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Author Topic: At last, Puppetman  (Read 2779 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: June 27, 2003, 11:58:26 AM »

Hello,

Finally, here's my followup to Alexander's questions in Mind Control Redux and Another "How would you ..." thread Everyone's input is appreciated.

Quote
You've mentioned in the past (in that previous thread, actually) that you feel that mind control is often the lazy writer's excuse to avoid stories. You specifically mentioned Wild Cards. Do you feel that Puppetman's use of mind control from Wild Cards was sloppy/lazy/etc? He seems to me to be rather a good example of the kind of sorcerer I seem to keep imagining. How would you emulate him in Sorcerer, or would you? Gregg Hartmann seems to be the sorcerer, and Puppetman the demon inside him (parasite? possessor? he comes complete with Desire and Need, either way).


Well, I'll give it to you straight: Puppetman is a terrible character and, in combination with similar Wild Cards villains like Ti Malice and the Astronomer, is almost entirely responsible for the series being the maundering, useless, bullshit excuse for non-story that it became. I not only think that the these characters' usage was sloppy and lazy, I think it was stupid in the most fundamental sense of conflicts, stories, and themes. This has nothing to do with "feeling," by the way. I use the term "think" with great care.

Now the real issue here is whether my dislike for the Puppetman concept is the same thing as a valid, understandable, and extendable principle which applies for anyone else. If the above is merely "Ron's rant," then who cares? It's just me. But if, on the other hand, Puppetman can serve as a touchstone (a) for what story-concepts simply do not work and (b) for making a good version of the controller protagonist or villain, then maybe we can get somewhere. I'm going to carry on with the assumption that the latter is the case.

I'll start with the good stuff about the character.

Issue #1 concerns whether a demon is present in the character concept at all. I think that Gregg's concept of Puppetman as a separate, thinking entity is wholly delusional, making him very much like the main characters in the novels Magic, Fight Club, and The Other (all of which include movie versions with the same titles). I think that the degree to which this is not the case, i.e., the degree to which we say "Puppetman" really is someone or something else besides Gregg, reduces the character to trivia. So in order to make the character Sorcerer-worthy, I think we need to acknowledge that both "Gregg" and "Puppetman" are false faces, brandished both to the world and to himself as separate, but actually just masks held in separate hands of the same person, whom I'll call "G/P."

Given that, the demon for a Sorcerer version of Puppetman becomes quite a blank slate. We could have a demon who enhances the "Puppetman" personality, supplying the abilities only when G/P behaves like Puppetman. Or we could have a demon who couldn't care less which personality is dominant, just supplies abilities, and it just so happens that the Puppetman personality is the one who uses them. Or we could even have a demon who desperately hates the Puppetman side but is dominated by it, so that in some ways, the story becomes "How can Gregg get the demon away from Puppetman." The whole point is that the demon isn't G/P, but his tool.

I find all of the above interesting, fun, and full of potential, and as you can see, it doesn't matter what the demon's abilities are. They happen to be mind control in the current example, but they could be anything at all.

Now for the bad stuff, based on the usage of the G/P idea in the Wild Cards books especially.

Issue #2 concerns conflicts among the agendas of the two false-faces. For this character to be interesting, both sides must have the strength and drive to achieve something, whether it's the same goal or opposed goals. That's the case in all three examples I listed above, in three stages: (a) G realizes that he hates P and struggles to oppose him; (b) G then realizes that P is not a separate entity at all; and finally (c) G struggles to transcend the whole G/P personality split in the first place. In most of the examples, (b) is only partly successful at best. The struggle is central to the power and fascination of all three stories.

And that's one way in which Gregg/Puppetman is a lousy character in the Wild Cards books: Gregg is a total pussy. He constantly whines and protests against Puppetman, but rarely if ever actually opposes him, hence only feebly doing (a), and he never enters (b) at all.

Issue #3 concerns mind control per se, as an ability. Let's break down the possible forms it takes in various fiction.

A) Collusive - the controller finds some element of willingness in the target's mind for what he's ordering him to do. Without that willingness, however buried, the target either cannot be controlled at all, or he can break free when the crunch comes. In my view, this is an interesting and worthwhile use of mind control, and you can find it represented subtly in the complex of abilities and rules in Sorcerer, most especially in the Taint mechanic and some of the options regarding possession in The Sorcerer's Soul.

B) Robotic - the controller just moves the targets around like puppets, and they have either no or very little chance to rebel; by definition, they cannot share responsibility for what they do while controlled. In my view, this is far less interesting. It can sometimes be interesting if it evolves into (A) above over time, at best.

My usual example for discussing these things comes from Marvel Comics: Q: "Why does the villain have mind control?" A: "So the hero can shrug it off when his basic values are challenged." There's literally no other reason, role, or purpose for the ability in these stories.

Gregg/Puppetman's ability, in the books, is utilized far more toward (B) than toward (A). Even when it's described as finding some core element in the person's mind that he's tweaking, there doesn't ever seem to be a defense or way to be less susceptible in either the short or long term.

The consequence in story terms is only to complicate existing conflicts, as various characters do stuff they "didn't mean" (and they didn't), and so the logistics get all complex (person A does this, thing X happens, everyone becomes confused, etc, etc), but no actual, emotions-based, conflict resolution can occur. The mind control acts as "story fog" - it means that whatever conflict is going on gets delayed and confused, and that's all. I submit that the sixth Wild Cards book, the one with Hartman on the campaign trail on the cover, consists of nothing except such delay and confusion. Everyone runs about like chickens, people trade places and do stuff they didn't mean to do, Hartman gets in and out of tight spots ... but no conflict ever gets laid out on the table. Any conflict that does get resolved, gets resolved through coincidence alone. It's an exercise in artifice, and not an interesting exercise at all.

Whew ... OK, was this a rant? I don't think so. I think I'm making a really important point about stories. They absolutely rely on one or more characters really having distinctive points of view, really taking effort to realize those points of view, and really encountering crunches when those points of view are put on the line. If self-deception and mind-control can be placed at the service of these story elements, then that's fine. However, I argue that mind-control, in particular, has great potential for absolutely subverting "story" into "crap," according to the principles I've laid out above.

Best,
Ron
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jburneko
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« Reply #1 on: June 27, 2003, 01:44:48 PM »

Hello Ron,

That was very interesting.  Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the character in question, so I can't respond with specifics.  I am, however, very curious about some of the earlier points of your analysis.  Specifically, you mention the idea that if Puppetman were indeed a seperate entity from Greg that fact would "reduce the character to trivia?"  Do you think this is the case with Demon as Split Personality in general or is there something about THIS character that makes your statement so?

I ask, because I've often thought about the Possessor Demon as metaphore for split personality.  Just for kicks, I once wrote up Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde as a Sorcerer-Demon pair.  It seems to me that the problem of "triviality" goes away if the demon acts on repressed Sorcerer's impulses as per the "colusion" material you discuss in Sorcerer's Soul.

You mention that you think Greg is weak in that he complains about Puppetman but never opposses him.  I'm curious if you think this angle leads to weak stories in general?  I'm thinking specifically about a "passivity leads to ruin" theme in which an entity seperate from the protagonist effectively "wins" and destorys the progtagonist BECAUSE the protagonist failed to oppose him from the get-go and at every turn.

Note: I understand that this would be kind of boring in an RPG context as it would probably result from the player simply ignoring every bang or simply providing stressfull comentary and simply having the GM run the entire story to its worst conclusion.  But outside of an RPG I'm wodering what your thoughts are on this story structure.

Jesse
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Spooky Fanboy
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« Reply #2 on: June 27, 2003, 01:53:56 PM »

I would be curious to hear your take on the novel Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons. Some of the main characters in that book have the ability to make puppets/living extensions of themselves out of regular people.

Yes, I agree, if we subscribe to the Sorcerer dynamic of the demon as a seperate entity from the sorcerer, then the premise is not as interesting, as there is no internal struggle. I do agree that the Puppetman character sucked, and precisely why you stated: Gregg was a nonentity, and made no effort to fight his Puppetman persona, preferring to be led around by the genitals, whining all the way. His cure was even outside his control, solved by a deus ex machina involving Dr Tachyon's psychic abilities.

But what if the sorcerer and demon were one and the same, and the arts mentioned in Sorcerer were used to apply directly to other people? There would be a struggle in the sense that the character would try to hold on to his/her Humanity, often while in conflict with others who knew how to bend human minds, but did not have any ethical conflicts proscribing their actions. How would they hold on to their humanity? How would they resist the temptation to further their agendas by use of this gift?

There is good story material to be made out of mind control as a theme. I do not think we should discard that based on the crap that was Puppetman.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: June 28, 2003, 08:55:38 AM »

Hello,

Jesse, I think protagonist passivity makes for rotten stories. "Don't do anything and get hosed," is a boring story - arguably, not a story at all.

Hamlet is not an example of such a story, by the way. Hamlet is quite an active protagonist, contrary to reams of bad literary criticism. He doesn't hesitate, but his problem is that he can't solve the main threat without screwing up what everyone else wants. That's because his real problem is that he's alone (Horatio is a nonentity). Your lit teacher lied to you: "hesitation" isn't the problem at all.

Anyone see the movie Johnny Mnemonic? What a stinker, eh? Same problem - the protagonist doesn't do anything; in fact, at one point, he goes into a fairly preachy tirade about all the stuff he "wants," specifically as opposed to getting involved in the myriad of conflicts the movie keeps throwing at him.

"Can" one present a story in which the protagonist does nothing and the conflicts are resolved by "the way it works out" all around him? I think so. It's pretty tricky, but it can be done, and the protagonist cannot be retreating from the fray - just oblivious within it, but still active. Being There might be a pretty good example, although it still suffers from a non-ending. I've always wanted to play an Extreme Vengeance character who was a completely normal guy with a huge Coincidence score, so I as player would be bringing in all kinds of whacked circumstances which save him or move him into the crux of conflicts without him knowing - that's the only way it would be fun in an RPG, with the player taking very active Director Stance "around" the character.

Catch my real point, though: a so-called protagonist who ducks, cowers, twists, and curls up in a crying wad of "not gonna do it!" or "it's not me!" is not a protagonist, and regardless of the superpowers, explosions, outside plot-twists, and runnings around, he's not in a story. Even the normal-guy idea above relies on the normal guy being likable and wanting something, even if it's not to stop the terrorists or whatever.

Carl, I really like the original short story by Simmons, but I dislike the novel Carrion Comfort. About halfway through, the possession issue was merely horror-flick "rules" or "puzzle," and the story itself consisted mainly of a lot of running around. The main villain was ultimately taken out because she was bonkers already (convinced her old rival was still alive); the protagonists really didn't have much to do with it.

As a general point, Possessor demons are nothing but a metaphor for a self-deceptive internal struggle. Asking "could they" be such a thing is kind of circular.

In other words, to work with a character of this kind, the place to start is the internal conflict. Then bring in the demon to exacerbate the conflict. That works just fine, in a variety of ways listed in my first post.

Best,
Ron

P.S. Just thought of another fine example: Two-Face, as depicted in Batman: the Animated Series (and nowhere else).
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jburneko
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« Reply #4 on: June 28, 2003, 02:00:44 PM »

That makes sense.  Side Note: I think the perception of Hamlet as "hesitating" is sort of the result of "gamer logic", actually.  "Dude, why doesn't he just stand up in court, point and say, 'That man murdered my, father!'"  Because the solution is so obvious to an audience, particularly a modern audience's, point of view, he appears to be "hesitating."  But you're right, he's alone and has no backup.  I think people forget that Hamlet doesn't have access to tons of forensic science to prove his accusation.

Back to the main point.

Quote

As a general point, Possessor demons are nothing but a metaphor for a self-deceptive internal struggle. Asking "could they" be such a thing is kind of circular.


I get this.  Which is why I'd like you to elaborate on the idea that if Puppetman were the demon as opposed to another part of Gregg then the whole thing is reduced to "triviality."  If Gregg were the Sorcerer and Puppetman were a possessor demon who occasionaly takes over AND Gregg were a bit more proactive, then, where's the problem?

Just curious.

Jesse
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Eric J-D
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« Reply #5 on: June 28, 2003, 08:56:34 PM »

Hi guys,

Not to get this thread off topic, but I had to jump when I saw this.

Quote
Hamlet is not an example of such a story, by the way. Hamlet is quite an active protagonist, contrary to reams of bad literary criticism. He doesn't hesitate, but his problem is that he can't solve the main threat without screwing up what everyone else wants. That's because his real problem is that he's alone (Horatio is a nonentity). Your lit teacher lied to you: "hesitation" isn't the problem at all.


Cheers to Ron for bringing up Hamlet, as well as for quite rightly pointing out the number of erroneous interpretations of the play (and character) that focus on Hamlet's hesitation.  However, it is not quite right to say that Hamlet doesn't hesitate in the play, although I agree with Ron that this is not Hamlet's real problem.  He hesitates repeatedly, and for a variety of very legitimate reasons.  First, his key informant about Claudius' crime is a ghost, a fact which causes Hamlet some understandable doubt when it comes to acting on the claims of said informant.  Second, there is the fact that Claudius is both his king and his (in Caludius' view) adoptive father.  This means that in addition to committing murder (revenge is still murder in Christianized Denmark), Hamlet would also be committing regicide and paricide.  Third, Hamlet appears (in one interpretation of the play) divided about which crime he is supposed to avenge.  Is it his father's murder by his uncle that he is avenging or his father's sexual betrayal by his wife?  While the ghost makes it clear that Hamlet is to leave his mother "to heaven" (1.5.86) he also makes clear that he is deeply disturbed by Gertrude's behavior (1.5.47-57).  Hamlet' will prosecute these two crimes throughout the play in a succession of paired scenes, but most notably in the Mousetrap scene, where the dumbshow will reenact the poisoning of the old King and the play will reenact the sexual betrayal.  Fourth, Hamlet deliberately delays to take revenge in 3.3 when Claudius is praying.  Why?  because he is concerned that if he kills Claudius in a moment of repentance, Claudius will go to heaven rather than to Hell.  So much for the decades of criticism that saw Hamlet as the "sweet prince" and man of tender feeling. Finally, being the well educated scholar that he is, Hamlet probably knows by heart the law of revenge: all revengers die in the end.  This is the immutable truth of all revenge drama.

Okay, pedantic hat off.  None of this refutes Ron's central point that hesitation is not Hamlet's real problem.  What it supports, in my opinion, is the way that relationship maps make for a fantastic source of drama.  

Eric
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: June 29, 2003, 06:48:44 PM »

Hi there,

Eric, yup.

Jesse, you wrote,

Quote
I'd like you to elaborate on the idea that if Puppetman were the demon as opposed to another part of Gregg then the whole thing is reduced to "triviality." If Gregg were the Sorcerer and Puppetman were a possessor demon who occasionaly takes over AND Gregg were a bit more proactive, then, where's the problem?


Then there'd be no problem, in a game of Sorcerer or in any story with Sorcerer-like qualities (presuming outside-entities as metaphors). My "triviality" comment is specific to the Wild Cards setting itself, in which Ace powers are strongly implied to be aspects of the Ace's personality.

Best,
Ron
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Lxndr
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« Reply #7 on: July 07, 2003, 08:10:38 AM »

First off, I'm a little that you didn't also choose to address the part of the question which tried to state "if Puppetman's powers were to be built in Sorcerer, how would you go about it?"  As you even answered Jesse and saying "sure, if the guy was more proactive, there's no problem" I'm still curious as to "how Ron would reflect this in Sorcerer terms."  Perhaps that'd be better posted in the "Another How Would You" thread, though; I don't want to derail this conversastion.  I will, however, say that Puppetman still feels more to me like a Parasite than a Possessor.

Second, I'm sorry for the delay in my response, given that I'm the one who posed the initial question anyway.  Thank you for your detailed and well-thought responses on the matter.

Third, I'm surprised you put the Astronomer in the same category as Puppetman; he was a very proactive character, and furthermore the only "mind control" sort of ability I remember him having was removing-memories.  At least as my memory recalls it, all of his "followers" did what they did out of loyalty, fear, or through natural deception, not due to any sort of mind control.  On the other hand, I'm now forced to ask - why did Tachyon escape your wrath?  Or Blaise for that matter.

And now, to my answers to your comments issue by issue

Issue #1: Good Stuff

I'm still not sure if Puppetman is entirely a delusion of Gregg; in a sorcerer sort of environment, I'd likely want to MAKE it a separate entity.  I'll admit I haven't read any of the books (or seen the titular movies) you mention there, though I've heard vague whispers about Fight Club's protagonist.  And having Gregg and Puppetman both be using a third instrument, the demon... that's catching.  Making the demon entirely the tool of the sadistic side is alluring.  It does sound fun, interesting, and full of potential.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem to me that the based-on-Gregg character we'd be making is trivialized by having the Puppetman personality be an external entity, as long as you don't make the character as much of a wimp as Gregg was.  I'm curious as to why you feel it does reduce the character to trivia; I'm obviously missing something there.

Issue #2: Bad Stuff

You're stating something I'm not sure I agree with, on two levels.  "For this character to be interesting, both sides must have the strength and drive to achieve something."  

Perhaps it's just that I like the concept of mind control, or maybe I don't mind "exploration of character" in a narrative (a simulationist narrative? I don't really know the terminology) but I did find the character interesting while reading the books.  Maybe I didn't know any better?  What am I missing?

Also, Gregg did have the drive (not sure about the strength) to achieve, well, something.  His political ambitions, for instance, all belonged to Gregg, not Puppetman; he used the Puppetman powers to help him in his political climb, and the price he paid for that was feeding-the-demon, giving Puppetman what it desired.  Sure, the struggle with Puppetman was, well, token at best, but Gregg still had drive and ambition of his own.

Then again, Puppetman didn't.  He was all about his next "meal," and nothing more.  Or maybe he was about corrupting Gregg Hartmann?

Issue #3: Mind Control

I'll admit, for stories being told I'd prefer a form of mind control that someone can choose to break free from, although as I mentioned above, I still found Gregg (and related characters) interesting without it.  Collusive is generally the more interesting option, though at the same time I'm enamored of the idea that repeated failed attempts to break free could make the entire thing more difficult.

Sorcerer represents "Robotic" mind control as well as collusive, though - without the collusive options in Soul, a Possessor's hosts generally cannot share responsibility for the actions of their host.  Which is (honestly) why I'm not fond of using Possessor demons as mind control - I want my mind controlling sorcerer's victims to be colluded, I guess.  But, what makes Possessors different/okay, such that they're an acceptable form of Robotic?

Also, what do you feel about another form of mind control often seen in movies or TV shows - drug-based brainwashing (or other forms of chemical/physical mind control).  Do you feel that to be, well, collusive?

I'd like to pose a different question in response to the Marvel Comics question (which has one of the most appalling answers to "why mind control?" I've seen):

Q:  Why does the protagonist/hero have mind control?

Giving such a thing to the hero is likely different, qualitatively, from giving it to a villain.  That's my gut instinct on the matter, at least.  The choices the hero makes on what/how to use it or not use is ARE challenges to his issues.  What do you think?

Conclusion

Overall, you've made some really good points.  Mind control can be abused, and like anything else should be put to the service of the story, instead of being allowed to run ramshod over the story.  I'm also still digesting your comment about stories relying on characters taking effort to realizing points of view, but it seems like a good observation.

Other Comments

Spooky>  His cure was rather a deus ex machina, but didn't involve Tachyon.  It involved Demise.  Just a small "factual" correction.

Hamlet>  I've never read this, or seen it, or seen any movie knowingly based on it.  Am I missing anything important?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: July 07, 2003, 02:14:19 PM »

Hi Alexander,

Quote
I'm still curious as to "how Ron would reflect this in Sorcerer terms." Perhaps that'd be better posted in the "Another How Would You" thread, though; I don't want to derail this conversastion. I will, however, say that Puppetman still feels more to me like a Parasite than a Possessor.


I think you're missing a crucial point for Sorcerer in general: it doesn't matter how Puppetman would be modeled, not in terms of demon Type Given that we're talking about a demon, it could be Inconspicuous. It could be a Parasite. It could be a Possessor. It really doesn't matter. All you need is Taint and a few supporting abilities ... or perhaps another of the approaches to mind control discussed in other threads.

See? The answer is "however it works."

Quote
... I'm surprised you put the Astronomer in the same category as Puppetman; he was a very proactive character, and furthermore the only "mind control" sort of ability I remember him having was removing-memories. At least as my memory recalls it, all of his "followers" did what they did out of loyalty, fear, or through natural deception, not due to any sort of mind control. On the other hand, I'm now forced to ask - why did Tachyon escape your wrath? Or Blaise for that matter.


I consider editing people's memory to be a form of mind control. Less direct than marionetting them around, but the same effect, though.
Tachyon doesn't escape my wrath; he's a lame-ass character too, although not a lame-ass concept (i.e. glam alien fop). As for Blaise, pfeh. Yet another resentful adolescent. By that point in the novels, nothing was good, so there's no real way to identify whether or how Blaise was especially bad.

Quote
... it doesn't seem to me that the based-on-Gregg character we'd be making is trivialized by having the Puppetman personality be an external entity, as long as you don't make the character as much of a wimp as Gregg was. I'm curious as to why you feel it does reduce the character to trivia; I'm obviously missing something there.


I agree with your first sentence, which pretty much annulls your question, I think. You saw my reply to Jesse concerning this issue, right? I'm saying, "Yes," to both of you. The trivialization comment applies to Gregg in the books, not the player-character-like-Gregg you're proposing.

Quote
Perhaps it's just that I like the concept of mind control, or maybe I don't mind "exploration of character" in a narrative (a simulationist narrative? I don't really know the terminology) but I did find the character interesting while reading the books. Maybe I didn't know any better? What am I missing?


Shrug. To each his own.

Quote
But, what makes Possessors different/okay, such that they're an acceptable form of Robotic?


Because demons require activities and actions from their masters to get their Needs, and because no matter what, a host can still try to throw the demon out. You do realize that a sorcerer character can always use any ritual, right? And can tell any demon what to do, based on a Will vs. Will roll? If you're possessed by a demon, Punish the fucker and order it out of your body.

Quote
Also, what do you feel about another form of mind control often seen in movies or TV shows - drug-based brainwashing (or other forms of chemical/physical mind control). Do you feel that to be, well, collusive?


You keep asking me what I feel, which is unanswerable. What I "feel" is completely irrelevant to the discussion.

Any points I'd make about drug-based brainwashing are exactly those I've made already. I consider it and "magical" or "psychic" mind control to be identical story elements.

Quote
I'd like to pose a different question in response to the Marvel Comics question (which has one of the most appalling answers to "why mind control?" I've seen):
Q: Why does the protagonist/hero have mind control?


Name some. Bear in mind that I don't consider Professor X to be a protagonist, but rather a resource and potential danger source. I'm talking about the character as portrayed in the "old X-Men," early 1960s through the late 60s. When you name some examples, please specify what approximately-five-year period you're referencing per character.

Quote
Giving such a thing to the hero is likely different, qualitatively, from giving it to a villain. That's my gut instinct on the matter, at least. The choices the hero makes on what/how to use it or not use is ARE challenges to his issues. What do you think?


Potentially, I agree. In practice, effective stories along these lines are rare to the point of nonexistent.

Best,
Ron
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