Impractical Applications (Sympathy and Success—or Lack Thereof)

I talked earlier this week about sympathetic antagonists, and their advantages and disadvantages. I’ve seen them go a lot of different ways—success, failure, combinations of the above, all depending on what I managed to do wrong, do right, or occasionally do a little too well.

I’ve written before about my last adventure with an antagonist without a jot of sympathy. Glacierfang was a one-off, meant to keep the group busy through one side adventure. I’d focused entirely on his creep factor, and made him a nigh-on-unavoidable battle—he wasn’t so much interested in money or power or whatnot as he was in the hunt, and operated on unsettle and strike tactics. Just about everything about him was flash—all right, which techniques will be most effective/unsettling, how do I execute them, how do I freeze the blood of my players? As a result, there wasn’t really anything for me to latch onto, and the encounter ended with a whimper rather than a bang, the lot of us agreeing to sidestep the whole mess entirely.

Then there was Helki, who had the opposite problem—he was too sympathetic. It was easy to gloss his initial attack as a misunderstanding, he certainly didn’t want to fight, and as a result, one of the few fights I was planning on running got derailed by the opponent himself.

And then there was Zora. On the one hand, she worked as an antagonist. On the other, she worked on two different levels. At the same time. To different members of the group, one of whom had a Thing about individualism. Most of the group thought of her as hazardously misguided at best, downright inimical at worst, the one who didn’t believe in the existence of evil considered her a personal threat; and then there was this one who thought that she could be redeemed if they’d just give her a chance and lay off her triggers, and… well, that was about when the rift in the group started. I think I’d feel better about it if the group had decided, hey, characterization through a running conflict could be fun, this will do, and I in my turn had done it on purpose. Since I didn’t, I’m not sure if she’s my most successful failure or my most failworthy success.

My most successful sympathetic antagonists were probably Esemeli and Rukan. Rukan I expected, because she put the sympathy first and kept her antagonism as a footnote, for the most part—I think she acted in complete opposition to the group a grand total of once, which helped. Esemeli was a bit more of a surprise. How the acerbic, possibly slightly sadistic, very misanthropic arcane scientist and demonologist who favored live subjects and had in fact been responsible for the condition of one of the PCs, who insulted everyone managed to go over as well as she did I’m not sure. It might have been her wit, though—on her first appearance in the solo game, where she was most definitely one of the enemy and not to be trifled with, I had at least two iterations of “(I like her.)” or equivalent OOC chatter in response to some of her one-liners. The bit in that game where, for once in their lives, she and Rukan had a natural good cop bad cop routine in which Esemeli was the good cop didn’t hurt matters.

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