Friday, March 30, 2012

Generating Villainy

If you take a look at my Vindicators web site you will see there are a lot of characters.  You might wonder where all those characters came from.  A majority of them I came up with myself, but I do not want anyone to think I have this unlimited font of creative energy pouring out of my head.  I have short cuts, methods, tricks that allow me to produce so many characters.  And today I am going to share them with you.  In this I am going to mostly focus on super villain teams as the PCs seldom fight solo.

Find a theme.  Many super villain and hero groups are based on a theme.  DC Comics’ Royal Flush Gang (recently featured in the DC animated movie Justice League:Doom) is a great example.  Finding a theme to base your villains around it a terrific short cut and I have done this a few times.  For example, I created a group called Heavy Metal and named each of the villains after heavy metal songs like War Pig, Ace of Spades, Turbo Lover (a speedster), Unholy, Neon Knight.  The problem was the team’s longevity was called into question as many of the songs chosen were old.  I am not a big modern heavy metal fan and I found most of the modern song titles I came across did not work out so well.  It was the same problem Image Comics had in creating a character named Grunge; after a certain point the name alone makes him sound old and dated even though he is supposed to be in his twenties.  Heavy Metal worked when I was running a Champions game way back when, not so much for my PBEM.  The solution was to make them old villains, literally.  For example, Neon Knight became an aging ex-con who wrote a book.  The rest were dealt with in one way or another and were retired to history but did have the benefit of adding some history to the game.  Ace of Spades is the only one around and due to my friend Rafe’s efforts he now has a tremendous back story.  It seems being a vampire makes him both literally and figuratively hard to kill.  So even though the team did not have legs, they served a purpose (Which is another excellent lesson to learn: never throw anything out when it comes to gaming.  You never know when it might come in handy later.).

Games are a good source for a theme but finding the right game can be difficult.  Chess pieces have been used as have playing cards.  What is left, a group of Jenga themed minions?  For me I picked Pool.  Fifteen balls, sixteen if you include the cue ball.  That is a pretty nasty team, they can overwhelm a group of heroes based on sheer numbers alone.  And what powers do you give them?  For me I decided each one would wield a different weapon based on classic super powers; flame thrower, laser, gravity generator, kinetic force generator, etc.  Eight Ball employed a mind control helmet.  And what to call them?  I decided on The Hustlers, in part because I love that Paul Newman film and because it was the only pool term that came to mind that could cover the team as a whole.  So The Hustlers became a good source of cheap muscle being outfitted by a mysterious benefactor with weapons that would self destruct if tampered with.

And why limit yourself to established games?  Why not create your own.  Instead of using Clue, create Suspicion, an obvious Clue knockoff.  You can have fun with names like Lady Cerulean, Major Munsell and Doctor Folly (And yes, that is the name of an actual color).

The Zodiac.  This is an easy one and I have created two super villain groups based on this, a classic team from the past and a current team.  The great thing about this is when one guy dies, the rest of the group can recruit another.  I remember way back when I ran a Champions game one of the main bad guy teams was called Zodiac (Hero Games produced an outstanding supplement).  When Leo was accidentally killed by one of the players I had him replaced by a mind controlled Lionheart (Kate Bush, coincidentally, is a Leo.  I could not have planned that better myself. ).  And using a Zodiac theme is always interesting when you throw in things like fate, and astrology.
The Minotaur is a cyborg.  Doug Shuler, you are a genius!
The nice thing too about using the Zodiac is it is not limited to the super hero genre.  The zodiac can be used in fantasy, urban fantasy or gritty crime dramas for criminal organizations.  And how about Chinese years and their related animals?  What if there was a group that was chosen by the year they were born and they possess some sort of personality trait or power related to the animal sign they were born under?  I did not create a group like that, it just came to me while I was writing this.  They too can apply to other genres.

Color.  I have created two groups with a color theme, The Sisterhood.  That might sound silly, but with names like White Noise and Black Light (And no, Black Light herself was not afro American as you often see in comice, i.e. Black Lightning, Black Goliath, etc.  However, Hard Winter’s Black Ice was and he was not at all happy about the name.) you can see the possibilities.  Tangerine Dream, Orange Crush, Electric Blue, Sea Green. Some were better than others.  I had more fun with the second team in large part because I had to become truly creative with names.  I found out Caput Mortem is actually a color, and the perfect name for a necromancer.  Feldgrau is a German dominatrix, Atomic Tangerine a nuclear powerhouse, etc.

What else?  How about anatomy?  I took four elements from the human body-muscle, nerve, bone and blood-and made a villainous quartet.  There was a brick, a mentalist, a guy in armor (Veshuthru, Prince of Bone, Lord of Marrow.  I loved that guy.), and a vampire.  I could have taken it further but Selene, Sorceress of Spleen seemed to be stretching things a bit.  Oooh, a new one came to me while I was writing this: Alarash, Scion of Skin!  He skins his victims and when he wears their hides he can adopt their appearance as well as their powers!  Damn, I wish I came up with that character earlier.  Well, the word “scion” means the younger member of a family so perhaps I can team him up with a new generation.   That might be a bad idea as for eyes I might make a hair guy and call him Monarch of Mustaches or something. 

Monarch of Mustaches.  Baron of Beards.  Hmmm…

As you can see, a theme can sometimes get a little ridiculous.  There was this dark, horrible period in Green Lantern’s run when he was fighting a group of construction themed bad guys called The Demolition Team.  That was just…It was just a bad, bad time and if there was ever a reason for the editors to want to turn Hal Jordan into Parallax you can just look at lame story lines like that one and it all makes sense.  So a theme can be fun, just don’t let it get out of hand.

Find common ground: An offshoot of the theme is creating a group which has something in common.  Groups like Heavy Metal are comprised of characters with different backgrounds; the only thing they have in common are the names they choose to call themselves.  The Royal Flush Gang?  They picked a name and from there their look and equipment adhered to the. But if you look at groups like Marvel’s Brotherhood of Mutants then you see a different sort of team; that of characters with a common origin in that they are mutants.  DC’s Hyperclan?  They are white Martians.  A good villain group could be comprised of bad guys with a shared past or something that sets them apart from others and hence makes them find value in working together, something like that was a thing they did not choose to have or be.  The necromantic Graves Clan is a good example of this.  While not all of them are related by blood they are by family association and similar powers/abilities.

Speaking of families, one of my favorite groups was The Company of Wolves, four brothers who were werewolves with super powers. In my campaign world people with supernatural abilities cannot have powers from other origins; when they are turned they lose their powers.  So the Hobbes brothers were unique.  I had never gotten around to it but I had planned on creating an Irish criminal family who had a blood feud with the Hobbes, but one of the themes I was going to use for names was, ah, colors.  And I had already created The Sisterhood by that time so using color names like Saffron and Lincoln just seemed, well, lame.  I might come back to the Irish family idea, though.  Banan is a boy's name meaning white, Bran is black.  Those are good names for twins.  Oran is pale green.  Donia is a girl's name meaning dark skinned.

I love the internet.

The Circle of Sorcery and Insaniacs are two (well, three if you count classic Circle of Sorcery) are all characters with magical powers and through that might share common goals (i.e. pursuit of knowledge, power, etc.).   When I ran a Champions campaign (and this is a bit hazy) I either came up with the idea myself or one of the Hero Games writers suggested it but a good super villain group was comprised of all the alien bad guys provided in their various supplements.  In the pages of Avengers Ultron formed a super villain team consisting of the many robots, androids, and artificial life forms floating around the Marvel universe at that time.  The name of the group?  Heavy Metal.

So a common background can go a long way towards developing not only a team theme, but possible motivations as well.

Find inspiration in pictures.  Over the past twelve years I have amassed a tremendous amount of images from the internet (I have a feeling if SOPA gets passed I am going to be in serious trouble. ) and sometimes when I am looking for inspiration I look at some of these pictures and say “Hey, you look like you would make a great bad guy.” You might think “Tom, that sounds like plagiarism or something akin to it”.  And perhaps it is.  And if I were getting paid the big bucks to run a game (And if there is some way to make money running The Vindicators please let me know, I’m all ears.) then I would feel guilty about it.  But my primary purpose in doing that is to entertain my players.  And if I see a picture and think this guy with a halfway decent back story and maybe a little tweaking to his look would make an ideal guy to fight Wolf, then I am going to do that.  I made an extra-dimensional hit squad from a collection of pictures, tossed them together for a quick and fun fight.

All these ideas are great for generating quick villains and even a little bit of back story, but what about depth?  Depth is largely over rated.  If I had the time or inclination I could write five thousand word back stories for every super villain on my site, but what would be the point?  Do we really need to know who the Hobbes brothers' parents were?  Outside of The Circle of Sorcery's Il Spino Rosa being a former Olympic fencer embittered by her magic tattoo do we need to have much more of a back story?  Sure, it might come up if the heroes are attempting to track her down and then you can generate some information, but until then do not sweat it.  I think perhaps part of the reason there are so many canon based games out there is GMs are terrified of the prospect of creating an analog to Lucius Malfoy or the like.  Guess what, people.  JK Rowling got paid lots and lots of money to write those books and generate all that background.  You are running a free game.  Provide the minimum up front, supply greater detail later.  Why else should you not worry about extensive back story outside of the aforementioned not being paid part?

Imagine this.  You have created Thorvir, Lord of Chaoslia.  You have lovingly detailed his family tree, created a back story for his four wives, have figured out the potential political machinations going on between his three sons and h-

And then Ghorr, Elf Slayer, makes a called shot and decapitates him.

I am not saying you should scrimp on details, only you should not obsess over them.  Did we really need to know Darth Vader's mother's name?  Of course not.  The Emperor was a perfectly good villain and beyond knowing he started off as a Senator named Palpantine nothing much needed to be known about him; his past is shrouded in mystery.  And yeah, a quest to uncover some dark portion of that past would make for a great campaign.  But otherwise if the players do not need to know it, do not write it.  If a player wants to know something like a character's family tree ask them why they want it.  If they cannot give a good game related reason then do not provide it.  Tell them they have the tree and no, nothing in it seems suspicious (unless you fully intend for there to be something suspicious in it.  Just because you having written down every little detail doesn't mean you can't be collecting possible plot hooks.  And the great thing about plot hooks is many can be recycled if a character is killed.  Remember: never throw anything out.).  If they get all pissy remind them you have a life and you aren't being paid to amuse them.  If that doesn't work point out what I mentioned before; that what is the point of creating a family tree if at least one of the players is planning on whacking the guy anyway just to put a monkey wrench in your plans?  Believe me, one of the players is thinking of it.

So to sum up; find inspiration in themes, associations and pictures.  When creating character produce some basic information to give the illusion of depth, but do not knock yourself out creating extensive an unnecessary back story.  Remember that you are running a game because it is supposed to be fun for you as well as your players.  Do not make it feel like work.

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