‘Better Angels’ — Statting Up the Opposition

Better-Angels-cover-v4-front-612pxWritten by Greg Stolze, © 2013

Most roleplaying games have tangible stats for their characters, and they change only gradually, if at all. That makes it pretty easy to balance the powers of the antagonists against the powers of the player characters. If you know how likely a sueprhero is to hit with his best attack and how much damage he does on average, and how hard a hit he can take in return, you can finesse an opponent to keep the fight from being over too quickly.

In comparison, Better Angels can seem to have only heavily greased vagueness.  It’s not about how hard characters’ energy blasts hit. It’s more about the power or weakness of their convictions.

That means characters’ key stats—their Strategies and Tactics—squirm all over the page. Preparing adequate opposition seems like shooting through fog, at a moving target, in gusting winds, with a frisbee.  What to do?

For starters, don’t worry too much about matching up directly with Strategies and Tactics. Instead, focus on player characters’ powers.

Here’s a list of ways to cope with or counter each of them.

Alchemy: Alchemy’s moneymaking powers can best be opposed by legal entanglement (“…and do you have a receipt for all this gold bullion?”) or an equally rich opponent. When Alchemy is used as an attack, the best defense is probably someone with Impossible Beauty who can talk down the alchemist’s Greed score.  The angelic version would be to corner them and then use Circle of Abjuration to wear down their Greed.

Animal Form: Animal Form is hard to counter, though if the character is using it to escape disguised as a mouse every time things get hot, remember that other Hellbinders can recognize fellow demons no matter their form.

Armor: Armor is nice, but it doesn’t do jack against Wither.

Illustration by Kurt Komoda, (c) 2013

Illustration by Kurt Komoda, (c) 2013

Arrogance: Called shots circumvent the protection of Arrogance.

Banish: Ineffable Defense puts pretty deep cuts into the Surprise advantage of Banish, though it doesn’t help as much if the PC is using Banish to drop Molotov cocktails on people. Angels resist this best using Meek Endurance.

Body Control: This one’s difficult to stymie, but remember that it needs eye contact. Failing that, really high Nurture can let people stall a few commands. Similarly, angels with Word of Blessing can stall and then shore up their Nurture or someone else’s.

Clairvoyance: Get secret room or hideout, or build a Clairvoyance-blocking machine. Or just don’t do anything you’d be ashamed for some pervy psychic voyeur to watch.

Dead Ringer: Called shots when trying to penetrate disguise or notice anomalies can be justified once a few impostures have taken place.

Dominator Strike: Armor is a good countermeasure against Dominator Strike, as are good dodge abilities. Righteous Arm is particularly strong against Dominator Strike, too.

Impossible Beauty: The best counter to Impossible Beauty is the Wings aspect.  Fly away before the persuasion starts! Angels fare better against it, with both their Foresight and Unstained powers providing defense.

Ineffable Defense: Ineffable Defense spoils Corruption maneuvers pretty adroitly, but a sufficiently high Corruption score can still make its mark. Especially if the corrupter has a Master Die from a compliant spiritual companion.

Psychic Objects: Treat the Psychic Objects power like Alchemy and block it with Impossible Beauty or Circle of Abjuration to leach Greed.

Summon: Armor and Ineffable Defense can both make Summon less threatening. So can the Greed decreases that work on Psychic Objects and Alchemy.

Telekinesis: Armor and Ineffable Defense work a treat against Telekinesis.

Teleport Self: Ineffable Defense provides security, and anything that can suck out the teleporter’s Corruption makes teleportation much chancier.

Terror: The higher your Cruelty, the less Terror is going to trouble you—as long as you have enough guns. (Did… did I just sound like Donald Rumsfeld?)

That Hideous Strength: Armor helps a lot against superhuman strength, obviously.

Wither: Since Wither is Corruption-based, anything that targets Corruption makes it less deadly.  Also, remember that it’s touch-based, so any mobility power or gadget can pull its fangs.

How to Be Cool

Better Angels benefits greatly from ongoing opposition and recurring enemies. As GM, you want enemies who can survive to antagonize the PCs another day. You want opponents who are resilient enough that the PCs must finesse against them with a variety of methods, and who can challenge the PCs from several directions—in other words, foes who don’t fold after one blast of Dominator Strike.

However! Do not take these tips as license to constantly thwart and frustrate your players. Remember on page 67 where we told players not to be dicks to each other? That goes for the GM, too.

After all, sometimes you’re going to want to let your Hellbinders’ powers work perfectly to establish their badass credentials. And sometimes it’s fun to watch them work a little too well, as when they want to stun a foe and wind up disintegrating him instead.

It’s important to keep the player characters’ foes alive so they can become bitter enemies and archrivals. But watch for moments where it’s more fun, surprising and interesting to let them die in the fire of the PCs’ supervillainous rage.

One Last Thing About Balance

Take a step back and accept that this rules system swings.  A lot.  Whether you want it to or not. It’s built to do that.

In Better Angels, there’s only so far that “game balance” will get you. Characters can go into situations and wind up creaming it, getting clobbered, or stalemating no matter what the odds looked like.

Sure, they’re more likely to get smeared if they went in with deficient pools. But a sympathetic Screwtape can plaster them with Master Dice and let them squeak through, or they might just roll really well. Similarly, they can come in with everything in their favor and shoot themselves in the foot. It helps to regard this as a feature, not a bug.

After all, if there’s nothing at stake, there’s no point in busting out the dice, right?