Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Sleazy Apprentice

I won't let you down, Don.
- Pete Campbell, Mad Men

I've been struggling with the surprisingly popular Mad Men, as it's slower and more introspective than most shows I really enjoy.  In particular, I've quickly established a love/hate relationship with Pete.  Initially, I felt his character existed to show us what a terrible time the 60s were, but as I've come to understand the show, I've come to understand that the character is simply a spectacular jerk, and that this is entirely the point of him.

Ostensibly, Pete works for Don Draper, hero of the series.  To Don's face, Pete offers compliments and servitude. Behind his back, Pete's ambition blooms in full, and he constantly seeks to undermine Don's position to that he may overtake it.  Rarely, when Don grasps for straws, Pete will openly undermine him, under the thin guise of "helping."  Pete's family once held a position of power and prestige in New York, but lost all their money during the Great Depression.  Thus, he has all the social graces of a princely aristocrat but none of the power, and his frustration with the lack of respect he receives constantly leaks to the surface.  He married his wife for her money, and slept with another woman on the night before his wedding.  He constantly serves himself and goes through the motions of working with others, but inwardly fails to grasp why Don Draper is his superior, coming as close to saying "Why doesn't anybody appreciate my genius" as one can in a sophisticated, mature television show like Mad Men.

Thus, Pete combines sycophant and rival into a single, unique character.  His constant and obvious attempts to undermine his superior and supplant him brings characters like Starscream instantly to mind, but unlike such characters, Pete constantly attempts to make himself useful, and never questions his superior to his superior's face, preferring back-room positioning and (inept) conspiratorial politicking.  Because he's ostensibly Draper's ally, Don can't simply remove him from the group (and, indeed, when he tries, the story concocts a reason to force Don to work with him, in this case the prestige of Peter's family), but because all of Peter's help is poisoned with ambition, Don can't afford to trust him either.

Games too seldom exploit the Master/Apprentice social dynamic, and when they do, they usually place the player in the role of apprentice.  The role of Master can be interesting too, especially for experienced characters.  Generally, when a flawed apprentice enters the picture, we tend to see the Resentful Apprentice, but Peter isn't that.  A Sleazy Apprentice kisses the player's ass.  He sings his praise in public while privately seething that the player doesn't see him as an equal, and conspires against him, though not necessarily in a way that betrays the party's goals, but in a way that seeks to replace the player: If the group seek to fight a dragon, the Sleazy Apprentice seeks to destroy the dragon in such a way that proves that the player is not necessary for the group, and that the group should discard him in favor of the Sleazy Apprentice, though he's likely to fail (due to his inexperience) and possibly fail in such a way that makes things worse for the group as a whole.  When the players seek to eliminate him from the group, the GM should have a reason in place that prevents him from being removed (and, in general, should keep him useful: he's a Sleazy Apprentice, not a Useless Apprentice).

The tension between his servility and his treachery should create an interesting dynamic for the players, as it instantly creates layers and complexity for the character, giving the players a chance to explore the character and providing fertile room for growth, should the character prove to be popular (as in, he brings alot to the story.  Doubtlessly, he'll be despised by the group)

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