As some of my more regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of comic book writer, and general amazing chap, Warren Ellis. As a fan I tend to find his writing pop up quite a lot in my general searches, and a few days ago a saw a quote attributed to him as part of an interview about his latest ebook short prose piece, Dead Pig Collector. The quote stuck with me, but I’ve been unable at time of writing to find the exact interview, so I don’t have a link right now. What he says, in simple terms, is that no killer ever writes themselves up as the bad guy in their own story.
No matter how deplorable they are, no matter how many innocent lives they either end or permanently affect, they all manage to do so without seeing themselves as the villain. Today then I’m going to look at a few choice villains, either from pop culture or my own games, and see how they perceive themselves. This should give GMs out there some inspiration when it comes to creating better villains for their campaigns.
The Higher Calling.
For this one you should really have already watched the flick Se7en. If not, now would be a great time to stick it on, but probably best not to have eaten much before hand. Especially not tinned spaghetti. The bad guy in question here is called John Doe, and he believes with a powerful intensity that he’s doing the right thing when killing people. And he kills them in violent and disturbing ways. Really, this one is not for the faint hearted. But he justifies it all by convincing himself that none of his victims are innocent. True enough of the drug dealing pedophile, but the chubby guy and the pretty woman did nothing to deserve a fate as gruesome as they got.
John is a man on a mission, and although there is never a tacit acknowledgment that he believes he is doing God’s work, it is implied quite heavily. Even if we take God out of the picture though, he still thinks he has a right to these horrible things as he is telling a story and doing so in a very public way to highlight what he sees as society’s flaws and over all corruption. This goes beyond a delusion, and out the other side, becoming everything that John Doe is. Once we see that this isn’t just a way of getting attention, or a cry for help, we have to start asking ourselves why he is the way he is. I couldn’t possibly answer for this particular John Doe, but if you’re creating bad guy with a mission, it’s worth bearing in mind.
Taking out the Trash.
So Dexter, pretty much. In that particular case we’re dealing with a psychopath that does what he can to use his impulse to kill for the greater good, but we don’t need to carbon copy the idea, and could easily do away with the psychopathy aspect entirely. But the idea that the PCs will be dealing with a brutal murderer who has a body count that staggers the imagination, but is only killing the bad guys is worth thinking about.
True, he does so in violent and ritualised ways, disposing of the bodies in such a way as to offer no closure to any of the victim’s victims, and getting in the way of state appointed justice. Would the PCs be quick to bring him in? Would they just kill him if there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, thus making themselves as bad our serial killer? Would they maybe even sympathise with hi cause, realising that he is doing the best thing he can in such terrible circumstances? Maybe the would even stop thinking of him as the villain…
The Pillar of the Community.
From what I can gather, the show Boss never did great guns state side. To be fair, not many people I’ve spoken to here in Blighty have heard of it, but I happen to think it was a powerhouse performance by Kelsey Grammer and a stellar cast. Without going into too much detail, it was a political show with the main character being massively corrupt for the entirety of his career, and only a degenerative mental illness started to slow him down. Clearly the bad guy of the piece then, but by doing what he does, he has made life better for thousands of citizens of his city.
His friends get kick backs, to his enemies he is wrath incarnate. Those he can’t silence by threatening their families with violence are quietly disappeared. And to become his enemy takes very little indeed, with even those who are his closest friends and confidants only a serious error away from being taken out of the picture. True he is almost untouchable, but even if he could be taken down, the power vacuum could be worse than leaving him where he is. Would the PCs just rush in to deal with him, or side with his enemies and engage in the kind of corrupt power plays they were trying to being to an end.
If Boss hasn’t made it onto your radar, the the truly wonderful Boardwalk Empire has a similar character played by the vastly underrated Steve Buscemi.
“I’ve earned this!”
Sadly I can’t think of anything from a movie for this one, so unless you were lucky enough to play in my Cyberpunk 2020 game last year you won’t know exactly who I’m talking about. A quick recap: a powerful man seeking more power struggles to deal with the stress of his hectic life and turns to deplorable activities. Never once does he think of himself as a bad guy though, instead justifying his actions as stress relief, no matter how much he hurts people.
It would be easier for the PCs to see this type of character as villain, but always bear in mind that he never will. The people he hurts are just collateral damage to him, and each one that falls is nothing compared to the people he thinks he will be able to help from his position of authority. They are stepping stones, and he is always careful to choose people who will not be missed. He has no reason to justify these murders as taking out the trash, and the act of murder is a necessity for him, and a small price to pay.
I hope some of that was useful to you, and has given me some things to think about when it comes to my own villains. Especially thinking on some of my earlier creations that were decidedly one dimensional when compared to what can be done with a ad guy. I was going to include a little bit on William Cutting from Gangs of New York, but that ended up being a larger bit of writing so may very well be a blog post all of its own in the future.