Friday, December 7, 2012

Study in Evil, Part VII

Last year I wrote a series of articles talking about various villains from different franchises.  I discussed T’Pol and Khan from Star Trek, The Empire from Star Wars, and Marvel Comics’ Emma Frost, The White Queen.  In each case I explained why I thought the different villains worked in their respective storylines and how in Frost’s case she had been horribly botched due to the retconning of her character in an attempt to make her less villainous.
Over the next few weeks...or months...I am going to be discussing a new crop of villains in much the same manner. But what separates these bad guys from the others is what ties them together.  I speak of a character’s journey from villainy to the side of light...or at least moving a tad bit away from the dark. 

We begin with this man.

David Xanatos.

Before I get further into this I have to talk about the series this character comes from.

Gargoyles was one of the best television series ever made.  Not just animated series: television series.  Period.  Not only was the art good, the plotting was well laid, the scripts well written.  The voice acting talent was also wonderful; it was comprised of half the cast of Star Trek, The Next Geneartion.  It was a show adults and children could both enjoy in that the violence was not too extreme but at the same time writers did not shy away from adult subjects like family, loss, death.  And on top of that villains were actually complex; I think of all the bad guys introduced only one of them aside from the Vikings in the first episodes was out and out evil.

And speaking of complex villains we return to the picture above, and the most awesome bad guy of all: David Xanatos.  Xanatos was the principle villain through a majority of the Gargoyles television series (We are ignoring the follow up series The Goliath Chronicles as I never saw it and from what I have heard it was terrible.  Apparently Disney made the gargoyles more kid friendly, thus largely destroying that which made them cool.).  He first appeared in the series as the man who broke the gargoyles’ curse by purchasing the castle where they rested and placing atop his skyscraper.  This fulfilled the conditions of the curse which would allow them to once more become animated during night time.  Xanatos then proceeded to manipulate Goliath and the gargoyles into staging a series of robberies, his entreaties aided by the appearance of Goliath’s former lover (Which we discovered was given the name “Demona” by the humans she had terrified.  It is a name as subtle as Sinestro.).  Goliath discovered that instead of recovering property stolen from Xanatos, the gargoyles had instead acted as thieves!  When confronted Xanatos responded , using robot gargoyles to attempt to kill the real ones, a plot that failed.  Demona apparently fell to her death and Xanatos was arrested by the police for endangering the public.

After this utterly awesome story arc that 1) established the gargoyles’ origin, 2) introduced two of the series’ principle villains and 3) provided the setting where most of the series would take place (New York City), Xanatos would appear in later episodes.  Even when he was not directly confronting the gargoyles he was manipulating events from behind the scenes.  So, what makes him a great villain even though he lost in his initial outing with the gargoyles?

Xanatos has a wonderful origin: David Xanatos’ father was a simple fisherman from Maine, but old man Xanatos’ son had bigger aspirations.  He created an empire based around selling a series of old coins sent to him anonymously.  It turned out that Xanatos would later travel through time, acquire the coins and arrange to have said coins mailed to his younger self, fulfilling his claim that he is literally a self made man!  

Xanatos is charismatic as hell:  Along the way David secured the services of Puck:

No, not that puck.

And not that puck, either.  I am talking about the Faerie puck, the trickster.  And he discovered Demona and secured an alliance with her.  The man even managed to manipulate his girlfriend into becoming a super villain for him when he created The Wild Pack!

Xanatos is resourceful: This is a guy who likes to change things up.  Robot gargoyle’s don’t work?  Fine, create a super villain team to fight them.  That did not work?  Find Goliath’s old brother, turn him into a freak of nature cyborg called Coldstone and sicc him on the heroes.  That did not work?  Create a suit of hi-tech armor.  That does not work?  Bring back your super villain team but upgrade them.  Huh, that didn't work either?  And true, Xanatos often lost, but…

The Glass is half full.  Xanatos was such a master schemer he always got something out of his losses.  When the gargoyles destroyed his robots he learned something from it.  When they defeated The Wild Pack, again he gained intelligence.  The man’s schemes never ended entirely in defeat.  He was so good at planning his method of thinking became known as The Xanatos Gambit.

And finally...

Xanatos is reformed.  David Xanatos had a very fulfilling character arc.  He went from arch nemesis to ally and through it all one could see the character's growth.

So as a GM what can you learn from this character?  First of all, if you do have a recurring villain, each time he appears there should be a fresh take every time the heroes encounter him.  Each plot should be a little different, his goals should change.  Or if they do not change he is coming at them from a different direction.  Xanatos exemplified this.  Imagine how boring the series would have been if every major encounter involved the team having to split up into different groups to head to different parts of the Earth to retrieve a segment of some device?

I find it a miracle GI Joe lasted as long as it did considering just about every episode descended in people firing red and blue laser beams at one another.

Second, do not be afraid to make your villains intelligent.  Now, that does not mean you should make your players feel like idiots, but there is nothing wrong with pushing your characters a bit, testing them.  These are supposed to be smart guys.  So even if they are defeated and captured they should have an out.  This does raise the problem of players growing frustrated with never capturing or entirely defeating the bad guy, so it is very, very important to use your recurring villain sparingly.  Make every encounter with him an Event.

Third, rather than making your villain a two dimensional cardboard cutout, give him some depth.  What if he can be reformed?  Remember this guy?

Now remember when Luke managed to turn him back to the light side?  When he threw The Emperor down the shaft?  It was a wonderful, feel good moment.  Hint to the players that there is a core of decency, morality, honor buried somewhere in that menacing, manipulative visage.  Have players try and reach it, cultivate it.  What if the true victory is not to defeat or kill the villain, but to turn them?


  1. That's what I always liked about the Silver and Golden Ages Lex Luthor. Superman always tried to get him to turn away from evil, and considered it a great failure when Luthor stayed evil.

    We saw how Luthor and young Superboy had been friends at one time, and Superboy's recklessness destroying Luthor's greatest experiment. Luthor always felt Superman was merely jealous of him after that, and it worked.

    Two-Face is another villain I used to hope could be turned. Good Batman stories would have Batman missing his old friend, and mourning the birth of Two-Face.

    Great blog, by the way! :)