Proper Villany Profiles: Watchmen Edition

2009 March 16
by Vanir

Last year at Gen Con, I decided to buy a copy of Watchmen by Alan Moore. Despite being an avid reader of comics since childhood, this one had slipped past my radar but all my comic book nerd friends were all ranting that the movie was going to come out and ruin it so I’d better read the real version first.

I read it, and was blown away.



OK, I trust all of you reading now know the entire plot. Now I can discuss why this story makes me titter (evilly) with excitement like a schoolgirl.

Back in the early 90’s when I was in high school, I had an issue of Dragon magazine that featured a little article for DM’s on how to play monsters with very high INT scores. The main gist of the article was that you can’t really play an ancient demon with an intellect that dwarfs any mere mortal’s. You have this limitation called the brain of a mere mortal that keeps you from doing so. It is very troublesome, but these are the limitations imposed upon us until someone develops cheat codes for humans. The way the article suggested to play such characters was kind of a new concept for me: in short, cheat. Roleplay the NPC as if he had access to knowledge he ought not to. It might be as simple as knowing parts of the PCs’ plan to stop him (and setting traps accordingly), or something as specific as knowing the fighter’s magic shield has a weakness against ice attacks.

While I can appreciate this method in terms of game mechanics, it did strike me that the players might think you’re being… well, let’s just say the more evil of you DMs out there are probably rubbing their hands together evilly thinking of the possibilities. However, this method feels a bit like being the guy who has a hammer, and to whom everything looks like a nail. It’s clumsy, the players are going to call you on it, and your only excuse is going to be “er um he is very smart and figured it out”. I bear no responsibility for injuries you receive from blunt PHB2 trauma. (However, we here at Stupid Ranger can assure you that these injuries will be very exciting and no doubt an invaluable companion to your existing PHB wounds.)

Why I Believe Alan Moore To Be A Mind Flayer

I found a much more elegant solution to this problem when I read Watchmen. If you will recall, Ozymandias is referred to as the smartest man on Earth. (I will now also refer to him as my favorite villain.) If you’ll recall what you learned in Evil 101, “hero” and “villain” are all relative. Surely he’s a bad guy because he mass murders millions of people. Right? Except he’s not doing it for money, or power, or glory. He’s doing it to distract the nations of the world from nuking each other into the stone age by faking a devastating alien invasion, saving humanity as a whole! My god, the man is basically a masterclass in Proper Villainy. I almost wept.

My favorite part, though — and this is where the whole “smartest man on Earth” bit comes back into play — is HOW he accomplishes his goals. Let’s review:

  • Step 1: Neutralize those who can expose or stop you.
    The Comedian figured out what he was doing, so he got thrown out a window. Dr. Manhattan, being all superpowerful (and smart, too), needed a bit more special care. Like a decade-long plan to make him feel inhuman and isolated (enough to go hide on Mars) by giving people close to him cancer. He’s smart and patient — a deadly combination!
  • Step 2: Clone the brain of a psychic and put it in a giant squid. Wait, what?
  • Step 3: Teleport the squid into the middle of NYC, causing it to blow up and send out devastating psychic shockwaves, simulating a catastrophic attack by aliens.
  • You know, because teleportation works but living creatures blow up without Dr. Manhattan working the controls and NGGGHHHHHAAAA WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE HOW DO YOU MAKE THAT LEAP?

I’ll tell you how. You’re the smartest guy on Earth, that’s how.

Here’s the box. And here’s outside the box, where Ozymandias is thinking. Farther than that. Keep going. I’ll tell you when to stop, just keep going. Five light-years away, and that’s how far out of the box this is.

Why is this awesome? Because he’s so smart that nobody could have seen this coming. Our poor little normal brains wouldn’t have gone there. Sure, we can try to wrap our heads around it once it’s there, but I’d be willing to bet 89% of the people who have read Watchmen paused, furrowed their brow, and had to reread that part just to make sure they weren’t going mad. (10% of the people skimmed over that part and scratched their heads on the next page when the squid was lying there in the ruins of NYC. The other 1% are supergeniuses like Ozymandias and need to be closely observed by the government.)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I think Alan Moore is a mind flayer.

How To Be Super-Smart

How, one might ask, is this useful for DM’s trying to roleplay superintelligent NPC’s? Did I not just mention how we had measly human intelligence and cannot comprehend such plots? Well, you have a secret weapon even Ozymandias did not: you’re omnipotent in your little world. You get to make the rules. The supersmart Big Bad in your campaign can make plans that accomplish his goals but seemingly make no sense. You’ve also got another ace up your sleeve if you’re running a fantasy setting — you’ve got magic. Magic, especially at ridiculously high levels, is not obligated to make sense. Especially high level magic that the DM handwaves the details. But here’s the point. The plot doesn’t have to make perfect sense to you or to your players so long as it makes sense to your villain.

I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t you just talk earlier about having to explain yourself to the players, and having them think you’re evil for doing this? Well, yeah. But this lets you roleplay him being smarter instead of the players simply wanting to know how he found something out. I won’t lie — this can be a uniquely frustrating experience for players. Few things make me want to kill a DM more than when “because I said so” is the reason. That’s why you use this thing sparingly and only for a purpose.

I see this as great for two purposes — the first being you’ve got players who routinely unravel your plots well before it’s time. This isn’t revenge, it’s just to keep things exciting. (Okay, it is revenge too.) The second is when you want to pull an Ozymandias, and by the time you reveal your evil plan to the PC’s, it’s 35 minutes too late. Use it as a plot device. It may seem a little hamhanded, and can be if misused, but if you plan to use it beforehand and weave it into your storyline, it can be a story-building tool instead of a bulldozer to push your players where you want them.

And The Movie???….

I saw the Watchmen movie last week and thought it was absolutely fantastic and (with one notable exception) very faithful to the book. I give it a 9 out of 10, and that 1 is just because I love the squid so much. The new evil plan that makes more sense is boring by comparison. But what wouldn’t be?

Until next time…… <evil laughter of squids>

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Jer permalink
    March 17, 2009

    I never took the “Teleport Cthulhu into downtown Manhattan” plan to be something that was “so smart and complex that mere mortals can’t understand it”, though. I’ve always thought it was an indication of just how crazy Adrian Veidt was. It really is a ridiculous plan, and even Veidt isn’t really sure it’s going to work. (Conversely, because it’s so ridiculous, not only is the reader surprised by it, but it’s pretty much assured that no one else in Veidt’s world will figure out what happened either – it’s a really Big Lie, and the truth actually makes the idea of an actual alien invasion idea seem much less ridiculous by comparison.)

    The ending for the movie loses the ridiculousness and goes for a more direct ending. It doesn’t underscore Veidt’s loss of his grip on reality at all – the plan makes perfect sense even if it is horrible. You don’t get the sense that Veidt is out of his mind like you do in the book (though to be fair, Moore layers on Veidt’s monomania, egotism and loss of humanity in multiple chapters that the movie just couldn’t make room for).

  2. Vanir permalink
    March 17, 2009

    @Jer: I never said he wasn’t completely insane. I think we’re both right. I think the squid was an incredibly intelligent thing to do AND he’s completely insane! 🙂

    Funny thing about madness — the insane make perfect sense to themselves. But who’s to say it’s not right and we just don’t understand it? (Although the whole “killing millions” part is a bit hard to swallow.)

    I’ll give you that the idea to commit mass murder in order to perpetuate a lie is insanity. The plan itself may seem ridiculous (due to the involvement of a squid), but when you’re Adrian Veidt, megasquids and psychic brains are just tools you work with every day. The “new” plan is just as crazy, it’s just the tools are more mundane.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS