Stumbling Angels

I watched John Dies at the End last week, and enjoyed it. Nothing earth shattering, but more than enough good ideas and dark humor to be very much worthwhile, with one or two bits that I’ll keep in my back pocket for future games. Might even read the book sometime.

Without delving into spoilers, I feel ok mentioning that the movie is a bit apocalyptic in tone, in the classic Biblical kind of sense. Bad things, end times and so on. Very little of this is explained in any detail (which is great) but it’s clear there are multiple forces at work here. And this got me thinking.

See, when you have these staving-off-the-apocalypse sort of stories, and you open the door to things of a certain scale (by which I basically mean angels and the like) then there’s a certain amount of weirdness to it if you carry the logic to it’s extreme. If these are really beings as old as the universe with power to match, then a couple of smartasses in a cool car don’t really have much to bring to the party.

Stories find ways to cheat like mad to support the idea that the protagonists really matter, often as an illustration of something awesome about humanity, but it can get stretched pretty thin, specifically when you start thinking on a genuinely universal – perhaps even multiversal – scale.[1]

When it’s done well, it usually revolves around interesting portrayals of the angels (or similar agents) which seem true to their power, but also put them at a disconnect from what’s going on. It struck me that this is an angelic version of the project management triangle.

Angel Triangle

That is, when an angel acts, they can only accomplish two of the following:

  • Controlled Scale – Angels usually operate on a really big scale. Depending on the story, that might be a nation, a planet or a galaxy. it takes work to control it more precisely than that.
  • Effective – The solution actually solves the problem at hand.
  • Tidy – The solution doesn’t spawn new problems and generally mess things up.

So, you want angels to solve the vampire problem in New York City? They can TOTALLY DO THAT! Options include:

  • Drop Scale – The earth’s rotation has stopped with the sun at high noon over NYC. No more vampire problems!
  • Drop Effective – Well, the angelic host killed most of the vampires. That’s good enough!
  • Drop Tidy – Y’know, if we just kill everyone…

After you go a few rounds of this, as an angel, you might start getting a bit gun shy about wading in. You can see a sort of bureaucratic hesitance emerging from a history of these sorts of outcomes. and with that, I can see some good excuses for using angels.


  1. The major comic book lines have a similar problem, and have come to terms with it by basically saying “yes, earth really is special in some broad, cosmic way” because if you don’t do that, eventually people start wondering why all the Green Lanterns keep going there.  ↩

6 thoughts on “Stumbling Angels

  1. Arashinomoui

    I love the “Here are three factors, choose two” choices in games, I’ve occasionally futz around with something like Wyrd is Bond where the rolls are always along factors of three. Heh, I wonder if a system where the player makes all/most of the rolls (ala *World), except the GM rolls one of the three attributes or some other die system.

    As far as the major comic book lines, I’ve always just liked the ones for that that cartoon Avengers used (which means I assume it is widely used), “Earth/the Solar System is a crossroads where the barrier to travel is weak,” which means it isn’t totally unique, it provides a threat/potential, and can’t be “stolen” per se, like another resource.

    Reply
  2. Stephen

    This is my preferred answer to “Why doesn’t [godlike entity] solve [current problem clearly relevant to his interests]?” “Well, guys, I can sometimes get you some advice and magic through pre-established channels, but other than that about as precise as I can get is ‘open a volcano under the city’ or ‘wash it away with a tidal wave.’ If you want something less apocalyptic, that’s why I have you.”

    Reply
  3. fredhicks

    Now I want a “book of triangles”, that gives you a “whole thing” in three points per page, so I can use it for a “pick two” type system.

    Actually to hack it together with Fate Core:

    On a tie: Pick one
    Success: Pick two
    Success with Style: Get all three

    Reply
  4. Jeremy Morgan

    Another possible reasoning is to appeal to something greater than the angels, either a supreme deity (“We must answer to a higher power that forbids our intervening here.”) or some fundamental principle of how our universe works (“We can not intervene.” a la the Watchers / Observers / Whatever You Want to Call Them). This approach can fail just as easily as any other, if done poorly.

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