[Archetypes] The Warlock- It’s a kind of (Howard) magic

Recently I was watching “Conan-The Destroyer” again it got me thinking. While I like the overall look and feel of the movie, I also feel the magic users in it are really watered down when you compare them to Howards stories, making them parlour magicians at best, rather than real forces to be reckoned with. I also noticed that they bear many similarities to how magic users/powerful characters are played in many roleplaying games.

In Howards stories the wizards embody a very different quality (which I will be calling “the Warlock archetype” through the rest of the article). The base-template of the Warlock, through rarely fully realized, is used in a variety of media and is by no means restricted to magic-users (i.e.: the characters in Tom Clancy novels certainly fit the bill) or even evil characters (i.e.: Silvester McCoys interpretation of the Doctor).

When the Warlock archetype is fully realized by the writers, it blossoms into something which makes it fun for the intelligent viewer to follow his mind-boggling capers (however, not everyone appreciates this, as seen here). Playing similar characters or NPCs in a roleplaying game seems to be a logical step. For this lets look at three essential qualities of the Warlock:

1. Willing to play by the rules anyone, in order to get ahead
The classic image that comes to mind might be of Ye Olde Necromancer, who makes a pact with a generic daemonic entity in exchange for power. While this certainly is a possibility it might not always be true. The question is: do the powers he gains stand in relation to what he has to pay for it? (i.e. selling his soul and having to burn in hell after death is rarely worth it- unless of course he actually has a way of avoiding dying altogether). On the other hand: if certain acts enact consequences in the material realm (i.e.: being marked as evil and having a bunch of holy paladins beating down the path to your door), the warlock will shy away from them. In short: He acts as moral (or immoral) as necessity dictates, not any moral compass others might be swayed by. In fact, he shows a profound lack of this kind of instrument. His goals might be noble or base, depending on the circumstances, but the means by which he achieves them defy moral categorization (see the actions of Pelias in Howard’s’ “The Scarlet Citadel”).

2. The perfect hand is the unseen hand
Knowledge is power. The warlock knows this better than anyone else. No matter how much power you have (or how many spells you know, for that matter), if it is plainly visible what you can do, your opponents will eventually find a way to counter your every move. Like a good stage-magician the warlock never let’s anyone wise up on how he achieved things, enacting complicated rituals for things which are everyday tricks for him, to goad onlookers into thinking them time-intensive and hides the truly dangerous workings from them, to make it appear he could draw on them at will. He might even (like a dark reflection of Mark Twain’s Astronaut in King Arthur’s court) take credit for things that aren’t really his doing, but which are based on laws (natural or otherwise) only he is aware of. The advantages are obvious: if his capabilities are diffuse, he might as well be omnipotent, as there is no way for anyone to whip up a meaningful strategy against him.
Of course that makes him especially vulnerable to naïve adventurers, who rush in without a plan and rely on dumb luck to achieve their goals- he might defeat them most of the time, but all it takes is one band of them to “get lucky” to seal his fate.

3. Really get into their heads
To counter the above problems and be a really successful Warlock, it is necessary for him to possess another, quite unusual, quality: empathy. He needs to know what motivates them, what “makes them tick” so to speak. A true warlock always shows respect for any opponent which he thinks deserves such- the inability to acknowledge the accomplishments of his opponents leads to an underestimation of them. Arrogance is a vice a warlock rarely succumbs to (and then only if he has inconclusive information). Ozymandias (from the Watchmen comics) is a good example of this kind of thinking in action- while he has no way to actually stop the near-omnipotent Dr Manhattan he doesn’t need to- he only has to understand how Dr Manhattan deals with certain situations to evaluate which course of action to take. Likewise, it is important that #2 also applies to this area and the warlock confuses his opponents with wrong motives (i.e.: Irons in Die Hard-With a Vengeance, who makes it appear like he is looking for…well vengeance, when he really is after plain ol’ cash).

Unfortunately in Destroyer, we have Akiro (your run-off-the-mill “point me in enemy direction and press my ‘Fireball’ button”-utility mage), Thot-Amon (short-sighted egomaniac with suicidal tendencies) and the Cult of Dagoth (the only characters in the movie who actually do a bit of scheming, unfortunately only as far as it relates to Conan and not to… say, actually clueing in to the fact that their plan is going to doom them all, according to the prophesies which are right in front of their noses, but which they conveniently ignore).

Taking these three to the RPG world, Akiro is the “party-mage”, who acts as the swiss-army-knife of the group, a tool that allows for some tactical fiddling. Of course everyone in the group knows what mages can and can’t do and separating between player and character knowledge would not only be a big hassle, but also tactical setback. So it is assumed he fulfils his destiny as a group tool and kow-tows along with the suggestions of the other players. Thot-Amon is the typical “encounter enemy”, which just throws a string of dangerous situations at the PCs, without rhyme or reason. He does stupid things like abducting important NPCs, but leaving the PCs alive (game reason: to go rescue the NPC; character reason: He’s stupid) or confronting the PCs directly, when he has not yet ascertained that he is powerful enough to handle them (I have to admit, the mirror stunt he pulled in the movie was pretty clever, separating the companions and testing the strength of Conan through a proxy, but hiding behind the mirrors, when smashing them was integral to defeating the creature? Big goof up!). The Cult of Dagoth: they could actually shine in a game, if done right, big plans coming to fruition and all. Unfortunately the movie bad guys show the all-too-common mistake of RPGs, that the “grand plans” are only being in place to provide the PCs with a hook into the adventure. What a waste.

It also isn’t a common occurrence that characters themselves take on the role of mastermind-y Warlocks in RPG. One of the reasons for this is, that the very set-up of the game-world doesn’t require the players to make long-term plans, because they often are unbound travellers who are of to the next kingdom (or the next planet in a sci-fi game) the following week anyway and don’t have to worry about the long-term repercussions of their actions.

While some games are that contain elements of this playstyle (some Shadowrun-sourcebooks hint at the fact, that the game might go like this, when dragons are involved) and some settings which practically beg to be tapped (like cold-war espionage, for which you would, however, need a fitting system, other than the crappy Spycraft and the nice (but unfortunately too narrative for this playstyle) Spione), there are only two games, which really provide the appropriate setup for this kind of game: one being Amber, the other Vampire: the Masquerade. But because neither of them does a very good job of explaining this particular mindset and how it impacts on the game, resulting in many players who simply miss this wonderful opportunity and play it like they would play any other RPG (and then complain, that it is impossible to succeed because the GM “doesn’t want us to”.) and many GMs who confuse strategy with an obscene power-trip to screw the PCs over. Too often the players are either very reactive in their goals or very straightforward in pursuing them, because genuine intrigue is something which doesn’t come naturally to many, apart from cheap soap-opera stunts.

Example: a player in a Vampire LARP I took part in was given the “mission” by the GMs to humiliate his superior in public. The player sought to accomplish this, by acting really obstinate (read: like a spoiled child)- sure this made said superior look bad, but the character even worse (not to mention he had no leverage whatsoever, to keep his superior from punishing him afterwards for the little show he put up- nothing except the OT whining of the player about “how unfair” this was, that is). Later, when the big plot-Macguffin was discovered, he stole it in front of everyone, ran away and hid it in his vault (the others were too hesitant to restrain him, due to his whining earlier that evening). He later congratulated himself on this “clever move”, by which he gained a “reinsurance” to keep the other characters from touching him (in a real and in a metaphorical sense). That this action was short-sighted at best, since the documents he swiped would only retain their value while the information contained within wasn’t leaked in any other way (bound to happen during the declaration by the Prince shortly thereafter) and that he had made himself a bunch of powerful enemies (which sought to use the foreknowledge about the Princes motives to further their own plans), was lost to him, not having the capacity to think this to its end. Or maybe he didn’t care, being busy patting himself on the back on having outsmarted a bunch of “stupid Vampire players”. In any case since the game was a one-shot there wasn’t the opportunity to let this run its course and see where the “clever scheming” of said player might have led in the long run. My guess (from the way we usually play Vampire) would be an early grave by session 3 at best. But that’s just me.

In short: thinking three steps ahead, weighing options and analyzing diffuse trends (as opposed to dry strategic facts) has become an important part of many games I like and run. I enjoy playing it in other ways occasionally, but always come back to it sooner or later.

The question remains: why it is so underrepresented in the RPG scene? Are these ideas that foreign and/or unattractive to roleplayers or have they just not bothered to try it?

Or have I just gamed with the wrong persons?

Thanks for the attention anyway.


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