Villain Lite

Sometimes, things just don’t penetrate.  I find this to be often the case when it comes to GM advice.  I’ve read a lot of it in a lot of different RPGs, in magazines, on forums.  But, do I implement it?  Course not.

I was thinking about the most important element to a RPG campaign – villains.

At some point, I started thinking more and more about setting.  I started mining books, often ones intended for different systems, for scenery descriptions.  My efforts to try to paint more of a picture, as flawed as they might have been when I focused on the wrong elements – elements players didn’t care about and not the ones they did, really didn’t seem to have any impact.

While I always have malign intelligence, yes, villains, in my campaigns, I make it difficult for the players to feel them.  I don’t know why.  When I’m playing, do I want some obscure enemy who may or may not be the enemy who is behind the curtains?  Not so much, no.

There’s nothing wrong with having evil masterminds who have to be discovered, but there should be the obvious villains to use all of those combat tactics on.

And, by villain, I mean villain.  I don’t mean monster, criminal, drunk, or whatever that produces a combat.  The villain needs to be actively interested in doing something that is bad for the PCs.  For instance.  Galactus is a hungry monster.  He’s a villain not because of scale, though scale has something to do with it (it means the Marvelites should be pretty annoyed, when the planet is consumed).  He’s a villain because he has malign intelligence, even if the comics try to position him as a cosmic force of nature.

Meanwhile, a pickpocket isn’t a villain.  It might suck to have your Amulet of Infinite Resurrections lifted, but the pickpocket isn’t engaging in an activity that specifically is oriented to making the PCs suffer.  If someone else came along with one of the numerous other Amulets of Infinite Resurrections, hey, pickpocket will go for that.  If you are pathetic and loserful and only have an Amulet of Nine Lives on you and your collection of Amulets of Infinite Resurrections is back at your low rent sky castle, you don’t really lose anything … failing the “suffer test”.

Look, I’m being lazy.  I’m sure that plenty of others have gone into agency (Wikipedia mentions agency under its villain heading) and a bunch of other better definitions for what makes a villain a villain.  I think people have an idea what the difference between a villain and a challenge are.

But, just to drag things out, a villain has potential persistence.  Sure, plenty of bad guys get taken out in one issue of your comic or whatever who are still villains.  Persistence isn’t important.  Potential persistence means that if you don’t fire the Wave Cannon this episode, the bad guy hangs around for more episodes to steal your cute anime girl harem.

More villains.  Recurring villains.  Whatever.  Just have a villain.  Pritnear all of the time – when the party finally eviscerates The Marquessa of Evil, her Sundress of Vileness is missing, which her daughter, Evil Girl, finds off stage.

I think this is something that makes taking Heroes of Rokugan more seriously difficult.  Sure, there are major villains.  They just don’t matter most of the time.  The campaigns build to the villains revealing themselves and not just doing things behind the scenes.  But, without the ability to impact them for most of the campaign, it doesn’t matter much whether you can even identify who they are.  The minor villains that pop up primarily just for the one mod aren’t easy to get concerned about, either.

It’s like the supervillain who shows up in issue 146 of your series and will never do so again.

Nothing makes players want to boil their enemies more than having a personal interest in taking someone down before throwing them into the pot.  Why can’t I remember this when I set up campaign?  Why don’t I mention this immediately when someone else is running a campaign?

Having a recurring villain doesn’t automatically make a good campaign.  But, it does automatically make a campaign better, unless the villain generates player hate without also generating character hate.  The ideal is to generate character hate and have the players go “While my character superhates Captain Clown, I got to respect his commitment to banana peels, pies, and squirt bottles.”

Our Saturday campaign has had a number of villains.  One even turned (we think).  But, so many campaigns I’m involved in fail to master villainy.  The Friday night group’s collection of campaigns tend to be of the sort where the PCs just do things they are supposed to be doing, without any particular impetus to do something specific.  Our new L5R campaign is one of the reasons I thought of this post – to this point, we are just doing what we are supposed to be doing and don’t have any particular Akutenshi to mess with.  My Gaki Mura campaign presented a major villain, but one that doesn’t inspire the group to do anything about him, which is part of the reason I haven’t been running the campaign.

Villains don’t have to be great.  They can, in fact, be decoys or set ups for greater payoff down the line.  Issue #1 – Nuclear Hero uses his gigaton blast on Bob, the gangleader, reducing him to quarks that coalesce in The Realm of Radiation Rajas, where he learns to master radiation.  In issue #13, Bob, now known as Z-Grade, deathtraps Nuclear Hero in his lead dirigible.  However, better to have some seriously dangerous villains early and often.

Also, in terms of what the villains can do, direct punchmastery tends to be better than “I made everyone hate you and stole your retirement fund” types, with their being quite the spectrum and a lot of ability to mix and match.  Kick King might have such great dancing moves that he makes the PC’s jumpoff jump ship.

Speaking of deathtraps.  It also tends to make far more sense and might be somewhat palatable to players to have a villain capture PCs rather than PCs being captured by someone random.  Sure, players tend to be violently opposed to being captured, but you never know.

Well, that was quite ramblerrific.  Point – villains (who do their job) make for better RPG experiences because they focus the party, they engage the party, and they hide how much of the world has been underdeveloped for the party.

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