Monday, December 26, 2011

Song of the week

EDIT: Oh, I forgot to mention I hope everyone had a Happy Christmas. :)

I was going through my old cassettes (Why I still have cassettes, I don't know.  There are a great many things I should just throw out) and man did I buy a lot of stuff back when I had a disposable income.  If I heard a single song I liked I would run out and buy the tape.  In the case of The Nylons there were two tunes.  One was Happy Together (I think all of The Nylons' songs were covers), the other was this awesome cover of Kiss Him Goodbye:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Song of the week

I am a huge Billy Joel fan and my first Joel album was Glass Houses.  Glass Houses was his most rock oriented album and to me arguably his best (The Stranger is in contention for that.  It is a matter of taste.).  My favorite song on Glass Houses was the one that did not get any airplay, Sometimes a Fantasy:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Study In Evil, Part 3

I had originally meant to post this next week, but tomorrow SF Debris is going to post DS9’s Waltz, a pivotal episode regarding the character in this post and I just wanted to express my feelings before SF Debris did.  I guess I did not want anyone to think my thoughts were in any way, shape or form influenced by his.  Perhaps it is not at all important as I am not at all sure if any of my readers watch SF Debris’ reviews (and if you aren’t, do so.  The man has some very good insights and is very funny) but I feel better for expressing my feelings now rather than later.

When running a long term campaign it might be common for the GM to use a recurring villain, an NPC that will often poke up in adventures.  Sometimes he will be a straight up bad guy, other times a reluctant ally, still other times perhaps even as comic relief or a source of information.  The recurring villain when handled properly can be a fascinating, complex character.  For example Darth Vader could be considered a recurring villain on a small scale, as he made only three appearances (And before you even think about correcting me I refuse to acknowledge the second trilogy in these posts.) and his nature evolved over time from lackey to major player to Oh my God he’s Luke’s father?!.

Alas, the character we will be looking at today was fascinating and complex…until his creators decided to make him crazy and completely ruined him.  I am speaking of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine’s Dukat.

Gul Dukat was the commander of the Terok Nor mining facility (later the station was re-named Deep Space Nine when the Federation took control at the behest of the Bajoran government) and prefect of Bajor during the Cardassian.occupation.  Bajor was a non Federation world conquered by the Cardassians and stripped of its resources, it's people harshly oppressed until they eventually won their freedom through diplomatic means.  Dukat remained a thorn in the side of Commander Benjamin Sisko and Major Kira Neeris, acting as an enemy and other times due to circumstances a reluctant ally.  Over the years Dukat’s character evolved from straight up villain (and not a very effective one at that) to a sympathetic ally during the Federation’s conflict with the Klingons, to a legitimate bad ass when he threw in with The Dominion and became their Cardassian figurehead and one of their military leaders.  However, Dukat’s daughter was slain by his chief lieutenant when it was revealed she had treasonously aided the Federation/Klingon forces in preventing Dominion forces from coming through the Bajoran wormhole.  Dukat went crazy, started seeing people who weren’t there, then became a tool of The Prophets’ evil counterparts, the Pah Wraiths.  Dukat formed a cult, found some people stupid enough to follow him, betrayed them, and ultimately fought Ben Sisko in a ridiculously over the top final battle that was supposed to appear biblical in proportion but in reality just brought the overall quality of the DS9 series finale down.  All of that is a terribly condensed explanation of the events taking place over seven seasons of DS9.

So, what went wrong with Dukat?  Let me first address some realities regarding how television works.  Deep Space Nine was never guaranteed seven seasons; at the end of the day the producers have to worry about ratings just like any other television program.  And so when it appears ratings might be suffering a television series will undergo retooling.  A good modern example of this is the television series Hawaii 5-0, which this season introduced a new character, Joe White, played by Terry O'Quinn who used to play Locke on Lost.  It was obvious his inclusion in the series was an attempt to secure the Lost crowd as well as fans of JAG, where he used to have a recurring role.  I would also think he is there to rope in an older demographic.  Likewise with DS9 the series underwent changes during season 4 when Michael Dorn reprised his role as Worf and joined the cast full time and the show underwent a more militant tone with the Klingon conflict (and later on the Dominion War).  So Dukat’s changes in personality could have (and to some extent likely were) been due to writers and producers deciding they needed to do something different with him.  I have also heard the producers began to realize people actually began to like Dukat and realized they had done a terrible job portraying him, making him too relatable, likable.  Well, after some of their creative decisions I cannot see how people could not have taken the character any other way than to assume they were supposed to like and respect him!

But damn, nothing really excuses the ham fisted turn towards super villainy we saw in the season six episode Waltz!

Still, Dukat was a damaged character from the start and let us go back to DS9’s beginning so I can explain.  Dukat was supposed to be a terrible person for his actions as prefect of Bajor (In DS9's first episode, Emissary, Dukat is called "one of the most hated people in Bajoran history") but his reputation was softened by the facts that he had ceased child labor, reduced labor camp output by fifty percent, improved medical care.  He is a bad person, but compared to his predecessor he is an angel. So right off the bat we see writers and producers are faced with a problem; Dukat has to be a bad person, but if they seek to re-use him he has to have a streak of morality, a decent man working within a corrupt system doing what he can to mitigate the horror.  We saw Dukat used in different episodes where he was taken as a hostage by the Maquis and later on aiding Sisko in recovering a stolen Defiant.  Dukat came across as a victim in one instance, a willing ally in the other.  On top of all this every time Dukat appeared on Deep Space Nine he did so either minimally or entirely unguarded.  How could one of the most hated people on Bajor do this?  Imagine Hitler taking a stroll through Jerusalem without getting a bullet in the back of the head or being stoned.  There was an episode called Duet where a man posing as a hated labor camp commandant was knifed in the back on the station.  If that guy could not walk DS9 in safety how could Dukat, his superior responsible for so many more horrors, repeatedly do so?  It was sloppy writing.  Dukat should have never, ever have appeared on DS9 (the station) if the character was so loathed.  Yet his ability to walk around in relative safety strongly implied he was not nearly as despised as was implied in Emissary.

So Dukat was portrayed as being bad, but hey, perhaps he was just a figurehead or patsy, or perhaps everything he did was under direct orders from above and he could not do more for Bajor than he already had.  It is easy to assume in Dukat's favor when you see episodes like Defiant where Dukat works with Sisko to recover the stolen ship and you discover there may be Cardassians far worse and insidious than Dukat.  Dukat's move to the light side is even further revealed when he throws away his reputation, family standing and career when instead of killing his illegitimate daughter Tora Ziyal he publicly acknowledges her even though he knew exactly what was going to happen (And this is one of those cases of a lack of pre-planning.  The character Ziyal was portrayed by three different actors.  The first, the youngest, was replaced when producers decided they wanted her to have a relationship with spy-in-exile Garak.  They felt the first actor's age was too low.  Had they intended the relationship to take place from the start then the role would have been given to an older actor from day one.).  Does this seem the action of an evil man, or a selfless one?  One you can openly admire for placing principle before self interest.

Now comes the part where maybe the producers realized their error.  Dukat's selfless act occurred during season four when he was fighting the Klingons (and here Dukat is portrayed as the plucky underdog fighting against long odds.).  By season five the Klingons are no longer the bad guys and the principle villains are now once again the Dominion.  Dukat throws out common sense  in exchange for a power grab as he agrees to be a Dominion stooge provided he gets to lead the Cardassian Union in the Dominion's name.  Okay, sure, he could still be bitter about losing his status over Ziyal, but the man knew how the system worked.  Replacing the unfair Cardassian system with the utterly oppressive Dominion system (You know, run by the Founders, who aren't afraid to genetically engineer "solids" to better fit in with their plans.  And who aren't above sending ships on suicide runs, or obliterating entire species.  These are the guys Dukat is throwing in with) flies utterly in the face of a guy who through his attempts to mitigate the horror of the Bajoran occupation and public acceptance of his half Bajoran daughter shows a strong streak of moral character, a man who tries to balance duty with decency.  Is he still a bad man for his horrific actions?  Of course.  Can you still admire him for trying to do the right thing?  Sure.
Only now Dukat is full on Evil.  Screw four seasons of character development, we need him to be a very, very bad man because the producers say he is a complete moron for now placing naked ambition before everything else.  Where was this naked ambition in the first four seasons?  Where is his common sense?  The Dominion are ten times worse than the Klingons and Romulans and they can only get to the Alpha Quadrant through a tiny bottleneck known as Deep Space Nine.  The smart play would be to forge an alliance between all Alpha Quandrant species and defend that bottleneck.  But nope, Dukat is now officially a moron for collaborating with an alien race willing to detonate suns

So Dukat is now a Dominion figurehead, a lackey.  He has sold out his very people for power.  The only bright spot is his love of Ziyal but she is killed by his lieutenant when it is discovered she aided the rebels in disabling the station (As a side note here, Dukat said to Ziyal that traitors should be executed, which sort of sealed her fate.  Yet he betrayed his entire species.  So add hypocrisy to the "new, improved" Dukat.).  Dukat now goes crazy...and this makes no sense whatsoever.  Dukat was portrayed as brave, selfless, loyal...and now we see he a tyrannical self serving bastard who is also mentally unbalanced.

Dukat decides to worship the Pah-wraiths, the wormhole aliens' evil counterparts.  So Dukat trades in The Dominion, an oppressive, utterly merciless entity, for a group of aliens who do not even understand linear time!  All of this is so Dukat can achieve Power.  Never mind any of this being for the good of the Cardassian people, it is now all about Dukat!  There is nothing selfless, brave or noble about Dukat any more; he is now a two dimensional villain who if he had a handlebar mustache would be twirling it at every available opportunity.  Dukat murders Jadzia Dax, because the producers know there might be one or two Dukat fans out there left and they need to really drive home the point that Dukat is superbadevil. He becomes part of a cult of Pah-wraith worshippers and they make him their leader...Because really there is no one more qualified to lead your insane cult than the guy who ruled your planet and was responsible for numerous atrocities and who up until recently was the stooge for a race of beings determined to do pretty much the same thing to your entire sector of space.

Dukat now poses as a Bajoran to get ahold of a mystic tome that will allow him to bring the Pah-wraiths over...or something.  He and Ben Sisko wind up in a fight in a place called the Fire Caves and while Ben is saved by the wormhole aliens Dukat is imprisoned for all time with his Pah-wraith masters.  Thus the DS9 finale goes from a ten to a seven due to a ham-fisted resolution to the Dukat saga.

So, what we see here in Dukat is a character who is portrayed in the first episode as the principle antagonist.  Problem was, the first three seasons of Deep Space Nine were very boring and Dukat as an antagonist was simply not that engaging.  He just never seemed to be that effective at being a bad guy.  Then beginning with season four Dukat was now portrayed as being someone you could admire.  The Klingons were the bad guys, the Cardassians were now the good guys, and Dukat was by his acknowledgment of Ziyal a decent person.  Hey, this is great!  We have some wonderful character development here. the producers realized their mass murdering despot was too likable and they had to overcompensate.  And boy did they ever, topping themselves season by season until he became a sci-fi antichrist.

So how can you as a GM avoid the mistakes the writers and producers made where Dukat was concerned?  I think the problem stems from Ziyal.  Introducing the character and making Dukat accept her rather than kill her ruined his character, if the intention was to keep Dukat a bad guy all along.  If Dukat had slain Ziyal in Indiscretion then his status as a bad guy would have been secured and his throwing in with The Dominion would have made much more sense.  As a GM if you must be consistent with how you portray your NPCs.  That does not mean you cannot have character growth and gradually turn an NPC from a bad guy to someone with more shades of gray, but you should not abandon that character development for the sake of expediency as the DS9 writers seemed to do.  Dukat experienced legitimate character growth in one direction, and it was completely abandoned at the price of poor writing because the producers needed a Dominion figurehead and they felt they had made him too nice.  I think that rather than Dukat being driven by a thirst for power that instead the Dominion took his family on Cardassia hostage and used them as leverage against him, so he was forced into playing the role of villain.  Then we could have had the best of both worlds.  Then his mental breakdown would have been much more believable when he realized the loss of DS9 meant his family back home would be slaughtered.  So you could have had Dukat murder his daughter and throw in with the Dominion in one path, or save his daughter and attempt self redemption only to have the attempt thwarted by circumstances beyond his control.

But the whole Pah-wraith thing?  No, I can't see any justification for that, unless he was going to use the Pah-wraiths to get revenge on the Dominion for what they did to his family.  That I could have bought.  If only the producers had planned Dukat's character arc out a bit better then perhaps we could have seen him come to a better end than the ridiculous one we were subjected to in the finale.

In my Vindicators game I have a character called Annette, an immortal who is the matriarch of a clan of sorcerers. She was responsible for creating the team by manipulating events from behind the scenes, but her reasons were because she felt creating the team would help prevent several dooms her precognitive powers showed her.  Before creating the group she had been a super villain and attempted to resolve her problems by manipulating other magic users but when this did not work she abandoned this identity.  And later she created a covert team of heroes to fight the extra dimensional invaders and their lackeys, who had slain hundreds of her kin.  In every instance Annette has been portrayed not as a hero, but as someone who acts in her own self interest and the interest of her clan.

So if I were to turn her into a full blown super villain, or at the very least have her do something utterly morally reprehensible, I have done nothing that would contradict that because I have striven to remain consistent where Annette's interests, motives and loyalties lay.  Annette places family above all, and to hell with everyone else.  No law, no person, no thing comes before her family.  I have remained true to the core concepts of the character and any character development would not be undone by any horrific actions she may be responsible for, provided those actions were undertaken to protect her family.

There is another character, Doctor Hades. Hades started off as your two dimensional mad scientist who specialized in building robots.  Hades died quite by accident when a super hero did not believe his laptop was booby trapped.  Hades could have ended there but I instead decided to bring Hades back as an artificial intelligence who now saw himself as an ally to the very hero who had slain his human predecessor's body because they were both inhuman beings and had more in common with one another now.  I took advantage of the situation, making a simple character into a complex one, giving him new motivations because Hades the machine's needs and desires were completely different from Hades the man.  It was dramatic character development inspired by an in-game event, one the players could easily believe (And in a dark potential future that hero, Photon, was one of Earth's rulers and had turned evil, and Hades was one of his loyal lackeys.  Through the game I had Hades attempting to turn Photon towards the dark side, weakening his resolve by pointing out how much more he had in common with Hades than the fleshbags he sought to defend.)

This is the lesson you should take here from Dukat's mishandling and my own attempts to be true to my NPCs.  Have some clear cut ideas what you want to do with your prominent NPCs and show some consistency in how they are portrayed, but do not be afraid to change the NPCs provided such changes make sense.  If an NPC changes through reasonable and believable character growth then honor that growth; do not undo it out of expediency. Treat your players with more respect than the producers of DS9 did their fans.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Song of the week

I think Genesis is one of those bands that operated on a curve, quality wise.  When they first came out they were a progressive rock band led by Peter Gabriel and I did not much enjoy their stuff.  It was not until Gabriel quit the band and Phil Collins took over as lead singer that they produced music that I enjoyed (Oddly enough once Gabriel left I found his solo work much more enjoyable.  Weird).

And then somewhere along the way Genesis began to truly suck.  The Duke, Abacab, self titled album and Invisible Touch era was my Genesis.  We Can't Dance?  True suckage.

On the Invisible Touch Album there was an instrumental I loved the hell out of, The Brazilian:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Study in Evil, part two

Well, perhaps "Evil" is being a bit dramatic, but it makes for a good title.

In part one I discussed T'Pring, one of Star Trek's most interesting and compelling bad guys.  T'Pring's motives were understandable, the execution of her plans brilliant, her manipulations masterful.  The fact that she won made for great drama.  Now I turn my eyes to...
Yes, that's right. Khan.  Played by Ricardo Montalban, Khan Noonian Singh was the product of late twentieth century genetic engineering, a principle player in the Eugenic Wars of the late twentieth century.  Losing the wars, he and his followers were launched into space on the Botany Bay in cryogenic suspension, accepting exile over the imprisonment/deaths of himself and his people.  Captain Kirk and The USS Enterprise discovered the ship and thawed Khan out, not realizing who or what he was, a man with super human strength and advanced intellect, and whose seductive powers rivaled Kirk's own as he suborned lieutenant McGivers and ultimately awoke his people.  He took over the Enterprise and it was only McGivers deciding she could not stand by and see her captain die at Khan's hands that saved the day.  Khan was exiled on Ceti Alpha V with his people and McGivers.

Now, what makes Khan such a great villain in this episode?  Let's break it down.

Khan is an awesome character: Khan was a dictator who honestly believed he was doing good.  When confronted by Kirk and Spock at dinner, when they are seeking to confirm that he is indeed Khan Noonian Sighn, his facade cracks and he says "We gave them order!" as he pounds the table.  Montalban is able to give us a complex, fascinating, fully fleshed out character in less than an hour, a man who honestly believes he is not evil, that it is his destiny to rule.  There is a reason why Khan was chosen to make the leap to the big screen, because Ricardo, writer Carey Wilber (and damn, I wish this guy had written more than just this single episode), producer Gene Coon and director Mark Daniels (who gave us a couple turkeys, but who also provided us with classics like The Doomsday Machine and Mirror/Mirror) did such a wonderful job providing us with a multi-layered personality.

Khan is the complete package.  Montalban oozes charisma.  He is handsome, looks physically powerful, possesses a strong voice that conveys a barely contained passion.  His Khan dominates every scene he is in.  Ricardo makes you believe this man once ruled a good chunk of the Earth and while I know we are watching a show made in the sixties and there is a degree of sexism involved in the way lieutenant McGivers is written, it does not take all that much suspension of disbelief for me to buy him seducing the impressionable lieutenant who is quite taken with romantic notions of the eugenics warlord.  Khan is highly intelligent, able to absorb twenty third century technical manuals and master their content to gain an understanding of the Enterprise's systems and to use them to take over the ship.  Khan is also far stronger than a normal human being and does an awesome job tossing Kirk around like a rag doll before he is taken down through James T.'s equalizer, a length of pipe.

Khan has grand goals/motivations. Khan was one of Earth's rulers, he is an ambitious leader who bows to no one.  He seeks to take over Enterprise and convince members of the crew to follow his banner.  It might seem silly to think that this man could form an empire from such meager origins, but his story reminds me of Romulus and Remus, the twin survivors of Troy who ultimately found Rome.  From the humblest beginnings can an empire grow.  Khan taking over the Enterprise is just the first step on his road to Empire.

Now up to now I had discussed Khan's appearance in the television episode Space Seed.  This was the first time he was featured.  There is, of course, his tremendously memorable appearance in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan.
I spoke before in the T'Pring article about the importance of a villain being used sparingly, that every time they appear the odds are increased that their impact would be lessened, their legacy tarnished if they are badly handled.  Just look at those Voyager episodes starring John DeLancy as Q.  Instead of the character going out in style in All Good Things we got The Q and The Gray.  When a villain makes another appearance it should be different, should be bigger, grander. It should feel like an event.

And damn it, Wrath of Khan delivers. How is Khan different this time around?  Let's look.

He is leaner and meaner. In Space seed Khan is a charismatic, highly intelligent leader with physical presence and a seductive charm.  Now fifteen years of exile and hardship, seeing many of his people die (including his beloved wife, McGivers), has made him embittered, angry.  Khan's charm now has a biting sarcasm to it, an irony as he confronts Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov, and later Admiral Kirk.  Fifteen years of suffering have changed him, made him in many ways a different person.

Khan is Ahab, Kirk the White Whale.  So Khan's motivation has undergone a significant change.  Before he was interested in building an empire and doing what was best for his people.  Now his motivation is vengeance against Kirk regardless of the cost or common sense.  His subordinate, Joachim, points out that he has a ship to go where he will.  But Khan is not having it.  He wants to track down Kirk regardless of the cost.  This is where that character development really shows.  The Khan from Space Seed would not have been all that interested in revenge, not if it meant risking his personal freedom and the lives of his followers.  That Khan was a pragmatic man willing to do anything to survive.  He elected to take a risky exile into space rather than make some sort of futile last stand.  Now?  Now nothing else matters but killing Kirk, or hurting him.  Khan has been cost much, there must be reparation, payment in flesh and blood.

This is tremendous character development.  People can and usually do change over time, especially when faced with privation.  What we see in Khan is a man who has seemingly stripped away all unnecessary emotion to focus upon the sole task of survival of himself and his people.  There is no room for weak emotions like love or selfish ones like desire.  All that matters is dominance of his environment.  And when the possibility of revenge presents itself all that well honed, ruthless pragmatism developed over fifteen years is tossed aside in a second for a chance at revenge.

The stakes are higher. In Space Seed the stakes involve Khan taking over Kirk's ship and killing his crew in an initial bid to create an empire.  In the second film the stakes are similar, only they are larger.  Khan's chances of creating an empire were slim the first time around, but in the film Khan now has a doomsday weapon that can obliterate an entire planetary population!  In the episode the scale is smaller, man versus man.  In the second it is ship versus ship.  In the episode Kirk loses McGivers to Khan a good crew member.  In the film Kirk loses Spock, his best friend as well as numerous crew (among them young cadets).  In every way the film takes the stakes and raises them, Khan's second appearance bigger and better.

So what have we learned from how the 'Trek creators used Khan and what lessons can you as a GM take from it?  First of all, if you wish to defeat a villain you do not necessarily have to kill him.  Perhaps like Khan you exile him, imprison him, or make his death a very ambiguous one so his return can be teased.  This is especially true if the villain is one you really like (But please do not fall in love with your villains; you run the risk of putting him before the players) or one the players really enjoyed dealing with.  Second, if you do use a major villain (and when I mean "major" I mean the sort of person who is out to take on the world, change it, or destroy it) again it should be bigger and better than the time before.  Finally, do not be afraid to change the character's personality and motivations provided they make sense.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Song of the week, personal issues

Some personal stuff is going on so I am having some trouble focusing on the next Evil Reigns post.  In the mean time this song finally hit the 'net.  I have been hot to hear it in it's entirety ever since I heard it when I saw The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trailer.  I give you Trent Reszer and Karen O.'s cover of Led Zepplen's The Immigrant Song: