overlord?: No one decides at birth that they're going to have and obsessive and violent desire to rule over all known life in the universe. What happened to our evil overlord to make him want to control, literally, everything. Did they become indoctrinated by an evil cult? Were they the victim of horrible suffering that eventually drove them to madness? Do they believe they are somehow entitled, whether by noble bloodline or mystic prophecy, to rule the universe? In the end, the evil overlord is (on some level) insane - but that insanity came from somewhere and knowing that place will help you understand how the overlord sees themselves and their place at the center of the universe?

What Did the Evil Overlord Do to Rise to and Maintain Power?: Very few people will just willingly surrender to a psychopath with only a polite inquiry. What did your evil overlord do to go from simple villain to dark master? Military might? Mystic powers? Political manipulation? It is no easy task to bring countless star systems under your rule and requires a vast amount of resources or power to do so. In the cases of military might and political maneuvering, the overlord undoubtedly has allies who are directly carrying out their will. Are these willing servants who genuinely believe in the overlord's right to rule? Are they mind controlled slaves bent to the overlord's will? Are they conscripts who risk facing death (or worse) if they do not serve their evil master?

What Resources Does the Evil Overlord Have at Their Disposal?: An extension of the previous question, but more material in nature. An overlord with countless servants at their disposal is powerless if they don't have the weapons, medical supplies, raw resources and other means to maintain their empire. No need to develop formulas and economic projections - just something to consider.

"You'll due, kid."
Now that you've got a basic sense of your evil overlord, time to have some real fun. No need to throw the overlord at your player characters in the first session. Draw out the epic confrontation. The overlord begins as distant and powerful personification of evil far beyond the means of the player. They will begin by facing his lowliest minions - whether it be robot armies, zombie slaves, or any other type of basic soldier. These soldiers will undoubtedly have a commander, and that commander will have their own superior. Slowly, as the campaign progresses, the player characters will undoubtedly draw the attention of the evil overlord and be forced to face greater and more terrible threats from their vile adversary. Klytus had to be defeated before Ming could be overthrown. Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin stood between the Rebels and Emperor Palpatine. No overlord is immediately vulnerable and will often surround themselves with the most effective protections possible in most cases. These captains can allow you to add some diversity to your villains and give your players a sense of accomplishment when they defeat one and draw ever-closer to their final confrontation.

Keep in mind your evil overlord didn't likely rise to power simply by being an idle fool. Overlords are, by their very nature, motivated and active. They will work against the player characters, react to the victories of the heroes, and raise the stakes. When the time finally comes for the player characters to confront the evil overlord, the tension should be at its zenith. Not just the fate of the universe is hanging in the balance.

To that end, when the time comes for that final confrontation, don't be afraid to ignore the stats, ignore the dice - in favor of a satisfying climax. That's not to say you should throw the rules out the window. Roll your dice behind a GM screen and if they're going to result an something that's not climatically appropriate don't be afraid to ignore it.

The final confrontation between the heroes and the evil overlord needs to be satisfying needs to be satisfying to the players. That's something different from a satisfying final confrontation in a film. The players need to be active in that conflict, but when we look at some of our epic confrontations with evil overlords in film this is not the case. Luke Skywalker doesn't defeat the Emperor. He lays there while Vader throws him down a giant pit that's clearly in violation of OSHA. When Flash and Ming confront one another, Flash hops out and threatens Ming with the big gold sword and then Ming falls over dead. While that's cool on screen, it's death at the gaming table.

Flashy swords EVERYWHERE
A good example of that, believe it or not, can be found in Revenge of the Sith. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin, while bloated with flashy choreography and bad dialogue, would be a helluva a scene in a table top RPG. Think about it - leaping between platforms while lava gush everywhere and you're trading blows with your vile enemy - that's awesome in your mind, isn't it? Another great example is Kanan vs. The Inquisitor in the season one climax of Star Wars: Rebels which as been built up by lesser confrontations over a long period of time. While neither Anakin nor the Inquisitor are evil overlords, the important thing here is to create a satisfying confrontation at the gaming table - and how that differs from a satisfying confrontation in a novel, film, or comic book.

In the end, an evil overlord is a vehicle for a great story and an opportunity for your player characters to feel like heroes who truly save the universe. That kind of grand vision is worthy of an equally grand antagonist - so don't be afraid to ham it, have fun and give your players every reason to fight with every fiber of their being for galactic freedom with a villain who they love to hate, yet fear to confront.

Hail, Ming!

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