or, being the right kind of mean
“So, you’re trying to expose government corruption. Well, a car drives up, and a bunch of guys jump out. With guns! And… they shoot you! Uh, dead! Conflict!”
We play a lot of story games where there’s no GM, and each character has an arc or agenda they’re pursuing,* rather than reacting to a plot being pushed on them like they would in a traditional game. In these games, the job of providing adversity — making getting what you want difficult and interesting — falls to different players at different times. It becomes a skill everyone needs to be good at, not just one person designated as the GM.
Being a good antagonist is a tricky business, because the players aren’t really enemies. You’re not trying to ruin the character’s life: you’re trying to threaten to ruin their life in a way the other player finds interesting. It’s really collaboration, through an adversarial lens. Good antagonism is a win for the victim.
Here’s a simple recipe for providing trouble in a way that improves the game. Antagonism 101, if you will:
Find out what the protagonist wants, then attach a price tag to it.
Look closely at that first part. Before you can antagonize, the protagonist has to desire. That’s the natural order, and the literal definition of the words: the protagonist takes action and the antagonist opposes. If the protagonist doesn’t want anything, it’s really, really hard to antagonize. Making a “protagonist” with no motive or wants is a complete party foul: a Zen protagonist is not holding up their end of the game, because they’re not giving us anything to work worth. Why are we watching this person’s story? What’s interesting about this person? Who knows!
So step one of antagonism is really: watch and wait. Feel out the protagonist. See where they’re going. What do they want? What do they care about? Send out feelers, but don’t try to impose your own plot (not yet anyway). It’s the protagonist’s story, not yours.
Once you suss out what the protagonist wants, don’t just try to prevent it. That’s a rookie mistake. If you succeed, what happens? Nothing! We’re right back where we started. Same with attacking the protagonist. A guy comes at you with a knife! Who cares? A good protagonist has to be about more than self-preservation. There can be lots of danger to the protagonist, but it’s a means to an end not an end in itself. If you’re killed you can’t lead the revolution, or you won’t see your daughter again, or you won’t get to write your novel: that’s the real threat.
Instead, let the protagonist get what they want, but only if they’re willing to pay your price. Sure, you can lead the revolution that overthrows the government, but are you still willing to do it if your brother is killed in the fighting? Hmm? Okay, well are you willing to personally send him on a suicide mission to defeat the tyrant? Go ahead, take your time and think about it, and hey, let’s roleplay that discussion while we’re at it…
Choice is essential. The protagonist (or at least the protagonist’s player) must be able to see the alternatives and know what the risks are before deciding. Different games have different mechanics for resolving conflicts, but you absolutely want to put that dilemma squarely on the protagonist’s shoulders, preferably giving them a while to stew and angst about it. When it all goes down, they should have no one to blame but themselves.
What’s a good price? That’s the tricky part. You want to keep it tempting. Go too far, charge too much, and the protagonist player isn’t interested anymore. Charge too little, or attach a price tag that’s about something the protagonist doesn’t care about (even though you thought they did) and there’s no friction. You’re trying to create a difficult choice. If one answer is clearly the best, it’s too easy.
If you were paying attention during the “watch & wait” part, you should have a good idea of what the protagonist considers important. You’ve got two main avenues of attack:
Corruption: the protagonist gets what they want, but it doesn’t turn out the way they hoped
Consequences: the protagonist gets what they want, but something else bad happens too
Wanna free the slaves? Awesome! But instead of an enlightened new age, the freed slaves turn around and enslave or slaughter their former masters (Corruption). Wanna cure the plague? Sweet, populace saved! But slaving away for zillions of hours in the lab left your wife lonely. She’s leaving you and your damned test tubes! (Consequences)
Sometimes it’s a combination of the two: Wanna marry the princess? Of course she’ll do it, because she loves you too! But it throws her kingdom into war, because a hoped-for political marriage that would have stabilized relations with an ancient enemy is no longer possible (Consequences). And even though it was her decision, she’ll probably live to regret subjecting her people to misery just to make you happy (Corruption).
Be careful that you don’t corrupt something so much that it isn’t what the protagonist wants any more. In your minds-eye, strip down their goal to its core concept, and then mangle things surrounding that concept without stepping on the idea itself. You want to add a price, not change their goal.
How will you know you’re doing it right? There’s a face a player makes when they’re pushed into territory they don’t want, but they can’t deny is pretty awesome. There’s a moment of shock, followed by a fleeting urge to refute, immediately followed by the realization that wishing is just not going to make it go away. They’re going to love the situation later, after it sinks in, but right now they’re still pretty floored by it. You’ll know it when you see it.
if you didn’t pick a good price you’ll either get pleasant agreement or no reaction (price too low) or a look of discomfort, annoyance, or even a hint of revulsion (price too high buddy). If it’s too late to adjust, just file that info away for later and make your next move better.
This is the age-old protagonist question “How far are you willing to go to get what you want?” flipped around to the point of view of the antagonist. The practical application of theory.
* Shock, Polaris, Fiasco — games like that