Applying Theory: Onion of Doom Part II

For the record, as far as The Action Point is concerned, midi-chlorians and the entire Gungan species never existed.

There. Now that’s settled, so we shall move right along.

Heroic, Paragon, and...Epic?

Before I reveal the 4th component of the Onion of Doom, I’m going to backtrack a little bit and elaborate some more on the three categories of baddie that I introduced to you in the first post. It occurred to me that I didn’t do as much practical application as I wanted to, so I’m a-gonna rectify that.

It’s supremely ballsy, but I decided to put together a 4th Edition statblock for everybody’s favorite Sith Lord. It’s terribly easy to see him as a human augmented by a mad artificer with Warforged parts grafted to his ruined limbs, and encased in a suit of black plating. The lightsaber got turned into a standard greatsword because I didn’t want to combine too many damage types on him. It’s easy to see him as the Dark Lord in service to the Emperor in this way; tweaking him for fantasy was a lot of fun.

I am by no means an expert on copyright law, so I figured I’d err on the side of caution and rename him in the Darth style but not make a direct copy. If I were to use him in my own game, I’d rename and reskin him anyway. For the record, this solo is intended for use without any other standard monsters in the encounter– only in the final confrontation with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi do we ever see Vader taking on any of the heroes with an ally stronger than a stormtrooper at his side. He’s the quintessential Minion Wrangler, our boy Darth. Because of this, it didn’t seem fair to leave him without his boys in white, so I decided to stat them up too.

I want to talk a little bit about the structure of the Star Wars movies as I see them, but in order to do that, I need to discuss my views on the tiers of play in 4E. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I want to talk about the transitions between tiers and most especially the end of the Epic Tier.

The lens through which each tier of 4E is viewed was one of the most mind-twisting things I found in the 4E DMG. I adore  the concept that as the hero’s power increases, so does the scope with which they affect the world around them. It’s something that I’ve always had in my games, but I did no’t even realize it until I read it on black and white, and seeing it there on the page made it a much more concrete concept in my head. Planning out the Tiers of play from the get-go is a fantastic concept, and one that lines up with the Onion of Doom theory quite well… but not in the way you might think.

See… I’m a card-carrying member of P.E.T.F.D— that’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Fictional Deities. And really, that goes for any other kind of immortal entity of similar power level. Archdemon, Archdevil, Archangel, Primordial, one of the major-league Primal Spirits, etc.

The Dresden Files RPG refers to these kinds of entities as “Plot Level Powerful” and this is how I, personally, like to run my games. What this means is that these entities are so powerful, so completely beyond the scope of what mortal beings can bring to a fight, that putting stats on them in the traditional sense is completely a waste of time. I am a full convert to this kind of setting– I say setting because this is the kind of thing that needs to be established as a core tenet of your campaign, up front at the beginning of the game so the players’ expectations are set correctly. I do not believe that at any time should a PC or group of PCs be able to kill a god in combat. Ever. The gods and creatures of similar power levels are so far beyond the scope of mortal understanding that the kind of power they can bring to bear is precisely WHY nobody has done so beforehand. I am a firm believer that if the PCs can paint a target on the back of a god, or Archdemon, or whathaveyou that it immediately removes a level of mystery and awe that is utterly necessary for the fantasy genre.

So that being said, there are two ways to think about Star Wars in terms of tiers of play. The first is really simple: One layer of the Onion of Doom per Tier. From 1st to 10th level, the PCs are dealing with The Beast; once they cross into Paragon, the Schemer comes into play and the Ultimate Big Bad for the campaign will be the Chessmaster at the end of the Epic Tier. This is one way to look at it, and it encourages a fairly standard, measured campaign structure. But what if we choose to break it up a little differently?

As I said in the last post, Darth Vader can be either The Beast or The Schemer, depending on which point in his career the PCs encounter him at. Consider the following for a campaign outline.All of these level breaks are approximate. It would be completely easy to fiddle with the exact levels at which the PCs encounter these “sub-chapters.”

Level 1-5– PCs are drawn into the Epic Story of the campaign, opposing the Beast through minions and lesser NPCs.

Level 6-10— PCs oppose the Beast directly, but are still unaware of the deeper layers of the Onion of Doom until graduation from Heroic to Paragon. At that point, the Beast (like Darth Vader) is defeated but not removed from play entirely, or can be brought back to plague the PCs again. The Beast becomes the Schemer, or the Schemer is revealed to the party, and the Chessmaster is hinted at (like the Jedi knowing about Darth Sidious but not what his real identity was).

Level 11-15– The Schemer weaves his plots around the PCs, opposing them through several new Beasts (Grievous, Ventress, Starkiller), or maybe the Chessmaster puts the PCs between a rock and a hard place between two Schemers who each have their own Beasts in play. This is really what Sidious does to the Jedi, stretching them extra-thin by using Dooku and Grievous as levers against his Light-side enemies. He overwhelms them with badguys and makes them pick and choose what gets defended–and by analyzing what the Jedi are willing to sacrifice, he gains more insight into how he can manipulate his foes.

PCs of this level are powerful, so one of the ways to make them feel really threatened is to give them too many threats to deal with. Give them multiple, conflicting quests all over the place so that they have to make hard choices and decide what is truly important to their characters. Whether they like it or not, by this point in their careers, the PCs are leaders and examples for those who they protect, so their choices have real, lasting effect on the world around them. Instead of just throwing harder and harder combats at them, make them choose whether to defend the city of Oakvale, where the enemy army is attacking, or journey to the Shadowfell to seek an artifact that will make the Schemer easier to defeat in the long term. If they choose the city, their final confrontation with the Schemer will be much harder, but they will have saved Oakvale and its citizens. If they take the Shadowfell route, make sure they are brought back to Oakvale so they can see the results of their decision– but also make SURE the confrontation with the Schemer is reduced in difficulty, and that the players SEE that, otherwise they will instantly resent you for that no-win situation. It’s one thing if a villain backs the PCs into a corner. It’s something else entirely if the GM does it to his players.

So… just like the Prequel Trilogy, the PCs have beaten layers and layers of the Onion of Doom only to be thwarted at the last moment by the Chessmaster, who has been planning for this eventuality since the beginning. The PCs may be scattered or dead or some of both, and all seems darkest before the dawn. But through all of this, the heroes have achieved one major goal– they have revealed the fourth layer of the Onion of Doom.

The Devil– It’s not a particularly Space Opera term, true. But it fits. Like I said in the original post, I believe that Lucas intentionally or otherwise ended up personifying the Dark Side of the Force. By ascribing things like the Will of the Force to the characters, he implies that the Force is a dynamic, at least semi-intelligent entity that can and does manipulate mortals for its own benefit.

Kinda sounds like meddling gods and demons in a fantasy setting, doesn’t it?

The revelation of the Devil in your game is the reason I wrote the section about P.E.T.F.D earlier, so what I’m about to discuss makes sense in my personal context. In EXACTLY the same way I do not believe that George Lucas ever intended for the Jedi to be able to literally kill the Dark Side of the Force, I do not believe that PCs should ever be able to kill a god. They can work tirelessly to thwart the Devil’s plans, destroy its adherents, and ensure that the Devil has a helluva time getting a foothold for generations to come… but they are never going to be able to eliminate the source of that evil. Because of that, I think it’s very important to make sure that the PCs feel a really incredible sense of accomplishment by destroying the most powerful minions of the devil instead.

Have you ever sat down and watched all six movies back to back? I have. It’s powerful. Even moreso if you watch the Clone Wars series between Episode II and Episode III. Watching these heroes strive so valiantly against the Darkness only to have it ultimately crush them– that makes the victory over the Emperor at Endor so very much sweeter. When you give the Chessmaster a force backing him that is so great in scope that the PCs can’t hope to beat it, that makes thwarting the Chessmaster even more of an accomplishment, because the Chessmaster is the means by which the Devil accesses the world. Simplified, think of the Devil and the Chessmaster like a water hose of EEEEEEVIL and the valve that controls the hose– if you make sure that the valve is locked shut (by, say, throwing the valve down a bottomless shaft in the middle of a space station), the hose cant spout any water.You can’t turn the water OFF, but you can make sure that it can’t get to your garden.

So that’s it for this edition of The Action Point. Next time, I’m going to help you build your very own Onion of Doom, from concept to campaign outline!!

This entry was posted in Afghanistan Gaming, Applying Theory, Brittanis, Characters, GM Advice, Rules, Tropes, Worldbuilding. Bookmark the permalink.

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