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    Default Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    There's a lot of BBEG archetypes out there, from the Card Carrying Villain to the Fat Sweaty Southerner In A White Suit (no links necessary, we've all seen these). And while not every game needs one, a solid, iconic Bad Guy is often just as good for driving the plot onwards as the most enthusiastic group of PCs.

    After a few years of roleplaying, I have developed my OWN theory of what traits are necessary for a memorable Bad Guy, which I have dubbed the 5 Ls. And they’re not as straightforward as you may think. I'd like to share these with you.

    I hope this thread serves as inspiration to others – maybe several of you will even contribute by talking about your all-time favorite tabletop evildoers. Let's get right to it, and hopefully you'll be able to forgive my tendency to ramble. You may also want to settle in, this is a long read.


    Look:
    It's important the BBEG has distinguishing physical features, simply because something that catches your players attentions will help make them memorable. While the frills might have to do with their choice of clothing, avoid the all-concealing black cloak even on their first meeting; There is ALWAYS something more you can add. Perhaps every finger is adorned with a ring (depleted Rings of Three Wishes, or signet rings showing favor with different guilds, etc etc), which the individual caresses as he or she talks.
    Perhaps they ride an armored elephant, or use a rather thick non-flammable wax to keep their hair slicked back to prevent their head from being caught on fire when slinging pyrotechnic magic.
    A facial scar is not a memorable trait. Red leather clothing is not memorable. Wearing a breastplate made of giant clamshells is better, or a headpiece made with giant beetle mandibles that frame the NPC's jaw. The more unusual, the more memorable the character ultimately will be.

    In addition, don't forget that evil is often signified by darker colors like black, or simple giveaways that might let your players know the character is evil long before any other NPCS would even consider it. As long as you're not plotting a great betrayal, they should meet the character and instantly have a hunch as to which side of the alignment spectrum he or she is sitting on. Never underestimate the power of shifty eyes or insincere smiles in making your players sit up and take note.


    Line:
    I've found taking a page from comic books and giving my Bad Guys a handful of one-liners has done wonders for them. It makes battles more intense when you have a BBEG who actually TALKS TO the PCs during combat, or at least has a few taunting platitudes up his sleeve.
    For example, if you were Alan Moore, you might have a Line such as "I'm not a Republic Serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago." Sure, it's not as staggering in this form as it would be with context, but it is the phrase as much it is the delivery that send chills up the spines of your PCs. And it tells a lot about the character - in addition to being genre-savvy, the character who utters such a line is depicted as frighteningly intelligent as well as self-centered.

    Write a few down and have them on hand during the game. Nothing as full-length as an entire monologue, which I've found actually detract from bad guy encounters as opposed to adding to the experience, but rather a few witticisms or character-summarizing phrases that'll cement the character in the mind of the PCs. My local group still talks about the minor scientist bad guy who, obsessed with one of the famous celebrity PCs, went so far as to attempt a kidnapping and use SCIENCE to actually gruesomely alter his own appearance to look like the PC. His line, repeatedly delivered in a shaky, whispery and apologetic voice, was "I-I'm your biggest fan....". I'm certain you can do much better than that!


    Loathing:
    Okay. So now you have your hit points and powers and stats all figured out, and the villain has been terrorizing the characters and the countryside. But do the players themselves really care? As a GM, we can sometimes forget that there are two personalities that the villain is fighting; the character and the player are separate. To be a memorable villain there must be an emotional and psychological connection with the players. They need to have personal stakes involved with the BBEG's defeat.

    Have you, as a GM, ever encountered a gaming group that was reluctant to ever play Good aligned characters? They might joke about switching sides in a war or avoid going the extra two feet to ensure NPC safety. 'They don't act like heroes!,' you might cry to the forums, exasperated. And while good suggestions and advice might be given, this almost always points to the exact same thing - the players feeling detached from their characters, who are often supposed to 'do good' with no real compensation or reward, but stalwartly attempting to roleplay this. Altruistic characters might be good in theory, but in execution, it's often harder than you think. It's tough to really get the PCs unified on a common cause. Lucky for you, you've already got a common cause all figured out - your villain.

    Interestingly, no matter the system, players often take more affront to a villain who offends their sensibilities than their characters'. You might make the best Dr. Doom-esque mastermind ever, with the world in the grip of his hand, and the players will (likely) dutifully attempt to stop him as per the unwritten roles of roleplaying. But create a french underling with an annoying voice and a monocle, and a penchant for taking the PC's glory named Jean Eric Villon, and your players will be scrambling over the backs of one another trying to get a shot at him. Cultivate the art of making your PLAYERS loathe the villains, not so much their characters, and you'll end up with better bad guys. And this starts in the conceptual stages - don't intentionally try to tick off your players by say, breaking their equipment or taking their levels, because this goes against the rules of good GMing. Instead, make a backstabbing creep with diplomatic immunity and a know-it-all smirk and watch the magic. Consider Buddy from The Incredibles as a great example.


    Limitations:
    Part 4 of making a Bad Guy is sitting down and figuring out what they CAN'T do as opposed to what they can.

    Hold on a minute, Dust, you might say, you got that all wrong. Your villain needs to have MOTIVATION and GOALS to be a believable character. WHY they do what they do is more important than what they CAN'T do.
    And there is where I'd disagree. Sure, it's nice to have a rough idea of what your bad guy wants and why, but it's not truly essential for the tabletop experience. For a novel, sure - but not here.
    A Bad Guy's motivation is rarely what makes them memorable three months after the fact. When your next game has rolled around, I can promise you that your group certainly won't be talking about how the last BBEG didn't get hugged enough as a child, or even if (s)he was a fallen paladin seeking redemption in all the wrong ways. Unless they themselves were involved in creating the Bad Guy's motivations, you'll be hard pressed to find players who actually care.
    Still disagree? Quick, tell me Xykon's motivation, or The Joker's. How about Hannibal Lecter? Darth Vader? While you might be able to do it, the answer will almost always be a rather superficial reading of the character that'll take some thought. Some BBEGs are ones with complicated desires that don't always translate well to paper. Others are simply mustache-twirling evil and don't pretend to be anything more - Harry Potter was no less a good story because Lord Voldemort was a two-dimensional bad guy, and Vader was no less awesome when he still lacked depth and all he did was slice up Obi-wan, kidnap princesses, blow up planets, and choke people from across the room.

    Don't focus on your Villain's goals and motivations - focus on their limitations.

    A BBEG without limits is not actually a villain, it's a plot device, something we want to always avoid. Even if your campaign baddie is a cosmic all-powerful deity, there has to be some reason the PC's foe can't instantly obtain what he wants, and some reason he can't instantly stop the PCs as soon as they become a nuisance to him.
    Furthermore, having a Villain with limitations drives the story onward. This is a big important part of this section, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to it, so I'll repeat myself here; A Bad Guy who makes his vulnerabilities known or allows his limitations to be discovered becomes instantly more memorable and the story will take new life, since more players will begin exploring these chinks in the proverbial armor. Having a nigh-unstoppable monstrosity in the woods chasing the PCs is one thing, but as soon as the players discover it tracks by scent and they can escape it by crossing running water, they'll begin formulating PLANS on how to exploit this limitation and ultimately overcome the Villain.
    A political mastermind is always a good candidate for a long-term badguy, especially since the PCs can never hope to compete with him on the same playing field. Instead, give the mastermind an unrequited love with another NPC in the story, and watch your players' eyes light up as soon as they discover this fact and begin to incorporate it into their plans.

    Madness is rarely a good limitation - always try to make it something tangible, and your villain's eventual downfall will be all the more memorable, thanks to the players feeling smug about USING WHAT THEY LEARNED to help overcome the BBEG. In fact, that brings us to our final point...


    Last Stand:
    Even in the early conceptual stages of villain planning, you need to be contemplating his final scene and possibly even death. There is nothing, NOTHING that takes the kick out of a villain faster than his final scene and last moments being uneventful. Imagine what an anticlimactic moment it would be if your favorite Bad Guy was permanently defeated off-screen by NPCs, how utterly let down you'd feel, and you'll get some idea of the scale we're talking here.
    No. From the very first moment the idea is hatched, you need to be plotting your villain's last breaths. From Vader's redemption to the Nazis opening of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, how the final scene might go down is something you need to have on paper as early as possible. This scene will be the literal tombstone on the BBEG's memories, and you need to have an epitaph that'll be remembered.
    Of course, PCs rarely let things so according to plan, and that's okay. Just make sure you give your Boba Fett a last line or dangerous few moments in the spotlight, don't simply let him get nudged to his waiting demise without a whimper or sound. You might think it cheesy, but the Wicked Witch's 'I'M MELLLLTTTTIIIIING' is one of the best-remembered villain deaths in all of cinema, and that's just her getting splashed with some water.

    This scene is the culmination of all the player and character efforts and the last fight of the campaign. You can't afford to bring anything less than your A-game.

    Remember the insane scientist character I mentioned in the Line example? From the moment that villain was conceived, I knew that as much as he might WANT to be the PC rockstar, he only had the looks, not the skill. (Oh look, Limitations at work, too!) Ultimately, I figured it would come down to the PC bursting onstage and interrupting the villain's concert before it began, and turning into a rock-off. That let me plan for all sorts of other events during the fight - four mechanical arms bursting from the mad scientist's back to control two guitars, an army of undead showing up as backup dancers and mooks, and the works. It sounds ridiculous, but it was a ton of fun for everyone involved. Sure, the PCs could have simply kicked him into a pit of lava at some point instead, but having a plan for a POTENTIAL finale is, I truly believe, a necessity. Consider Kefka's ascension to godhood or Norman Osborn getting impaled with his own glider while trying to kill Spider-Man, or the gasoline trailing behind the plane in Die Hard 2. Give your players a reason to say "This is for Sally," or even "Yippie Ki Yay..." at the big finish.


    Conclusion:
    So that's the formula I've been working with that has yielded great results for some time now; The Line, the Look, the Loathing, the Limitations, and the Last Stand. The five Ls that make up a great BBEG - it isn't always a winning formula, because there's never any guarantee that your players will connect on an emotional level with ANY aspect of your game, and a good villain is one of the hardest parts. We can't always identify the X-factor that makes players care about or disregard certain NPCs, and personally, I don't think I'd want to. But next time you start statting up Hans von Rabbit, Destroyer of Worlds, consult this thread and make sure you have these points covered - you might be surprised by the results.
    Last edited by Dust; 2010-10-03 at 01:01 PM.

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    OrcBarbarianGuy

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    We shall employ option A.

    Well written, good ideas.
    Some of the more current examples should maybe have spoilers or be replaced, but otherwise *thumbs up*
    Last edited by grarrrg; 2010-10-03 at 06:13 PM.

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    Bugbear in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    There we go. Sorry about that; Not used to this accursed Mac yet.

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    I like it.
    What I found most helpful/insightful was the Limitation section. It makes a lot of sense to me. I had never thought about it in that way before. But I see your point.
    For the next villain I'll be cooking up, I'll give these points some thoughts.
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Awesome. I'm bookmarking this. My villains always end up falling flat, and while I can try and blame it on my players (one in particular) being a little too snarky out-of-character and not really getting into role, I know I ought to be doing more to make them want to get into role. The setup for the last villainous organisation went off very well -- they'd spread disease and sacrificed many innocents to sidetrack and misdirect the PCs, not to mention losing them their favourite NPC ally. But then the big fight just kind of... well, it was just another encounter.

    Thankfully the PCs followed the evacuating mooks through the teleport circle and promptly lost two of the party to higher-ups casting phantasmal killer before teleporting back to safety. So I have a chance to fix this villainous organisation and make it really villainous. Thanks dust.
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    I especially agree with the loathing part. In one of the longest-running campaigns I played, which focused on the war between a good and an evil kingdom, the bad guy we hated most wasn't the undead general who nuked an entire city, but the elusive enemy ambassador, who kept feeding us half-truths and baiting us with actually helpful information, only to leave us in the dust and taking the prize for herself. But as the only hope for eventual peace and the only person on the other side who ever did anything but hit us in the face, we simply couldn't afford to kill her - not that we didn't come within inches of doing so. The worst thing was perhaps that we never figured her out. She might have been trying her best to help both nations, to actually remove her evil queen and make peace, but I'd be damned if I know, even after the end.

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Some of the best villains aren't even BBEG's but in the grand scheme minor villains of unspeakable evil.

    In a recent adventure the party encountered a ghost in an abandoned house in a blood stained room. The skinless appearance of the ghost gave made them squirm. So the question for the party was why and the evidence in the room suggested a lot more people had been skinned their.

    The parties investigation led them to a smuggler's ring. The criminals were smuggling pelts, the pelts of lycanthropes. Now I know what your saying don't lycanthropes revert to human form when killed? Yes which means the only way to get a werewolf pelt is to skin the person alive.

    When the party finally tracked the gang to their lair the true depths of their depravity is discovered. The gang leader had a captured werewolf which he forced to bite kidnapped townsfolk who once infected were taken to that old house to be skinned alive.

    They never spoke with the gang leader, never even learned his name.
    But kidnapping people, infecting them with lycanthropy and then skinning them alive for fun and profit leaves an impression.

    No grand schemes, no huge goals just gold and a horrendous way to get it.
    Last edited by Lord Vukodlak; 2010-10-03 at 02:14 PM.

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Solid advice.

    The best villian I ever pulled off was somewhat of a fluke, as I don't like scripting recurring villians. This was in the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, early 3.0. Minor spoilers follow.

    What made him memorable was how he walloped the party, just after they started to get their tactics in line and work effeciently as a team. They were in the 8-11 level range, and finally getting through tough encounters without many upsets.

    The big bad (at this point he seems like the big bad, but he's actually still just a middleman) comes in and, mostly due to his planning and advanced tactics and use of scry (the party had warnings, but didn't heed them) he wipes out 4 of the 6 members, and they barely retreat with a teleport.

    That's the part that stands out to my players, 5 years later. They remember the sessions they spent afterward in a tactical deathmatch with the "big bad middleman." We evolved our tactics through this rivalry, discovering what would later be known as "scry-and-die teleporting", the true magic of 3.0 haste, polymorph cheese, how good wizards cannot die and the first clericzilla I've ever seen.

    They fought 3 major battles with the "middleman," but they probably wouldn't remember how he died. I didn't script an epic final battle and I should have, so the first impression was much stronger. Someone ended up critting him with a vorpal sword, just as they were about to get wiped again. Kind of anti-climatic. Worse yet, this "middleman" was a far more terrible foe than the real big bad, and so it felt to the players like the campaign peaked in epic-ness right in the middle, and the whole second half was a long wrap up.

    But I guess the villian ended up being so memorable not only because he was so tough, but also because it was through fighting him that we learned how to optimise our spellcasting and character abilities.

    I just wish I would have gave him a death as big as his entrance.
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    This is just pure brilliance. I've been having trouble writing a decent villain and this will certainly help.

    The Loathing section is especially good. I had never thought about it quite like that...

    Thanks a lot Dust

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    And one hat-tipping plus half a cookie made of internet dough goes to Dust.

    ...sorry, I got hungry.

    This is different from most things I've seen regarding the same topic, but also helpful. More stuff to consider to make a good villain next time. Hmmm...
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Nice work, a vary useful thought posses you have lined up here bookmarking this
    Quote Originally Posted by Psycho View Post
    the PC's stereotypical goal of killing everything in sight and stealing everything that isn't both nailed down and on fire.
    LOL

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    This is great. Loathing and Limitations were particularly interesting.

    Loathing because it recognises that roleplaying is a game. Rather than simply cope with the limitations that introduces (e.g. unlike a novel, you can't shift perspective as easily to the minor villager who gets nuked by the BBEG, so it's harder to get players to care), it exploits the fact that it's a game. The last time I saw that was in Mr Burlew's Villain Workshop, where he gave his evil fire sorcerer the ability to cast in adamantine fullplate, partly for the Look but also to keep him in the minds of metagamers and rules-lawyers.

    Limitations because you may be right about not really requiring a proper motivation. I think it's still a good idea, because motivations add to verisimilitude, and they often allow you to come up with social or moral limitations. However, they may have less intrinsic value than I thought.

    What I learned from my campaigns is that some of the most memorable villains are ones the characters can define themselves in opposition to. That is, they don't just oppose the villain's scheme, but in that confrontation the players develop their characters, understand them better, and grow more attached to them. Darth Vader is awesome not just because he wheezes and force-chokes people (Grievous wheezes and has four lightsabers, but is utterly boring in Episode III), but because he is the Skywalker who fell. This lets him be the foil to Luke, who is the Skywalker who was tempted but didn't fall, who has learned the wisdom his father did not. Thus, Luke develops from a fairly boring farm-boy-turned-hero, to the man who accepts his destiny, goes into the dragon's den, redeems his father and thus truly defeats the Emperor.

    It's certainly not the only way to make a villain, but it works.

    Lord Vukodlak, that villain is disturbing. All the more so because he was a minor dude in it for the gold. I may have to steal that idea.

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    In one game I ran, I did Loathing to the hilt but differently than anything I'd ever seen before... My boss was your typical kill everything and turn it to bones necromancer but that wasn't what made the players tick. In my campaign rather than having necromancers and priests the opposite end of the spectrum, I had it being necros and druids. The way it ended up turning out was that my guy was a real talker, and the players didn't ever kill him on a matter of "killing necromancers is the right thing to do" but they spoke with him, pondered at length why he did it, and I almost even had the guy who thought he was the main character convinced that he shouldn't kill the guy.

    Then they decided that he talked too much and spouted bull**** and almost died. until one of the players realized that sacrifice of another life was a necessity in killing this boss (and a second player realized that wouldn't work without shattering the stone that housed his soul). They liked that boss for the pure psychological thriller nature of the encounter.

    So I'm actually using another bit of advice from this thread and in using Cid as a buildup to the last boss, I'm gonna use a line, something like: "You think I'm [EXPLETIVE DELETED] wait till you see the guy I've been stallin' for!"
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Yknow what the worst villains are?

    Necromancers, that's what. *shudder*
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Quote Originally Posted by Tyndmyr View Post
    Yknow what the worst villains are?

    Necromancers, that's what. *shudder*
    I was hoping that I made it sufficiently clear that it was his other aspects that made him worthwhile... y'know, like his belief that rather than being all "i'ma take over the world!" he was more like "I'm all about equality especially where it concerns leaving necromancers alone, that said, you leave me alone, or perhaps even join me, and we won't have no problems, otherwise all bets are off."

    He would often justify his actions with something like "I'm only using the dead bodies in the cemetaries and those that feel like I've wronged them in some way enough to attack me! They're already dead what do they care? Their spirits have moved on."

    Of course letting him actually say this should be a good starting point in actually causing the anger required for actually attacking him...
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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Quote Originally Posted by Dust View Post
    (no links necessary, we've all seen these)
    I hadn't, at least for the latter of the two... there goes another two hours of my life.

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Quote Originally Posted by Tyndmyr View Post
    Yknow what the worst villains are?

    Necromancers, that's what. *shudder*
    *points at avatar*

    Watch yer tone there, ya whipper-snapper!

    Also, I laughed pretty hard at that one, Tynd. Well played.

    Quote Originally Posted by steelsmiter View Post
    *snipped*
    Ya missed the joke, brotherman. This thread was from October 2010, which makes this Thread Necromancy. Thus, the joke.
    Last edited by arguskos; 2011-02-18 at 04:14 PM.

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    Default Re: Building a Villain 101: The 5 Ls

    Quote Originally Posted by arguskos View Post
    Ya missed the joke, brotherman. This thread was from October 2010, which makes this Thread Necromancy. Thus, the joke.
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