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Villains

You’re doing it wrong.

That’s not actually true (necessarily), but inflammatory hyperbole supposedly motivates a reader to keep going, and this is kind of long.  I’ve had villains on my mind lately, so villains are the topic of the day.  This may get a little disjointed, please bear with me.

There’s two main schools of thought in gaming: one says that the PCs drive the story, and the other that the villain drives the story.  The latter is a more traditionalist view, while the former is advanced more typically by modern indie gaming.  Both require that antagonistic presence, but in the former case it’s an obstacle on the road to a goal, and in the latter it is the thing to be defeated – the villain is the goal, in a sense.  Let’s leave aside the merits of these competing viewpoints (and how they may overlap) for a moment and focus on that antagonism.

A Villain (note capital), for the purposes of this post, is not just the Bad Guy, not merely the antagonist in the story.  In the class Underdog Sports Team Wins the Championship story, the team they have to beat aren’t necessarily Villains.  They may just be a faceless (trait-wise) obstacle, a “them”.  A cop in a criminal story isn’t necessarily a Villain – they’re just opposition.   A Villain, instead, is a malevolence – a force inimical to the protagonists, and who must exhibit a character of their own.  Bad guys, antagonists, are a dime a dozen.  Villains are memorable.  Villains are legendary.  Villains are what the player fears.

Fear is the key.  An antagonist that the player does not fear cannot be a Villain – they’re just an obstacle, an annoyance to be swatted down.  When a player fears the antagonist, however, you’ve got an emotional connection.  A feared opponent is always a challenge, because the players are fighting themselves inside their own heads before ever facing the Villain.  The question then is: what makes the player afraid of the Villain?

The cheap way out is power.  Make the Villain nightmarish in power, wealth, etc.  The “going up against a god” kind of thing.  This, by itself, is yawnsville – it’s the blockbuster sequel mistake: “GO BIGGER!”  Generic Evil Wizard #7 isn’t a memorable villain just because he likes to cast Meteor Swarm or whatever.   Similarly, unbridled violence isn’t terribly effective, either.  Every shitty B-movie where the bad guy pointlessly kills someone to show how “bad” he is kind of proves that – there’s a reason why that sort of thing makes the Evil Overlord list (#32, for example).

A fearsome Villain is born out of motivation.  Just as with the protagonist, motivation defines a Villain in a way that doesn’t apply to lesser characters.  You can’t skimp here.  You cannot half-ass it and have a memorable Villain – you’ll just end up with a bad guy.1  “I WANT TO BE ALL-POWERFUL” is a shit motivation, and the reason why the Generic Fantasy Bad Guy is so damn generic.  That’s not a Villain – it’s barely even a character.

To my mind, there’s two ways to go with this.  For purposes of illustration, let’s use two of the finest examples from competing powerhouses – Marvel and DC.  Marvel gives us Magneto, while DC gives us the Joker.

Magneto is all about motivation, and is a perfect example of the first route: make your Villain right.  For the purpose of this discussion, let’s put aside his “heroic” stints and focus on Magneto the villain.  A concentration camp survivor, he understands better than any other character in his universe the darkness and depth of human intolerance.  He knows firsthand the ultimate endpoint of racism and nationalism.  Magneto is terrifying as a villain not simply because his mutant power is of earth-shattering potency, but because in our heart of hearts we agree with him.  Look at his counterpoint, Charles Xavier, who argues peaceful coexistence and acceptance but is shown to be wrong (to greater and lesser degrees), time and again.  Even the recent X-Men: First Class film hit on this.  For all his idealism, Charles is both wrong about humanity’s reaction to mutants and every bit as condescending.  We may not be able to agree with Magneto’s goals at times (particularly his more genocidal moods), but we intrinsically recognize that his motivation is righteous.  And an opponent who is not merely righteous in their own mind, but in ours, is truly terrifying.  They frighten us because we know the lengths to which we ourselves would go if we thought ourselves truly justified, the acts we would excuse for the hero if it was for the greater good.  The brakes are off, and we fear not only what they are capable of, but that we might be wrong.

Conversely, the Joker is about motivation as the absence of motivation in a conventional sense.  The Joker is not merely a homicidal maniac – he is not some interchangeable movie slasher.  Nor does he have a “motivation”, the way Magneto does.  The Joker does not do what he does because of Traumatic Event A or Lofty Goal B or even Lust for Power or Wealth C.  He is not even “crazy” in a sense that has meaning – insanity has causes and structures, even comprehensible wants and reactions.  None of this drives the Joker.  The Joker is, in a very important and meaningful sense, an alien.  He terrifies not because of his powers (he has none) or his specific actions, but because he does not operate in the same universe we do.  He is freed from all expectations and constraint.  He is an elemental force, entropy in human guise, desirous only of the joy of chaos.  As Alfred puts it in The Dark Knight Returns, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”  He is a seething torrent of human emotion simultaneously divorced from anything we can understand as human reasons.  We can understand a serial killer, we can understand the mass murderer, but the Joker remains an enigma.  No explanation of his true origin could ever satisfy, and no rationalization for his actions beyond “because” will ever ring true.  But he is more than a boogeyman.  We recognize his emotions, though not his reasons: we see that despite it all, somehow, we share the same species, and fear what lies inside us.

Both are fantastically effective villains, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.  Magneto is feared because he is, in a significant way, heroic, and heroes are terrifying if you’re on the other side.  The Joker is feared because he is the unknowable – the permanently alien, anathema to all we understand.  The best Villains draw effectively from one or the other of these methods.  Bringing either to the table is, frankly, a bitch and a half.  Players are notoriously resistant to fear.  However, going back to the beginning of the post, we have some aid available.

First, in a game where the players are the motive narrative force, it is easier to pull off the Magneto.  The player characters believe in something strongly enough to be pushing towards their goal independent of opposition, so now you can bring in opposition that believes something conflicting just as strongly.  The trick here is to make it a valid argument.  This has to be stronger than just “I’m the rightful king because dad was the king and I’m the firstborn” kind of stuff.  Make it count.  Pull on the the other beliefs of the player characters and show them a compelling alternative.  Doubt creates fear.  This can be even more effective if you can lead the players into going too far.  Get them to make hard, hard choices, where they have to decide for themselves how much they can justify in the name of their beliefs, and then hit them with the Villain’s motivation.  Show them someone willing to go as far as they will.  You can’t guarantee that you’ll get true fear out of them, but you can the odds are good that your Villain just got upgraded from opposition to nemesis in the players’ minds.

Second, in a Villain-driven game, it’s harder (though not impossible) to effectively do the Magneto version – you have to sort of push the players into defining their characters in opposition to the Villain, rather than designing the Villain for their characters.  Conversely, it’s easier to fit in a Joker.  Plots and disasters that drive the players into action can create expectations in the players which you can, at the right time, shatter utterly.  This kind of thing is still quite difficult – it’s a tricky balancing act between “agent of chaos” and “why the fuck did that just happen?”  The goal here is to get the players not to be asking confusedly, “what’s the Villain trying to do?” but to be instead worrying the same thing.  You want the players to fear the unknown plots of the Villain the same way they fear an unidentified but obviously-trapped door: even if they can disable the trap, they’re still panicked about what’s behind it.

 

1: Darth Vader is kind of the exception to the rule here.  Nobody would argue that he’s not an iconic and memorable Villain, but I would argue that this is a case that can only happen in film: one where the visual design of the character carries sufficient resonance as to overcome deficiency in development.  Paired with a reasonable backstory (developed more in the sequels), this elevates him to a status he never could have achieved with weaker design.  Sadly, visual design is not something we can utilize effectively in a tabletop RPG, though it plays a distinct role in video games.

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