Hullo, Gentle Readers. As of the time I’m sitting down to write this article, an extremely compelling storyline has just wrapped up in the pages of the various Batman comics. Called The Death of the Family, it involved the return of the Joker after a period of absence from the pages of the various books. This Joker was just as terrifying as in many of the greatest Joker stories I’ve read over the years. He’s unbalanced, obsessed with Batman, and seems completely capable of anything, no matter how inhuman and shocking.
And right there is the crux of this article. Joker has something very few comic book villains has: he has the ability to make me believe he’s capable of literally anything. At one point in the story, it seemed entirely likely that he was carrying the head of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s beloved butler, under a cloche (you know…those fancy dining plates with a lid that are opened to reveal the plate of food beneath.) Even though there was a part of me that said, “No way…there’s no way they would do that,” there was another part of me that said, “We’re talking about the Joker here. They just might.”
And no, I have no intention of telling you if he did, or did not, have Alfred’s under a cloche. Hell, I’m happy to have snuck the word cloche into one of my articles!
The point is, it got me thinking about what a great villain Joker is, principally due to his sheer unpredictability and how far the DC writers will allow him to take things. This got me thinking about what it takes to create a great villain in general, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on the subject. Whether you create villains for comics, RPGs, or any other purpose, I hope you’ll find these ideas useful.
Want to See a Magic Trick?
There’s a reason Joker is Batman’s arch-nemesis. He is the absolutely evil to Batman’s absolute good. Both are willing to go to extreme lengths to meet the ends they consider desirable, but, where Batman will stop at certain places, Joker won’t. Poison a reservoir? Club a teenager to death? Cripple a woman and force her father to look at naked photos of her? Joker will do it.
What’s interesting is that DC’s writers have embraced this unpredictability. They’ve made it so that Joker really will do the dark and awful things that we fear he will. Most villains will try to defeat and/or kill their superhero of course, but the Joker has demonstrated an alarming tendency to do these that shatter the status quo of the Batman comics.
Some of you may remember a storyline in the late 80s called Batman: A Death in the Family. Besides the fact that it clearly inspired the more recent storyline’s title, Batman: A Death in the Family did something I never thought I’d see in a Batman comic: it let the readers decide whether or not to kill Jason Todd, who, at the time of the story, was Robin. They set up a phone line and let readers vote on whether or not they thought Robin should survive the current storyline. And the vote, by a fairly narrow margin, was to kill the character. Not shockingly, the character who actually got to do the killing was, in fact, the Joker.
Almost concurrent to this storyline, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland published Batman: The Killing Joke, arguably the greatest Joker story ever told. In it, Batman goes to Arkham Asylum to plead with Joker to try and let him help him, as he’s afraid one of them will end up killing the other if things continue as is. When he gets there, he finds that Joker has escaped. The escaped Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and shoots his daughter Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), crippling her. He then proceeds to take naked photos and tries to use them to drive to drive the good Commissioner insane to show that even the most upstanding citizen can go mad following “one bad day”. What’s scary is that the Joker is almost painted in a sympathetic light. A look into what the Joker’s history might have been really makes you ache to reach out a hand to try and draw him back to the light, as Batman does…but a reconciliation is not to be.
The killing of one beloved character and the crippling of another…both at the hands of the Joker. This is what I mean when I say the Joker is unpredictable. It’s as if the writers use him when they want to crash the status quo of the series.
You could simulate this in a game by having one particular villain be responsible for the small, personal, yet profoundly affecting acts of evil in your campaign. After all, with one notable exception, the Joker hasn’t seemed particularly interested in ruling the world. For him, it’s all about working over his beloved Batman. Having the last laugh on his arch foe. If your “Joker” villain goes out of his way to focus on one PC, or one group of PCs, you could use this villain to show evil on a personal level. You can also make your villain someone that, in another life, if things were just a little different, the PCs could’ve been friends with. Many Batman villains are extremely sympathetic. You feel for them, and they’re rather tragic figures…much like Batman himself.
God, How I Hate You…
Arguably, Superman’s arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor. Before the big revamp DC Comics put into place following their legendary Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, Luthor was pretty much a run of the mill mad scientist. Following Crisis, Luthor was transformed into a corrupt businessman. In this new age, Luthor had built his company, LexCorp, up from nothing. He was renowned for his philanthropy and for making Metropolis the “City of Tomorrow”. Despite this, several people, especially the Daily Planet’s editor, Perry White, felt there was something rotten under the surface. When Superman came into the picture, Luthor felt eclipsed. Although he claims to simply be suspicious of Superman as an alien, most people tend to agree that Luthor is far more inhuman than the Man of Steel.
What I’ve come to love about Luthor is his indomitable ability to let sin slough off of him. He’s an incredibly frustrating villain for Superman, because the two almost never come to a fist-fight level confrontation. Superman has to catch Luthor being up to something, and Luthor’s very good at putting up layers of obfuscation as to what he’s up to.
I have a “villain” quite a bit like this in my campaign: Gyzzel Markrand. He’s a gnome, the shire reeve of the town the PCs live in. He’s used his position to become quite wealthy, and he’s a bully, with his Reeve’s men ready to pounce on anyone who stands up to him. The PCs, however, have fairly strong ties with the local Baron, who isn’t nearly as corrupt as his predecessor, who put Gyzzel into power. Gyzzel has to tread carefully, but, at the same time, the PCs generally can’t just come out and accuse this powerful man of wrongdoing. It’s a frustrating situation for both sides.
A villain who’s politically powerful can be quite enjoyable in a campaign. He will be a villain the players love to hate as they try to find a way to bring him down, knowing they can’t just march into his castle and kill him…or they can, but oh, what disastrous consequences!
I’m Not a Comic Book Villain
Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, is not your typical super-villain. He has nothing but the good of the world in mind. He knows that if he fails, he will be utterly reviled. If he succeeds, the world will never know that it was his success. And he’s willing to do anything to meet his ends, including mass murder.
Veidt is a scary person, because you can almost find yourself believing in what he’s doing. When you read Watchmen, the world is in such distress…so close to the edge that it seems likely to be destroyed any moment. The death of millions and the destruction of New York are intensely cataclysmic, but they also lead to humanity standing down from the brink of Nuclear War.
A villain of this type is perfect to be the ultimate mastermind of your campaign. And it’s much more frightening if they end up being someone the PCs have thought of as a friend, family member, loved one, or mentor. In my previous campaign, I toyed with the idea of having a PC’s wizardly mentor turn out to be utterly villainous, just to make the PCs feel like they’d been duped all along. In the end, I stuck with my original plans, but it was a near thing.
Without giving away too much in my campaign to any of my players who might read my articles, I do have a villain of this nature. This person is utterly convinced that they’re on the path of right and willing to sacrifice anything for the end they have in mind, which is potentially disastrous for my campaign setting. The players have begun to suspect that not all is as it seems, and we’ll see how long it is before a direct confrontation occurs.
I’ve only touched on three archetypes here, any of which could offer fodder for a memorable villain in your campaigns. But there are so many more out there. Imagine a villain similar to Catwoman…a thief (or assassin, maybe) with a heart of gold. Maybe a villain like Brainiac…an utterly cold and alien sentience like that of a Far Realm entity. Perhaps a villain like Wonder Woman’s archfoe, the Cheetah…complete savagery to offer a mirror to Wonder Woman’s noble warrior nature.
In many ways, every memorable villain is a dark mirror to the heroes themselves. They’re what the heroes could’ve been, if things were a little different. Look at the PCs in your campaign and see how you can offer dark mirrors to them, and perhaps you’ll make a villain that they’ll talk about for years to come.
Is there a villain in your campaign that you’re very proud of the characterization of? Is there a villain you’ve fought that you’ll never forget? My article was very DC-centric. Do you have a favorite Marvel villain that you feel offers a strong possibility for the PCs? The on-again, off-again nature of a character like Magneto, for example, is a fantastic dark mirror to Charles Xavier, and, by extension, the X-Men. Are there any other examples you’d care to offer? Let us all know.