Thursday, 8 December 2011

Kick-Ass Villains

I am the Warden!!

Ever roleplayed on a train before? We did during the Shadoworld Excursion a couple of weeks ago. When I was younger, my concern for standing out and "looking weird" roleplaying in public would have prevented me from doing so, but now I just don't give a shit. Roleplaying games have done more for me than any stranger has and so my teenage compulsion has gone up in flames. Plus, it's fun to see people walk by and wonder just what the hell we're doing and why it's not being done on a phone.

On our ride to Moncton, my buddy Kurt and I played the finishing scenes of the Matrix: Revolutions playtest with slight modifications for a solo game. Save for one part: the final villain, a program known only as the Gimp. He was a giant man adorned in black leather and a kinky zippered mask concealing his identity, though this wasn't as apparent as the gargantuan meat tenderizer he carried with him. Oh, and he was immune to firearms. Bullets would hit him, but never harm him. I wanted to see how a long hero would fare against this bastard and was really hoping for a wild ride of devastation.

Nope. Part of this one-sided slashfest was Kurt's decision to pull out his twin samurai swords from moment one rather than shoot first as I had expected. The other part has lead me to consider new and dramatic additions to villains, the subject of today's post.

Overbuild or Underwhelm?
Seems I've made the mistake of constructing my villains in the same guidelines of heroes. The problem is that villains are not meant to be villains for two reasons: they're not expected to live and they're expected to take on multiple heroes forged over hours and hours of thoughtful assembly and training. The Gimp fell in the course of one series against a solo hero and not because of underwhelming dice rolls by me. Kurt used strategy and planted a defensive option at the right moment to steal the Edge from the Gimp, followed by a hard hit with the Stun reaction preventing the Gimp from dishing out any damage on our hero. Our hero played his part well. The issue at hand is that the villain was not challenging enough.

The Gimp had 15 Health. My first thought was to increase the number of Health villains have, but this idea seems far too simple. I'm not excluding it, but piling on more Health merely draws out the fight longer and that does not make for a greater challenge. Not in my book. No, what I need is to consider the intention of my villains - what I'm trying to invoke from them - and expand on that concept through mechanics.

When I first designed the Gimp, my intention was to make the players say "Oh, shit!" While this did happen, it was only due to physical descriptions and situational details. Once weapons started flying, this mood quickly died down. I think all villains should be able to create this heightened sensation of doom and maintain it throughout the first half of the fight, as they do in great movie fight scenes. At first, the villains appears too great a threat for our heroes, an overpowering menace properly equipped and trained to handle these meddlesome do-gooders. It falls on the hero to pick the villain apart piece-by-piece until he's nothing more than a shall of his former self.

Modifiers Are A Villain's Best Friend
There are a few resources already built into the game for this, particularly blunders and reactions. In the Gimp's case, it was the Stun reaction that was his downfall. All that aside, villains can stand to have additional perks initially in their favor and modifiers fit that bill.

Picture your next villain entering the room. In his hands, a massive iron shield gripped tightly with a narrow eye slit to allow the villain visual access to his opponents. With the shield in place, the villain gains +3d10 to all defense rolls, making him a bitch to hit. From a player's point of view, this seems a bit heavy handed and makes the villain incredibly difficulty to hit... but who says the villain can't be relinquished of his prized shield? The first half of combat becomes a challenge to strip the villain of his massive defense rolls by taking away the shield.

The same can be said for Cover, Concealment, and other standard modifiers. Snipers take full advantage of distance, camouflage, and cover as they pick off their targets one-by-one. Tackling such a villain by taking pot shots at him is incredibly counterproductive - he has +5d10 circumstance dice to defense against all ranged attacks along with any focus, power, and trained dice he's trained himself with. Your best option to destroy the sniper is hustle your way through an open field and take out the sniper at close range.

Villains Are Not Heroes
All this brings us back to an earlier point: villains are not heroes and shouldn't be built using the same principals. Another aspect I've considered are villain-exclusive options designed to ramp up the difficulty of these particular opponents, especially against an entire Team of heroes. For example, the Recover option exists only for villains and allows the villain to make a dice roll against adjacent opponents to regain Health. Failing the roll leaves the villain exposed to a rapid response counterattack by his opponents, but success stretches the length of the fight and forces the heroes to deal with a villain who can shrug off substantial damage in the hopes of taking at least one of them with him.

And if none of that works, the Gimp can always be re-designed with 30 Health. For good measure.