To Empathize with Nazis

A friend sent me an article about mindflayers in D&D and an analysis on what the lead designer Mike Mearls said about the tremendously evil creatures ability to garner empathy, or at least sympathy. The short of it was that the mindflayers were once an empire that fell and are now the last of their kind, viewing themselves as refugees, struggling desperately to regain the glory and purpose they once had, and while Mearls suggests that this is where sympathy comes in, author Cameron Kunzelman suggests that it’s trying to borrow from a basic fantasy trope set up exemplified in Aragorn, of the lost ruler fighting against bad odds to reclaim what is his, and how it’s not a fair comparison because the mindflayers are unequivocably evil and it’s dangerous and ugly to validate their struggle that way and that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is trash.


A mindflayer, aka illithid – sheesh, I hate these guys about as much as I hate the undead, though for different reasons. (It’s mind control.)

There’s a lot to dissect here, but I’ll start off with that I generally agree with Kunzelman. There are, as the title of his article suggests, villains who just do not deserve sympathy. Mindflayers are one of them, because they’re a type of people who believe in metaphorically and literally eating the minds of others, enslaving them with mind control, and abusing the crap out of their slaves. They’re not good people (if, frankly, you wanna call them people at all). They are, as I said, unequivocably evil. You can paint anything you’d like to as sympathetic – even murder and rape and torture can all be painted that way – though, to use D&D terms, they’d still have to beat the will save of anyone looking at them ‘cuz some of us will refuse to see it that way regardless of how it’s presented; we will not devour garbage, not if you arrange it in a smiley face, put a garnish on top, or add a side of fries…erm, you can paint anything you like as sympathetic but that does not mean it deserves sympathy. Some things are just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, the end. Trying to look at it differently is not an interesting moral quandry.

And that’s why if ever presented with this bs about, “Oh, but the mindflayers are saaad refugees who are the last of their kind struggling to recover from a mortal blow! Would you really snuff out a species?” I have no problem whatsoever saying “yes” – after I’ve already stabbed the mindflayer, of course, as per Overlord List #7. I mean, if I got a chance to destroy all of any given gross parasite after ascertaining that it wouldn’t be a dramatic detriment to the ecosystem, I totally would. Heck, if I got the chance to obliterate any particularly unpleasant aspect of mortal existence, I absolutely would. In D&D, that’s gonna include mindflayers.


This is what makes Elder Scroll’s St. Jiub so awesome. You know why he’s a saint? ‘Cuz he went and murdered every last one of the Cliff Racers, an obnoxious flying creature prone to attacking the player frequently. He deserves that sainthood.

Honestly I find the idea of sympathizing with a fallen overlord race super bizarre. Like, the fantasy plot we follow is sympathizing with the Gith – the primary race the Illithids enslaved – as they overthrow their cruel (and abusive!) masters. Why on earth would we want to follow the reverse story? You could find entertainment in reading a story about the rise and fall of an overlord, but…if you don’t have that end part, your story is a tragedy.

But here’s where I disagree with Kunzelman. He suggests that the idea that the villain is the hero of his own story is a bad device since it does the whole garner sympathy for the devil thing. And you can use it that way, I guess. But that’s not the point of the device. The point is that when you’re writing a villain, that villain is probably a person, even if just barely a person like a mindflayer. And that person is going to have motivations and how they view those motivations changes if nothing else the flavor of the villain dramatically. It’s the difference between arguing with an internet troll and someone who absolutely believes their position is correct. It’s the difference between someone who acts out of hatred and someone who acts out of vengeance and someone who acts out of perceived righteousness. People don’t usually purposefully pick something wrong because it’s wrong and it doesn’t necessarily make your villain any more horrible or terrifying if they do. Honestly, usually someone who thinks they are right, that they are the hero, when they are demonstrably demonic, is more terrifying than someone who just admits they’re awful because of how hard the former will fight – and that’s the difference between someone fighting for something they want, even if they know they have no claim to it, and someone fighting for something they firmly believe is absolutely theirs and they deserve it and it is morally wrong for any other outcome. The point isn’t to make sympathy for your villain – it’s to flesh them out and understand – but disagree – with them.


I like to learn about Hitler, the same way I like hearing about serial type criminals – I like to learn how a person goes rotten. But I never sympathize.

Kunzelman brings in modern day white supremacists (who are often (always?) also Neo Nazis) as why granting the objectively evil figure sympathy just for existing is a dangerous idea. Let me propose that if you’re writing a Nazi, you can write them as just an evil person who wants to kill “inferior” races and control others, but you won’t be writing a person, you’ll be writing an idea with a body. A person justifies themselves, and they probably do it by thinking they’re right. Nazis are still people, even if they suck, and if you want to write them well, you’ll remember that – because part of what makes them suck is that they are people and people should behave better than that.

You don’t have to sympathize with evil to understand it, and understanding doesn’t have to shift to sympathy. It shouldn’t. In the case of mindflayers, I’m happy to take the time to better understand them. Unlike goblins, they’re not just some monster with a rudimentary culture that maaaybe I shouldn’t kill? No – I understand that they think they are right, that they believe they are the rightful rulers of the universe, that it is their destiny, their birthright, and they’ll do anything to fulfill it. They are the heroes of their own story, the forsaken leaders – I understand their perspective, and that way, I understand why I have to kill them.

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Foiled (achoo!) Again!

“I didn’t write a blog post today,” I sigh to my husband yesterday, not complaining about anything so much as that the day was continuing in its not-so-great course. Not only did it start when the baby woke me with loud, baleful snuffling indicating he was sick, stuffed up, and having a hard time breathing, but when I went to check on my daughter (who I was sure I’d heard stirring but she hadn’t left her room yet, which was odd) I encountered a horror sick scene which I can sum up with that I had a moment of panic that she might have asphixiated. After a bath, she was much better, but still caused enough subsequent messes I couldn’t handle it and had to call in reinforcements. I’m lucky I’m in a position where Tyler could take a half day and come help me. Luckily, it looks like it was just food poisoning.

Tyler considered what I’d said for a moment, and then with a grin said that you never really see villains who are foiled by stuff like getting really sick.  I laughed – of course not. That would be pretty lame, building up this big conflict, and then on the day when the villain is going to execute his plans…he stays home with pneumonia instead and everything’s fine. Something like that could totally work in a comedy, but not your average story.

That said, sickness rarely shows up in stories in any sort of realistic manner at all anyway. You only really see some kind of exotic illness that can only be cured by a crazy McGuffin.


Like in Final Fantasy IV when you cure Rosa’s desert sickness with a sand ruby (???)

And of course, I don’t believe in “you can’t” nearly so much as I believe in “you shouldn’t” and maybe writing your villain through a sick day could, at the very least, be a fun writing exercise.

Just something to think about.

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Personality vs Competence

So your villain is scheming and he comes up with some sort of awesome plan, but the plan has a pretty big hole in it, and you run it by your sounding board people and they point out the hole and how easy it would be to fix and you think about the fix and there’s a problem:

The fix is totally out of character for your villain.

What do you do? Your villain shouldn’t go ahead with a bad plan, right? I mean, your whole story suffers if the heroes defeat him because he’s a moron. Do you have to completely revamp your villain?

When I watch the movies, I hate Voldemort as a villain because of what I perceive as major incompetence. But when I read the books, even on the same issues, I don’t despise him. The main example is in his choice of horcruxes.


There’s a common complaint concerning them. Namely, why the flip would you pick highly iconic treasures to be your horcruxes! Why would you then hide them in personally significant places? You want them not to be found? Pick seven indistinguishable pebbles and drop them each in a different ocean or rockbed or somesuch! Making your lifelines possible to trace is a question of competency.

But reading the books, I’m not sure I’d actually advocate so strongly for some competency changes because personality wise, of course Voldemort isn’t going to consign something so precious as his own soul into a stupid, disingenuous pebble. I get the need to have trophies and shinies and feel important – and Voldemort is way more prideful than me. We get a good look at who Voldemort is as a person by what he sticks his soul in and it’s actually pretty reasonable for the protags to get to know Voldemort as a person and what was important to him to figure out what were probably his horcruxes. This is a situation where pride could be argued to have led to his downfall, but it’s not like he had all his horcruxes gathered in a trophy cabinet for the heroes to find. They still had to do their research and figure out what his brand of pride meant and then hunt the dang things down and figure out how to destroy them – and the difficulty in destroying them gives Voldemort plausible reason to be prideful enough to think that they wouldn’t be destroyed in the first place.


I also could take issue with his excessive use of Avada Kedavera. You know, if you could just chill on that spell, Harry might’ve been dead by now. But another essential piece of Voldemort’s character is that he thinks muggles are total losers who deserve to be ruled by the powerful wizards. So yeah, of course he’s going to use the one specific to wizards way to kill people – precious, beloved magic that makes him so much better than muggles.

I will still call out his insistence on using a spell that backfired horrendously on him to kill the same target years later, though.

Consider in contrast the My Little Pony movie’s Storm King.


I’ve griped about him before, but just a quick reminder: he reneges on a promise to a minion and perishes for it. The movie presents it as “just his personality”, but I call it total incompetence. We haven’t seen enough of the Storm King for it to be a personality congruence thing, there were other options with the same end result that would have added real personality depth, and ultimately it’s just normal pushing of the friendship and magic aspects of the show in a sloppy fashion. In this case, the personality choice has no depth whatsoever and either needed to be edited or written out altogether. The personality move was more a convenience of plot than actual personality.

There’s also Nettlebrand, from Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider.


This book is like a still-delicious nostaligic meal for me, to be consumed with relish.

I don’t find Nettlebrand to be a particularly effectual villain; he’s just an angry golden dragon who wants to eat other dragons who is so busy with his rage and desire to hunt, he’s not necessarily enjoyable at all. That said, the heroes still defeat him far more than he defeats himself, and none of his abrasive personality directly causes his death, even if it plays a role here and there.

The important thing to remember here is that villains are people and people make mistakes, but it all goes back to whether or not the villain defeats themselves. Sometimes a story calls for an airtight mastermine of villainy; most stories won’t necessarily, so if your protags defeat the villain with their own cleverness and strength, perhaps using tools of the villain’s flaws, then you’re fine ditching the obvious fix. Just make sure that your villain was developed well enough that the audience can feel comfortable with his poor decisions and flaws, and consider tasteful lampshading if necessary.

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re: Fear, and the Meaning of Courage

Just a little thought on fear, a follow-up after talking about failing your courage check (to use D&D terms):

Courage is, in my opinion, not about the absence of fear; courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. And I know I’m not the only one who holds this opinion because I’ve heard that moral in shows and other places.


If you can accurately peg your characters’ fears, and you want your characters to face their fears and/or the villain to try to use those fears against them, it’s totally noteworthy to remember that if you also decide the hero never conquers that fear as outlined in Failing Your Fears, you can still give your characters the attribute of great courage.

I honestly find the idea that you can do scary things, even if they’re still scary, and they’re scary the entire time, and you’re afraid the entire time while doing it, to be a little more uplifting a message than the one where you can conquer the scary. This is because I also find it to often be more realistic. Sometimes conquering a fear isn’t even possible until after you completed the horrible task and were afraid the entire time until it was totally over, anyway.

So when you’re trying to write about a courageous hero, think about your definition of courage a bit, first.

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Jumanji’s Van Pelt

This is a guest post from Tyler, Rii’s husband, who has strong feelings about Van Pelt:

Rii and I recently watched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It was a lot better than I ever expected a sequel made 23 years after the original to be. While the original will probably always be my favorite of the two, I enjoyed the sequel and feel totally comfortable with it being a Jumanji movie.


Unlike certain other franchises I could mention…

My one major complaint is how terribly this movie handled Van Pelt. You see, in the original, Van Pelt was a lot of things. He was enigmatic. He was cool. He even got some good comedic beats. But more than anything, two particular qualities of Van Pelt stand out. Van Pelt was terrifying. And more importantly, Van Pelt was symbolically resonant.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ll remember, one of the first things that happens in the movie is Alan having a fight with his father about what it means to be a man. Then at the end, you see Alan’s growth by showing him facing his father “as a man” (honestly, there are a lot of things I would like to say about the accuracy of how this movie portrays what it means to be a man, but I digress). What makes Van Pelt so great as a villain is that he embodies this conflict that Alan must overcome. Frequently as Alan runs away from him, Van Pelt calls after him to “face me like a man”, and the climax of the movie occurs when Alan stops running and faces him. The real kicker here, though, is that the same actor who portrays Alan’s father plays Van Pelt, underscoring his relevance to the underlying conflict.
In storytelling there is an idea of the distinction between a plot conflict and a thematic conflict. For example, in Return of the Jedi the final showdown in the Emperor’s throne room consists of a plot conflict of Luke fighting Vader and then Palpatine and (more importantly) a thematic conflict of Luke trying to redeem his father. Both kinds of conflicts are important, and crucially it is extremely satisfying to an audience when both conflicts resolve at nearly the same time. Contrast Return of the Jedi where the two conflicts end at the same time as Vader chooses the light and kills Palpatine with the ending to The Return of the King where the plot conflict of destroying Sauron is resolved quite a long time before the thematic conflict of Frodo’s struggle against the allure of the ring, which he doesn’t resolve until he finally steps on the boat to head into the west.

There’s a reason a lot of people complain that The Return of the King had too many endings.

In the original Jumanji Van Pelt represents both the thematic and the plot conflict, so defeating him resolves both at once and feels incredibly satisfying. The new Van Pelt is just generic evil guy #3, creepy/gross variant. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a film about choosing how you are going to live your life rather than letting the circumstances of life choose for you (look no further than the Principal’s speech before they go to detention, and Spencer’s arc of not needing his video game character’s bravery boost to do brave things). How does Van Pelt, ostensibly the main antagonist and villain of this film tie into that thematic conflict?

If you said, “He doesn’t,” then congratulations! You get nothing, just like his relevance to the character arcs in the movie.

Maybe part of it is that I’m much older when seeing this for the first time, but this Van Pelt has none of the terrifying presence of the original, and the fact that he is so disconnected from the thematic conflict of the movie means that I don’t really care when they defeat him. Honestly, it would have been an almost trivial exercise to remove him from the movie entirely. And that is not a great thing to have be true about your villain.
Now not every villain has to be tied to the thematic conflict of the story per se, but I cannot think of a single great villain off the top of my head who hasn’t been. So when examining your villain, try to see how they tie in not just to what is going on in the story, but also how they tie into the underlying conflict behind that. And if the answer is “they don’t,” try to see if you can change that. Because it will make their defeat all that more effective.
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The Pants are a Lie

If you’ve ever participated in NaNo, you’ve probably heard of the term “pantsing” in a different context than pulling someone’s pants down.


Not talking about this

“Pantsing” is a short hand for “writing by the seat of your pants” in opposition to outlining and planning ahead. You therefore get dialog about your writing style – are you a Pantser or an Outliner?

I’d like to propose we think about it a little differently – for one thing, I’d like to say neither are your “writing style”, that instead being the unique way you write, like a watermark or signature throughout all the words you write. My writing style is going to be similar or the same regardless of whether I outlined or pantsed a story. For another thing, there’s no rule you have to be just one, and pantsing is often not a good method for writing. It certainly has its place, but you’re probably going to have a bad time if you try to just pants all the time.

Let me be clear – on my first time hearing of this dichotomy, I thought, “Oh, I’m totally a pantser!” and that worked fine for the time. But if I ever want to write my saga in the way I’d like to, across time and story arcs, as the big, big story I mean it to be, I cannot possibly pants it. I’ll get an infinite amount of plot holes that will reach critical mass and explode in my face. The severity of this was made clear to me when around sixteen or so I realized that I had the gaping hole where my evil overlord, who had started a holocaust against the elves and forced my half elf MC’s parents to hide her as an infant in a village where he’d never find her, also went to high school with said MC. Er, whoops! But I only realized what a stupid mistake I’d made when I tried to actually write down a timeline – when I tried to outline at all. My change in style where I matured and fixed some garish designs for my overlord and decided to use my own race inventions rather than Tolkenian elves had nothing to do with pantsing or outlining.

Old Etheromos

I made a lot of bad design decisions with the original iteration of my evil overlord before maturing. (In my defense on that background, I was heavily influenced by Final Fantasy IV except they could pull off a Trippin’ Rainbow background and I kind of can’t. Then again, this WAS pretty good for where I was with my art skill at the time.)

Pantsing has also been a useful technique for me. The first time I ever completed a NaNo novel was when I just wrote without concern for just about anything, including sense. So much of that first book made basically no sense whatsoever. (“What is this, a pineapple? We don’t keep pineapples in here!” /throws pineapple out window where it hits the protag in the face/ “We are cheesemongers, not spike mongers or fruit mongers! Pineapples! Ugh!” yeah I have and had no idea.) When I encounter a plothole, pantsing is often just as good as if not the best strategy for making up crap to patch it up. My overlord problem certainly required careful thought and an increase in outlining, however.

When I draft, I like to pants, in part because using “pants” as a verb is hilarious, but in part because we all know how thinking and overthinking things can easily put the kibosh on flow and writing and pantsing easily transitions into frenzy writing which doesn’t give you time for any of that thinking crap.


Just go, go, go.

But there’s still a difference between drafting book one of the saga, and writing the saga. Pantsing helps me get through the small scale issues, the “I know from outlining she needs to go from A to B but HOW?” problems, the slog of “I no longer want to write” that’s often called Week Two in NaNo – since week two is when it hits on that 30 day scale. This means I can still pants even when I’ve outlined.

Outlining is hard, but taking the time to find a style of outlining that works for you is worth it, since then you get out of danger of living in Retcon City (you may still encounter retcon problems, however) and bigger projects become more feasible for you. So don’t dismiss it like that younger me did just because it sounds hard and you aren’t normally the kind of guy who plans anything. You can do it.

I’ve found that using both is the best strategy.


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Do Babies Dream of Milkless Sheep?

Sometimes when a baby is sleeping, they pull this fantastically upset face like they’re going to start bawling, and might make a noise. Then their face fades to neutral cute sleeping baby and they might take a shudder breath before resuming quiet slumber.

When this happens, it’s easy to assume they had a scary dream. This sometimes elicits comments like, “Aww, bad dream? But what could they even be dreaming of, milk all gone?”


Probably doesn’t help that they usually look so peaceful sleeping.

This sentiment that a baby can’t even have a proper nightmare has always struck me as odd. I for one can think of many things that must be terrifying to a baby – primarily, abandonment. What else is their full-on wailing cry but a fear that they have needs that will not be met because there is no mommy or daddy to meet them? And that’s not a juvenile, baby-ish fear. Who doesn’t fear abandonment?

Tyler pointed out that a baby is completely helpless. And I know of parents who observed that their tiny little ones seemed to hate that when they were awake and moving; they seemed so frustrated with not being able to do anything. I imagine being totally helpless is frightening in many ways, hand in hand with what I just said. Heck, many horror games try to work off the fear of helplessness.


Is this the face of some who thinks “milk all gone” is some kind of harmless joke to you? She can’t feed herself without me! She will die without my feeding her! (Don’t worry, she got a bottle pretty soon after this picture; I was waiting for it to warm up (I had issues nursing my first child)).

Babies might not be afraid of all the scary monsters we could imagine as we grow into children and then adults, but I’ll bet they’re afraid of some of the things most worth fearing in this life.

What’s funny to me is how bad people are at determining what would really, truly scare someone else a lot of the time, and even underestanding what really, truly scares themselves. Developing this skill is important for a few reasons – it’s first of all useful in building plot arcs for any of your characters. But it’s also essential in giving your villains power. A tertiary reason is it allows you leaverage over your characters.

Taking the time to really think about the unique fears of your characters certainly does teach you plenty about them, and while I’ve mentioned it’s a worthwhile exercise before, I think it’s worth mentioning again because I encounter so often proof that people seem to be really bad at it.

An online community avatar and petsite that I enjoy, Subeta, has recently been exploring just such fears; they’ve been releasing new, thematic challengers for the battle arena on a seasonal or monthly basis for a few years now, and their theme for this year is fear. Each release period, it becomes possible to do something with an NPC to instigate them to fight you, and then the following release period, they send out a cash shop item that gives a hint and adds another challenger. I’ve really enjoyed this theme of fear; the pet shop grandma will attack you if you delete three pets you purchased from her, with the accompanying claustrophobia represented by a small prison cell cash shop item, hinting of a past where she used to rescue pets from abusive owners (and possibly attacked said owners); the zombie who runs a food store freaks out if you present him with any brewery beer, apparently because, according to the cash item, when he was still alive, he was brothers with the brewery guy who drowned him in a mash tun. You learn the name “Bubbles” isn’t ironic because it’s a cute name for a not-so-cute zombie. And the old lady who makes masks in her zepplin shop for the all-popular masquerade can’t stand it if you present your avatar without a face – which makes sense on its own, but the recently released cash item clears up that she has seen Faceless Ones and she’s afraid they’re coming for her.


I can see how she’d be afraid of them. (Art taken from Subeta; this is the challenger associated with cash item.)

In a community website like this, their ability to tell the story about the world they made around the site is quite different than writing or reading a book, but they certainly make the effort. Between site events and holiday events that might have a plot, writing site announcements from the voice of NPCs instead of just staff all the time, and adding items that tell snippets of stories about the NPCs or places or events, you get the story of Subeta. While event stories are an easy way to tell the story, this series of battle challengers is also proving effective and exciting in its own right, and it’s not just about basic fears – it’s about sitting down and thinking about what could really be scary to each individual, because staff doesn’t make it obvious. They just tell you what new NPC can be instigated, and that’s about it, and then you get the strong hint from the cash shop item. So not only did they have to think about it, but they’re making us users think about it, too.

Whether you have a dynamic where your villain thinks they know what your hero fears, gets it wrong, and maybe through trial and error they figure it out, or if they can sit and analyze it and get it right the first time, this is a skill your villain ought to have or develop if fear (and possibly suffering from that fear) is something she wants to utilize. And regardless, with how prevelant fear and facing it is, you need to learn how to do this. You need to know your characters.

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Power Creep

Last week I brought up the food chain of badassery and how to execute it, but even if you successfully execute it, you can still run into another serious problem. It’s the same problem most Shonen anime/manga run into. And that’s the problem of power creep, where the hero keeps ascending and ascending in strength and increasingly powerful villains are thrown at them and it all just keeps spiraling up until strength and power is totally meaningless.


Exhibit A

If we’re going to talk about the anime, a good show in the genre that avoids power creep is My Hero Acadamia, on account of the fact that they introduce a power cap in the first episode and that’s it. That’s the top. It doesn’t keep going after that.


All Might (at his full strength) is the top tier hero. No one is stronger. Conflicts come from a different source than the introduction of random, stronger new enemies.

Even if you’re working on a strict food chain that is just to build up your villain (or hero), you can still suffer from power creep, although that starts to go back on what I’ve already said about lower rungs not properly supporting higher rungs.

And power creep is also its own issue that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the food chain. Hate me for saying it due to the implications it has agaisnt many animes, including Dragon Ball Z, but honestly I find a severe issue of power creep to be a symptom that the story lacks any real substance. The story of an obstacle to be surmounted, and the hero who can’t surmount it but then he works really hard and does surmount it, hooray! isn’t a bad story on its own, but either that’s the end, or it’s lacking in substance if it continues on the same way. New obstacle of the same type, hero works hard, yay! New obstacle of the same type…

The other issue with power creep is that it tends to only herald the virtue of physical strength. Perhaps other types of strength might feed into it, like THE POWER OF FRIENDSHIP! ™ but in the end, it’s still physical strength derived from friendship that defeats the enemy. Love and moral support might allow the hero to become Super Saiyan, but it’s still the Super Saiyan who defeats New Bigger Threat #47, not love. And maybe New Bigger Threat #47’s powers are significantly different from all the other threats beneath it, and that’s pretty wizard, I guess, but it’s still just the same stupid plotline over again and you already did that, and no matter how many different flavors of ice cream you serve, it’s still ice cream and I’ll get a stomach ache if I keep eating it.

Also it seems a lot of times writers feel having a new villain who is just more powerful than the last isn’t good enough. You also have to make him more insidous, and that gets to be tough. There is a built in cap on evil, since even if humans can always conceive of new horrendous acts, you get back to the ice cream thing. All of X type of horrible things, each different from each other, is still in the general form of butchery, or Y is violence agaisnt children, or Z is sexual perversions – you might horrify and disgust anew, but you can only max out that horror and disgust so much.


Also your power creep might result in power creeps. 

So when you’re building up something as stronger than something else, whether because you’re making a food chain, or because you’re telling a story of power ascension, you need to watch out for power creep. As alluded to, you can insulate yourself from the problem by establishing a hard cap to power and by relying on other types of strength that aren’t just physical, which is a good idea anyway since other leads might not have physical strength. Mostly, though, it’s just important to make sure that your characters’ actions and acquisitions and your story moral all are meaningful, which is the real problem with power creep. Just like if I repeat the word “evil” a bunch of times in the same sentence, it starts to not look like a real word anymore, repeating the moral of “work hard and you can overcome anything” repeated so many times starts to lose all meaning also.

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The Food Chain of Badassery

I picked up Monster Hunter: World, which starts you in on fighting some low-level monsters that aren’t even proper “large” monsters, called Jagras. You next hunt a big version of them called a Great Jagras and the guy really gives you some trouble.


Obnoxious for its ability to swallow an entire smaller creature and then use its stretched, inflated belly as a weapon.

After going through several more monsters, each more challenging than the last, you’re asked to hunt a fire breathing T-rex called an Anjanath.


He’s technically a dragon, see, that’s why he can breath fire.

Your introduction to the Anjanath is a cutscene where it’s got a Great Jagras by the neck and is destroying the thing. Yeah, remember that monster that used to give you trouble? It’s nothing to this guy. And neither are you.

And of course while you’re struggling against this stupid dragon dinosaur, it runs into an area where it pisses off a wyvern called a Rathian and they start fighting and the Anjanath flees in terror before the Rathian. Guess what’s one of the next monsters you’re supposed to fight?


If your guess was, “the thing that’s scarier than the already scary thing,” good job.

I imagine this escalation of, “AH! NOT THE SCARY MONSTER!” at no time ceases (it hasn’t yet), and I’ve heard that once you get through the game, it basically just continues on giving you even tougher versions of these monsters to fight. In other zones, I’ve encountered other similar situations, like fighting a monster near a sand pit, breaking down into a cave below, and watching as my prey fled in terror from the monster that lived in that cave. And then, of course, following suit before the scarier monster turned its attention to me.

Establishing a tough thing, and then having a tougher thing destroy that is a known trope (called The Worf Effect). And what I’m describing is related to but not quite the same as another trope, Make Way for the New Villains; continuing on along this immediate chain establishing further, tougher things is what my friend calls, “The food chain of badassery”. To be clear, this is pulling out The Worf Effect, but with several steps along the way. His example is a movie where there’s a bunch of Marines, who we all know to be tough and scary. They’re wiped out by some guy, who in turn finds his throat under the boot of another guy, who is obliterated by the villain of the film. If you don’t pull it off comically, then wham, instant establishment of power and fear.

As discussed on the TV Trope page, pulling off this instant command of fear can be ruined if the tough guy becomes a punching bag. Likewise, without the proper established respect for the lower rungs, the food chain is pretty meaningless. Just like my recounting my Monster Hunter experience here versus actually playing it, I’m sure – saying a Rathian is stronger than an Anjanath is stronger than a Great Jagras is great and all but what even is a Great Jagras anyway? I included a picture but so what? Probably explaining to you how nerve wracking facing off a Rathian is for me would be better accomplished if I regalled you with the tale of fighting it, what it was capable of, of how you have to cut off the stupid thing’s stupid poison barbed tail to make things less horrible, rather than just saying, “it scared off a fire-breathing T-rex that was also scary to fight”. That said, if I tried to explain how the Anjanath was horrifying to fight and you got the proper picture, and then said the Rathian was scarier than that, we start to properly invoke the food chain.

And the cool thing about Monster Hunter is you establish how tough all these monsters are and then you hunt them down and wear their hides. In the end, you are at the top of the food chain of badassery. And it feels pretty good.


Doesn’t look half bad, either.

But that’s the next part of what I think is a little hard about the food chain. Maintaining the proper order can be difficult; when you’ve already established what’s on top, what’s toughest, the middle parts that are also tough might start to suffer since they’re not the toughest, and then of course the whole thing collapses. It’s the same problem with just the Worf Effect – each time the Klingon is beaten up by someone else, you start to wonder if he was really that tough at all in the first place. Monster Hunter certainly does this fairly well – I can tear through a Great Jagras myself now, but if I assume that just because I can take down a Rathian, an Anjanath means nothing to me, I’ll find myself dumped at camp by my cat friends after the monster nommed my face and hubris off. For the most part, each new monster remains their own challenge, even if there’s a heirarchy that I surmounted.

Back again to more human characters – the other issue with invoking the food chain is follow-up. It’s great and all if your primary villain can be tougher than the guy who was tougher than the tough guy, but if they then fail to remain tough, that just means that the whole chain beneath him must be soggy paper weak after all. It’s not like your villain has to be tough all the time, but they have to remain capable of staying at the top of the chain.


This moronic dolt could kill you: while Vash the Stampede (Trigun) has a pretty carefree, idiotic manner, when it comes to a fight, you’ll be sorry you opposed him. (Also he wouldn’t kill you but that’s another matter.)

A contrast of “This guy beat [scary person]?” to their actual skill can work out to amicable or comedic effect pretty well, and often does. But it’s a tough line to walk, so just take care that when you build a food chain of badassery, each link supports its position.

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Ye Can’t Get Ye Flask

In Dungeons and Dragons, many actions a playing character might like to perform are what we call a “skill check”, and the success is determined in part by the roll of a twenty sided die, or D20. If you roll a 20, that’s called a “critical success” (and also “natural/nat 20”, as opposed to rolling 18 and getting +2 or something) and you automatically succeed in the best possible way at the task you are attempting.


Basically like this.

This has led to many interesting and hilarious and, for the dungeon master, frustrating events across all kinds of campaigns, like a cute animate cactus pet one-shotting a final boss dragon with a coconut. I find that in general, if I absolutely do not want a player to be able to succeed at a given task which they don’t have a particular reason to succeed at anyway, the best way to ensure they do not succeed is to just say “no,” when they ask to roll for it, because otherwise almost invariably they’ll roll a frickin’ natural 20 and then I have to let them do the thing.

To put this in context, I might have an NPC who one of my players would like to seduce. (You know who you are, players.) Seducing an NPC is a common and often kind of or really funny aspect of DnD, but the thing of it is that from my perspective, there are a lot of scenarios where seduction is just plain, flat-out impossible, unless we’re talking about some kind of magical act that might not wind up with a sexual attraction kind of seduction, and even then…For example, I really did once have a male bard who wanted to seduce another male NPC (more into a tight bro-friendship…though a sexual attraction to the bard would have also worked for his purposes so sure, why not?) but that particular NPC was both 100% straight, and also a cold-hearted jerk who hated everyone. No matter how amazingly sexy and charismatic you are, you can’t seduce someoen who isn’t sexually attracted to you. And you can’t seduce someone who is only going to hate you for trying, even if you do the most amazingly perfect and wow-worthy act of seduction, which is what a nat 20 would suggest. So instead, the answer just has to be no. You can’t even roll for this. You can’t seduce him. The end.

This brings me to The Joker.


The Joker was of the belief that every man has his price, his tipping point. The Joker seemed to only mean that in regards to criminal acts, but it’s a sentiment you see every now and then. Everyone has their price.

And if this sentiment is correct, that means that if you can figure out the right thing, you can get anyone to do anything. You just have to determine the correct angle.

I disagree.

In real life, there is nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – you could do to get my husband to cheat on me. Of this I am so sure that I am more sure of it than most solidly knowable facts available in the universe. You can “roll a nat 20” in your seduction check against him and all that will happen is he’ll be pissed off you’re trying to seduce him. By comparison, it would also be exceedingly difficult to get me to cheat on him – because while I’d be suceptible to a nat 20 seduction check, I’d also be able to pick up on the tone of my situation before the act of seduction was complete or perhaps fully underway and flee.


Just like Joseph. I’d rather not leave my coat behind if I can help it, though. My coat is rad. 

In its own way, that means that you can’t make the seduction roll against me, either – because it doesn’t matter if you could seduce me or not. I’m not going to let you because if I can tell we’re headed in that direction, I’m out. There’s little else that’s as important to me as remaining loyal to my friends and the very last person I want to hurt is the friend who is my absolute closest – my dear husband. There is no price at all that can buy my betrayal.

Your mind might be working at an exception, and I imagine it’s probably coming up with some horrible, desperate situation. I both don’t know how that would actually play out and also feel like that’s different – it’s a desperate situation, not a price. I’m being coerced, whereas “price” indicates willful choosing. And you can’t get me to willfully choose to betray my friends. If I betray anyone, it’ll be because I made a moronic decision without thinking through the consequences, which is also not the same thing.

So the answer here is, “Ye can’t get ye flask” – you ask to get the flask, and the answer is no. No explanation, no chance to change the situation, just…no. You can’t do it.

As important as it is to consider what can push your characters to an act they wouldn’t otherwise have committed, I think it’s equally important to consider if your characters have any grounds from which they will not be moved, and what they are.

Posted in General Writing, Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments