Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ends Justify The Means: Vigilantism in RPGs

Vigilantism is a cornerstone of the role-playing experience. Second to the "adventuring party" of the typical fantasy game, which arguably veers into vigilantism as well, I'd say that it's the biggest core motivation for player characters, particularly in a modern setting. In a fantastic world of "good guys" and "bad guys," the hero that works outside the law has become a staple.

Let's continue this discussion below the fold, where we'll look at new takes on vigilantes as heroes and villains, and why not all players should be Batman, even if he is really cool.

In the meantime, would you like to check out a free vigilante-style character for your modern or superhero game? Check out Complete Characters #2: Helot, a human vigilante in a world of Supers. He now comes complete with not one, but three sets of d20 stats for your low, medium, or high-level campaign.

Defining the vigilante

So, let's back up and talk about what a vigilante really is. The media, probably comic books most of all, have shaped the vigilante into a real hero who does what must be done to bring about justice. Somewhere in there is the truth, but it is certainly more idealized than the term's historic roots. The term "vigilante" isn't really that old, as words go, but the concept has been around for most of human history. We're all familiar with Robin Hood, who was an outlaw who fought the powers that be on behalf of those who couldn't fight for themselves.

Vigilantism enters the realm of our modern perception, in my opinion, when well-meaning rogues adopted the practice of wearing a mask to hide their true identity to avoid prosecution as they took justice into their own hands. You saw most notably in the American West of the 19th century, where hooded men formed "vigilance committees" to take the law into their own hands to punish criminals who might slip through the cracks of legitimate justice. As one can imagine, the results of the activities of such groups were almost always bloody, and was not bothered with such trivialities as juries and evidence. More than a few of these vigilantes ended up at the end of a rope, themselves.

Vigilantes as villains

The thing that makes a vigilante such a compelling and effective villain in your RPG is the fact that they feel justified in their actions. A person who believes, beyond doubt, that they are in the right is capable of pretty much anything. These characters work best when the current campaign takes place in a setting where the issue that drives the vigilante, be it a personal vendetta or a political view or a matter of faith, is also important in the larger world. Ideally, whatever drives the villain has some sort of tie to the player characters as well, or is an important theme in the game world. For example, if the vigilante seeks to eliminate the local drug cartel he holds responsible for his father's death, it helps if the drug cartel is a player in the setting at large, or if one or more of the characters can somehow relate to the vigilante's situation. If the motivations are unrelated to the player characters, they can still end up involved in trying to stop him, but probably won't be emotionally invested.

Referring back to the days of the Wild West and its vigilance committees, there's an aspect of the vigilante that we don't often see, and that's the presence of a group of villainous vigilantes, united in a common goal. The thing is, for an individual to spend his nights punishing drug lords, or stringing up rapists, or bombing clinics, and to do those things all alone, you have to be at least a little bit crazy. One of the truly frightful things about vigilantism is the mob mentality that can rule otherwise-reasonable people. It's the ultimate case of peer pressure, or misery loving company, or group-think. When things start to really leave the rails, or escalate, it makes sense that these free-wheelers have others brewing in the pot with them, creating a collective will to continue where an individual might falter. Having a group of such people, presumably ordinary men and/or women who have been driven to this extreme, also does something to make them feel more real and gives them more depth than the individual acting alone.

Viglantes as heroes

Almost by definition, a vigilante is going to be a hero to some, but never to all. When it's the player characters that have taken the law into their own hands, this distinction is important. As long as their motives are pure, their results visible, and their methods not too extreme, there will always be someone out there who appreciates what these masked heroes are doing. This is where, in a pinch, the heroic vigilante can find a place to hide, an alibi, or at least find someone who will look the other way.

Just the same, some will never be able to forgive the lawlessness that goes along with even a heroic vigilante. While such heroes may have supporters in the local police force or government, the official position will be to apprehend them as criminals. Most such authority figures will genuinely desire their capture, as will many citizens. Vigilante heroes are likely to be suspected in unrelated crimes, and will be held responsible for collateral damage in their pursuits of justice without the benefit of getting to explain their side of the story. In a snap, even those who have benefited from the actions of the heroes can turn on them when things go poorly.

Perhaps the most important part of playing a heroic vigilante character, which Game Masters should also always keep in mind, is that the line between "good" and "bad" in such a profession is razor-thin. That line is defined by what is right, versus what is easy. As soon as property damage elevates or violence becomes too great for the average person to stomach, many will cross the line and begin to call for the heads of their would-be protectors, lumping them in with the criminals they fight. The media, too, can play a big role in defining this perception, as we famously see in the various incarnations of Spider-Man at the hands of J. Jonah Jameson.

Batman is awesome, but...

Okay, we all love Batman. He's the greatest. However, we should probably not use this as our benchmark for the vigilante character. As gamers, if we're going to walk down the road of the vigilante, I'm not sure that the billionaire with de facto deputized status with the local police department is the best role-playing opportunity. As with all things, I encourage gamers to instead try to approximate what it would be like if real people took up arms and donned masks in defense of the people. Stories of personal struggle and failure, hard-fought minor victories, and actions with real consequences are the best gaming opportunities. A real vigilante hero, or group of such heroes, is always going to be outgunned, outnumbered, and outclassed by those they oppose. That makes the gaming experience so much sweeter, and the gaming so much better.

In conclusion

Maybe I have this totally wrong. What do you think? Have a favorite vigilante hero or villain from the movies, comics, or your gaming table? If you're in a vigilante mood, head over to DriveThruRPG and pick up your free copy of Complete Characters #2: Helot, now with three sets of d20 stats for use in your low, medium, or high-powered game. Let me know what you think.


A.L. said...

I think it goes without saying that Helot is my favorite of your complete characters. Part of it is because I also love the vigilante angle.

Some of the best Batman stories are the ones where he is at odds with the police, or the other heroes, or even th eother members of the Bat family. Still, he keeps on going for it. The same is true with others in that line of work, and a lot of comics - and movies - do play up the fact that the police aren't happy about it either. Vigilanteism is a crime after all.

Course, my interest in this, and the ways it can play out, extends so far that I'm making a game for it. One of the mechanics - reputation specifically - is done in a way where you can have different groups feeling different ways about you, left to go as specific or vague as needed. It is something that can be central to a vigilante's story after all.

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