The paper pusher is a villain perfect for games set in the real world, particularly with special powers downplayed. They can be a good background plot for any game, but Paper Pushers shine in police procedurals and games without four color fights.
White collar crime is far more lucrative, less dangerous, and carries lesser criminal penalties than violent crime in the real world. The space for paper pushers is wide—stretching from blatant ponzi schemes, managers shaving their employee’s pay, investors using an “insider edge” to make a killing on the stock market, companies illegally colluding to cripple energy (or materials, or futures, or…) markets and walking away with vast sums, or even “bean counting” and paying off wrongful death suits because it’s cheaper than fixing a known problem.
Your villain might commit crimes for many reasons, such as: desperation, “cold logic and a calculator”, a sense of entitlement, laziness, or as a consequence of their former employment. It can be difficult to make paper pushers feel threatening—usually that’s the last thing they want their marks to feel—but Leverage made Paper Pushers interesting for five seasons.
Most of the time, PCs won’t be the target of these criminals—it’ll usually be the people the PCs know, love, depend on, and associate with who suffer their ravages. Sometimes the schemes manifest like a natural disaster, breaking suddenly across a city and leaving only a tide of foreclosures; or entire social circles find themselves impoverished when their investments are revealed as junk bonds.
Some villainy is slower to manifest; one poisoned child at a time resulting from exposure to dumped toxins in the stream (but saving disposal fees), or social circles losing character by dragging friends and communities into the pyramid scheme, member by member.
- A PCs’ friend starts trying to recruit them into a “great opportunity”, pointing out how much money they’ll make when their recruits pay their percentage in turn. Have you met Arnold? He drives a Maserati after only two years…
- One of the PC’s parents calls them out of the blue and ashamedly beg to crash on their couch until they get back on their feet. Their agent sent fake paperwork and personally cashed their insurance checks… after the fire, they found out they were never insured.
- The troops the PCs are leading in the raid are doing well… until it’s time to reload. They find that the “well connected” arms supplier cut corners, leading to a huge misfire rate and their troops literally being as at risk from their own guns as their foes’.
- A PC’s credit card is declined; investigation shows that someone else has been emptying their funds. Who needs to refill the plane anyway?
- A crooked wrestling promoter fixes matches for the mafia; if you don’t go down when you’re told, you’ll never wrestle again… if you’re allowed to live.
MO: Indirection, legal chicanery, fast talk/high pressure sales tactics, or just a willingness to cut corners or cheat while ignoring the consequences are common approaches to white collar crime. Done right, victims never notice what was done until it’s too late. Or they find they’re powerless to fight the abuse, even if it is illegal.
The approach to crime can be very generic—someone who is good at talking might try their hand at any con—while others use their connections and experience to practice their villainy. The plastics guy who invests in industry stocks has a limited scope, while a CEO might use the company’s PR department to slant coverage of their misdeeds, have his lawyers negotiate a sweetheart settlement with regulators, or even pay restitution… that is trivial, leaving the company culture unchanged.
Traits: Paper Pushers are incredibly common as criminals; if you don’t have people faking IDs, stealing identities, and bilking grandma out of her pension with a “special reverse mortgage,” your world will probably feel less real—just because it’s so common in news stories, and among the people you know.
Paper pushers make good expediters for your main villains. They can launder drug money, provide false identities, identify likely marks, use connections to get rosters and timetables, and provide social connections and lawyers if necessary.
Advantage: These villains come from all walks of life. Complex schemes provide lots of petty criminals—neutralizing one puts the remainder of the network on alert. Because they’re rarely violent, PCs and police don’t fight them with the same urgency as terrorists or vampires. Even if captured, most Paper Pushers will be free for years before their trial makes it to court—if it’s not settled first.
Relative Power: On the other end of the spectrum, successful Paper Pushers often have vast wealth at their disposal; they can afford to hire the best security, both physical and technological. They tend to be defensive—fighting to keep what they’ve stolen, or to hide their misdeeds—which lures the PCs to fight on the villain’s home turf. Even more frustrating, the villain might be tipped off when the PCs are driving over to investigate, or good enough friends with the mayor that the police are reluctant to interfere.
Turned Tables: Once the PCs know who their mark is, they can start figuring out how to strike back. If they’re direct and violent, they face far worse sentences for their actions than the Paper Pusher ever did. More subtle investigators seek proof of misdeeds—the patent application in the handwriting of their client, tapes of the sordid discussions where criminal deeds were weighed, records of absenteeism in the days after testing their new formula in a crop duster, or the engineer’s calculations of cost for the recall. With that in hand, the PCs should be able to enlist someone beyond the reach of the criminal to begin prosecution.
Paper Pushers in Your Games
I’ve rarely used paper pushers as anything other than low level criminal “helpers”, never really giving them the spotlight. Have you used paper pushers to good advantage in your games? I’d love to hear your stories in comments.