I’ve been playing the old Arkham PC games recently. I like those games, but they have made Batman less interesting as a character to me. He is just too morose. Playing with Catwoman in Arkham City is much more fun. But this is about the bad guys.
In each of those games, you meet many, many members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery in some form or another, albeit mostly the designs and villains are the less campy ones (although Mat Hatter made it in – twice). Joker is everpresent, as is The Riddler, but there’s also Croc, Two-Face, Penguin, Bane and so forth. Does any other hero have such a memorable group of enemies? Sure, part of this is that Batman has been depicted in popular culture outside of the comics for so long and in so many projects, but there must also be a reason why they keep using the same villains. Some of them have been around from the very start.
Especially Joker. Originally Joker was supposed to be a one-of, the villain in Batman #1 (1940), but the editor overruled the artists on this, adding a panel at the end of the issue in order to show the readers that Joker survived. After that he has always been around, including all the movie versions (although only hinted at in the latest one). The reason for his longevity is clear. Whereas Batman is serious and meticulous, Joker is talkative to a fault, flies by the seat of his pants and is there mostly to have fun in his own twisted way. They are very different from each other. As it is possible that the character was actually designed by a person other than the writers, so it is possible that all of this 83 year history is basically just luck.
Anyhow (I use that word way too much, don’t I?), Joker works, because he is so different from Batman. He has become the go-to example of a nemesis, because he works so well as one, but he is not the only approach. Another suggested nemesis for Batman has been Ra’s Al Ghul. While I think this is nonsense, that is an interesting different approach for this purpose, as he basically has the same goal as Batman, but he comes from a very different angle. He has been destroying cities for centuries just to get rid of the corruption. Batman doesn’t subscribe to this, as that requires a lot of innocent people to suffer.
On the other hand, both of these nemesis candidates are perversions of Batman. One of them just goes much further than the other and the other is just Batman with a bit different upbringing. And because I am who I am, I started to think about the various villains in RPGs. Have any of them been memorable? Sure, I remember the ones I’ve made myself, but that’s because I made them myself. What about my players? Do they remember my villains?
This is timely for me, because I’m just coming back from a break from GMing. GMing, like so many things I do, quite a bit about learning. So, why not try to learn about this subject? I have sort of taken a timeout on this, as I don’t really know my current players very well, so I don’t know where they will take the game, so at this point I’m just giving them ideas on where to go and I will introduce a big villain after a few sessions (we’ve only had one thusfar) or perhaps one of the characters already introduced will turn into one.
For context, the game is Blades in the Dark and my three players decided to form an Assassin crew. If you are not familiar with the game, the quick explanation on this is that all player characters belong to a crew, which starts very small, but can grow over time by recruiting members, taking over turf and building a network in a sort of Victorian Steampunk city (not quite that, but close enough). If you are familiar with Dishonored, this is like a darker version of that world. It should also be noted that they are not the only characters with agency in the world. After one session, there are already five other factions with what is known as a clock, which means that they are working towards a goal and will get closer to their objectives. It is possible that one of those factions or a member of those factions will be the main villain.
Because I do have a little bit of an academic background (and yes, I know, I’m not going to do as thorough research for this than I would do for an actual article — this is just a lightweight version of that), I decided to take a look at what other people have written about this. So, here’s four articles:
5 Tips For Creating RPG Villains With Bite by Courtney Kraft
Designing a Central Villain for Your Campaign by Oren Ashkenazi
Build a Better RPG Villain in 5 Easy Steps by Thorin
How to Create Interesting Tabletop RPG Antagonists by Coleman Gailloreto
The steps for each:
Each of these mention motives and making the villain powerful. Otherwise the approaches are quite different. Some of these feel very lazy and uninspired in their approach.
I do like some specific things here. Modern villains, at least the good ones, like Killmonger, are often sympathetic, so you can do that with your villains in RPGs as well. I, personally, like to push the players on this. How far are their characters willing to go?
The thing is that I don’t actually like to work based on any of these approaches while GMing. I’m much more in the camp of just building the world and letting the players do their thing. They might sometimes need nudging for me and I might not always be on point with new details (in that case I will try to buy myself time), but to me, this should be the story of and about the characters, not something I force on them.
So, I’m not going to try to design a villain for the campaign. I’m just going to try to build one based on the groups actions. So, the guidelines given or more like suggested in the articles above are more like things to keep in mind while game moves forwards. Gladly Blades in the Dark already takes much of this into account. Every faction has a goal or a couple of goals, which they are actively working towards, so that covers a lot of what’s being talked about in this context.
However, I do disagree with some of the advice. Do the villains need to be powerful? Not necessarily or I guess it depends on what you mean by calling someone or something powerful. I mean, one thing I like to do with my villains is taking the Batman approach and having the villain be something close to the our players’ crew. Last time I ran Blades, the player crew was a cult, so I had another cult as the first main villain (I like to think of these things in terms of series – or seasons for you Americans). This time the main villain could be another assassin, someone who is just able to go under the radar, because they are not formidable.
But again, I will wait and see. I gave my players a bunch of potential contracts and rumors. They don’t have to follow these, but I assume they will. Still, I tried to cover as many angles as possible with these without overwhelming the players, so that they have the opportunity to do what they want with their crew. In a way they will choose their own death (not that anyone dies in this particular game, unless they want to).
It is my job to make sure that whatever they decide to do, that will be an interesting path. Having a good villain that way is just part of the job. I just don’t have to know at this point who that is (necessarily).
I will try to find real world villains (or people) for inspiratino. Like the last time I ran Blades in the Dark, I used Magdalena Solis as a basis for the leader of the competing cult. I get that there are certain ethical concerns regarding true crime media, but if you can find one you can handle, that’s a good place to start. In general, RPGs are somewhat lighter than reality, so keep that in mind and only use these as inspiration. I could probably find some content on KGB assassins for example.
One thing you should always keep in mind (and I can’t hammer this home enough): Always remember the genre of your game. Not the setting, not the rules system. The genre. Star Wars has a sci-fi setting, but it is a fantasy movie (I am not up to date with the franchise, so this is only about the original movie). Sci-fi and fantasy genres require very different villains, because they have different goals (fantasy is all about feeling cool, while sci-fi is all about “what if?”). Never forget that.
Sorry, this became somewhat rambling. I think there is still some good ideas there. I’m just not sure I communicated them very well. However, if I put my approach into steps like those above, it would probably look like this for Blades in the Dark specifically:
- Introduce paths for the players to choose
- Build on their decisions
- Make the villain a threat, but you can choose a specific aspect of the crew to threaten
- Between sessions find real world inspiration for the villain
- Learn together about the villain as you go