This entry is part 1 in the series Making A Great Villain


I’ve been watching some of my old Stargate: SG1 episodes during the last week, and (as often happens) some of the commentary (in the season 9 extras) sparked an interesting question.

The discussion was about the relative merits of Apophis, Baal, and Anubis as villains. This in turn connected in my head with a discussion that I had with my co-GM in our Pulp campaign about a villain created for a future plotline.

Power Level

Obviously, a great villain is not one that can be easily defeated by the PCs. But how far in the other direction should villains go – and what is best? My first superhero campaign featured a villain who was so powerful that initially, the PCs could not stand in his way. As they gained in experience, and hatched plots and plans to even the scales a little, they reached the point where they could baulk him occasionally, and even score the occasional minor victory. As they became greater threates to him, so he began to actively target them and their interferance, and the clashes between the two forces became more personal. Ultimately, they did not defeat him; they found a way in which both could have what they wanted, and began a process that ultimately left him a great character within the campaign mythology, but no longer a great villain.

Nevertheless, in comparison to many of the villains that followed, he was a far better villain than most. The players actually cared about their character’s interactions with him.

Those other villains were a mixed bag – some more powerful, some less – but none of them really captured the player’s hearts as an antagonist to the same extent as the original villain.

I can only conclude from this that power level is, in general, irrelevant to the question of whether or not a foe is a Great villain. So long as the Villain is strong enough to pose a threat, to achieve the objective that he is working toward – in other words, so long as he is credible – power level has nothing more to do with the question.

Variety of Interaction

One of the hallmarks of that first villain was there were a number of modes of interaction with the PCs. He could threaten one week and be a reluctant ally the week after. The same is true of most of the really great villains from comics – Magneto and Doctor Doom. The Flash and Batman both had great rogues’ galleries – in comparison, most of Superman’s were a little lame (at least until the revision of Lex Luthor in the late 80s/early 90s).

They weren’t one-note songs, they had some element that imbued them with a greater variety of ways in which they could interact with the team.

And yet, for every example that I can point to, I can also point to a counter-example in which the results were just… insipid. And as yet, I havn’t quite been able to put my finger on what caused that difference – hence this rumination.

Black Heartedness

I can also point to a number of villains who were (comparatively speaking) one-trick ponies and yet were great villains, in the process undermining everything that I wrote in the previous section. Ultron, for example, or Dracula, or Dormammu, or C. Montgomery Burns. They all have that ‘something extra’ that elevates them above being a mere enemy.

So perhaps it is better to suggest that a Great Villain always has ‘something extra’ that can be a depth of character, or can be an intensity of Malevolence (Ultron, Darth Vader) or Nobility (Dormammu) or Style (Count Dracula), or unstoppability (any Terminator) or even intellectual fascination (The Borg); and that the villain never does anything to interfere with that “something extra”, or if he does, that it does not become canonic to that character. Deathstroke the Terminator was great when he was using Terra to infiltrate the New Teen Titans, but was slowly watered down over subsequent appearances in the comic until he became ho-hum.

The Obsessed & The Cool

But that’s not enough. If it were, obsessed villains would automatically win “greatest villain” surveys all the time. And they don’t; some of the “obsessed villains” that have appeared here and there over the years have been truly cringe-inducing. The flaw in this line of reasoning is that making a villain obsessed has the consequence of holding that villains’ Greatness hostage to The Cause. It’s not even about how much the audiance in question – the players and GM – agree or disagree with The Cause, it’s more a function of how much the cause interferes with the Villain’s Coolness.

Depth Of Personality

So it’s all well and good to give your villains depth of personality, but that’s not enough to make a great villain. You can make Gods of your villains in comparison with the PCs, or make them of roughly equal power – but neither will guarantee a great villain.

The key word, in many ways, was used in the last sentance of the previous section. Some villains are Cool and do nothing to interfere with that Coolness. Avoid that mistake, and you can do just about anything with them – make them antiheros or give them complex psychological profiles or sympathetic urges or whatever.

A verification: The Floronic Man

This is a character from DC Comics who started off being an obsessed lunatic who transforms himself into a plant. Although competantly drawn, the concept should be enough to make you cringe.

And then he was used in a key role during a turning point in The Swamp Thing, in The Anatomy Lesson (issue #21) in such a way that he became really, seriously, cool. Not especially creepy, not especially obsessed, not especially deranged – more like the Hannibal Lector of Plants – icy cold and calm, completely unfeeling.

In the next issue of Swamp Thing, the character’s obsessions began to get in the way of the coolness. He became a featured character in the year’s Mega-epic, Millennium, in which he went way beyond the cringeworthiness that he started with and became dull and tiresome and boring – rather like Millennium itself, really – and every appearance since has simply watered down the Cool.

From Humdrum to Ascendance to Abysmal and beyond. That’s some career.

Evolution

I’m not entirely sure I’ve actually managed to contribute anything much to this subject, despite my best efforts and intentions. The best that I have managed is to define a great villain as a character with some indescribable “X-factor” – that can be different from one villain to another – with which he never interferes. Tricky to do if you are never sure what it is that you aren’t supposed to be messing with!

The fear and uncertainty that the last point engenders can lead you to keep the character monotone and unchanging – and that’s a big mistake. Another common characteristic of great villains is that they are always Fresh in some way – they change and evolve, they just don’t mess with the X-factor.

Ullar-Omega – a recent example

I’ve written before about the big finish of the most recent Superhero Campaign, in “A Grand Conclusion: Thinking About A Big Finish”. At the heart of that scenario was a revelation concerning the nature of the villain around which the entire campaign had been centred (even when it didn’t seem to be). This character started off as a Superman ripoff – the last member of his race, whose home galaxy had been destroyed by his father to prevent his people being corrupted and destroyed (elements of Sauron here) by a race of Moral Invaders who had a weapon that induced depression in others. This was all known by the players (and their characters) from the beginning of the campaign; they also knew that in their native timeline, the character had become a self-sacrificing and idealistic, humanistic, hero; while in this alternate timeline, he had arrived on Earth a decade later and had become an obsessed, ruthless, subversive, villain. Along the way, they discovered his motives and worldview; there were occasions when he was the villain of the peice, and occasions on which he was a (semi-)trusted ally. He even became the Godfather of the daughter of one of the PCs, a child which he helped deliver.

In the course of the final scenario, the players learned that neither incarnation of the character had been left untouched by the Depression Ray of his race’s enemies, and were driven by Survivor’s Guilt as a result – people who searched for a cause important enough for them to sacrifice their life in achieving, and then achieving it (if necessary at the cost of that life). This unified the two characters into different sides of the coin and put the entire campaign – which had the submerged theme throughout of “Obsession” – into context. And it suddenly revealed to the players the X-factor that had made the character Cool – the fact that (in his own mind) he was behaving heroically, sacrificing himself in a vain effort of achieving an ideal that could never exist in the real world. It was this Pathos of Superman-Gone-Wrong that had lain at the heart of the character concept from his very first appearance, and which had made the character Cool enough to be the central figure around which the entire campaign had been woven. Everything that the character had done – both good and bad – was consistant with this new perception of the character – it explained everything.

So how did I come to “get it right” with this character? Well, I had a couple of advantages; I already knew (from appearances of the Heroic version) that the character was Cool, and I already had the central concept at the heart of his personality. When I started thinking about events and revelations that occured in the previous campaign, and realised how the character would have reacted to them without the occurance of some key events that had transfigured his goals in his previous incarnation, the entire concept and theme of the new campaign became aparrant. As a result, I had figured out what made the character “Cool”, and that it would enable him to be a Great Villain just as easily as it would a Great Hero.

I already knew what made him cool, and so was able to ensure that I never messed with that. Outside of that one restriction, I was able to do anything I wanted with the character, and the players could take the campaign anywhere they wanted it to go. Ultimately, there would be a conclusion of some sort, one way or the other, when all the above would come out; but the ingredients weren’t even concieved of when the campaign started.

A practical approach

It’s a sure bet – at some point in a campaign, you’ll create a character to oppose the PCs, and the Players will react to that character more positively than usual. You will have created a potentially Great villain.

Watch For The Signs

So the first requirement of a practical approach is to make sure that you can recognise the signs when this occurs. Things to watch out for are the players talking about the villain during breaks, speculating about the villain, etc. Another clue is to observe the intensity of the interaction between the players (in the guise of their charactes) and the Villain – it will definitely lift a notch. Side-conversations will be less prevalent, with the players paying more attention, and having more fun than usual. The final sign will be that you find it easier than usual to step into character, and it will be fun for you to roleplay.

Identify The Cool

Here’s the trickiest bit – identifying what it is about the character that has produced this reaction. It might be a gimmick, or a circumstance, or a tone, or a piece of characterisation, or a concept, or any one of a dozen other things. The most practical approach is to list everything that it might be; it will usually be something that can be described in just a few words.

Then try imagining the character in a variety of modes of interaction that work with the character as he was. One by one, try varying each item on your list; if you lose that ease of roleplay and that sense of enjoyment, circle that item on the list; otherwise, cross it out.

Anything that is circled is potentially the X-factor for that character, something not to interfere with, something to be reinforced if possible (without going too far and taking it over the top unless that’s part of the charm). Anything that is crossed off is fair game – at least at this point.

Next, find ways to involve the character a second time in the campaign, taking care not to make any lasting changes, and using them in a slightly different way to their first appearance. Bring them back from the dead somehow if you have to! If the players still react the same way, you havn’t messed with the magic; if the character falls flat, then go back to where the character was before you made that last change for their next appearance, and make sure that the area you changed is marked “do not disturb” in the future.

After a while, either by talking with the players or by putting yourself in their shoes, you will figure out what the X-factor is. And then you’re set!

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