The Generic Villain on Timing

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re one of those Hands of Darkness who sits at the end of a long, travel-intensive struggle for survival on the part of an at best awkward and at worst utterly mismatched crowd of protagonists, probably with some grand ulterior goal or guiding idea of world-saving, whatever the heck that means to them.

…what? It’s a common state.

Anyway, you’ve got these prots, and you want to break them. Have one of those mid-run battles where you make them aware that you are A Force To Be Reckoned With, vicious and wicked and Way More Powerful Than Thou. Splinter your opponents and play upon the natural discords that any party so thrown together might have. (Maybe you even think you’re going to kill them, and just want to make sure you have the maximum level of shock and awe and general confusion on your side… you optimist, you.) The question then becomes when to strike.

Standard tactical sense would tell you that the best time to take them out is at the end of one of their long and arduous journeys which requires fighting ubiquitous monsters that they may not even have been able to see before they were right on top of them. They’re tired, they’ve probably worn out half their magic just getting to this point, they’re probably mentally fatigued, this is your best shot, right?

The Laws of Dramatics, though, say otherwise: in fact, research shows that the time to strike that brings the greatest likelihood of (admittedly, usually temporary) success is when they’re in the middle of a break from the endless strain of bizarre ambushes and grueling travel. Refreshed, rested, and at peace with the world.

What’s going on here?

First off, catching them at the end of a long run of fights means they’re expecting, well, a fight. The armor is on, the weapons are out, the radar is active, the scouts are scouting; they’re alert. They’re ready. Even if they’re worn out from their travel, the survivor part of them is active and likely to subconsciously kick in where their intellects might not. And all that life-or-death struggle means they’ve been bonding, or at the very least recognizing their usefulness to and possibly dependence on each other. A bad time to try to pick off one.

On the other hand, consider a strike when they’re on break. It isn’t just bringing the idea behind ambushes to bear, though the fact that all their defenses are lowered does help. There are other advantages. Think about all the little conflicts and incompatibilities, the angsty secrets and hidden enmities, that we love preying on. Out where survival is a Thing, these tend to be shoved to the back in favor of living another day, because they “aren’t important yet” or because the target of the vendetta is still useful. But when they’re safe, they come bubbling out–guilt at keeping deadly secrets, opportunities to strike. The gratitude at having just had one’s life saved is put on the back burner, and the irritation that this person is such a frivolous idiot is running full force.

And then there’s the Principle of Whiplash. (No, no, not the one with the mustache, he’s more an example of what not to do.) The idea behind this is that for every situation in which a mood is completely and utterly reversed, Dramatic Necessity will cause it to reverse between the greatest possible extreme. And what’s the extreme opposite of perfect safety and contentment? Complete and utter defeat!

In sum: tactically, attacking a worn-out party might seem preferable. But dramatically, you want to get them when their guard is down. Get Narrative Causality on your side!

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