Machiavellian Characters

Something has been made clear to me from the discussions we’ve had here in the past month or so due to my posts on the Lady Blackbird game and now on the post about Vampire: people want to hurt my characters, “beat the living snot” out of them, as was put by both Mick and Rich. The reason for this is that they both feel that the characters they have seen of mine in a game have been Machiavellian double-crossers playing both sides of the game. And they are absolutely right.

I’d never really stopped to think about it until Mick pointed it out in an in-character comment on his blog in which he called my character, Kale Arkam, a “manipulative loudmouth prick who thinks he knows more than everyone else in the Blue.” That got me thinking, as I wasn’t actively trying to play Kale as manipulative, though he certainly was playing both sides of the equation. This is also the case with my character in the Star Wars Primetime Adventures game we’ve played at Gen Con, Obi-Wan Skywalker, who has been revealed to be both aiding the Rebellion and be in league with the evil Sith lord, Dark Ackbar, at the same time.

So I started thinking back to other characters I have played in the past, and though it isn’t an universal constant, I came up with other characters cut from the same cloth, including an ex-Imperial Scout Trooper who had defected to the Rebellion in a game of Star Wars D6 back in the early 90s. I guess to this I can add all the NPCs I played in our late-90s Vampire chronicle, as well as my main NPC character in the Changeling chronicle, and even my D&D character from the legendary campaign we played while in high school. All these characters have one thing in common: they all walk the line between good and evil.

Cue Alien Sex Fiend here.

I had never, ever, thought about this consciously, but it is true, it is a trope that I return to again and again. As I said, it isn’t something I do every time–I do recall playing a couple of characters that were straight-up good, even if caught in shitty circumstances (there’s Sir Argus Fisner in the D&D pbem game of a couple years ago, and Havoc in my first Shadowrun campaign some 20 years ago)–but yeah, I totally gravitate towards the morally-gray type of character. And apparently I’m making them more and more morally ambiguous, which in turn is making my fellow players feel like they need to direct some aggression against them!

I can’t say I know why I do this. I can fathom a quick explanation from what is most obvious to me:
In real life, I am very much a morally-straight, lawful and good person. I believe in laws and feel they need to be followed, I have a very clear moral compass pointing towards doing what is right based on my upbringing and religious lessons, believe in treating people fairly and honestly. I guess I want to see how it feels to let loose of these constraints. Though I don’t play evil characters, I sometimes flirt a bit too closely with the darkness. Is it to then see the light all the more clearly, or is it to see what’s hiding in the shadows? Perhaps a bit of both?

One thing is certain: if I am evoking such reactions from my fellow players, I must be doing something right. I don’t think I’m done exploring this trope. If anything, now that I have identified it, I’m looking forward to exploring it even more, and in the process explore why it is that subconsciously I am drawn by this archetype.

To my friends I ask, what is it about these characters that make you want to “beat the living snot” out of them?


  1. I think for my part what makes me frustrated with characters like Arkham and Obi-Wan is the cockiness. You manipulate, but don’t do a particularly good job of keeping it on the down-low. You wave your grey-shaded duplicity in front of us. It’s like a form of blackmail. i.e. “If I really wanted you out of the way, you’d have been dealt with a long time ago.”

    You play like you know my character’s secrets and will use them against my character, and like your guy is in total control because of all the stuff he knows and the pressure that knowledge can exert. You’re cocky about it. It’s like you’re daring me to try to get out from under your thumb.

    Of course, this is all filtered through the lens of the two characters I’ve played alongside the two guys you’ve played who are steeped in this trope – and both of my characters were the type who would tend to react impulsively, decisively, and violently to any hint of being under someone’s thumb.

    Just like you’re a law-abiding rule follower who likes to explore shifty machiavellians, I’m a passive reactor adrift on the seas of fate who likes to explore the notion of being a decisive, violently strong personality who refuses to be controlled, except by his/her own inner strength.

    You play vampires, I play werewolves.


  2. Obi-Wan in particular is very much that template, yes. Arkam kinda fell into it because Naomi pushed his buttons. Either way, yes, the cockiness is there, very much so. I think it also has to do with the same exploration: you know me, I’m very centered, very quiet, but I’m also arrogant at times, thinking I know it all, or more than you (whoever “you” is). This has bit me in the ass before, and no doubt in the future as well, so I try to play it in a space where I might be able to actually get away with it. Might. The beauty of it is that in failing to do so, we always get great drama in the game, so I guess it works out.

    One day I will play the double-crossing manipulator that keeps it all on the down-low until all is in place. We’ll see how that goes.


  3. “The beauty of it is that in failing to do so, we always get great drama in the game, so I guess it works out.”

    I think this is the key for both your characters: you play characters that create drama. You are both plugging into the idea that tension creats drama, whether that be tension from double-dealing arrogance or decisive violence. Tension primes the pump for you to unleash double-barreled dramatic awesomeness.

    I say keep it up, you’re both doing something right.


  4. The thing with many of my characters is that their “adventuring role” is their job, meaning that the other “party members” are co-workers, not friends. If the objective is Complete Mission X, and the other characters are doing things that jeopardize reaching the objective, my character will throw them under the proverbial bus without a second thought. That’s just playing in character. Depending upon the character and setting, he may even throw them under the bus when they’re being good team players if it helps achieve the objective.

    Most times, this stems from the setting and genre; I tend to play in a lot of modern crime and espionage games, where screwing people over for personal gain and/or the greater good is how the world works. For a year, I played an ex-DEA agent who was hunting drug dealers while working as a coyote on the Mexican border. I’m currently playing (in different campaigns) an ex-Marine working for a Blackwater-type security company, a Greek partisan/smuggler at the end of WWII, and an internet millionaire who lost everything and is now homeless.

    Like you, Daniel, I am pretty much a straight arrow. I like good drama, drama results from conflict, and playing morally complex characters with dark sides makes for good drama. They’re also fun to play because they’re layered. There’s an art to keeping them likable while letting them make bad choices, and sometimes even I want to beat the snot out of my own characters for their decisions and resulting actions. But it makes for great stories and fun game sessions.


  5. @Berin Kinsman
    You’ve probable taken that archetype to levels I haven’t (at least that I can remember), but yeah, it’s just traveling down the same road; you’re just going to a rest stop a bit further down the way than me.

    I continue to wonder if I’ll ever get a game where I can successfully pull off the manipulation and moral tightrope-walking without falling or hurting anyone, but though going off what JJ said, every time I do it, regardless of the consequence, there is a memorable story to tell.


  6. @Mick Bradley
    I don’t wanna go too personal here, but I was organizing some papers yesterday and ran into my early attempts at keeping a journal. These are loose-leaf sheets that span 1992 to 1998-ish. In these, I self-identify as a Vampire (also as Phantom [as in Of The Opera] and Beast [as in Beauty & the], but mainly and mostly as a Vampire). Clearly there is something deeply ingrained in my psyche about this archetype.


  7. First of all, I say I want to “beat the living snot” out of your characters with love, Daniel. It is no way a slight against you.

    Xhodox never wanted to hurt Obi-Wan, he looked up to him. As a GM, I loved playing with you as Kale Arkam.

    But if I ever met those guys as people and I wouldn’t get killed for it, I would take a pot shot at them because they are shifty, pushy and self-serving, double-crossing sneaky people. They spend so much time playing both sides against the middle that they could be using to pull for the good guys. But that’s just me. As a player, I see the value in that point-of-view.
    .-= Rich´s last blog… Canon Puncture 85: Game Advocates – Sorceror =-.


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