Game-mastering tips from John Stavropoulos
Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?
Joker: HAhahAhaHaha! I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! You… you… complete me.
– The Dark Knight (2008)
For you, the GM/Storyteller/Maestro-of-the-ongoing-roleplaying game campaign, it’s the opposite. Your player characters needs their very own Joker… he completes your game!
After all, what’s a: +20 Lock Picking skill without a lock? A fancy sports car without a chase? Or a vorpal blade without something really tough, mean and nasty to go vorpal on?
When I’m a player and make a particularly skillful thief character with a +20 lock picking skill, I create an expectation. When the GM accepts my character into the game, there is an implicit promise that my character is going to matter. And my character is the bits and pieces written down on my character sheet. My character is that +20 lock picking skill; If I never pick a lock, I never really play my character.
At its simplest, if you, the GM, want to create a Joker for my Batman, put a lock into the game that my character can pick!
Your NPCs, world, monsters, and quests could be generated independent of your player’s characters. Some GMs feel this random approach feels more like “real life”. I have to work at finding a use for my thief’s lock picking skill, even if there are no obvious locks to pick. Sometimes it’s frustrating, often times rewarding. This is a common way many run adventures, with an approach akin to solving puzzles. And it can work great. But one size does not fit all and I’d like to present you with a brand new shiny tool to keep handy in your toolkit!
When I GM I want to offer to my players that certain something I believe is partially responsible for the Batman movie, The Dark Knight, grossing a behemoth $150+ million in its opening weekend (the biggest three-day opening in box-office history).
Despite his claims of being an agent of chaos, he is anything but. He isn’t random. He perfectly completes the pattern, fullfils his side of the bargain and becomes the promise that is Batman.
And you, humble GM, can act just as effectively as this maestro of madness. Instead of filling your game with random NPCs, worlds, monsters, and quests… you fill them with Jokers!
Just remember that Joker is an echo of Batman. He is a Batman. Except they chose to walk different paths. And Joker knows it.
A Mirror (really) Darkly
Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me!
– The Dark Knight (2008)
Joker: You had a bad day once, am I right? Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?
– Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
Let’s break down the relationship between these two gents further. Both Joker and Batman were born from the random events of a horrifically bad day. Joker reflects the absurdity of life’s random injustice while Batman dedicates himself to creating meaning from the random tragedy that took away his family.
The Joker and Batman are psychological manipulators. Both use Fear as a weapon. Although Joker’s fear is dressed up in perverse laughter. Fear and humor are directly related… there is a reason we laugh when we’re scared.
The Joker and Batman are brilliant schemers. In the Dark Knight movie, Joker claims to be a rabid dog, a force of chaos yet all his plans are brilliantly strategized with meticulous attention paid to every detail. His actions seem insane but his execution is anything but impulsive, in fact he’s excruciatingly patient. Like Batman.
The Batman and Joker want their opponents to think they are unpredictable forces of nature. Batman wants his opponents to think he will do anything to get the job done… murder… torture… yet Batman never crosses that line but he doesn’t want you (if you’re a bad guy that is) to know that.
And finally the Joker and Batman are both equally insane, only Batman manifests his insanity for justice. What is normal and socially acceptable in jumping from rooftops, skulking in the dark in the worst parts of town and punching people in the face while dressed up like a giant flying mammal (but never mistake him for a furry…that’s just crazy)? In the words of Alan Moore, “psychologically Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other.”
So how do you find the mirror images of your player’s characters and strap their dark wiggling forms into your roleplaying game?
Let’s take a look at Batman’s character sheet. A few example traits:
- Upper Class
- Dual Identity
- Lost Childhood
Keeping in mind what we know about Batman and the Joker’s relationship, look again:
- Detective – The Riddler
- Playboy – Catwoman
- Upper Class – Penguin
- Outsider – Joker
- Dual Identity – Two Face
- Justice – Commissioner Gordon
- Duty – Alfred
- Lost Childhood – Robin
Batman’s family of villains make perfect sense. They are reflections of him, just as if some evil bastard took Batman’s character sheet, ripped out all the traits and grew NPCs from this fertile mix. These may be new NPCs but they aren’t “really real people”, they are echoes of The Batman. He’s fighting himself, and that reveals to us who he is. In facing these twisted reflections, Batman pits who he wants to be vs what he could have been.
Now back to your game:
Next time you create NPCs for your next adventure, grab your player’s character sheets. Take notes. A character sheet is a window into what players want the game to be about: what class they are playing, their highest skill, chosen traits or feats. What are their beliefs and goals and who are their friends and enemies? What are their motivations? When they talk about what happened last game, what were they most excited about? What parts did they forget? These are all clues and seeds to plant to give birth to your next adventure.
You can of course take this to the point of ridiculousness. Bat-Man fights Man-Bat, a person who literally turns into a giant bat! Sounds silly, but the pattern is still there. Get literal or go very abstract, whatever works best with the tone you and your players have established for the game.
Here’s an easy way to take these details and transform them into NPCs, Monsters, and obstacles. Use these three steps, not necessarily in this order:
Take the belief from one of your player characters, say a young ranger-fighter type: “I must stop the Goblins from raiding the village.”
Now begin to create NPCs that embody these opposing beliefs. Using this method, adventures almost write themselves…
– Exaggerate: “I will kill all Goblins, everywhere, no matter the cost.”
– Complicate: “the only way to save the village is if I give the Goblins what they really want.”
– Conflict: “the village is lost, I must lead our people to safety and abandon our home.”
Now you probably have multiple Batmen (and Batgirls, Robins, etc.), not just one player. If you suspect that I’m asking you to generate a sprawling Legion of Doom for your little Justice League fear not, there’s a way to streamline this process.
Write down aspects that exaggerate, complicate, and conflict the parts of the game your players care MOST about. But don’t create NPCs for each of them! Instead, make NPCs composed of multiple aspects. Have the different aspects, where possible, point to the same one or two NPCs. The person who wants to “abandon the village” is the same person who “betrayed another character’s trust.” Simplify your life by having less NPCs to manage and bring the players together by combining their interests (and targets)!
Rules: Breaking them never means having to say you’re sorry
Joker: And tonight you’re gonna break your one rule!
– The Dark Knight (2008)
Joker: Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
Batman: You’ll be in a padded cell forever.
Joker: Maybe we can share one.
– The Dark Knight (2008)
Joker: They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
– The Dark Knight (2008)
Batman has self-imposed rules, lines he won’t cross. Batman refuses to kill. His path to justice started with his parents being murdered. He refuses to become that which he fights. He doesn’t use guns. And he won’t kill even if it would be easier.
Both Joker and Batman were born from the random events of a bad day. Both do seemingly insane things. But as long as Batman doesn’t break his one rule, he won’t become the Joker. So the Joker becomes obsessed with Batman and proving they are the same. If Joker is wrong, if Joker had a choice, then everything he’s ever done is his own fault.
It’s powerful story material. You can create entire campaigns with Joker just pushing Batman’s buttons. Pushing him closer to the breaking point. Making each Batman victory that much more meaningful. Looking at your player’s character’s traits and beliefs (their own rules), this gives your NPCs perfect goals! Use your NPCs to push your Batmen to break their own rules. Your characters will either reinforce who they are by fighting back or be forced to change and evolve by crossing that high-voltage line. Either way… drama, and drama makes me want more of any game!
If Hollywood made a movie about your game’s player characters… who would the villain be?
WARNING: ignore the following if you want to avoid spoilers from the Batman comics The Killing Joke, A Death in the Family, Under the Hood and the animated movie Under the Red Hood. The parts to skip are between SPOILER START and SPOILER END.
———-[ SPOILER START ] ———-
In The Killing Joke, Joker cripples Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) but Batman doesn’t break his rule. He refuses to use a gun and won’t kill.
In A Death in the Family, Joker kills Jason Todd (Robin). Batman blames himself but never breaks his rule (although comes close in future encounters with the Joker).
Finally in Under the Hood and the animated movie, Batman: Under The Red Hood, Jason Todd returns from the dead. He captures Joker and confronts Batman. Jason forgives Batman for not saving him from the Joker but he is furious that Batman still did nothing, even after Joker killed countless innocent people, crippled Barbara, and murdered Jason. Why is the Joker still alive?
Batman confesses that he always wanted to kill the Joker but he won’t allow himself the pleasure because there would be no going back. Jason tosses a gun to Batman. Using the Joker as a human shield, he points his gun at the Joker’s head. Jason tells Batman to choose. Either kill Jason, or let Jason kill the Joker on a count of three. Choose… Jason or the Joker. His friend or his rules.
———-[ SPOILER END ] ———-