For every hero, a villain

Batman has his Joker, and Superman his Lex Luthor. Give me any iconic hero and you’ll find an iconic villain waiting in the wings. From the Sheriff of Nottingham to Moriarty, heroes have been defined by their evil counterparts all the way through fiction. So, pray tell, what of our player-characters’ Nemeses?

Good word that – Nemesis. According to Wikipedia, Nemesis was the divine spirit of retribution. She was neither good nor evil but who “gave what is due”, like a scaled-up Santa Claus who rewarded the good and punished the wicked. That’s the opposite to what we think of as a Nemesis – heroes’ Nemeses rarely give them gifts, unless they’re set to explode. Batman could be thought of as the Joker’s Nemesis, punishing him for his evil, but our use of the word has changed to mean both parties, opposite and equal.

Every hero should have his Nemesis, and as GMs it’s our job to provide them. These are the iconic villains who continually return to harry the players – but they’re more than that. A true Nemesis should reflect something of the hero like a dark mirror. Just as the Joker is Batman’s dark psyche made manifest and Moriarty is Holmes’ genius turned to evil, a good (so to speak) Nemesis should say something about the hero. Alternatively, the Nemesis could be the hero’s opposite, a total reflection of everything that the hero is. Lex Luthor is a prime example of this type of Nemesis – where Superman is an alien brought up as a poor farmboy with great natural powers who uses them for Good, Lex is a wealthy citybred human who uses technology to commit Evil. See?

It’s worth talking to the players to discuss their arch-foe. Perhaps he’s a part of their backstory, or some facet of their character’s personality that they’d like to explore further. For example, my own Redhawk’s Nemesis is going to be someone called The Totality. Yeh, I’m seriously stoked about this character. Can you tell? I’ll be posting up stats for both Redhawk and The Totality…. soon!

Most likely you’ve got multiple players, and it’s temping to try to create a single Nemesis for the entire party. That sometimes works – Doctor Doom and the Fantactic Four, for example – but more often it just becomes One More Badguy to beat. A true Nemesis should be personal, and that means directly targeting a single character. If you’ve got 5 players that potentially means building 5 Nemeses, though not every character suits having their own personal arch-villain. If you end up with 3 Nemesis that creates loads of potential mayhem with Nemesis team-ups being the order of the day.

Your typical Nemesis should be two things – more powerful than the character, and essentially unkillable right up until the final climactic campaign-ending battle. How you interpret this is up to you. “More powerful” could simply mean higher level (PL 12 to the character’s PL 8), or it could mean that the villain has more wealth and influence. Your Fighter’s sworn enemy could be the local evil Lord, for example.

Making the Nemesis unkillable is more difficult without making the game frustrating for the player. One technique is to keep him distant. Perhaps he’s the shadowy crime boss with a long line of lackeys for the heroes to battle through, or the players need *that* sword to be able to kill him. This is a great campaign-starter if the Nemesis is a Lich or some other supernatural entity. When it comes to superhero gaming, it’s a common and accepted trope for the villain to continually be imprisoned only to escape captivity to harry the heroes once more.

Finally, one thing to remember about Nemeses is not to over-use them. Have them waiting in the wings, being the centre of attention once every three or four scenarios only to fade into the background again. Keep the players guessing about whether the latest crime was committed by The Dark Hood, or another face of evil. Use the Nemesis too much and the campaign becomes about them, not about the players. And that will never do.

Over to you.

Tell me about the Nemeses in your games!

2 Comments on “For every hero, a villain”

  1. I think that last comment is an important one. Though yes, an archvillain or nemesis is an important character trait, (let’s be honest, the nemesis wouldn’t exist outside of the character), you’ve got to make sure that he’s only “out there in the world” most of the time, not constantly haranguing the player.

    The Joker, despite being psychotic and completely obsessed with Batman and the other local talent, does not hang on Batman’s cape every minute of every day. In fact, he prefers to escape Arkham and then lay low a while, letting the suspense grow. Lex Luthor is largely the same way. Though he’s not insane, he despises Superman with a passion. That does not mean, however, that he runs into Planet Square and starts shouting for Supes’ attention every time he finds a bit of Kryptonite to hit him with. He schemes, plans, and finds a way to draw the Man of Steel into devious traps and moral quandaries.

    This is a good post and I enjoyed it.

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