[GMing] Villains as Broken Mirrors

Posted: September 6, 2012 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

One of the tricks I use for generating memorable and interesting villains in campaigns is one that I learned from Batman comic books. This particular trick is to design villains as a reflection of the hero, taking an element of the hero and twisting it to something evil. It’s a simple, yet powerful technique, and one that has served me very well in more than just Supers games.

So let’s look at this concept in further detail starting with the basic premise: Batman’s rogue’s gallery of villains exhibit a fairly strong set of themes that mirror qualities that Batman himself possesses.

Some of these themes include:

  • Madness
  • Identity Crisis (Man/Mask)
  • Wealth / Influence
  • Intelligence / Genius
  • Science / Gadgets
  • Fear
  • Stealth

Batman is notorious for these recurring themes. His own obsession with fighting crime as a vigilante and his own “Batman is the identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask” issues are clearly rooted in some form of madness. Billionaire Playboy Philantrophist plays up his wealth and influence. He’s the world’s greatest detective, and is a scientist (and martial artist) without equal. His chief methods involve stealth and gadgetry and the use of fear to unsettle his enemies and make them vulnerable.

Now let’s go and have a look at his enemies and the themes which are reflected in them:

The Joker – Madness
Harley Quinn – Madness
Poison Ivy – Madness, Intelligence
Catwoman – Stealth
Mister Freeze – Madness, Science
Penguin – Madness, Wealth and Influence
Riddler – Madness, Intelligence
Ra’s Al Ghul – Madness, Fear, Wealth and Influence
Two-Face – Madness, Identity Crisis
Man-Bat – Madness, Identity Crisis
Scarecrow – Madness, Fear
Bane – Intelligence, Fear

It’s clear to see that a lot of these guys are batshit nuts (sorry, just had to type that.) That said, we’re starting to see a pattern. Each one of the villains exhibits qualities that make them relatable to the hero in some fashion.

In RPGs, GMs can consider the player characters and find out what themes might work out as an interesting source of villains. For example, a band of adventurers for hire might find themselves absolutely hating a villainous band of mercenaries who will do anything for a price. They both get paid to kill things, but the way that the mercenaries conduct themselves and the means by which they get the job done could very well be at odds with one another.

It’s conflicts like these, between protagonists and antagonists with common ground that are among the most fertile. It’s easy to throw just another monster or threat at someone, but if they can understand and relate to the villain’s themes, it makes things just that much more interesting.

I’d hate to sound like a broken record, but in the L5R campaign I last ran, “Never a Dull Blade” almost all of their opponents were dark reflections of the Lion Clan. From the Tsuno, to Matsu Turi and the Gozoku conspiracy, each of them were rooted in motivations and themes not too different from the player characters, and that made it very personal for the players to make sure that the villains didn’t succeed.

  1. drakharios says:

    good ideas Jay, as usable in writing fiction as in designing RPG adventures!

  2. Tallai says:

    To quote far too many villains, “We are not so different, you and I.”

    I myself have had a few fairly amusing moments in a supers RPG in which the mad scientist, Dr Electro (actually a mimic), stopped fighting Echo (a gadgeteer) to argue about their scientific credibility. I have placed a timer on the table to simulate the bomb and he ran most of the clock down arguing that he was a better scientist than her.

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