Instant Adventures for ‘Better Angels’

Written by Greg Stolze and Shane Ivey, © 2013

In the typical comic book, the hero is spurred into action by the villain’s plan: Doc Ock tries to marry Aunt May and it’s up to either Peter Parker or the Spectacular Spider-Man to foil it.  Or Bane occupies Gotham.  Or Zod shows up to have a chat with Superman.  You could almost think these heroes would have pleasant, comfortable lives if it wasn’t for all this stuff happening all the time.

Better-Angels-cover-v4-front-612pxPlaying Better Angels, it’s on the characters to be that stuff. They’re the supervillains scheming the crazy schemes.

This may challenge players if they’re used to more pre-planned scenarios where they’re led by a trail of clues to a grand resolution.  You can write those sorts of adventures for Better Angels, but here’s what’s more likely to happen: You set the stage, introduce a McGuffin or an NPC superhero or rival supervillain pulling some stunt, and ask how the player characters want to react — and pretty soon the players-as-Screwtapes step in and start pushing their hosts to all kinds of shenanigans that you didn’t predict.

Suddenly it’s the players making up the crazy plots and you, the GM, figuring out how the NPCs might try to thwart them.

The key is to actively encourage the players, up front, to start stuff too. And if they don’t have any ideas, all they need to do is consult their Screwtapes.

All that said, let’s break down a process for jumpstarting a Better Angels adventure in a few convenient steps.

We want to make it clear, none of this is official or mandatory or even all that necessary. Trust us, between playing beleaguered villains and beleaguering Screwtapes, your players will bring the crazy. But if you want some ingredients to get them going, start here.

Step 1: Create Characters and Screwtapes

This applies if it’s a brand-new game or a pickup game. That’s right, even for a pickup game at a convention or game store we recommend creating characters from scratch. It doesn’t take long, and defining the abilities and priorities of the demons gets the players thinking in the right direction immediately.

This is all covered in the rulebook in Chapter Two. Review it online here.

Step Two: Personal Goals

Ask the players to make up one Personal Goal for each human player character.

The key is to make it crucial for the character. Start by defining one thing that the character genuinely loves. Come up with something that’s a critically important part of the PC’s life—friend, lover, family, career, faith, reputation, whatever. Establish explicitly why it matters to the human. Jot down both things—what’s so important, and why?

Now establish a goal for that beloved thing. Make up something that the character must accomplish to obtain it, regain it, advance it, or protect it? Establish explicitly how that beloved thing will suffer if the goal is not fulfilled.

A character’s beloved thing and personal goal don’t have to relate to those of another character, but it’s fun if they do.

Let’s return to Wanda, Luther and Felix, the sample characters.

Felix’s beloved thing is his hot-shot reputation in the operating room.  He likes being able to lord it over people (“It’s not exactly brain surgery…”) and he likes the idea that as long as he saves lives from terrifying tumors, any bad things he does are eminently forgivable in comparison. To improve his reputation, Felix wants to prove that there’s a real difference between neurocysticercosis caused by taenia solium and the same symptoms caused by a parasite he’s named taenia barbarossi. Proving that there’s a difference in the causes and that treatments function differently will make him a rockstar neurosurgeon.  If he’s demonstrably wrong, of course, that’s his ticket to being a laughingstock.

Speaking of rock stars, Wanda’s beloved thing is her music.  It’s the one thing that’s never let her down, that no one can take away, that’s uniquely hers.  Wanda wants to get a contract to get her music out on a professional label.  If she doesn’t make it soon, she’s going to lose hope and stop playing within a year, two years tops.

As for Luther, his player spontaneously strings out this horrific backstory about the older sister who saved him from a disastrous family life, only to vanish in South America once Luther was safely living on his own.  Her name’s Lucinda. Luther obviously wants to get down to Peru and find her.  If he doesn’t do it soon, the trail is just going to get colder and colder.

Step Three: Devilish Goals

Now each Screwtape should come up with one Personal Goal for each demon. If you’re stuck for a goal, think up a grandiose way to force your host’s Primary Sinister Strategy to increase. See Chapter Six of the rulebook.

There are two guidelines.

  • First, make sure the demon’s goal has something to do with the “beloved thing” of its human host.
  • Second, make sure the demon’s goal is totally unrelated to that Screwtape player’s own human character’s Personal Goal. (Cheating is for demons, not players!)

Dr. Barbarossa’s demon thinks it would be swell if people got it in their heads that there was a terrible danger from brain parasites.  The ideal would be something emotionally harrowing and concretely damaging to public health, like the “vaccinations cause the autisms!” scare.

Wanda’s demon’s idea is to have Wanda’s music sell out and become hugely popular, so that it has broader influence over humankind.

Luther’s demon wants to be Luther’s only hope for getting down to Peru and finding Lucinda, so it’s going to attempt to sabotage any other chance he has in hopes that he’ll rob a bank to buy plane tickets, and maybe build an infernal device to track her.

Step Four: Pick NPCs

The GM ought to come up with one or more angel-haunted or demon-haunted NPCs to feature. On average it ought to be about one for every two players and no more than one per player. Remember, in a conflict an angel can usually overwhelm a demon unless the demons gang up.

In our example, the GM decides to go with the Shining Diamond, the Pavior, and Chae Jin Sook. That makes an interesting mix of true-blue angelic superhero, superhero with a demon rider, and straight-up demonic villain.

Step Five: NPC Goals

Here’s where the GM gets to flex his or her creative muscles. You need to give each featured NPC two Personal Goals. There are three guidelines.

  • First, each NPC goal ought to directly and explicitly oppose the Personal Goal of a player character or Screwtape.
  • Second, each of an NPC’s goals ought to relate to a separate player character.
  • Third, each player character ought to have at least one Personal Goal threatened by at least one NPC Personal Goal.

It may be useful to draw a Relationship Diagram as you go. Start with each Hellbound host. Add the Screwtapes next to their hosts. Fill in slots for their Personal Goals. Then add each NPC and his or her goals, and draw lines connecting them to the Personal Goals of the player characters that they oppose. You can also use space on the diagram to jot down physical locations or other characters or factions that came up in all this discussion. If you want, keep it secret from the players once you start filling in stuff for the NPCs.

When you finish this piece of alchemy, you’ll have a network of conflicting agendas and compulsions just waiting to explode.

Better Angels Instant Adventure Sample 1It’s a bit of stretch, but the GM decides that Luther’s sister has been roped in to Chae Jin Sook’s cult in a compound down in Peru.  When he finds her, she may not want to leave… or she may want to leave and not be permitted.  Right now, Chae Jin Sook herself, based in Hawaii, isn’t aware of Lucinda, but once she learns that her demon-hosting bro is on the case, she immediately pulls Lucinda close to use as leverage.

Looking around the table, the GM also decides that Chae Jin Sook, who is known for using pop music to proselytize new cultists, wants to use Wanda’s music to further her own evil ends. Maybe if Wanda cooperates, Chae Jin Sook could help Wanda’s friend Luther speak to his sister….

The GM figures the Shining Diamond would make it a personal mission to foil Wanda’s musical ambitions because, duh, satanic rock music would lure kids to their doom!

And the Shining Diamond wants to prevent public panic. Even if she doesn’t know Dr. Barbarossa is secretly a demon-haunted supervillain, she has been watching his research into deadly brain parasites closely and is ready to interfere if it gets turned to evil results.

Next the GM decides that the Pavior has designs on a place called Snowy Egret Marsh, which is the local source for taenia barbarossi. Should he succeed in getting it condemned as a health menace and paved good and proper, Felix won’t have access to wild specimens of the flatworm and won’t be able to work on his cure.  (Though, to be sure, it does make a widespread outbreak of neurocysticercosis less likely.)

What’s left? The GM wants to give the Pavior one more goal. Luther’s been targeted by only one NPC so it ought to deal with his or his Screwtape’s goal. How to tie them together? Maybe the Pavior knows the location of Luther’s sister and wants to keep it to himself. The GM comes up with a backstory saying the Pavior and Chae Jin Sook had a run-in a few months ago when her cult attempted to set up a beautiful woodland retreat. The Pavior demolished it and kept a computer full of reports on its members and other cult locations. Lucinda had just joined the cult and was helping to set up the retreat, and she vanished after the Pavior paved the day. The Pavior might be persuaded to help Luther—as long as Luther doesn’t come across as some kind of supervillain.

You’re Ready

With all these ingredients in place, you’re more than ready for action.

Ask a player to do something to pursue a goal as human or as Screwtape. That ought to threaten an NPC’s goal, so it’s time for the NPC to pounce heroically (or villainously, depending). If the players hesitate, have one of the NPCs act in pursuit of his or her heroic (or villainous) goals.

Kick things off and watch the rules for Screwtaping and collateral damage do the rest.