In this glorious age of expensive pocket computers and free Wi-Fi and rampant megaflops, it’s become so easy to calculate the perfect villain to abuse and harass those unsuspecting player characters. Using our advanced technology, we can tweak and test and fudge and forge the foundational numbers of the foes, seeking and finding that sweetest of spots, where the enemies have clung to life long enough and have dealt enough damage that several of the PCs are down and bleeding and those remaining survivors are used up like tissues on a long weekend.
Take a triumphant bow, you Game Master Mathemagicians, and raise your arms in celebration, you Story Teller Digit-Crunchers, for together, we have moved our beloved roleplaying games that much closer to the Skynet apocalypse, where flawed flesh is finally replaced by perfect numbers. Rejoice, resistance is futile, RPGs are borg.
Please don’t misunderstand my tone: I’m not blaming any of you out there for this development. I’m leveling my accusatory finger straight back at myself, for there is no sinner greater than me. Numbers are easy and predictable, even the ones generated by multicolored polyhedrons. Do you know what’s not easy or predictable? The RP portion of our RPG.
In any roleplaying game, what defines an enemy? The defense numbers? The damage numbers? The extensive and daunting power list? No, I say, and say again, no. The only characteristic that defines an enemy is the one thing that’s impossible to quantify: the personality. As the director of the RPG movie, you need to figure what drives each enemy to do the evil things he or she does. Is it greed or need? Is it badness or madness? If you can figure out the “through line” of a particular foe, then all of the numbers and mechanics stop mattering, because you’ll have a clearer idea of how Big Bad’s going to act, and more importantly, what Big Bad’s going to say in every circumstance.
I say, “more importantly,” because I feel like the art of rich RPG conversation has died. Trust me, I understand the motivation behind this (remember, biggest sinner). Time is precious and fleeting, and we can’t really afford to burn most of it up with chatter-blather when the dice are sitting right there. Enough talk, time to fight! But wait. Hold on. Take a breath. The whole point of creating an enemy who can think and speak is not to alter numbers on the character sheets of the PCs, but rather to annoy and outrage and infuriate the PLAYERS.
When your enemy attacks, let it be with words instead of blade and gun and spell. If you can inflame the players with threats and insults, the eventual (and hopefully inevitable) victory of the PCs will be that much more delicious. The players will remember that encounter and that enemy vividly, and will tell that story for years, and in the retelling, assuming you as Invisible Hand did your work correctly, the players may experience a tiny flash of the emotion they felt at the table: “Oh man, I hated that succubus so much. She just wouldn’t SHUT UP!”
I’ve given this a little thought, and have been able to come up with a few archetypes that might help illustrate my point. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it is a first step to get you and me thinking about that enemy through line, and maybe even give all of us permission to reach for the taunt first and the dice last.
The Immortal is the easiest to misuse, so I decided to describe it first. Whether through ability or position, this enemy can’t be defeated by the PCs, much to their ongoing and mounting frustration. The Immortal keeps appearing to wreck the PCs’ day, and then he scuttles off unharmed, probably laughing while doing it. The Immortal could be a literal god, ignoring anything the PCs do. Alternately, the Immortal could be a more powerful version of the PCs themselves, not literally immortal but superior enough that any conflict will end with much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the party. Finally, the Immortal might not have any power at all, and could very well be an eminently killable child, but this brat happens to be central to something the PCs need (the son of a patron king, the witness of a crime, the hacker savant).
Because the Immortal can’t be beaten, you need to build in a handful of small “win” moments for the PCs over the life of the Immortal (for example, the PCs can’t kill the Immortal, but they can thwart one of his schemes), and also determine some kind of satisfying endgame (for example, at an appropriate moment, the circumstance that provides absolute protection to the Immortal changes, allowing the PCs to finish him). One of the best examples of this kind of endgame occurs in the climax of the original Robocop movie.
The Bully isn’t just a standard antagonist, but rather is driven to target one or more of the PCs for a specific reason. The PC may have embarrassed the Bully at some point, knowingly or not, or perhaps the PC works for an individual or cause the Bully hates, or maybe the PC is the wrong race or sex in the wrong place. Whatever the cause, the Bully will not be content with simply winning, but will want to shame and ruin the PC.
It’s easy to imagine the Bully as an over-muscled, under-brained ape who hulks around the beach kicking sand into the faces of nerds, but there are many different kinds of bullies, and I would suggest that the bullies who are intellectual or vastly wealthy (or both) are much more dangerous. These are the ones who outwit the PCs, who set the wheels in motion to catch the PCs in political or judicial traps, all the while feigning a kind of dismissive attitude even as they seethe with hatred.
The Façade is one of my favorites, if used correctly and sparingly. To understand the Façade, you’ll have to imagine the Bully in all his hateful rage, but take away all of that Bully’s power. The Façade may have lost all of his power, or maybe the Façade never actually had any, but he is weak, and he knows it. This is almost certainly the catalyst behind his antisocial behavior.
You’re probably wondering how the Façade can possibly make for a memorable enemy. After all, he does sound like an adult toddler throwing a tantrum. That’s because he is. Let me give you an example: Trinity the Sword Master was having a drink at the bar, and up stomps Oxor the Angry, backed up by his jeering cohorts (these sorts of enemies always have jeering cohorts). At first, Trinity does what he can to avoid bloodshed, even offering to buy drinks for Oxor and friends, but Oxor isn’t having any of that. Oxor wants a fight.
So Trinity finishes his drink, turns to face the big man, and snatches out his katana, quicker than an eye blink, and rests the razor sharp edge against Oxor’s throat. Oxor freezes, his friends vanish in all directions, Trinity says, “Get lost,” and Oxor does, tail firmly between legs. It was the battle that wasn’t with an opponent who couldn’t win, and yet the player remembers this moment years later, and retells the story frequently.
Ah, the Traitor, a classic. And the reason it’s a classic is because when it works, it’s a beautiful thing. It might be a cambion disguised as a helpless maiden (“Help me, good sirs!”), or a government agent posing as your group’s doctor, or a Skrull assassin who has replaced the party’s government ally. The reason that this trick is so difficult to pull off is because we players have become so cynical about every stranger in every game. I don’t know you, I don’t trust you. If the librarian does something that raises suspicions, she’s as good as dead. It doesn’t matter how much she’s helped us up until now, I’m not taking chances with getting fooled.
But when it works, on those rare moments when the Game Master manages to pull it off, the air above the gaming table crackles with hatred for this deceiver, this betrayer, this snake in the grass. Usually the hatred is turned on the poor and defenseless GM, but it’s a price worth paying to flay that nerve and unleash all of that raw and red hostility.
I have fought in plenty of RPG skirmishes where the odds were heavily against me and my friends, where the numbers were definitely not in our favor, where the enemies were strategically brilliant while we PCs stumbled through our “divide and be conquered” plan. Some of those encounters, we actually won, but those triumphs were there and gone, drifting away like dust. I can’t remember the specifics of them.
But there were other moments, other combats, where the GM reached out and hooked his fingers into my emotions, and said just the right words through the mouth of the enemy, and made me, for a time, hate this imaginary person. Damn you, Tharizdun. Damn you, Iuz. Damn you, Marilith. And damn you, Pyro. We were supposed to be working together. I’ll never forget any of you.