‘Better Angels’ Tips: Player Investment

Better-Angels-cover-v4-front-612pxBy Caleb Stokes

Better Angels is a unique setting and system that can intimidate some first-time players. The easiest way to get past these reservations is to get players invested in their characters.

While that’s good advice for any RPG, character is everything in Better Angels. Every important interaction—be it a heartfelt confession or bitch-slap upside the head—has dramatic implications for at least two people at the table. Every dilemma can change their attributes—their approach to morality and ethics. The question is never just “Do I succeed?” but “How does success or failure change the way I look at the world?” That certainly creates a different dynamic than many gamers are used to. It gives every conflict personal weight. Once the group gets used to that, and once they’re accustomed to the Screwtape/Host relationship, a GM can just sit back and watch the beautiful chaos unfold.

To get acclimated faster, all players need to make sure they’re putting enough ammo in their human characters’ pasts and surroundings for the rambunctious hellspawn to play with. Here are a few tips to make sure the group has some water wings on before jumping neck deep in the world of supervillainy.

Tips for the GM

Better Angels is as challenging for the GM as it is for the players. In every game session you have TWO groups of player characters to entertain—the humans and the demons! The best thing you can do is find ways to make things easier for the players. Bring plenty of ideas about the setting and NPCs to the table and then let things evolve as the players’ demons and human hosts learn to test and provoke each other.

It Takes a Village

If this is one of the group’s first times playing Better Angels, make sure the group is entering a world that doesn’t need their help to exist—at least initially. Better Angels is flexible enough to allow innovative and collaborative settings, but asking your players to immediately join in the world-building puts a lot of narrative pressure on people still trying to figure out a unique new role-playing mechanic and a new approach to playing characters.

For those first few sessions, start them out in media res and gift the group some much-needed exposition. Does the public know about the demonic/angelic influence on the superheroic scene? Why are there so many supervillains? Do possessed humans have no better ideas with what to do with superpowers? What kind of supervillains and superheroes have come before? How do the characters know each other already, or what causes them to meet?

Establishing a pre-existing community with defined ideas about how supervillainy works doesn’t mean everyone has to fall in line, but it gives players still struggling with the idea of running two characters at once something to fall back on while they get adjusted. Once everyone gets comfortable and starts tearing up the world you built for them, their choices to conform with or rebel against the setting are that much more dramatic.

The Lesser of Two Evils

Some role-players, especially those attracted to the superhero genre, may not be comfortable jumping into the role of supervillain. Taking these do-gooders and demanding they rob a bake sale run by orphans right out of the gate can turn people off to a great game before it even starts.

Let the player characters become supervillains all on their own. The traditional RPG character is already pretty sociopathic (“I killed the dragon sleeping in this cave BECAUSE HE WAS SLEEPING ON TREASURE THAT I WANTED!”); and if Frank Miller taught us anything, it’s that your average comic-book superhero is already kind of a fascist (“My moral code is superior BECAUSE I HAVE EYE LASERS!”). Now we’ve added a demon whose full-time job is corrupting the character’s soul. The supervillain thing is going to take care of itself.

Let your players evolve naturally. Stat up a few totally unrepentant jerks and throw them at the new Hellbinders. After the dust settles, tally up the collateral damage rolls and point out holes in the player characters’ ethics. If they give up the “Truth, Justice and American Way” thing after that, it’s not like you forced their hand.

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Tips for Players—The Hosts

The supervillains proper are the human halves of each host/demon pair. These are the primary characters in the game. Usually each player occasionally takes the role of another player’s demon but spends most of his or her time playing the human supervillain.

The Root of All Evil

If you really want to help your buddies get into Better Angels, put some debt into your character’s history. Real-world people get up to plenty of shenanigans with only money as a motivator. Demonic super-powers are sure to speed that along.

If the bank is about to foreclose on your character’s house when a demon amulet falls in her lap, the rest of the game practically writes itself. Would she really feel that bad robbing from the same shady financiers that have made so many people homeless? Especially with a demon egging her on? Efforts to rationalize are just going to make the actual sin juicier. What if the supervillains she gets to help her want a bigger cut after the job? What if those charities won’t accept money covered in exploded dye pack? A big financial motivator can get a whole group involved in the story faster than anything else.

To spice things up, take turns proposing financial troubles for each other.

Pave With Good Intentions

Consider Mr. Freeze. One of Batman’s deadliest villains, he started out as a man trying to cure deadly diseases. His every crime since his accident—in spite of millions of bucks in destroyed or stolen property, hundreds dead of hypothermia, and plenty of city-wide panics—is entirely motivated by an effort to save his wife.

Give your character someone to love unconditionally. It will only be a matter of time before the GM, your demon, or some NPC uses that love to lead the whole group into an interesting and morally complex plot. Do the whole group a favor and place somebody in the character’s backstory that’s worth killing for—or at the very least knocking over a 7-11.

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Tips for Players—The Demons

When you’re playing your human, the challenge is keeping your evil in check. As the demon your whole purpose is to encourage your human partner to do evil. You have a lot of sticks and carrots with which to do it—you control aspects, you can choose whether to allow the human to create amazing new inventions, and you can offer a Master Die to guarantee success in a pinch. But what about YOU?

Pride Went Before the Fall

Some players have trouble relating to the Screwtapes’ urge to collect souls to torture for eternity. I suppose that implies good mental health, but it can make for boring demons. Demons in Better Angels need to be active.

For Screws having trouble getting active in the negotiation for power, consider instituting a professional rivalry. This is the demon’s job, after all. It might be hard to envision poking some guy with a flaming pitchfork forever, but all of us can relate to wanting to screw over the office know-it-all.

Ask your GM if she’ll allow a demon-on-demon scene at the beginning of the game—just a brief talk around Hell’s water cooler. Once the first boast flies, it’ll only be a matter of time before bets are made.

What do demons wager? Sin, of course! If you win, I’ll get my human to help your human do something evil.

Once that happens, getting your human to sin has a real, relatable purpose. Who cares about the abstract pleasure of endless suffering that won’t be roleplayed at the table? No, you’re going to damn this human’s soul to make Grizlinak the Many-Eyed eat his words. (Figuratively, of course. Grizlinak the Many-Eyed doesn’t have a mouth and speaks only through nightmares; everybody knows that.)

All the Time in the World

Some Screws start the game instantly confrontational, trying as hard as possible to destroy the lives of their humans and being really open about the whole “I want to torture you in Hell forever” thing. This usually leads to an awkward silence between Host and Screw, with nobody using their powers and everybody trying to avoid anything that looks like a plot hook. This essentially makes Better Angels a game about hiding schizophrenia. That may be just what you were looking for, but I think most people want to wear funny costumes and blow things up.

Be nice to your human! At least be nice at first, and even then only because it makes a better sales pitch. Throw out a few free aspect invocations. Respect privacy. Be a team player.

Once the mortal uses all those free powers to dig a nice deep hole, all you have to do is say you won’t help dig him out unless he does what you want for a change.

Humans understand gratitude, and demons can get more out of a debt than a threat. Worst-case scenario, you can bribe your host with his or her own survival. If I’m a demon, why should I care if some mortal escapes from the SWAT team? What’s in it for ME?

Slow-playing the sin will keep the Screw/Host dynamic from turning into a pouting match early in the game, and it’s ultimately a better tactic for dragging your human to hell.

Even drug dealers who aren’t demon-possessed know that the first time is free.

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Written by Caleb Stokes, © 2013