So if you didn’t catch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog while it was around then you missed out on something incredible and must now go purchase it on Itunes. For those who missed it, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog stars Neil Patrick Harris as Dr. Horrible, a low rent Villain trying to get into the Evil League of Evil. He has a crush on Penny, played by the incredibly hot Felicia Day, who he loses to his Arch-Nemesis The Hammer, played by Nathan Fillion. It is Joss Whedon’s writer’s strike project and an experiment in non-studio distribution methods. 1 part musical, 1 Part Super-villain Story, 1 Part Dry/Witty/Absurd Humor and chock full of advice on being a GM.

Wait what? No, I did mean that. Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog (DHSAB) is an incredible story with outstanding production elements. There are a lot of ideas that can be picked up from watching it.

Villains are People too
Dr. Horrible, as his secret identity Billy, is completely normal. There is a definite dualism to his character. There might be a third even deeper level that is the same as the surface level. What Dr. Horrible/Billy’s dualism represents is the fact that villain’s are not one sided. What motivates the BBEG in your game to do the bad things he or she does? Lust for power? Desire to change the world? Greed? Think about the villain’s motivations, then think about what spawned them.

I’m not a fan of musicals, but the way the music works itself into the story keeps the whole experience in your head. I can’t see a sing along working well at the gaming table, but finding some element to set the mood and act as a unifying thread can draw the players in a bit. I ran a fantasy setting military game and gave everyone military insignia to pin onto their shirts. I noticed the players get more into military characteristics right after they glanced at someone else’s insignia. The mood setting element has to do two things: The first is to be Noticeable to the players. The second is to have it in the right amount. If it is too much of the game it might become gimmicky and if it is too little it might get lost. The music in DHSAB integrates with the story without overpowering. It is also memorable and draws you in.

The F.A.Q. on the site describes DHSAB as professional-ish. It rests somewhere between a college student film and a high quality studio production. There is experienced talent leading the way mixed in with a lot of volunteer work, lower budget technical capabilities and a bunch of people with similar personalities and different talents. This is exactly what you get at a gaming table. Everyone at the table is vested in the production for their sole enjoyment and love of the game, the end result is more reliant on the people than the high budget special effects and a lot of jokes get made.

Witty Dialogue and Timing
One of the things that makes DHSAB so wonderful is the excellent humor that is delivered at just the right time. “That’s not a good sound . . .” comes out of Dr. Horrible’s mouth right after his freeze ray is heard powering down or the best (IMHO) line of the production: “Oh look at my wrist, time to go”. Achieving witty dialogue at just the right time at the Gaming Table has got to be one of the hardest things to do, especially when it is coming from an NPC’s mouth. It is easy to crack jokes and pick up on trends in conversation, but to get the NPC’s to do it is very hard. Generally these kind of moments come during scripted dialogue or in conjunction with portraying an NPC’s demeanor. Getting it into your game will make unforgettable moments. The Halfing dinosaur salesman from the Talentia plains’ description of how they get the V.I.N.s (Velociraptor Identification Numbers) on the clawfoot dinosaurs’ underside will never be forgotten by my Gaming group.

If your villain is getting laughed at, run with it!
I’ve had a few games were the BBEG was supposed to be a big menacing force in the world. Didn’t quite turn out that way. The players picked up on some non-evil vibe that I was giving off or some funny moment and the villain’s street cred was shot. However, next best thing to a menacing villain is a hilarious one. Dr. Horrible has a dry and witty humor that is counter pointed nicely by the absurd humor and actions around him. If you find the villain slipping from his precipice of dastardliness, then considering giving him a push down the slope. It might change the theme a bit, but could yield some good results.

Neal Patrick Harris Can Sing
Not sure how this actually relates to GMing, but I just felt like pointing out that the dude has a good set of pipes.

So there is my application to the Evil League of Gnome Stew Commenters. If you’ve seen DHSAB and can think of more ways to garner GMing advice from it then please chime in! Better yet what other B-Movies, Internet Phenomena, or tongue in cheek ventures can you suggest to glean more from? Project Valkyrie anyone? And seriously, have you ever heard of a better villain than Bad Horse – The Thoroughbred of Sin?

11 replies
  1. ChattyDM
    ChattyDM says:

    Excellent Geekout John! I could not have done it better and I watched it 4 times since I bought it.

    While I would not go as far as signing at the table, I agree that the tropes in this project are astoundingly weaved. I would definitively steal the ‘Bumbling, unsure’ alter Ego that gets literally push to develop it’s full potential for Evil” (while still not reaping in it’s promised joy).

    Good post dear friend, looking forward to meet you in 3 weeks.

  2. rekenner
    rekenner says:

    First thought after reading the headline:
    “That you should kill off any love interest a PC has, preferably by launching metal through them in some fashion? Especially as part of a long running series of love interest killing?”

    But ignoring my hate of Whedon using character death like punctuation, this was a good article. I recently had what was meant to be menacing one liners picked up by the player as pick-up lines… Which did inspire the player/character to fight harder, so it worked, at least?

  3. tman
    tman says:

    I was lucky to see the DHSAB the morning after going to see “Mama Mia!” (just released ABBA pseudo-musical movie) with my wife and mom. No, not my idea. Yes, I earned a few brownie points. In summary, Ugh. (This weekend is X-Files and Batman.)

    But here’s the kick – both Neal Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion sing better than any of the male leads in that movie. It didn’t hurt that they got better songs to work with, custom made for the project.

    I don’t mind if my BBEG gets laughed at – he will get respect by his actions more than anything else. So, once he’s destroyed some things the PCs hold dear or maybe kidnapped a loved one or two, I can always hit them with the Joker’s new catch-phrase, “Why so serious?”

  4. Micah
    Micah says:

    NPH is awesome. Ever since I saw Harold and Kumar, I’ve loved the guy. It takes a lot of guts to make fun of yourself like that.

  5. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Chattydm: After about the 3rd time watching through DHSAB I got the urge to run a one shot game like it, then compounded that into what kind of changes it would take in style to make any system work.

    My gencon plans might have blown themselves up, but I’ll email you whenI get a chance and let you know.

    @rekkener: “That you should kill off any love interest a PC has, preferably by launching metal through them in some fashion? Especially as part of a long running series of love interest killing?” Now there is a sure fire way to make the players hate a villian

    @tman: BBEG’s get laughed at before they get their first volley of life destroying plot fired off. Oooh, the big wizard in robes is evil. Oooh. That’s my home village burning behind me, isn’t it? Yup.

    @micah: The thing that amazed me about DHSAB was how good it was as a story. The silliness of the plot aside, I really felt for the characters.

    @geeksdreamgirl: “The Hammer’s not my fists . . . ” 🙂 That was a great line. My other favorites include:
    “Billy: Oh, look at my wrist, time to go!
    Penny: What about your clothes?
    Billy: (Opening up the washing machine) I don’t love these!”


    “That’s not a goo~d sound . . .”


    well hell, there are a whole lot of good one liners.

  6. Eggdrop
    Eggdrop says:

    And pacing! Don’t forget the breakneck pacing used in Dr Horrible. I did a double-take when rather than pussyfooting around the subject of Billy’s crush on Penny, the script just dove right in. This is something that more GMs (well, maybe just me) need to take to heart: if you’re not dropping something meaty on the table every time you handle the fiction, you’re not advancing the plot.

    Sure, dragging out the flirtation between Billy and Penny would make sense, build dramatic tension, and keep the audience guessing about the outcome, but it’s more often a bad idea in a game. If the drawn-out mystery behind an element isn’t interesting for the players to engage with and is just a matter of setting mood, what work is it doing? Either hit the reveal and keep going, or make sure there’s lots of other meaty things that justify the delay while it does the mood-setting work in the background.

    Earlier this week I used this insight from Dr Horrible to good effect in a game. A one-on-one game of 1st ed AD&D with a 2 hp druid was dragging along a plot about a blighted town and an embezzling cleric of Isis. The investigation and mystery had run out of useful steam, and I needed to kick the session into a climax somehow. Bam! Dragon attack! Though I had to assure my player that, yes, I was serious, it brought everything to a head and the player Stepped Up and faced down the dragon. One ransom, a capricious death, an morally-grey NPC’s pathos-drenched redemption, and an “I’ll be back next year!” from the dragon later, and we were swimming in delicious closure. There weren’t even any dice rolled.

  7. Patrick Benson
    Patrick Benson says:

    I don’t mind when the PCs laugh at the BBEG at all. At least they are having a good time. My younger brother is one of those people with a talent for one-liners off the cuff, and even if the rest of the table is in awe of the villain’s eeeeevilness he always comes up with something to deflate that tension a little.

    Example: PCs in the BBEG’s underground headquarters made out of a cave. BBEG finally reveals his true plans and intents which is already in process. Players ready to deliver the smackdown and psyched up even more now that they know how far reaching and eeeeevil the plan really is. BBEG finishes up speech and dares the PCs to try and stop him. I’m about to call for initiative rolls when little brother (who is actually an inch taller and 30 lbs bigger than me now) pipes up with “You know, for a guy with such ambition I would think that you’d be able to move out of a cave by now. I mean, who did you hire to decorate this place? The Flintstones? Seriously, I think someone needs to adjust his priorities a little here.”

    Needless to say, all that tension – GONE! Scary cave HQ? Now a joke. Players cracking up and BBEG humiliated in his own crib.

    What could I do? I gave my brother some extra XP for the roleplaying and made him the focus of BBEG’s rage which was a bad tactic for the villain to use. The battle was still fun and we still laugh about not just the line, but how my brother used it to taunt the villain throughout the battle (power blast misses and hits cave wall, brother “Uh-oh! Your wall, I mean rock, is going to need some touch up work! You wife won’t like that! Who am I kidding? You can’t be married! YOU LIVE IN A CAVE!”).

    PCs taking the villain down a notch on the social ladder is a wonderful thing. 🙂

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