The Powerless Villain   Leave a comment

When working with stories… and also with game design… it’s tempting to make villains ridiculously powerful, with abilities and powers that rival to the point of surpassing the abilities of the heroes. This is a good “standard” way to have villains operate in speculative fiction. A lot of the time, though, I find myself intrigued by the opposite end of the spectrum. Some villains aren’t powerful: they’re just Villainous to the core.

A good example of this came in City of Heroes of all places. Generally when you get to the mastermind of a storyline in City of Heroes it becomes a slugfest, pitting your super powers against whatever monster or super villain is threatening the day. Most of the time that’s what we wanted. A story called The Dirge of Chaos featured a gang of Paragon’s own cyberpunk anarchists, The Freakshow. In typical Freakshow fashion, they were causing massive destruction that Mercedes Sheldon asked you to stop. Mercedes wanted your involvement because the Freakshow were going a bit beyond their typical threat level by stealing a magical item from her called called The Dirge of Chaos, a musical instrument capable of driving anyone who hears it into a murderous, destructive rage. Every so often the Dirge of Chaos takes a new form to better reflect its environment and have a better shot at doing its wicked work; this era’s form is that of a beaten up cassette tape in a cassette player.

Now, most City of Heroes stories of this sort would involve a big fight with a harder-than-normal boss enemy, with the story ending as soon as you defeat that person. It turns out that the villain of this story wasn’t actually one of the Freakshow tanks, and simply defeating a well-armored punk who was more machine than man wouldn’t save the day. The villain of the story was a punk music show organizer named Amanda Gates who wanted to destroy Paragon City by taking over a radio station and broadcasting The Dirge Of Chaos for the whole city to hear. When you find her in the mission, she’s completely without power on her own, and in typical superhero fashion the goal isn’t to pummel her senseless, it’s to arrest her. On her own, she’s got no offensive powers or combat training, she really is just someone who wants to see the world burn.

The threat of Amanda Gates went beyond the scope of the powers found by most of the villains of Paragon City. Her “power”, so to speak, was her ability to concoct a plan that fit the tools she had, and the ability to keep the Freakshow loyal to her (which, given how chaotic and wild the Freakshow are, is a pretty impressive feat.)

A lot of my favorite villains in other stories fit this mold. A number of well-written Batman stories feature villains who don’t have a gaudy costume and clever name, they’re just people who’ve done something nefarious in a way that it requires the skills of the World’s Greatest Detective to solve. Similarly, I think this is one of the reasons that I’m drawn to the Eberron campaign setting in D&D: a lot of the most dangerous players in the game’s political world aren’t accomplished spellcasters or mighty warriors, they’re politicians, merchants or explorers who have far-reaching goals and endless ambition.

One of the curious things about villains like this is how we seem to have a drive to want to boost their actual powers. Their villainy and brilliant strategies don’t seem to suffice a lot of the time; the Queen of Aundaire in Eberron, for instance, doesn’t have levels in any class other than Aristocrat. This doesn’t stop players and Eberron theorists from suggesting that she’s some sort of spellcaster in disguise, however; all her plans must logically lead to the revelation that she has incredible magical powers, yes?

I would argue that they don’t. Part of her power over the players, and a testament to her villainy (even if she’s a Good-aligned villain), is the player belief that she has to be fantastic in some way to achieve everything that she’s done.

And, in some senses, that’s the real power at work. No one can see it coming.

I think that as writers, we need to be sure that we never forget the great potential for villainy in the powerless characters.  The people who are just ordinary human beings.  They don’t need to generate great power at the end of the story, and they don’t need to ascend to higher planes of energy all the time.  They just need to be the fulcrum that causes some horrible, sinister change that the heroes need to stop.

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