‘Better Angels’: What Are We Doing, and Why Is It Fun?

Shane Ivey here, editor-in-chief of Arc Dream Publishing. Better Angels, the roleplaying game of supervillainy, is now available in PDF and will be shipping soon in a full-color hardcover. Here’s the game’s first chapter of rules.

Better Angels: What Are We Doing, and Why Is It Fun?

By Greg Stolze, © 2012

A lot of supervillains in the comics are dumb. Even the geniuses.
I remember The Tinker from Spider-Man comics in the 1980s. A guy who can turn a waffle-iron into a ray gun is working out of a radio repair shop building weapons for supervillains? Why wouldn’t he file some patents, get a few defense contracts and quietly reap the profits of Reagan’s peace-time military buildup?

One answer is that, hey, supervillains had cash in hand for hovercraft and neural disrupters, which they then use to rob banks to pay for… hovercraft and neural disrupters. Sure, the real world has stories of people deploying cutting edge technology in bank robberies—consider the North Hollywood shootout in 1997—but that hardly ended well for the robbers, did it?

If you had personal flight technology, why break the law? It makes no sense.

But let’s set aside the high tech Doctors Doom, Octopus and Horrible. What about a regular everyday Joe who, what with one thing and another, grows a giant poisonous scorpion tail? That’s a recipe for social maladjustment, ostracism and violent reprisal, right?

…if he doesn’t decide to drop by the Mayo Clinic and volunteer for some research protocols in exchange for a venom-dripping-tail-ectomy. Killer Croc is a sad case, but there’s no reason he can’t end up like the kid in Mask.

Evil vs. EEEEEEEvil

If you take a step back, or perhaps a step up, you can find a meta-reason for all this. The writers needed bad guys for their heroes to fight. The goals had to be simple enough for a single issue (or at least, simple enough to fit across several issues along with all kinds of action and derring-do and smart-alec banter). Goals that played into striking visual themes or elaborate fight-scene sets were huge plusses as well.

Comic book villains aren’t evil as much as they are EEEEEvil, an overblown and fantastical burlesque of cruelty, greed and arrogance that bears only a passing resemblance to the wickedness we experience.

Real life evil, on the other hand, has its dramatic outcomes, but it does its best work unseen. Hitler and Stalin didn’t do their own heavy lifting. They passed orders downward, and their massacres were invisible at the top levels until after the fact. The tasks required to murder millions get divided and sub-categorized and assigned to hundreds of bureaucrats so that the chemicals are requisitioned by one clerk, received by another, coordinated with train stations by a third and only deployed by soldiers after events have so much momentum and official approval behind them that disobeying becomes incredibly difficult. Even if one soldier refuses, what happens? He might get a bullet in the skull as his reward, but just as likely his commander shrugs and finds another. The conscientious objector can get transferred to the motor pool. He doesn’t need to be made an example because people who can stand up to the institutional evil of a Third Reich are so vanishingly rare that a government can afford to ignore them. One appalled guard isn’t going to bring down the system of extermination camps any more than one lazy delivery boy is going to derail UPS.

Is this drifting from our original ideas of bad guys kitted out like cosplayers, sneering and making demands? Only by way of comparison. Great evil is done in aggregate, it’s slow and amorphous and it dilutes responsibility as much as possible. Eeeevil on the other hand is flamboyant and personal and catastrophically inefficient.

That’s why eeeevil fails in the comics. Not because the bad guy is weaker or stupider or less intent on his goal—the writers often took pains to show that he was stronger and more intelligent and willing to break any law. It fails because the hero thwarts it but, honestly, could the hero have thwarted it if the villain had just taken some simple and obvious steps?

Eeeeevil: “I relish the opportunity to face a worthy foe! Overcome me in traditional Finnish naval wrestling and you shall have your freedom. But if I win… your soul is mine! Bwah ha ha!”

Evil: “Have the guards take her out back and shoot her, like the others.”

# # #

Eeeeevil: “Only you can appreciate the genius of my plan. When I push that button, a meteorite of solid sodium, towed from the asteroid belt, will smash into the polar ice caps! The detonation will raise the sea levels worldwide and I, having prudently invested in inland territories destined to be the new fishing meccas, will be rich beyond avarice!

Evil: “I’ve been sandbagging ecological legislation for decades.”

# # #

Eeeevil: “With this spectacular covalently-bonded defect-free drill, I shall sail the depths of earth as a submariner sails the watery deeps! No buried vault, no hidden building, will be safe!”

Evil: “With this drill, I’m going to get all the oil on lot 722. If the people on it give us any trouble, I’ve paid off the local militia leader to drive them away.”

Better Angels is about Eeevil, and some reasons supervillains might prefer it.

The Basics

The story in Better Angels is the struggle between a good human and a demon trying to degrade, bully and control him. Because this is a game and not Paradise Lost, the score is kept mathematically, with a system of carefully measured sins and virtues, instead of agonized poetic couplets. (Though, no mistake, Paradise Lost is worth a read.)

“Hellbound”

Here’s a key piece of terminology for the game, even though it’s not related to the mechanics like “Strategy” or “Nurture.” When you combine one human with one demon you get one of the hellbound. (Also, on occasion, “Hellbinder.”)

This is an important term because it’s not synonymous with “Player Character” or “PC.” That’s one player, controlling the human, and trying to beat his diabolical tormentor two falls out of three. The hellbound is played in tandem, mostly governed by one player, but with another playing the demon and sticking his oar in whenever it seems useful or hilarious.

If a PC breaks his bondage to his devil, he’s still a PC, but he’s no longer hellbound.

Here are the components of the system for determining who’s in charge and how intense the conflict is. Every character is a composite of demon and person, and when their drives are aligned, they can accomplish incredible things. When their drives conflict (which is far more common), the haggling starts. The elements below form an economy of power where faustian bargains can be struck.

Sinister Tactics. There are six rough categories of malfeasance, each with broad practical applications for all humankind. The more wicked you are, the stronger they become become. These Tactics act, as you might expect, as a volatile combination of catnip and gasoline for demonic power. The six Sinister Tactics are: Espionage, Greed, Cruelty, Cowardice, Corruption and Deceit.

Virtuous Tactics. Arrayed against six sins are six virtues, each with a associated areas in which they can help make the world a better, gentler, wiser place. The nicer you are, the stronger your Virtuous Tactics get. But unlike Sinister Tactics, they don’t have physics-defying badass powers attached to them. The Virtuous Tactics are: Generosity, Knowledge, Courage, Endurance, Nurture and Honesty.

Virtuous Strategies. The three Virtuous Strategies are broad methodologies that you employ to get things done the best way. You combine one with a Tactic to produce a die pool, as I’ll explain in just a little bit. The three Virtuous Strategies are: Patient, Open and Insightful.

Sinister Strategies. The three Sinister Strategies stand athwart the three Virtuous Strategies. These are the weaknesses that you use to get things done quick and dirty. (Or just dirty.) The relative nastiness of a human’s vices determine the intensity of some diabolical powers. You also combine them with Tactics to produce a die pool, which is (again) explained real soon now. The three Sinister Strategies are: Cunning, Sly and Devious.

How the Character Sheet Works

Think of the character sheets for Better Angels as the game board. On the right side, it’s all sweetness and light. That side of the sheet is home to Knowledge and Generosity and Honesty. When the circles on that side are filled in, you’re living right. On the left (or “sinister” side) you find Corruption, Greed and Cowardice. If those circles are darkened, the devil is that much closer to dragging you under.

Your character sheet records how well your character does certain things and what his current abilities are. In most games, there are a few traits that fluctuate during the course of a game session—how close your character is to death, how many bullets remain in his gun, how close to exhaustion he is and so forth. But most traits only improve very slowly. In Better Angels, your abilities can change from scene to scene, tracking the alterations in your character’s mood, condition and circumstances. Instead of a vague gauge of his skill at fist fighting or telling lies, your traits reflect how good he is at it right now.

There are two kinds of traits on your character sheet: Strategies and Tactics. Strategies indicate general methods of doing things. When you pick a Strategy, it broadly describes how you’re approaching the problem. If you use physical trickery and agility, you’re being Sly. If you’re trying to help someone through an emotional appeal, that’s Insightful. The Strategies on the left side are the nasty, sneaky, manipulative ones Collectively, they’re the Sinister Strategies. Those on the right are straightforward and are known as the Virtuous Strategies.

Tactics (in italics with an initial capital) are more specific. They represent what you’re actually doing, where Strategies are more a matter of how you’re doing it. There are six Sinister Tactics on the left side of the sheet, for activities like stealing, spying, lying and performing enhanced interrogations. On the right side are six Virtuous Tactics that are the heaven-approved ways of trying to achieve your goals. They include goody-goody stuff like telling the truth, helping people, enduring trouble without complaint and the like.

Every action you roll for involves a Strategy and a Tactic. Tactics are smaller-scale and tend to be far more volatile. While a Strategy may change two or three times every couple of sessions, some Tactic is going to change in just about every scene. All Strategies and Tactics are rated from 1-5.

There are also spaces for specialties. They don’t change your rolls or pools, they just let you make some rolls in narrow circumstances where you otherwise couldn’t. They’re explained later.

Strategies come in pairs, as do Tactics. Take Nurture and Corruption, for example. If you look on the character sheet you see them as lines of circles, one above the other.

Corruption

     

Nurture

Very few people are completely giving or totally corrupt. Someone who’s average has a rating of two in each. On the character sheet, that’s represented by filling in circles.

Corruption 

     

Nurture

Someone who is exceptionally selfless is very good at tasks requiring basic human decency. He might have a chart like this.

Corruption 

     

Nurture

Tactics and Strategies on the same line limit each other. Someone with Nurture 5 can’t have Corruption higher than 2. That’s what the overlapping circles are for. If you have Nurture 3 Corruption 4, you can see that the line is filled up and you can’t gain more of either without losing its contrary.

Corruption

     

Nurture 

Always fill in circles and mark lines in pencil. Tactics, and even Strategies, can move around a lot. In the course of a game, there are three ways these traits can change.

First off, they can simply decrease. If someone hits you hard, you might lose a dot of Courage. You erase it off your sheet and hope he doesn’t hit you again. The mechanics of losing dots is covered under “Combat and Other Rough Stuff,” starting on page xx.

Secondly, they can increase. Any time the hellbound does a wicked act, at the end of the scene his Screwtape (that is, the player controlling the demon half) can increase an appropriate Tactic. There’s a whole big section on how this is done, starting on page xx.

Thirdly, and most commonly, they can slide. When you slide a Tactic or Strategy, it means the allocation of dots on the line changes, but the number of dots stays constant. For example, suppose your character gets struck in a brawl. It’s not a serious blow, but it stings. Under the rules, this means your slide a dot from Courage to Cruelty. So if you had Courage 3 Cruelty 2 before…

Cruelty

     

Courage

…when you get slapped, you have to slide to the left, ending up with Courage 2 Cruelty 3, like this.

Cruelty

     

Courage

There are times when it’s helpful to have more Courage and times when Cruelty is the right tool for the job. To understand this, you have to read the Tactic descriptions.

Stats never go above 5, and each half of a pair limits the potential of the other half. Simple really: You can’t be really generous and really selfish at the same time, though it’s typical to have elements of both in your personality. If a slide would push a trait over five, it acts as if that dot was simply lost, instead. For example, a character with…

Cowardice

       

Endurance

…is lectured about duty and responsibility and the stakes he faces. In game terms, the preaching makes him slide a Cowardice dot to Endurance. But since Endurance is already at maximum (meaning there isn’t a lot of malignant self-interest to erode) the Cowardice dot just vanishes.

Cowardice

       

Endurance

Specialties

Specialties are for things that most people don’t even know enough to attempt. Nobody’s going to defuse an A-bomb, pilot a B-52, translate hieroglyphics or perform an appendectomy without training.

If you want your character to have some narrow expertise like that, buy it as a specialty. It’s basically a permission to attempt a roll for something that’s normally outside the pale. It doesn’t add any dice or reduce penalties or anything, but if you buy ‘Pilot’ as a specialty, you can fly planes.

There are gray zones with this. Does a character need a specialty to speak Spanish? Up to the GM, really, depending on how the game’s going and what’s already established about the character. If the character has definitively shown he does not know a language, he can’t pick it up later, unless the GM decides to let him get the specialty somehow.

Similarly, many people can pick out a passable tune on the piano, change the oil in a car, or knock together an end table if they have the tools and materials. Specialties aren’t required for that everyday level of skill. To play a concert at Carnegie, rebuild an engine from the ground up or make a living as a carpenter—for those, a character might need to specialize.

Characters can never have more than three specialties.

About Arc Dream Publishing

Arc Dream Publishing creates roleplaying games and fiction including Delta Green, Godlike, Wild Talents, Monsters and Other Childish Things, Better Angels, The Kerberos Club, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, and the award-winning magazine of Cthulhu Mythos gaming, The Unspeakable Oath.