Posted by: markfender | December 17, 2014

Rogues’ Gallery Gaming

There’s lots of different superhero types to explore in gaming. But one I haven’t seen is one focused specifically on the rogue’s gallery.

Batman__s_Rogues_Gallery_by_Buzz_OnI was reading Green Ronin’s website recently and noticed an article by Steve Kenson, Mutants & Masterminds creator, on the upcoming sourcebook Villains. In the article he said “A hero is often defined by his or her ‘rogues gallery’—dark and twisted reflections of the hero’s own goals.” That made total sense to me. It’s a statement that’s been made before. But then he went on to describe the generic villains in the sourcebook, which was kind of disappointing. I was hoping the book would have some discussion on building a good rogue’s gallery for a gaming group. But that inspired me to start thinking about the concept and, after a discussion with a gaming compatriot, I came up with some basic themes.

I think a game where the villains were all specifically keyed to the PCs would be an interesting game, but I’ve never seen that type of game addressed before. In regular superhero games, I think certain villains rise to the top as nemeses of the PCs just through kismet, but they’re often not designed specifically for that. I came up with four themes that a good rogues’ gallery often incorporates. They’re ranked from worst to best. (There’s the proviso that my examples often shift between the different categories, based on who’s writing them as well as how long they’ve been around. One-off villains can often develop deeper motivations if they strike a particular chord with the audience).

The first is Theme. If your PCs are based around a particular theme, it can be relatively easy to introduce villains that play off that. Spiderman’s rogues’ gallery features a lot of animal-themed villains, in keeping with his own origin and power source. The Fantastic Four likewise interact with cosmic forces often due to their own origin. This can be an easy one to rely on, especially if your superhero game has a common origin for powers. However, it doesn’t always end up with particularly strong villains that inspire the loathing necessary in a PC to create a good nemesis. Fighting a dog-based villain is interesting if your PC is cat-based, but some themes don’t always provide proper inspiration.

The next is the Dark Mirror. This is the villain with the same powers, but evil. Green Arrow has Merlyn, Hulk has Abomination, Green Lantern has Sinestro, and Wolverine has Sabertooth. All of these are examples of villains with the same (or similar enough) powers to the hero. As far as gaming goes, these are pretty easy to come up with – just copy the PC’s character sheet. However, they can lead to somewhat boring fights if the powers aren’t all that interesting in themselves. Fights can devolve into “I shoot him with my laser beam,” “Well, he shoots you with his laser beam” and that’s not always fun.

Another one is Opposite. This is the villain who is great at the PCs’ particular weakness – the Leader’s brains to Hulk’s brawn. Lex Luthor vs. Superman. In comics, these tend to be smart villains, as the power fantasy that is superhero comics tend to revolve around being physically capable rather than being super-smart. These can lead to interesting villains as they are better in certain spheres than the PCs. However, that same reasoning can make them frustrating to play against. A NPC who has the perfect counter to everything the PC throws at him can lead to annoyed players, as it can feel like they’re not getting to use their powers ever. This one needs a careful eye from the GM to keep encounters fun. It can also be difficult to create proper challenges. If Superman just punches Lex unconscious in the first round, he’s not being utilized well.

The last one is the Ideal. The easiest example is with the X-Men. Professor X and the “mutant problem” is just thinly disguised civil rights. Showing the dark side of that with Magneto makes for an interesting dynamic. Similarly, Apocalypse can be seen as a stand-in for eugenics, creating another facet to Professor X’s ideals. (Marvel tends to do this more, as most of their line-up are based around ideals, but recent Black Adam vs. Shazam stories showcase this well. And The Dark Knight did a bang-up job with this between the Joker and Batman). I think these have the most potential for creating a memorable rogues’ gallery as it provides more avenues for conflict than just a straight-up fight. Likewise, it’s easier to come up with new villain plans if they’re sufficiently motivated to approach problems in a certain way. It also leaves a GM free to come up brand new power setups that aren’t tied specifically to the PCs (The fact that Magneto has magnet powers is the least interesting thing about him). The downside is that your PCs need to be sufficiently motivated to have some ideals. Lots of characters start as blank slates with no interest other than punching bad guys, which can make the Ideal difficult to plan around.

So, how to take those concepts and make a game specifically revolving around the PCs’ rogues’ galleries? I think it’s a mix between two methods: pre-planning and spontaneity. It’s fairly easy to write up some NPCs before the game starts based on the first three categories if you’ve seen your players’ character sheets. Coming up with three or four villains per PC should provide some early competition for the group. Hopefully, some of those NPCs trigger a spark in your players, making them recurring villains. (It’s probably a good idea to ask your players this after your sessions.) The spontaneity comes in once you see how the PCs are developing. Once a few session have passed, you should have a better idea of what motivates your players and/or their characters, letting you start developing some villains that specifically hit their personal buttons. If your group comes up with fully-detailed personalities before they ever roll some dice, then all the better (but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule).

Ultimately, superhero games tend to be reactive. The PCs wait for the villains to show up, and then they go punch them. With some proper nemeses, you can motivate your players to go on the offensive. If they develop a loathing for a certain villain and his methods, they can actively try to stop them before they’ve even developed a plan, which can lead to some unexplored territory in your games. I’ve seen this develop in games before, but I don’t think I’ve been in a game that set out to do this purposefully- develop a good “bench” of rogues – characters designed to target the PCs explicitly. But, just a comics are often memorable for their villains rather than their heroes, so can your game.

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