Blast from the past

Still on Winter Break! Ordinary posting resumes January 3, 2016.

I may be more proud of this essay than anything else I’ve written.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (Clobberin’ Times #5, 1989)

Without a villain there is no story. The Bad Guys are the best part of any narrative, whether in fiction, the movies, comics, or gaming. Many characters in the comics have failed for lack of an adversary; somehow, without a sufficiently fascinating foe, the most carefully-written, well-drawn protagonist is just plain lost. In gaming, playing effective villains is more than merely designing the evil Entrail-Eater or the Chainsaw Sadist. The latest Enemies books and Hero Games modules have been emphasizing characterization of villains, which is good, but the real trick is making up characters that strike genuine fear into players’ hearts.

For example, once when my PCs, poor innocents, were all bunched up, their foe Nightmare teleported into their midst. On each one’s next move, he/she hightailed it elsewhere, dodging, ducking, going desolid, you name it. He’s not any more powerful than any one of them, and they knew that. They’re just afraid of him.

Tactics for inspiring this sort of respect fall into two categories. The first, easier category is the villain’s combat ruthlessness. Note, note, the more dice per attack (bah! Trivia), but rather the confidence and personal style he or she employs. In my campaign, Nightmare considers himself the equal of any mystical character and prefers to fight only them. He will contemptuously slice his way through walls, floors, and “mundane” heroes to reach whom he considers a worthy opponent. This awesome disregard for their heroes is quite frightening to players, even though Nightmare is not numerically superior.

The other category is more subtle: the villain’s campaign chutzpah, his or her identity in the game world beyond that of a mere opponent on a hexboard. Nightmare, out of costume, once waltzed into a Taco Bell where his least-liked PC was eating dinner, sat down opposite him, and offered an alliance against an obnoxious fundamentalist leader that had been plaguing the PC. The player nearly fainted. What unsettled him most was the personal quality of Nightmare’s entrance, combined with his assurance that he would be taken seriously. A little bit of class, having the villain behave as if he were just as important as the hero, goes a long way.

An important part of this concept is the villain’s affiliations. Face it, a villain without an organization is basically irrelevant to the campaign. Put the boob in jail or banish him or her to Limbo, and it’s all over. However, Nightmare is the ambitious second-in-command in a demonic cult; the players know that his schemes, often in opposition to the head muckey-muck demon, could have a variety of results involving this organization. Therefore they play their cards carefully when he shows up, as they are more worried about the overall campaign outcome than in merely trading thumps again.

Enjoy your villains. Whether they are vicious slayers loaded with killing attacks or just slightly-dishonest, suave mentalists, play them with pride, style, and campaign relevance. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the players give’em respect.

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on December 20, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I remember. Claude nearly choked on his chalupa when Nightmare sat down. My head was spinning because I had no backup. There were all these civilians around that could be victims, hostages, or witnesses (if Claude turned into Spectre publicly). In addition to the concern of potentially horrific collateral damage, I really did fear that Nightmare would kick my intangible ass mano a mano. Plus, of course, I played the character as if he were a far-from-heroic, chicken-hearted git.

    Well played, Ron. One of my favorite scenes from the campaign.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reformed villains, megalomaniac villains, misunderstood not-really villains, dangerous but basically just neurotic villains … I love’em too, but the real question is, why not a story that centers on the life of a plain functioning supervillain? Personal drama and social positioning of a supervillain which doesn’t merely retread pulp tropes of criminals and foreigners.

      Nightmare – not “from his point of view” in a justifying way, but rather, seeing his life instead of the superhero’s. Or to go Marvel with it, I was struck by Roger Stern’s take on the Vulture in the early 80s – a retired and not-unusually cranky senior citizen, whose life outside ‘work’ was visible to the reader for a little while. Wow, I said. I’d read a series based on that, free of specific embedded plot-outcomes that are necessary for a hero book.


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