Recently I’ve been inundating myself with a lot of comic book heroics . . . sans the comic books. What that actually means is I’ve been watching old comic book based cartoons. Staples of my childhood—I am going to pretend my childhood is not as far away as the finale dates of these shows suggests—such as Batman Beyond; Justice League; Justice League Unlimited; Batman (vanilla); X-Men (vanilla, again); Spider-Man (the triple fudge swirl version! No, not really.); and shows that came later, like X-Men: Evolution; Teen Titans; and the recently—and tragically—canceled Young Justice.
The “Before I Really Begin” Tangent (AKA: you can skip this paragraph if you want to): Let’s face it, if you’ve stopped watching cartoons, you’re missing out on some of the best TV out there—unless you LIKE watching the latest shows about bitchy uptight people being housewives in areas 90% of the population will never live in. If so, I am curious, how did you come across this blog? Are you watching those shows ironically? Should we send an intervention crew? We’ll do that for you, you know. We will stage a Reality TV Intervention. Why? Because we CARE. Also, because you should watch more cartoons, they’re awesome.
There is one critical element these shows and others (Disney’s Gargoyles springs to mind) have that I think every GM or wannabe GM should sit and take note of.
The Bad Guys.
Seriously, these shows have some exceptional villains. David Xanatos (of Gargoyles) has a goddamn TV Trope named after him. The Light of Young Justice was a conglomeration of the best DC villains doing what they do best: being downright evil. Mystique is always hell in a shape-shifting, emotionally traumatizing handbasket.
As a GM, I flounder towards running games with “Not-so-Bad” Guys. The ones who have motives that the PCs might sympathize with. Anti-Heroes. The “Guys Doing Bad Things Because if They Didn’t Things Would Be a Lot Worse.” They’re fun. They allow me to mess with my players’ expectations. What should their characters do in this moral morass they find themselves embroiled in? Should they stick to their guns and off the so-called villain? Should they try and find a way to extract themselves from the sticky situation, to help make the world better with their foe’s assistance? Is s/he really such a horrible person, or can s/he be redeemed?
For the sake of this article: FUCK THAT NOISE.
I felt a visceral glee watching Superman kick the crap out of Darkseid. I cheered when The Team of Young Justice finally booted The Reach off of Earth. I loved it when X-Men: Evolution concluded with Apocalypse getting sent back to the Dark Ages (or whenever the time-stream spat him out). Why?
Because they were BAD GUYS!
Nothing, nothing brings out the “hero” in “superhero” as much as being pitted against a vile, treacherous, scheming, psychotic megalomaniac, and then kicking his/her ass! The experience is the same in most RPGs I’ve played. One of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever had while gaming was when a wizard who had been leaving a trail of devastation behind him fell to one of my comrade’s blades. He’d been harassing us, murdering people, plonking down plagues, and torching villages to the ground. He wasn’t misunderstood. He was crazy, and so was his undead-loving god.
So, say you’re running a game and you want an extremely intelligent villain pulling the strings and challenging the heroes. Maybe said villain wants to take over the world (and then some) and the heroes are aiming to stop him. When wondering why your conquest-happy Bad Guy is trying to become the undisputed King of the Known Universe, don’t write up some elaborate heartstring-tugging back story about how he went mad with grief after his children died in some war and now he wants to impose his brand of peace on the planet. Instead, decide he’s doing it just to see if he can. Don’t make your PCs worry about pitying the bugger—let them hunt him down and put him in a shallow grave!
Similarly, say you’ve got a spate of disappearances in some town in your campaign. Turns out, there’s a cult who’s been sacrificing the missing. Instead of screwing the players over by having them kill the cultists, only to discover that the cult was kidnapping criminals that had gotten off (damn you, faulty fiction justice-system!) and using blood-sacrifices to keep an Elder God at bay, have it turn out that the cultists are simply batshit crazy.
That isn’t to say that sometimes a more complicated plot and nuanced Bad Guys aren’t appropriate. Or that you shouldn’t have your Bad Guys evolve if it suits your game. What you shouldn’t do is get all hung up on TRYING to make them nuanced. Some wo/men just want to watch the world burn, and your players will feel immense satisfaction in fucking up those plans.
Also, true Bad Guys are fun to play. A completely villainous villain does what they want, when they want. On the other hand, be careful about always keeping that dial at 11. Crazy is fun, but if you saturate the game with random acts of violence and sabotage from your Bad Guy, it might get aggravating quickly. If you kill off a few of the PCs’ favorite NPCs, that’s motivation; if you murder everyone that they’ve ever come in contact with, that’s—almost literally—overkill.
Remember, the point of a Bad Guy is to harass the Good Guys, and to eventually be defeated. The more loathed the Bad Guy, the more your players will chase after him to try and stop him, and the more they will enjoy defeating him.
And, if you really like playing a particular Bad Guy, but the PCs have taken him/her out, there’s one way you can mess with their heads that doesn’t involve them becoming simpatico with Dr./Mr./Professor/Lord Vile/Destruction/Rancid/Wicked:
Bring the Bad Guy back from the dead.
Oh, come on, they ALWAYS do it in the comics!