I’ve been thinking about superhero role-playing recently. It could be due to a reaction to the usual style of play of my Friday night campaigns or it could just be because I haven’t thought about it much in quite a while.
I don’t expect to play such until February or so, and I don’t have any interest in taking on more GMing duties, so the logistics of play, such as game system, are not that great a concern to me. Though, I do have trouble thinking of what game system I’d even want for a superhero game. Champions is probably okay, though the reason I think of it all of the time is due to character creation. Silver Age Sentinels might be worth taking another look at. If it mattered …
I got to thinking last night about motivation, especially supervillain. Sure, it’s easy enough to find a list of motivations. Many of the crazy motivations are fine – with great power comes great madness makes perfect sense. I’m more interested in believable, relatable motivations.
It’s also easy to find a list of human needs, but the most basic are food, shelter, and security, with the latter two being something that can be considered together or separately – doesn’t really matter to me. Taking a normal person and giving them superpowers, none of these are much of a concern. Sure, there are parts of the world and parts of affluent countries where it would be more so, but I’m just thinking of some random middle class suburbanite, such as myself.
So, if not those as motivations, then what? Well, um, there’s an obvious motivation, but I’ll ignore it.
I’ve gotten ahead of my self. I can’t think of any good supervillains in the Marvel Universe off the top of my head. Sure, I could probably be easily reminded of good ones. And, there are ones that interest me. But, if I were to port over the character type to a personal RPG campaign, I don’t know that I’d be happy. Doctor Doom? Silly. Sabertooth? Personal enemy. Magneto? Magneto actually would be good, but this makes sense after reading below. Kingpin? Too street. Dracula? Too supernatural. Loki? Too supernatural and too otherworldly. And, so on. You get supervillains that are too oriented to a particular hero, which doesn’t work with a large enough RPG group, supervillains that are silly (even for powerful groups like The Fantastic Four or The Avengers), ones that are too narrow (e.g. Mr. Sinister), etc. On the DC side, I’m less familiar and the supervillains, like the superheroes, tend to be absurdly powerful.
From a villain side, if you had superstrength, the ability to fly, were invulnerable to bullets, and/or could blast people with some sort of energy attack (in other words, were a brick or energy projector), what would you be doing as a villain if you weren’t just insane?
Mercenary is easy. I can totally see ruthless mercenaries of the likes of Bloodscream and Roughhouse, which is perhaps part of the reason why I thought they made decent members of Wolverine’s rogue’s gallery. Speaking of mercenary, I can see it on the superhero side as well. The supervillain merc sets up someone as a warlord, probably in Africa or some made up nation. The “superhero” merc acts as a bodyguard for traveling dignitaries.
World changer. Magneto falls into this when it’s more about mutant respect and safety and less about how humans should worship the almighty mutant. Terrorism is a touchy topic, but it’s prevalent and reasonable in comics as a supervillain activity; one could even say that the default supervillain activity is terrorism. Besides, comics try to use real world issues. Magneto has often been a terrorist. Extreme environmentalism drives various supervillains. Superheroes get in the act by eventually deciding to take over government. Often, the supervillain has noble intent but an extreme view that overlooks practical considerations. While this can be to the point of insanity, there’s enough sane part of the spectrum where this still works as a good motivation/activity.
Wealth accumulation. Seems a reasonable motivation. We all like having more dollar dollar bills (or Euros or Baht or whatever). But, when you can fire lightning bolts, rip tanks open with your bare hands, etc., why in the world would you ever be so stupid as to rob banks or do all of the typical things that get superheroes to show up and beat you down? I was thinking about the most useful superpowers to commit crimes in a realistic world and it was all invisibility, teleportation, and mental powers. Actually, just the mental powers would do it. Cracked.com had an article not long ago about major crimes committed just with a phone, including stealing $30,000,000 (over a bunch of years). It can just take saying the right thing to deprive people of money.
Anyway, back to superpowers. The ability of a single person to fly at will at high speeds is an amazingly useful ability. Military would love it, though I already mentioned being a merc. Superstrength, especially at higher levels, has numerous applications that can be turned into money without resorting to robbery. Sure, sportfighting, which any doofus super could get into, is not heroic in any way, so even though it would be an easy way to make money, it’s lame. There are occasionally jokes about supers using their powers for mundane activities – Storm making wedding weather perfect or whatever. But, look around at what people get paid for. If not a purely mundane job, with virtually any superpower, there’s some sort of specialized job that no one else can accomplish.
Stealing makes a bit more sense in cases where the villain needs something to live. Here, though, we aren’t usually talking about stealing money, unless it’s money to pay for rare drugs or as a barter with someone who can provide some rare resource. Vampires stealing life through blood drain, irradiated supers (or robots) stealing radioactive materials to live, aliens stealing resources from Earth – all makes sense. But, as a motivation, it gets tiresome. You feel bad for some of these villains. Maybe not vampires. But, Radioactive Dude needing plutonium to live is sympathetic. Sympathetic is okay sometimes, like when being sympathetic to world changers with noble intent, but you really want to beat the tar out of supercriminals most of the time.
Revenge and/or hatred of something makes some sense. A lot of supervillains are disfigured in accidents and hate normal looking people. A lot are striking back at somebody who has wronged them. Street gang gets shot by cops, weird doctor takes one of them and does experiments, new supervillain takes revenge on cops – okay, reasonable.
Part of the concern is looking at it from the superhero or superneither perspectives. If I were to acquire superpowers in a world where it wouldn’t be awful (government test subject not being the logical life path), what would I do with them? Would I just try to use them for my personal benefit? What is a world like with superheroes and no supervillains? Does such a world make any sense at all, ignoring that it would be boring as a RPG? If it’s not clear what the superhero or superneither is going to do with superpowers, why would it be clear what a supervillain would do?
Comic book worlds rely on the superhero vs. supervillain dynamic. Of course, because a primary reason to read comic books is for epic fights. But, what is the logic behind the fights? Fighting for the sake of fighting is ultimately hollow. Superheroes can’t just exist to counter supervillains. Supervillains can’t just arise to give superheroes something to do. There’s only so many alien invasions that give a simple enemy to deal with. I think my basic problem is that so much of the crime that supervillains engage in is insipid while the dealing with that crime often ends up being just as bad in terms of things like collateral damage.
Revenge, needing to steal to survive, trying to change the world, dirty missions outside of the eye of those who can do anything about it, insanity, aliens – that’s probably enough sources of supervillainy. It’s the mundane stuff of blatant robbery of highly visible targets like banks or train shipments or whatever that I don’t buy, even street criminals with no superpowers blatantly robbing stuff in a world with superheroes stretches credulity. Keep in mind that the Mona Lisa was stolen just because some guy stuffed it in his clothes and walked out. The amazingly lack of subtlety in comic book worlds is, uh, amazing. Mental powers, for instance, should pretty much get you anything you want, which is, actually, really scary when you think about it.