Throughout this month, I will dedicate a series of posts to “Building a Better Villain”. These posts will look at ways to push a game’s Big Bad End Guy (BBEG) into the realm of an archenemy. This first post looks at the qualities that set an archenemy apart from the daily villainous grind.
|What's the matter Colonel Sanders? Chicken!?|
The Archenemy is a staple of heroic fiction and many, though not all, heroes have them. Batman has the Joker, Harry Potter has Voldemort, Peter Pan has Captain Hook and Zim has Dib. An archenemy can be a powerful tool for an author or game master (GM). They act as a foil for the heroes, add depth to their motivation, and help drive the story forward. For GMs, however, implementing an arch can be tricky. The reoccurring aspect of the archenemy trope is difficult to execute in a game like D&D where the heroes’ may exercise a strong motivation to “kill all the things!”
So, what is it, exactly, that makes an enemy an ARCH enemy? The term "Archenemy" derives from the Greek arkhos, meaning "most important". However, the nuances of the archenemy as a trope of heroic fiction expand upon that sense of importance. Archenemies are also typically:
Recurring: “So, we meet again, for the first time, for the last time.” – Dark Helmet
The hero can’t quite ever quit the arch. They are a constant thorn in his or her side. This is likely the most difficult aspect of the archenemy trope to implement at the game table. In literature and movies, authors often have the arch slip away just as the heroes are about to strike the final blow. At the very least, they implement a “mysterious” death in which no body is found. At the game table, however, a great deal of a villain’s recurrence depends on the dice and the GM’s ability to extract them from tight situations. We'll go into this in more detail in future posts.
Antithetical: “Evil will always triumph, because Good is dumb!” –Dark Helmet
An arch’s actions, if not necessarily his/her motivations oppose those held by the hero. Voldemort wants to establish an evil magic master race, while Harry wants everyone to be friends. Artemis Entreri kills indiscriminately for profit, while Drizzt only does so in defense of his friends. Often boiled down to good vs. evil, the struggle between a hero and his/her arch can become a complex interplay of similarities and differences.
Similar: “We are not so different you and I” – Dr. Evil
Many heroes and arches have much more in common than the hero might like to believe. They may once have been friends (Professor X and Magneto) severed by a difference of fundamental outlook. They may have shared a pivotal life-changing event (Potter and Voldemort). Or they may simply share some common trait that seems to intertwine their destinies (both mutants, shared magical prowess, both societal outcasts or pillars of society). The similarities between a hero and arch can foster a sort of understanding between them, instigate self-reflection on their part and deepen their conflict beyond the physical into a psychological and philosophical struggle. For GMs, a player character’s backstory can be rich fodder for developing these similarities in an arch.
Intelligent: “You can't escape by teleporter, little Gaz. I cut the power! Your pitiful attempt to escape is nothing but a PITIFUL FAILURE! Stupid, stinking humans!” -Zim
Arches tend to be smartypants. The term “mastermind” is often used in conversation about them. An arch’s mental prowess elevates him/her above the thuggish rabble the hero battles on a daily basis. An arch’s intelligence factors in to many of the other arch characteristics. A smart villain will have planned traps contingencies, decoys and escape routes to prevent the hero from reaching him/her, and to get away quickly in the event of a direct confrontation. A smart arch will also make use of commonalities and differences to make the hero’s life more difficult. On some level, the villain understands how the hero thinks and will use this to his or/her advantage wherever possible.
For authors or GMs hoping to craft an archenemy, keep these qualities in mind. I hope to touch a bit more on the antithetical/similar relationships of heroes to their archvillains in tomorrow’s post, B is for Backstory. There will be more villainous ideas forthcoming as April A to Z progresses.