So in the Dragon Age computer/console games, you fight these endless hordes of faceless monsters called Darkspawn. The hero of the story must kill their leader in order to neutralize the giant horde of them that is threatening the ambiguously middle-ages european landscape. These monsters are the giant threat that the hero must deal with, but ultimately the hero’s victory over the Darkspawn is unsatisfying because the hero faces a foe that represents no moral quandary. Even the final boss, the Big Bad, is a mook! It is as faceless as its minions—despite being a fallen Elder God it offers no commentary, no insight whatsoever on the human or trans-human condition. It merely roars and directs its mindless masses. Luckily, I am finding that the sequel is much better about this, though certainly not perfect.

All mooks have this uninterestingness problem written into their design. The issue with having mooks as foes in an RPG, especially a tabletop RPG, is that they give players no opportunity to show the true colors of their characters. They cannot Be Awesome against mooks. The chance to discover or express more about characters is only gained by making them face choices, and morally irrelevant mooks present no opportunity for choice. “But hey,” you might say, “Legolas was totally awesome when he shot that orc with an arrow he retrieved from that other orc!”. Yeah, that was totally awesome. But movies (and video games, often) are capable of making a visual spectacle out of mook killing. Tabletop games lack the ability to generate this spectacle, and the end result is that Mooks make for bad games. This is especially true in games that have any kind of combat complexity to them—Exalted, D&D, Pathfinder, etc. Watching Legolas kill twenty orcs in The Lord of the Rings is massively different than playing an Elf Warrior killing twenty orcs on a miniatures board. The former takes at most five minutes, where the latter could take hours.

Our friend Exalted once again has something to say on this matter. In Exalted there are plenty of rules for extras, but so help me god, I haven’t ever heard of them being used in Exalted games. This is because they’re utterly irrelevant, and not just because of their relative power level. Power level is a part of it, but the real issue arises because they present no thematic challenge for the players to overcome. When your Solar Dawn Caste is fighting his Abyssal rival, the battle is about good versus evil, light versus dark. The battle is about more than just the characters, and that sensation of taking part in something bigger than oneself gives considerable weight to the conflict. Mooks can never give this—they’re just trash that gets between you and the real villains, the real character challenge.

So in my mind there are two different kinds of challenge that players can overcome to Be Awesome—mechanical power challenge and character challenge. At first that sounded like hogwash to me, but I’ve seen many players in my day who sit down and design characters capable of killing armies of mooks but, upon being asked how their character responds to a social event, shut down completely. How weird is that? But this goes back to my idea about horizontal boundaries. Mooks never test or define the horizontal boundaries that define who the character is, nor do they test the vertical boundaries that determine what a character can do. At best, they are a distraction, and accordingly I can not agree with any game system that makes me pay more than a trivial amount of attention to its mooks, should it have any at all.

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  • Exalted GMs never use mooks because the Exalted combat system is totally borked, not because mooks don’t mean anything.

    That being said, I love mooks, and I use them all the time. I love surprising players, and few things are as satisfying as PCs being forced to flee from an enemy they think they can just mow down, for one reason or another. Exalted can do that, but you really have to play fast and loose with combat and juggle a lot of numbers in your head (aim bonuses, cover bonuses, environmental changes, etc). I try not to do that too often though; it can be a bit depressing if you go overboard. =P

    I love mooks in boss fights. I love watching them react; they aren’t the biggest fish and they know it. They’re just the Abyssal’s blood bags or the Solars lackeys. For them, just being in the presence of the Exalted is a supreme act of will. How long will they handle it? From the player perspective, I also think they make the battle seem bigger, especially if Charms can change their role.

    I love mooks fighting other mooks, when the players want one side to win. Suddenly what was casual to them is a matter of life and death to the people they care about. We don’t think much of zombies, but if you only have three health levels and they have like eight… and smell terrible… and are rotting through… suddenly, zombies are scary again.

    So many of the most interesting characters in fiction are just mooks given names (think the Hidden Fortress). Some would say that means they’re not mooks anymore… but they have about the same amount of control over their surroundings. (think the second? chapter comic in Malfeas).

    Holden Shearer loves the analogy of Exalted as a magical version of Saving Private Ryan: the larger than life heroes clashing in blazing arcs across the sky, while the spear-hefting soldiers clank, shivering in the mud and trenches. I don’t always think that analogy is relevant, but I like it anyway.

    Because ultimately, while the ability to defeat mooks doesn’t say much about the character, and challenges the player only rarely, how the character affects the mooks speaks volumes about them. They’re only trash if the GM treats them that way; “mook” doesn’t mean “no character” in Exalted. It means that they act predictably, are fairly weak, and generally don’t show much initiative beyond their role. In other words, they are both obstacle and audience.

    In that way, playing a mook can be a challenge in humility for the GM; they are powerless, they only have a few turns left to live, and they don’t know what will happen next. It’s also difficult because a lot of fiction (and video games, which are limited in what you can do) treats them as meaningless, and GMs often follow their lead, which makes a lot of the problems you mentioned.

    But we don’t HAVE to follow that lead. If we want to give a mook a personality or upgrade them, we can. It’s just imagination, after all. Investing in mooks is hard, but I think it pays off. (I love being a ham ala that xkcd comic about the FPS mod; it makes the players slow down and think a bit)

    And in a game about how a character shakes the world, most of their efforts will be shown in the faces of the mooks. If you want a satisfying game, you can’t overlook them.

    • I think, partly, there’s a difference in meaning here; your definition of “mook” can include people (a) on your side, (b) with names. But I think, in a sense, you’re saying the same thing—don’t include mobs to grind, but rather use large groups of relatively powerless people if you give them meaning and purpose.

      My 2¢.

      • Here‘s an example of the mook massacre defining the theme of the whole story.

        — Alex

        • What’s kinda hidden in the Wikipedia synopsis is how the story’s full of the protagonist’s inability to remain the detached, rationally benevolent paternal figure he’s supposed to be. It’s an impossibility because of the direct human contact required to achieve his ends — for instance, IIRC, he fails to get anything from the noblewoman because he tries to seduce her but can’t get past how physically repellent her “medieval” hygiene is to him.

          But then when he blows his shit and acts entirely on personal emotion, the scale of his ability is such that it stops being a personal interaction and becomes, like, some kind of inexorable force. Very much like a Solar cutting through some mooks, I suppose.

          — Alex

  • On further reflection, I think the dramatic significance of “mooks” is mostly in the ability to tag someone as a mook.

    “Here are some faceless near-powerless designated enemies to kill” — boring! Squish and move on. But, the moment when you make a choice to treat someone as a mook (e.g. by engaging a game mechanic that will just let you steamroll the opposition) can make for pretty powerful character-defining stuff. It’s different from just choosing to fight someone. You’re choosing to crush them — to disempower (and, likely, dehumanize) them in order to get your way. I think when you do that and why can say a lot about a character.

    Which is, of course, something you don’t get from “here’s a hoarde of Darkspawn over there”. 🙂
    But really the Darkspawn are just supposed to be an amorphous mass and the interesting stuff is in how their presence drives others to act towards each other. In that light, I think the final thing in Dragon Age is deciding how you’re going to handle the Grey-Warden-y sacrifice part of killing the big bad Taint dragon.

    — Alex

    • Austin

      That could be a really interesting system, one where the players decide when some guys in front of them are mooks. You can get there implicitly by having a totally broken combat monster powerhouse, to whom everyone is a mook, but that’s boring. A system that had explicit support for this mookification by players, complete with moral consequences and implications, could be interesting. It allows one to further define one’s character, which is always a plus. As it stands though, I don’t think I know of any system that does this, which is too bad!