Better Angels is about supervillains attempting ludicrously villainous plots — and demons whispering in their ears, urging them to greater and greater evil. Players take both roles. As a player your primary character is your supervillain, but at times you also take the role of the demon for the player sitting to your right.
That partnership begins in character creation. Here’s how it works. Download a character sheet and follow along.
The following text is excerpted from Better Angels and is by Greg Stolze, © 2013. Illustrations are by Brett Barkley, © 2013.
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.)
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. Whether you keep playing as an ordinary human or start a new Hellbound character is up to you.
Strategies and Tactics
Every Hellbound character is a composite of demon and person, and when their drives are aligned they can accomplish incredible (and, usually, incredibly eeeevil) things. When their drives conflict (which is far more common), the haggling starts.
Strategies (always in bold) and Tactics (always in italics) are characteristics that determine success and failure at challenging tasks. In the Hellbound, they determine who’s in charge and how intense the conflict is. They form an economy of power where Faustian bargains can be struck.
There are six rough categories of malfeasance, each with broad practical applications for all humankind. The more wicked you are, the stronger they become. These Tactics act, as you might expect, as a volatile combination of catnip and gasoline for demonic power.
- Greed: Taking what you want from others when they don’t want to give it to you.
- Espionage: Learning or figuring out things that others don’t want you to know.
- Cruelty: Physically attacking inferiors or striking from surprise.
- Cowardice: Avoiding or overcoming physical trouble or obstacles.
- Corruption: Drawing out the worst in those around you.
- Deceit: Lying and standing by your dishonesty.
The three Sinister Strategies are fundamental weaknesses or bad tendencies that you rely on to get things done quick and dirty. (Or just dirty.) The relative nastiness of a human’s vices determines the intensity of some diabolical powers. You combine one with a Tactic to produce a dice pool, as we’ll explain in just a little bit. You might use Cunning Greed to steal a car, for instance, or Sly Cowardice to flee danger.
Here’s what the Sinister Strategies say about your approach to a problem.
- Cunning: Seeking the quickest, easiest possible solution.
- Sly: Being sneaky (or agile).
- Devious: Controlling and manipulating, seeking to warp others to your way of doing things.
Arrayed against six sins are six virtues which 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. Not for the Hellbound, anyway.
- Generosity: Using your status and resources to help others in need.
- Knowledge: Education, research and technical problem-solving.
- Courage: Facing equal or superior opponents in a fight.
- Endurance: Keeping up a task that’s exhausting or requires long-term skillful effort.
- Nurture: Drawing out the best in those around you.
- Honesty: Convincing others of the truth and standing by it.
The three Virtuous Strategies stand athwart the three Sinister Strategies. They are broad methodologies that you employ to get things done in the best way. You also combine them with Tactics to produce dice pools, which is (again) explained real soon now: Open Endurance lets you run a marathon, and Insightful Nurture sees the very best that someone has to offer.
- Patient: Disciplined and resolved.
- Open: Physically straightforward and uncomplicated.
- Insightful: Seeing and accepting things as they really are.
Mixing Them Up
In the game you frequently use a Sinister Tactic with a Virtuous Strategy or vice versa. Greed is usually Cunning, but sometimes it’s Patient; and you can be Sly with your Courage by fighting from a distance.
To build your supervillain, you buy stuff off a menu with a budget of points. Then, you get to buy other stuff off a menu for the demon of the player on your right. The player on your left gets to do exactly the same for your demon. Not only does she get to define the impish beast who’s making your life miserable, she gets to play it too. This is fun.
No matter what you’re buying, Tactics or Strategies, you use the same price list.
- Tactic: 1 point
- Specialty: 2 points
- Strategy: 2 points
Now you just go through an easy, four-step process in which you define both the characters you control: Your human and someone else’s demon.
Step One: Spend Points On Your Human
First things first: Every character starts with one point in Open. You need that to live. You don’t get free points in other, less purely essential traits.
Next, you spend twenty points on qualities from the menu. Pay, write down Specialties, fill in dots. Easy. I’d just emphasize, very firmly, that you want to put a lot of this in the virtuous traits, especially each Virtuous Strategy, unless you want to start the game berserk or depressed. Or unless you want to start out under a diabolical thumb, and diabolical thumbs have big pointy talons.
The maximum for a Tactic or Strategy is 5, but you cannot start with any Strategy higher than 4. Also, the values for opposing Strategies (Cunning and Patient, Sly and Open, or Devious and Insightful) cannot overlap—you can’t have more than seven points between each pair. If your Cunning is 4, for instance, you can’t have more than 3 in Patient.
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 beyond 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, you need to specialize.
A character can never have more than three Specialties.
Step Two: Pick a Primary Strategy, a Power, and an Aspect for Your Demon
Pick one of the three Sinister Strategies as your demon’s primary drive. Put a little asterisk next to that trait. If that Primary Strategy ever reaches 5, the demon can attempt to drag you bodily to Hell, which you won’t enjoy. More on that in Chapter Eight.
The next part is far more pleasant. Pick one of the powers your demon can give you. There’s a whole big list of them, subdivided by Tactic, starting on page 71. Keep in mind that for that power to work well, it needs to have plenty of sin backing it up. Pick a cool power, but be aware that your demon is, in all likelihood, going to try to bully and cozen you into inflating the trait that drives it.
Finally, pick one of the Aspects listed on page 82. Aspects are temporary physical mutations your demon can invoke—sometimes when you don’t want them to. They are not, as a general rule, subtle. Aspects are linked to particular Sinister Strategies. If the relevant Strategy gets too thin, you won’t be able to use the Aspect, which may be a small price to pay.
Powers and their Traits
- Alchemy: Cunning Greed
- Animal Form: Cunning Espionage
- Armor: Open Cowardice
- Arrogance: Cowardice
- Banish: Sly Cowardice
- Body Control: Devious Deceit
- Clairvoyance: Patient Espionage
- Dead Ringer: Insightful Deceit
- Dominator Strike: Sly Cruelty
- Impossible Beauty: Devious Corruption
- Ineffable Defense: Espionage
- Psychic Objects: Cunning Greed
- Summon: Cunning Greed
- Telekinesis: Insightful Deceit
- Teleport Self: Insightful Corruption
- Terror: Devious Cruelty
- That Hideous Strength: Cruelty
- Wither: Devious Corruption
Aspects and Their Traits
- Carapace: Sly
- Cloven Hooves: Cunning
- Darkness-Shrouded: Devious
- Flame-Wreathed: Devious
- Ghost Form: Cunning
- Giant: Sly
- Horned: Sly
- Invisible: Devious
- Wings: Cunning
Step Three: Spend Points On Someone Else’s Human
You get another 20 points, and you can spend them on the sinister traits (or, if you’re too nice for your own good, on the virtuous stuff) of the character to your right. It’s just like buying stuff for your own character, but instead you get to decide what kind of character you want to see your buddy playing.
While you’re doing this, the person on your left is buying up stuff on your character. It’s up to you (not your neighbor) to explain how the character came to have these traits.
You can’t buy Specialties for someone else’s character. You can’t raise any of his or her Strategies to 5 either, any more than you could with your own character.
Step Four: Pick a Power and an Aspect For Someone Else’s Demon
Just as you spent 20 points on the character to your right, you now get to pick out a power and an Aspect for that character’s demon—that is, the demon you’re playing. The smart move is to pick powers that play off traits you’ve accented in the previous step, and Aspects that work off amplified Strategies.
An Example: Katie, Frank, & Tobey
The three players for a new Better Angels game are (from left to right, because it matters) Katie, Frank and Tobey. They’re sitting there, blank character sheets in hand, pencils sharpened and ready for step one.
Katie wants to play a footloose blues musician named Wanda. She fills in her free point of Open and decides to get another (2 points). Then she puts two points in Patient and three in Insightful (10 points total). She’s spent 12 points already, and buys a Specialty in “Blues Musician” for another 2. With her six remaining points, she puts one each in every Virtuous Tactic.
Frank shakes his head at Katie’s low Tactics. He’s playing a highly strung neurosurgeon named Felix Barbarossa. He leaves Insightful empty for the moment and puts three dots on Patient (6 points). Then he puts two each in Generosity and Knowledge (4 points) before buying a Specialty in “Brain Surgeon” (2 points). With his remaining eight points, he buys a point of Insightful (2 points), and two points apiece in Courage, Nurture and Honesty (6 points).
Tobey hasn’t read the book carefully but manages to struggle through. He puts a point each in Patient, Insightful, Cunning, Sly and Devious. (That’s right, he’s buying stuff on the left side!) That costs him 10 points off the bat. For the remainder, he puts five in Courage (5 points) and five in Nurture (5 points). He throws the name “Luther Christian” on his brave, pure soul and gets ready for the next step.
Katie figures that Wanda bargained with a demon for unbelievable musical skills, and picks the Impossible Beauty power as a good match. After all, while it’s usually physical beauty, it could just as easily be melodic. She isn’t crazy about the idea of changing into a monstrous freak, so she picks Invisible as her Aspect, and tags Devious as her demon’s Primary Strategy.
Frank thinks the Espionage power Ineffable Defense sounds pretty useful and picks that for his demon. This leaves him marking Cunning as his demon’s Primary Strategy, which sounds like a good match for a smart guy like Dr. Barbarossa. He opts for Wings as his Aspect because, hey, you gotta fly, right?
As for Tobey, he’s all about Telekinesis, not for any thematic reason, but because he thinks it sounds really versatile. He wants Sly for his demon, and goes for the Giant Aspect. It sounds plenty villainous to him.
Now comes the good part. Or, if the players were already enjoying their character shopping, here comes the cruelly good part. Everyone hands their character sheet to the left.
Katie looks at Dr. Barbarossa and plops five points into Cowardice (5 points), just because it’s across from his empty Endurance. She then puts four points in Devious (8 points) because she doesn’t want to let him get too Insightful. Three points in Cunning (6 points), since it’s Primary and it lets her wall off his Patient stat too. With one point left, she puts it into Deceit because hey, why not? She decides his demon is named “Kazoth the Guttering Flame.”
As for Frank, he spreads his points on Luther broadly, adding two points to each Sinister Strategy (12 points), and then adding four points each in Greed and Cowardice (8 points). Frank has plans. When Tobey asks him what the demon’s name is, Frank has no ideas, so Tobey suggests “Murekabaäl.” Frank shrugs and says that’s fine.
Tobey, in the same way that he bought Sinister Tactics for Luther Christian, buys a few Virtuous Tactics for Wanda. Specifically, he adds two points each to Endurance, Nurture and Honesty (6 points). Three points in Deceit seems useful (3 points) and he decides to crank Devious because it’s useful, it’s Primary, and because he wants to use the Flame-Wreathed Aspect. He can’t take it to five, but he goes to four (8 points). He dumps his last three points in Espionage (3 points). He names the demon “Terbat the Splendid.”
Considering how physically weak Dr. Barbarossa looks, Katie decides his demon needs Ghost Form as its second Aspect. (She also privately figures that if he has two Cunning Aspects, he might hesitate to risk that Strategy… which is Primary…) She also wants a power based on his Open Cowardice, so she’s torn between Arrogance and Banish. She decides on Banish for its attack potential.
Frank, in the meantime, takes Summon as Tobey’s second power and Darkness-Shrouded as his second Aspect. He figures he’s just made him the world’s greatest thief.
As for Wanda’s character, Tobey says she gets the Flame-Wreathed Aspect he was eyeing, and takes Telekinesis for her for all the same reasons he took it for himself. He also figures it’s one less set of rules to remember.
Here’s what Luther looks like when Tobey and Frank are done.
- Villain: To be determined
- Mortal: Luther Christian
- Demon: Murkebaäl (played by Frank)
- Player: Tobey
Cunning 3, Patient 1
Greed 4, Generosity 0
Espionage 0, Knowledge 0
Sly 3*, Open 1
Cruelty 0, Courage 5
Cowardice 4, Endurance 0
Devious 3, Insightful 1
Corruption 0, Nurture 5
Deceit 0, Honesty 0
Here’s what Wanda looks like when Katie and Tobey are done.
- Villain: To be determined
- Mortal: Wanda
- Demon: Terbat the Splendid (played by Tobey)
- Player: Katie
Cunning 0, Patient 2
Greed 0, Generosity 1
Espionage 3, Knowledge 1
Sly 0, Open 2
Cruelty 0, Courage 1
Cowardice 0, Endurance 3
Devious 4*, Insightful 3
Corruption 0, Nurture 3
Deceit 3, Honesty 3
- Impossible Beauty
Dr. Felix Barbarossa
Here’s what Felix looks like when Frank and Katie are done.
- Villain: To be determined
- Mortal: Dr. Felix Barbarossa
- Demon: Kazoth the Guttering Flame (played by Katie)
- Player: Frank
Cunning 3*, Patient 3
Greed 0, Generosity 2
Espionage 0, Knowledge 2
Sly 0, Open 1
Cruelty 0, Courage 2
Cowardice 5, Endurance 0
Devious 4, Insightful 1
Corruption 0, Nurture 2
Deceit 1, Honesty 2
- Ineffable Defense
- Ghost Form