Saturday, February 18, 2012

Study In Evil, Part V

This article has gone through numerous re-writes over the past few weeks.  Without an editor it is up to me to try and edit myself, to try and produce a tight, focused article.  And where Star Wars is concerned my nerd rage would often get in the way and I would roll off into tangents about what a bloated joke George Lucas has become or the opportunities he missed or how he destroyed his own franchise.  But there are plenty of places to find that sort of thing on the internet.  In these articles I am supposed to be focusing on the different sorts of bad guys and how you can use them as examples for your campaign.

Man, was it tough to finish this article.

For today I will focus on George's Star Wars, episodes IV-VI.  The second trilogy is trash and a waste of time and nothing good came of them (And if you say Natalie Portman go out and Netflix Closer).  Also, I will focus only on the movies and not touch upon comic books or novels as a majority of people will be more familiar with the films rather than other media.  That also means any information posted at sites like Star Wars dot com or Wookipedia do not count, so if anyone wonders why my interpretations do not line up with what is found there or anywhere else, that is why.  I could have written separate articles about all three of the villains I have in mind, but unlike Khan, T’Pring and Dukat, who were villains that had nothing to do with one another (outside of some really bizarre Star Trek slash fic), Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, and The Emperor are all directly linked, part of the same organization: The Empire.

Some of you might ask “If you are going to cover an organization like The Empire then why not Star Trek’s Dominion?  Because frankly I find The Dominion is not that interesting.  Gul Dukat’s heel turn in joining The Dominion made no sense, I found Weyoun to be a simple sycophant (albeit a well portrayed one: Jeffrey Combs is an outstanding actor.) and The Dominion’s motives suspect (Wouldn’t it have made more sense for The Dominion to destroy the wormhole rather than stage an invasion through it?  The Wormhole would always remain a little known, unreliable anomaly as well as a dangerous choke point and I fail to see how any Founder would risk getting cut off from The Collective if it collapsed.).  The Founder were all right as bad guys, I suppose, but overall I never really found the Dominion War story arc to be all that engaging, especially when you compare the awesome battle seen in Star Trek II where majestic ships trade blows, and then in DS9 battleships like the Akira get wiped from space with seeming ease.  Star Wars IV-VI handled space battles much better IMO and it just felt like DS9’s producers were trying desperately to copy what Star Wars was doing.  The problem is capital ships are not fighter craft.  And yes, there were fantastic episodes like In The Pale Moonlight, I will not deny DS9 had some compelling storytelling.  I just felt overall the war storyline could have been handled better.

So, The Empire.  And let us start of with...Grand Moff Tarkin.
With a face like that is is hard to believe he once played Doctor Who.
Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin is a different sort of villain from the ones we discussed before in that his villainy is of a more detached, bureaucratic sort.  We do not know much about his ideology (since he only appeared in one movie and more of the focus was on Darth Vader than him) but to me Evil to him seems more like a vocation than a cause.  In another life he could have found himself working for the IRS or Department of Motor Vehicles.  When he blows up your planet to make a point or has you tortured for information it is nothing personal, it is like my friend Dave Zyn said “for the greater evil”.  Oh, I am sorry about the necessity in blowing up your planet.  If you did not want your home made an example of then you should have taken a greater interest in local politics and seen what your princess was up to.  And next time, do not send a nineteen year old to represent you in the Senate.  Tarkin is the very definition of cold, calculating villainy and this is what makes him so much fun to watch.  If Tarkin has any flaw it is his arrogance. “Leave now?  In our moment of triumph?”  Yeah, Moff, way to not listen to your tactical expert.  I half hoped that guy decided to say “Screw this,” and he booked for the nearest escape pod, just in case.

Cushing gave Tarkin a chilling face to the Empire by his lack of passion, by his businesslike approach to dealing out death and destruction on a horrific scale.  Little things frustrate him, like the princess not responding to torture or coercion in the proper manner and yet instead of ranting he has the same affectations of a man standing on a train platform, upset that the 3:15 is ten minutes late.  It would have been easy to put in an over-the-top, mustache twirling villain in the role but Cushing’s take on Tarkin is all the more effective due to his lack of passion. By the point The Empire has become a well oiled machine and the blood of billions the grease that keeps it running smoothly.  

Now we come to...
Darth Vader, one of the most iconic villains in all of literature. Vader is an awesome villain on numerous levels.  First, let’s start with presentation.  Darth Vader is tall and imposing, a menacing figure in black, his face hidden by a helmet and mask to give him a cold, mechanical air.  He possesses a chilling voice, a combination of James Earl Jones’ majesty filtered through a respirator to further enhance Vader’s inhuman countenance.  He is quite different from Tarkin in every way.  Not only is their appearance dramatically different, but Vader is a True Believer, a zealot who follows an obscure religion (this is one of the many reasons I am not discussing the second trilogy, as it is strongly implied in Episode IV the ways of The Force is a “tired old religion” and Vader has “sorcerer’s ways”, all of which are pretty much invalidated by the number of Jedi in those films) and bows before what appears to be a religious leader (he refers to The Emperor as “My Master”).  Vader does what he does out of a firm conviction what he does is right, be it a desire to maintain order in what he perceives is a chaotic universe.  Snapping necks, choking out incompetent subordinates or hacking his son to pieces, it all comes down as acceptable sacrifices to The Cause.  And what about his entrance?  Episode IV began right on every note; the opening scroll to provide exposition, the beleaguered blockade runner fleeing from the immense Star Destroyer.  The desperate battle in the corridors of the rebel vessel, the white smoke, and through it Vader strides, pauses with hands on hips to survey his works, and he finds them good.  Then we have Vader choking out the captain with one hand and snapping his neck, towering over a captive Princess Leia.  In every instance Lucas effectively paints Vader as a physically menacing villain who has vast resources at his beck and call.  It is through these visuals, through the framing of Vader that The Empire is painted as a nigh unstoppable force and the rebellion seems doomed despite the victory mentioned in the scroll.

And then Vader grows stronger in the second film!  In the first he is obviously powerful, with a host of powers and physical abilities.  He can choke a man from a distance, possesses prenatural senses and he wields a wicked and unique weapon (In the three films only three light sabers are ever seen).  Now in The Empire Strikes Back he is deflecting blaster bolts, telekinetically tossing around hundreds of pounds of metal and choking men out from hundreds of yards away just by seeing them on his view screen!  The ante is upped, which is quite necessary when Yoda reveals to Luke a sample of the awesome power The Force can provide when he lifts the X-Wing from the swamp.   If the good guys have access to such power then Vader must as well.  Him…and The Emperor…

If that was all there was to Darth Vader that would have made him interesting enough, but…there is more to him that places him above a mere fanatic.  He has ambitions, thoughts of empire himself.  He envisions a universe ruled by himself, with his son at his side.  This gives him a welcome depth.  But also as we see in Episode VI Vader is in a way utterly helpless, a true slave to The Emperor’s dark power.  Vader’s entreaty to Luke in Empire seems to me a desperate attempt to take the initiative while away from The Emperor and his immediate influence.  Hearing Vader’s dialogue in Episode VI when Vader speaks to Luke, explaining he has no idea of the power of The Dark Side it strongly implies that Vader could only break free with his son at his side, thousands of light years away from The Emperor’s dark influence.  You can interpret Vader’s entreaty to Luke in two different ways; ambitious slave seeking to supplant his Master in order to create his own empire, or the pleas of a man desperate to escape his captivity, seeing in his son his salvation.  When Luke escaped Vader is so depressed he even forgets to choke some poor bastard to death.

Something else to consider: Vader might seem like a complete psychotic in the way he chokes out minions and prisoners almost at random, but after watching the three films repeatedly I detected something else about him.  Vader appreciates courage and competence.  Think about it: in the first film remember that black clad subordinate who tells Vader Leia would die before she told him anything?  Vader's only response is "Leave that to me".  That guy is pretty darn uppity.  Then in Episode V who gets promoted when Admiral Ozzel screws the pooch and has to be choked out?  Piett, the guy who stood up to Admiral Ozzel earlier and turned out to be right.
Piett's first command?  "Get that trash off my deck!"
And later in the movie who is talking smack to Vader?  This guy:
Vader respects a man with backbone.  Just don't discuss religion and you should be all right.  One wonders if Lando Calrissian had stood up to Darth a bit more maybe Vader would not have kept changing the deal.  At some point it seems like Vader is just messing with Lando just because it is fun.

As a GM a Vader-like character can be a challenge to role play.  One must be careful to understand everything that motivates him and to not have him make contradictory statements or actions, or if actions do seem contradictory there must be a good explanation (i.e. the character was lying because he knew the room was bugged, or circumstances have changed dramatically.).  This is true of any recurring villain, but for a bad guy with a deep back story and complicated motives this can be especially tricky.  Still, making a Darth Vader and running him successfully can be a rewarding experience. 

Now we come to The Emperor-
-who is not at all complicated.  The Emperor is just bad, there is nothing redeeming about him at all and really he is not all that interesting.  The Emperor is more a force of nature than a character, he is not fleshed out very well and his motives seem to be evil for evil’s sake.  Don’t get me wrong, I do not have a problem with villains who are just plain bad.  I just think that they are the least interesting sort of villains and if they do not have a decent motivation a writer/GM needs to work extra hard to compensate by making them entertaining in other ways.  Regardless of his lack of depth, I will concede The Emperor is highly entertaining to watch.

One thing I do agree with Lucas on is how well he handled The Emperor’s introduction to the series.  In Episode IV he is mentioned in passing.  In Episode V he is first seen when Darth Vader, the principle villain of the movie, kneels before his image(!).  Finally he makes his debut in Episode VI and we get a good idea of just what a devious scheming bastard he is, one who is also able to back up his dark will with power.   Unlimited Power.  This progression is handled very well as we are given a great build up to his debut.  This approach would be good for a long running campaign.  Create a principle villain who is not aware of the PCs’ existence as they are beneath his notice.  Have the PCs fight the principle villain’s minions until such point that they have earned his attention.  And that is when the PCs realize they have hit the major leagues, when the principle villain now takes a personal hand in their destruction.

Organizations are made up of people.  And because they are that means each and every one of them is going to have their own motivations for what they do.  Be it fanaticism, a lust for power, they view it as just a job or they feel trapped by circumstances beyond their control, each one has reasons for being there in the heroes’ way.  While it is all well and good to have your generic faceless minions remain largely vague in their motivations those villains who have names and who control those minions should have more going for them.  What we saw with Star Wars, episodes IV-VI was a large evil empire, but one comprised of a collection of men with their own motivations and goals.  Seeing these three types of villain can show how an evil empire or organization can have a wide variety of antagonists working and running it, even if the “theme” of the organization is well set.  When running a campaign one should keep in mind that diversity will not only be more realistic, but more fun for the players as they encounter different sorts of villainy to destroy.

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